A time of great change - and powerful monarchs
The reign of King Henry VIII was a time of great change and unrest. Power had moved from the great lords of the medieval times, to the ruling monarch, who surrounded himself with powerful advisors. Society itself was still quite rigid but becoming more flexible.
The most powerful group were the ‘nobility' – a small number of very wealthy families who owned a huge amount of land. They took their places in the court of the king.
Next in rank came the 'gentry' class. They were rich landowners, though not as rich as the nobles. They were the leading families in their local communities, and most MPs belonged to this class. Junior jobs at the royal court were also filled by gentlemen (as men of the gentry class were called). Anne Askew's father, William, was such a gentleman.
The Lower Ranks
Below the gentry in importance were the freemen of the towns and cities. They had the right to trade and own property within their city, pay taxes and call upon the protection of the city. Only freemen could become master craftsmen and join a guild. Below them came the yeomen, in the countryside: the better-off farmers who owned their own farms. Tenant farmers were like them, but they rented their farms from the larger landowners (the nobility and gentry). The lowest groups were the farm workers, servants and others who held no land and only had what they could earn.
If the children survived the many diseases for which there were no cures, life for the children of the rich, such as Anne, was comfortable. The houses were much more comfortable than those in previous times and the boys, at least, were usually well educated. In their younger years, they would be educated at home and then, as they got older, they went away to school and university. Although it was unusual for girls to be schooled, many wealthy families allowed their daughters to learn from their sons' tutors.
Making the Right Match
The sons and daughters of the nobility and gentry got very little say in whom they would marry. Marriages were made by the parents for the political or monetary advantages they could bring to the family. In Anne's case the marriage was made not for status but for money, her husband being of a lower status but richer than the Askews. The most favourable marriage would be one that would advance the family in the court of the king.
The Court of King Henry VIII
King Henry VIII's court was a hotbed of gossip and rivalry. Success for the powerful and wealthy depended on keeping the good opinion of the monarch and his advisors. With the ebb and flow of politics, and with many people trying to reach important positions near to the king, sometimes good fortune could turn into bad fortune overnight.
Keeping Your Head
Many people were executed for crimes both real and imagined. Sometimes just to be accused was enough to bring a person to a traitor's death. Making enemies of other powerful people in the king's court was very dangerous: to keep the trust of the king or queen was often like walking on a knife-edge, no matter how loyal you really were.
The Askews held posts at the courts of both Henry VII and Henry VIII. Sir William Askew was knighted by King Henry VIII and attended his court in a number of capacities. In 1536, Sir William rode to Louth to uphold the law when a Catholic uprising in Lincolnshire against the dissolution of the monasteries took place. Instead he found himself taken 'prisoner' by the rebels and was expected to represent their cause. Following this he fell out of favour with Henry VIII. Despite this his eldest son Sir Francis Askew was knighted when the English captured the French city of Boulogne in 1544, and he was Sheriff of Lincoln in 1545, 1549 and 1554.
The King's Cup-bearer
Even closer to the king was Sir William's youngest son Edward, as he was the king's cup-bearer. This was a position of great trust and only given to loyal subjects of high rank. It was the cup-bearer's duty to serve the drinks at the royal table and guard the king's cup against poison. Edward held this position from 1539 to 1547, and so would have been cup-bearer at the time his sister was burned for heresy. How Anne's behaviour affected the rest of the family, and their attitudes to her, is not known but, as a high ranking woman, her actions were bound to attract public attention.
Catholicism and Reformation
Anne was born, lived and died during the reign of King Henry VIII, when it was dangerous to hold religious beliefs which were different from those of the king or his powerful advisors.
Anne was a believer in the Reformation, which started in Europe when people such as Martin Luther opposed what they saw as the corruption and greed of the Roman Catholic Church. Such people and their followers were known as 'Protestants' (Protesters).
