Anne Askew Critical Essays

Introduction

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Anne Askew 1521(?)-1546

English prose writer.

Askew is primarily known for the two first-person narratives she composed regarding her imprisonment for heresy. In these works, known as the Examinations (1546, 1547), Askew recounts her incarceration and interrogation by authorities and refutes the accusations laid against her by exposing the theological errors apparent in the charges. After Askew was burned at the stake in 1546, the texts of these works were published by Protestant apologists John Bale and, later, John Foxe, both of whom used her narratives to support the Reformation. Modern critics consider Askew's Examinations not merely spiritual autobiography and forcefully argued polemic, but significant historical documents that provide new insight into women's status in sixteenth-century English society and a view of Reformation politics not seen in works written by men.

Biographical Information

Though Askew provides few autobiographical details in the Examinations, Bale's commentary gives some information on her family background. Critics believe that Askew was born around 1521. Her father, William Askew (also Ayscough) was a prominent landowner who served in the court of Henry VIII. After the death of her mother, Askew and her siblings were raised by their father and stepmother, Elizabeth Hutton Hansard. Most likely Askew was educated at home with her two sisters and four brothers; although it was unusual for girls to be schooled, many wealthy families allowed their daughters to learn from their sons' tutors. In the late 1530s William Askew arranged a marriage between Askew's older sister, Martha, and Thomas Kyme, a wealthy Catholic landowner. Martha died before the wedding, and Askew was apparently compelled to marry Kyme in her stead. The couple had two children, but it was likely an unhappy marriage—in her writings Askew never refers to herself as “Anne Kyme” but always “Anne Askew.”

Around 1540 Askew left her husband and traveled to London, possibly to obtain an annulment. While in London, she became an attendant at the court of Queen Catherine Parr, who was associated with a circle of Protestant Reformers. Because of her association with Parr and the Reform movement, Askew was questioned by church and government authorities in 1545. During the questioning she refused to assert that she believed in transubstantiation (the Catholic doctrine maintaining that the whole substance of the bread and wine of the Eucharist are transformed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ), which challenged the king's Act of the Six Articles. Askew was tried, acquitted, and released, but was arrested again the following year. After her second examination, Askew was tortured on the rack in an attempt to force her to implicate the Queen and other Reformers. However, she refused to abandon her Protestant faith or to incriminate her associates. Askew was condemned to be burned to death at the stake in July 1546. She was so weak from the physical abuse she had suffered that she had to be carried to her execution on a chair. Her writings recreating her examinations were published the following year and were quickly embraced by other Reformers, and she was revered as a martyr for the Reformation cause.

Major Works

Askew's Examinations are accounts of her imprisonments and interrogations interspersed with letters and other statements composed during the course of her conflict with authorities. In The First Examination (1546) Askew tells of her 1545 arrest, confinement, and interrogation by London officials. She describes the official pressure she underwent to recant her story and sign a confession, and the anger of her interrogators at her refusal. She then recounts her eventual release from prison with the help of influential friends. The events of Askew's second arrest and examination in 1546 are told in The Latter Examination (1547). In it, Askew recalls her two-day examination by the King's council and her subsequent imprisonment. In various letters included with the work, she argues that her arrest and condemnation without trial is illegal, and requests justice from the King and various officials. She then tells of her imprisonment in the Tower of London, where she was interrogated, tortured, and sentenced to die. Askew ends her narrative with a confession of faith. The First Examination and The Latter Examination were both first published by Bale, who illustrated the work with his own “Elucidations” that praise Askew as a great martyr and virtuous Christian woman and condemn her Catholic accusers. Askew's own self-portrait is quite different from Bale's depiction of her as a devout and pious Christian woman who exhibited the prized female virtue of obedience. Instead, Askew styles herself as a strong, independent woman who uses wit to outsmart her challengers and to reveal their ignorance of spiritual law. She refuses to be silent in public debate, exhibits her deep theological learning, and repeatedly turns the tables on her accusers by questioning them. The portrait that emerges from the Examinations is of a woman of considerable courage, intelligence, and strength.

Critical Reception

The First Examination was published almost immediately after Askew's death, and was instantly popular among fellow Reformers. Her reputation as a great, godly woman and one of the more famous English marytrs has continued to the present day, and her works have been extensively reprinted; in the nineteenth century, her writings appeared in anthologies consulted by historians and religious writers alike. Askew's biography has also been a popular topic—retold by an anonymous writer in “Anne Askewe, The Lincolnshire Martyr” and by Mary Stirling in a short biography which cites the Examinations extensively—throughout the early twentieth century. Modern critics have paid increasing attention to Askew's narrative, considering the additional critical commentary provided by Foxe and Bale in their respective reprintings of Askew's works. Several have pointed out the differences between Bale's representation of Askew as an obedient, pious woman and the portrait Askew reveals in her works, focusing on her knowledge of the law and her subversion of male authority, and noting the courage, wit, and intelligence apparent in her writings. According to many modern critics, Askew was not the picture of pious female obedience that her male editors portrayed, instead maintaining that she was a strong, independent woman who presented an alternate model of Christian virtue.