A Summer 2003 NEH Institute.
Directed by David Cressy
and Lori Anne Ferrell.


 Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677).
Chori Ecclesiae Cathodralis S. Pauli, 1658

• Reformation Women: The Case of Anne Askew

    Reformation Women: The Case of Ann Askew

Whether they were nuns, housewives, prostitutes, midwives, or martyrs, women of the Reformation found their personal and cultural identities strictly bound to their sex. The role of the martyr offered the most public and sensational role for women during this period of radical change and spiritual angst. One of the most famous Reformation martyrs was Anne Askew, an English Protestant whose life was cut short when in 1546 at the age of twenty-five she was tortured and burned at the stake for her Reformation beliefs. Along with many other figures of the Reformation, Askew rejected the idea of transubstantiation (the notion that in the sacrament the wine is literally the blood of Christ and the bread literally the body of Christ). After being arrested for distributing Protestant literature and preaching Protestant beliefs, she refused to inform on her Protestant friends, even after being tortured for so long that she could no longer walk. Her refusal to hand over the names of other spiritual "rebels" and her death at the stake marked her as a powerful martyr. Further enhancing her fame were the two editions of her story, published first by John Bale in 1547 and by John Foxe in 1559. Both editors purport to tell the true story of Askew's trial by a church court and her subsequent resistance to torture before her execution. In one edition, the title page shows a woodcut of Askew embracing her bible as she stands in an assertive pose. The image, as well as the narrative that follows it, convey the intense rigor and inquisitiveness of her devotion. Yet the history of the publication of these narratives is worth investigating. Where does the voice of Anne Askew come from? How much can we really know about her?

[Image INS0118.jpg: Anne Askewe (1521-1546), The first examinacyon of Anne Askewe, [Imprented at Marpurg in the lande of Hessen [i.e. Wesel: Printed by D. van der Straten], in November, 1546. STC 848, title page]

We are dealing with what looks like a first-person account of a rebellious woman edited by two men. Although most readers of Askew's autobiographical tale agree that she is the primary source of her story, historians are still wary about authenticating Askew's voice—we must remember that her story was published only after her death and that Askew herself never had the last editorial say. Furthermore, her story was one of violence, rebellion, torture, and martyrdom, a sensational table of contents that tends to eclipse the details of Askew's politics and faith. Instead of interpreting this publication history as an example of the misogynous impulse to silence women's voices, we might use it instead as a way to understand the complicated ideas about authorship that existed in Reformation England. During Askew's time, authorship was not necessarily an individual, contained role; in some ways even an autobiographical story like this one belongs as much to the editor as it does to the first-person narrator. In Reformation England, that is, sometimes it took a village to raise a book.

The social context for Askew's imprisonment also complicates the authenticity of what survives as her story. Her social prominence drew her to the attention of authorities and her authoritative stance kept their attention. As a highly visible woman of relatively important social status, she was a perfect scapegoat for Protestant politics. In 1546, she denounced the doctrine of transubstantiation. For this, Askew was interrogated and then tortured on the rack. Her persecutors showed little mercy as they tortured Askew until her broken body was no longer capable of walking; in an infamous detail of Reformation history, Askew was escorted to her own execution in a chair. She was burned at the stake (her body covered in gunpowder) after she refused to recant. Rather than disappearing into the anonymity of history, however, Askew's story found a very eager and popular readership.

As reported by Bale, Askew's wit characterizes her language during her examination. In his extraordinary account, Askew evades one attempt after another to force her into a false confession or to recant. Her sola scriptura refrain is often peppered with an irreverence not lost on her examiners, and certainly not on us. She remarks, "I had rather to reade five lines in the bible, than to heare five masses in the temple." Such an insistence marks her as a classic rebel in the Reformation struggle against the ceremony and hierarchy that Protestants eschewed.

It is in the ballad attributed to Askew's pen while she was imprisoned that we find her possible vision of strength and power. Though it is not fully insurrectionist by intent, the ballad questions authority on several levels and informs that questioning through faith:

Like as the armed knight
Appointed to the field,
With this world will I fight
And Faith shall be my shield.

Faith is that weapon strong
Which will not fail at need.
My foes, therefore, among
Therewith will I proceed.

As it is had in strength
And force of Christes way
It will prevail at length
Though all the devils say nay.

Faith in the fathers old
Obtained rightwisness
Which make me very bold
To fear no world's distress.

I now rejoice in heart
And Hope bid me do so
For Christ will take my part
And ease me of my woe.

Thou saist, lord, who so knock
, To them wilt thou attend.
Undo, therefore, the lock
And thy strong power send.

More enmyes now I have
Than hairs upon my head.
Let them not me deprave
But fight thou in my stead.

On thee my care I cast.
For all their cruel spight
I set not by their haste
For thou art my delight.

I am not she that list
My anchor to let fall
For every drizzling mist
My ship substancial.

Not oft use I to wright
In prose nor yet in rime,
Yet will I shew one sight
That I saw in my time.

I saw a rial throne
Where Justice should have sit
But in her stead was one
Of moody cruel wit.

Absorpt was rightwisness
As of the raging flood
Sathan in his excess
Suct up the guiltless blood.

Then thought I, Jesus lord,
When thou shalt judge us all
Hard is it to record
On these men what will fall.

Yet lord, I thee desire
For that they do to me
Let them not taste the hire
Of their iniquity.

In the very first line of the ballad, Askew boldly identifies with a warrior as she likens herself to "the armed knight / Appointed to the field." Adopting a language of arms by employing an arsenal of words, Askew intriguingly characterizes her fight through the male combatant. Yet her voice is not eclipsed by this comparison, nor does she adopt the warrior figure as a persona; rather, she returns to a very personal "I" to recount her fight "[w]ith this world." The weapon for the Reformation woman is faith, and this reconceptualization of power dominates the ballad. This same mode of power, that "in the fathers old" provides a source of righteousness, also makes her "very bold." The stanza in which Askew challenges a "rial [royal] throne" characterized by an unjust, "moody cruel wit" offers an audacious insolence and contempt for royal authority. Indeed, throughout the ballad Askew challenges traditional sources of authority even as she locates herself within that tradition. Unabashedly empowered, Askew models an authority that makes possible rebellion in the face of certain torture and death. Though such valiance and courage, then, we see how Askew informs our understanding of the Reformation.

Elizabeth Dill
Kingsborough Community College, CUNY

Suggestions for further reading:

Beilin, Elaine V., ed. The Examinations of Anne Askew. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Cressy, David. Travesties and transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England: Tales of Discord and Dissension. New York, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Freeman, Thomas S., and Sarah Elizabeth Wall. "Racking the Body, Shaping the Text: The Account of Anne Askew in Foxe's 'Book of Martyrs.'" Renaissance Quarterly 54 (2001): 1165-1196.

Sherrin, Marshall. Women in Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe: Public and Private Worlds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Study questions:

How might Anne Askew, despite her extraordinary life, be taken as a historical representative of the role of women during the English Reformation?

How does Askew negotiate her own deviance as a source of her authority?

What conditions define the role of the martyr as the victim of a culture that nevertheless proves to be the source of her historical power?

What are the common features of life for women in the Reformation? How might a historian link, for example, the cultural codes informing the life of the martyr and the prostitute? The midwife and the nun?

© 2004 Folger Institute