In England Protestants were outlawed and persecuted. They fled the country if they did not want to be arrested, tried and burned at the stake for heresy. In his earlier years, King Henry had written, with the help of his advisor, Sir Thomas More, a fierce attack on Martin Luther himself, as well as on his views. This book, written in 1521, was entitled 'The Defence of the Seven Sacraments'. For this, the Pope had granted the king the title of 'Defender of the Faith'.
The Protestants believed that the Bible rather than church tradition or ceremony was the final source of authority for all Christians. They thought that salvation and God's forgiveness for sins came through faith and could not be purchased through the Church by money or good works. Good works were a necessary part of faith not a justification in their own right.
The Protestant Bible
Protestant Bibles were written in the language spoken by the people to be more accessible to more of the population, not in Latin (the official language of the Roman Catholic Church). The first Bible in English was translated from the original Greek writings by William Tyndale (1526-1529). He was arrested by Church authorities and jailed in the castle of Vilvoorde outside Brussels. He was tried for heresy, strangled and burnt at the stake. His bible, however, continued to play a key role in spreading Reformation ideas across Europe.
Break with Rome
It was political rather than religious reasons that brought about the English Reformation. King Henry VIII longed for a son. At that time it was felt that, if a daughter succeeded a king on the throne, the country would not be in safe hands. Henry's wife, Catherine of Aragon, had borne him six children, but only a girl, Mary, survived. When Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn, in order to marry her and produce a male heir, he needed a divorce from Catherine. The Pope would not grant a divorce, as Catherine was from a powerful Catholic family. King Henry VIII, with the help of parliament and his advisors such as Thomas Cromwell, decided to sever himself from the Church of Rome.
Head of the Church in England
In 1534, King Henry VIII proclaimed himself Head of the Church of England. Not everyone agreed with Henry's actions. John Fisher, a Roman Catholic cardinal, and Sir Thomas More, the king's advisor and chancellor, were executed by order of the king during the English Reformation for refusing to accept him as Head of the Church of England. Anne Askew was about 13 when these events were taking place.
Dissolution of the Monasteries
In August 1535, Thomas Cromwell sent a team of officials to investigate what was happening in the monasteries. After reading their reports, Henry VIII started a programme that would eventually see the closure of all monasteries and shrines. Monastery land was seized and sold off cheaply to nobles and merchants. It led, in the autumn of 1536, to one of the worst crises faced by the king: a rebellion.
The Pilgrimage of Grace
The rebellion became known as the 'Pilgrimage of Grace'. Noblemen and peasants in the north of the country joined together, demanding the return of the old religion, the restoration of the monasteries and the sacking of Thomas Cromwell. The army dispersed after the Duke of Norfolk promised that King Henry VIII would meet their demands and pardon the rebels. Henry went back on his word and, all across the north of England, hundreds of men and women were dragged from their homes and hanged on the slightest suspicion of having been involved.
Although the English Reformation was initially more of a political than a theological dispute, it allowed growing theological disputes to come to the fore. Before the break with Rome, it was the Pope and general councils of the Church that decided doctrine and had the final say over the appointment of bishops. After the split from Rome, matters of church doctrine and legal disputes and the appointment of bishops rested with the king.
England was now a Protestant country. However, even though Henry tore down monasteries (to fill his coffers) and changed some religious ceremonies, he remained a believer in the core Catholic teachings - so his reformation was not the Protestant Reformation believed in by William Tyndale or Martin Luther. Henry executed Roman Catholics, not for their basic beliefs but because, like Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, they would not accept him as head of the Church of England.
The Articles of Faith
In June 1539, King Henry VIII, drew up the Articles of Faith, based on the Roman Catholic doctrine. The act, formally entitled "An Act Abolishing Diversity in Opinions", reinforced existing heresy laws and reasserted traditional Catholic doctrine as the basis of faith for the English Church. In Henry's England, despite the Reformation, it was still dangerous to hold strong Protestant beliefs. People who preached Protestantism were viewed as heretics and traitors. The Act also represented a political defeat for Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer and the other reformist leaders at court. Just two years later, Thomas Cromwell was executed.
The first article affirmed the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist and the notion of transubstantiation: that is the belief that once the bread and wine in the Eucharist has been blessed by a priest, it really turns into the body and blood of Christ, not just a symbol of that as the Protestants believed. It was denial of this notion that eventually lead to the death of several Protestants, including Anne Askew.
Queen Catherine Parr
In 1543 King Henry VIII married his sixth wife, Catherine Parr. Catherine was sympathetic to the views of the Protestants, which made her enemies at court. She conducted Bible studies among her ladies-in-waiting and discussed religion with the king. In 1546, conservatives, such as Chancellor Wriothesley and Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, plotted against the queen. At this time Anne had been preaching in London. Gardiner was determined to get Anne to state that she had had contact with the Ladies of court, so hoping to incriminate the queen.
It is believed that many relatively unimportant people were arrested, and 'pressure' was put on them to name other people, especially more important people, whom they might know and the authorities wanted evidence against. Anne Askew, an evangelical Protestant who wanted to spread the beliefs of the Reformation, was an easy target. Anne was questioned and tortured, but to the frustration of her accusers, she refused to recant her faith or give evidence against Catherine and her ladies.
Women in Tudor society
Women were taught from the day they were born that they were inferior to men. Men, of course, were taught they were superior to women.
Women were also believed to be the original sinners and the weaker vessels. This was taught by the Church and, therefore, nearly everyone believed it. Despite this, there were many strong women documented in Tudor times and one of these was Anne Askew.
In Anne Askew's time, a girl in any family grew up being subject first to her father's rule and wishes, as were all her sisters and brothers, and then subject to her husband. Until she married, a girl's father and her brothers had the right to rule every minute detail of her life and decide if and what she should learn, what she must do, where she could go and, eventually, whom she would marry. Her role was to fulfill her father's wishes immediately and without question. Obedience and meekness were the required virtues.
Even among the upper classes, many girls received no education beyond what they needed for their household duties, for example, two of Henry VIII's wives were barely literate. Daughters were also taught the skills needed to run a household and the traditionally feminine arts of music and dance. Many tutors were clergy and so any education was very much cloaked in the religious beliefs of the time. Anne had been taught alongside her brothers and she was a diligent and enquiring student. Her intelligence and literary skills seem not to have been discouraged, which was probably quite unusual.
Within the gentry, girls were married off from the age of 12 onward. The age and temperament of the potential husband were irrelevant (Catherine Parr's first husband, for example, was 62 whilst she was 14). Position, power and money were the usual deciding factors for a marriage. In Anne's case, her older sister had been betrothed to a local landowner, who appears to not have had the social status of Anne's family, but to have been wealthy. Anne's family were Protestants, although not evangelical ones, and Thomas Kyme was a Catholic. However, Anne's father thought the match a good one for him, and when Anne's sister died, he agreed that Thomas Kyme should marry Anne in her stead.
Ruled by their Husbands
Within the working classes, women often worked alongside their husbands and even learned their husband's trade; businesses were often passed to wives in the event of the husband's death. This was not the case in the gentry, where the roles were very different. However, in all families, a husband had absolute power over his wife, owned all her goods and chattels (movable property), expected obedience to his wishes and had the right to administer punishment to her if she did not behave in a way that he wanted. He could turn her out of doors with nothing, if he wished.
A Woman's role
A woman's role as a wife would have been to look after the household and all the servants, which was quite demanding in larger households. Her main role would be to produce sons (heirs could only be males in those days, and carrying the family name forward had become increasingly important since the Middle Ages).
The Dangers of Childbirth
Childbirth was extremely dangerous for women and their babies. Midwives were mostly unskilled and nobody realised the importance of hygiene. So, even if the baby was born safely, many women died afterwards from infections picked up in childbirth. Many of the gentry did not nurse their own babies, but hired wet-nurses. Often they conceived again quite quickly after childbirth - one child a year was quite common.
Anne's beliefs were very important to her and she found the marriage very difficult. It seems likely that wifely duties interfered with Anne's desire to spread the word of her beliefs to others, though there is some suggestion that she did indeed bear two children to Thomas Kyme. Some commentators also believe that Thomas Kyme was much less educated than Anne and he found her opinionated and difficult.
Divorce was practically unheard of and was very hard to obtain. The judges held that a woman's place was with her husband, no matter what. When Kyme could bear her independence of mind no longer, he threw her out, complaining that, "She was the devoutest woman I've ever known".
Anne continued to 'flout' what was considered seemly behaviour in a woman. She enjoyed her freedom and used it to preach and give out Bibles in the English language. When she was arrested the first time, after questioning, her husband was sent for, to take her home. However, she then ran away, which would have been seen as an irreligious act - leaving her marriage which was God's holy institution.
Confounding her Inquisitors
During her second arrest, she continued to confound her inquisitors. She claimed meekness (which was expected of a woman) as a way of avoiding implicating herself or others; however, she showed an incredible knowledge of the Bible and the intellect to interpret it.
Breaking the Accepted Mould
Anne wrote two detailed and vivid accounts of her imprisonments, interrogations and torture, which she smuggled out of the Tower before her execution. It is clear from these accounts what an intelligent and indomitable woman she was. She broke the accepted mould and even dared to verbally torment her interrogators with her clever evasions and detailed knowledge.
Torture as a means of interrogation
During Tudor times, prisons were for holding people until they were tried or punished - they were generally not a punishment in themselves.
There were prisons or gaols in most towns. They were often little more than dark dungeon-like rooms, with barred doors and floors strewn with straw. The most well-known prisons in which heretics were held were the Clink and Newgate (the latter where Anne was held) in London. However, the most famous building that acted as a prison was the Tower of London.
The Tower of London
The first tower, in what was to become the Tower of London, was under construction during the 1070s, for William the Conqueror. It was called the White Tower. It was not intended to be a main royal palace but a fortress. It was more than doubled in size under Richard the Lionheart and greatly added to by Henry III and Edward I and in use as a royal residence, as well as a fortress, on and off, until the reign of Henry VIII.
The Tower as a Prison
Almost from the beginning it had been used to house prisoners, and this use continued and increased over the centuries. Among the most famous before Anne were the young princes Edward and Richard, who had been held in the Tower, and who mysteriously disappeared from it - presumed murdered. During Anne's lifetime, two of Henry VIII's wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were imprisoned and executed at the Tower of London.
Before people were tortured they were sometimes interrogated. This was often enough to make them confess or at least incriminate themselves, for every last word was listened to and sometimes twisted against them. The interrogators would be looking for any slip or piece of information they could use against the prisoner or others connected to them. Anne herself was interrogated for two days when first arrested and again after her second arrest.
Torture is the infliction of severe physical pain either to punish or to extract information from the victim. Of all the people who have been imprisoned in the Tower of London, comparatively few had been tortured. The periods when torturing took place most often were the 16th and 17th centuries - the period during which Anne lived and a time of great religious upheaval and change.
The Role of Torture
In Tudor times, prisoners were not tortured as a punishment but to make them confess to a crime or give information - very often about other people. The Warders of the Tower (Beefeaters) would operate the torture, whilst one or two people would be interrogating the prisoner. Torture was largely stopped after 17th century - one of the reasons being that it was discovered that people would say anything, not just the truth, to stop the pain.
One of the most feared, and most widely used, instruments of torture in the Tower of London was the rack. It is claimed that its history dates back to ancient times but it was first used very widely during the Spanish Inquisition, from the mid-13th century onwards. It became widely used during the religious upheavals of Tudor times.
How it Worked
The rack consisted of a board with 2 rollers, one at either end. The victim was placed on the board, ankles were tied to one roller and wrists to the other. The victim was then stretched and interrogated, in the hope that the pain would make them reveal the information that was wanted. Usually prisoners were shown the rack before they were tortured - it was often enough to make them talk, especially if they saw someone else on it. This was not the case for Anne Askew, as it was felt unseemly that she should see a naked man on the rack.
If they did not talk, as in Anne's case, then they could be stretched until their limbs were dislocated and pulled out of their sockets. After her torture, during which she refused to speak, Anne was no longer able to use her legs at all and had to be carried on a chair to her execution, and tied upright to the stake.
A matter of life and death
In Tudor times the system of punishment for crimes was very different. If people were found guilty of minor crimes, then they would be punished and released. For more serious crimes there was the death penalty and for heretics the flames.
Those found guilty of minor crimes may have been put in the pillory or stocks. They might also be flogged or branded with hot irons, or even have a hand chopped off for repeat offences or for more serious crimes.
More serious crimes, like stealing, were often punished by death. For ordinary people, this would be by hanging. A gallows would be built in the town square or on a nearby hill and the convicted person would probably be driven there on a cart, which they woulkd then stand on, beneath the gallows (in a town a step-ladder may be used for the prisoner to stand on). The condemned prisoner had the noose put over their head and then the ladder or cart would be taken away. The person would be left choking slowly to death. Sometimes, as a merciful act, relatives would be allowed to pull hard on the person's legs to speed up the horrible death. Those found guilty of treason were hanged, drawn and quartered.
A very Public Spectacle
In Tudor times punishment was not only done but also seen to be done, as punishments were usually public. Passers-by took delight in throwing stuff at the prisoners in the pillory or stocks. Floggings were also generally conducted in public; most towns and villages had a whipping post and stocks. Executions were also mainly carried out in public. Executions were a highlight, a spectacle to be enjoyed, and regarded by poor and rich alike as a good day out. There would often be stalls selling food and wares and a general carnival atmosphere.
Losing Your Head
The gentry committing serious crimes such as murder or treason were beheaded. It was generally much less public. In London it would have been on Tower Green. This is where King Henry's wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were beheaded. An axe was usually used and it could take several blows before the process was completed. Henry brought in an expert swordsman from France for Anne Boleyn's execution, to make it clean and quick.
Burning of Heretics
Being burnt at the stake was a punishment for heretics and sometimes those 'proven' to have used witchcraft. Heretics were people who did not believe or agree with the religious creed and hierarchy of that time. Therefore, both Catholics and Protestants were being burnt as heretics and, in Anne Askew's case, it was because she would not accept one particular piece of doctrine.
A Horrible Death
This was a particularly painful and horrible death, especially if it had been raining and the wood was damp which meant it burnt slowly. Often friends would pay for gunpowder to be placed on the victim, usually around the neck, so that they died a quicker death. This is what happened to Anne, so she could die from the explosion, instead of waiting to die by suffocation or the slower effect of the fire itself.
A Chance to Recant
Sometimes people were given a chance to recant. However, at this time faith was very strong and usually the consequence of denying your faith was seen as more fearful than the flames. Your soul would be committed to Hell for eternity. Many heretics were prepared to die for their beliefs. When offered the papers, Anne refused even to look at them saying that she had not come to the stake to deny her Lord and Master.
A Exciting Spectacle
Burnings were also public spectacles and excitement grew as the bonfire with the stake in the middle was built. There were so many people at Anne's execution in Smithfield, that the authorities were worried about somebody getting hurt and the crowd had to be pushed back to make room for Anne to be carried through.
Book of the Martyrs
Many of the early Protestants, like Anne, burnt as heretics, were recorded in Foxes 'Book of Martyrs'. Some Catholics, such as Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, were canonised (became saints). Later in the Tudor period, those that were burned as heretics in the reign of Queen Mary were often those who did not have the money to flee abroad; their names and their stories are less well known but they were just as willing to die for their beliefs.
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