Anne Askew Essay - Critical Essays

Askew, Anne


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critics consider Askew's Examinations not merely spiritual autobiography and forcefully argued polemic, but significant historical documents that provide new insight into women's status in sixteenth-century English society and a view of Reformation politics not seen in works written by men.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.

Principal Works

The first examinacyon of the worthy servant of God, Mistresse Anne Askewe … lately martyred in Smith-fielde, by the Romish Antichristian Broode … with the elucydation of Johan Bale (personal narrative) 1546

The lattre examinacyon of the worthye servaunt of God mastres Anne Askewe (personal narrative) 1547


Betty Travitsky (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Travitsky, Betty. “Anne (Askew) Kyme (1521-1546).” In The Paradise of Women: Writings by Englishwomen of the Renaissance, compiled and edited by Betty Travitsky, pp. 167-173. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Travitsky offers an introduction to Askew's life, provides a historical context for her writings, and discusses the qualities of taciturnity, wit, and fearlessness that are revealed in her works.]

There were many women martyrs in Renaissance England. John Foxe compiled the names of at least forty-six women who were executed because of their religious principles.1 Besides the Protestants, in whom, of course,...

(The entire section is 3660 words.)

Elaine V. Beilin (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Beilin, Elaine V. “A Challenge to Authority: Anne Askew.” In Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance, pp. 29-47. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Beilin explores Askew's self-portrait in the Examinations and contrasts it with the depiction offered by John Bale.]

As much as Margaret Roper seems to define the ideal of the learned and virtuous woman as a private, modest, silent being, Anne Askew seems to diverge from it. Converting to the Reformed church, Askew continually raised her voice in public to bear witness to her faith, and in so doing, defied not only her husband, but the whole...

(The entire section is 7532 words.)

Elaine V. Beilin (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Beilin, Elaine V. “Anne Askew's Dialogue with Authority.” In Contending Kingdoms: Historical, Psychological, and Feminist Approaches to the Literature of Sixteenth-Century England and France, edited by Marie-Rose Logan and Peter L. Rudnytsky, pp. 313-22. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Beilin maintains that the Examinations use Askew's doubly marginal status as a Reformer and a woman to turn the tables on her Catholic, male interrogators by revealing their errors in thinking and focusing the attention of her readers on her own spiritual victory.]

Responding to the “good people” who were expecting to hear the...

(The entire section is 4172 words.)

Paula McQuade (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: McQuade, Paula. “‘Except That They Had Offended the Lawe’: Gender and Jurisprudence in The Examinations of Anne Askew.Literature and History 3, no. 2 (autumn 1994): 1-14.

[In the following essay, McQuade points out that Askew's Examinations reveal that she was aware that, unlike English civil courts, the ecclesiastical courts viewed her as a subject with legal rights at least equal to those of men.]

We owe The Examinations of Anne Askew to an intermediate source—the Protestant bishop John Bale.1 While waiting out the uncertain English political climate in the Protestant outpost of Wesel, Germany, John Bale saw into...

(The entire section is 6552 words.)

John N. King (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: King, John N. “Introductory Note.” In The Early Modern Englishwoman: A Facsimile Library of Essential Works, Part 1: Printed Writings 1555-1640, Volume 1, Anne Askew, pp. ix-xi. Aldershot, Hants: Scolar Press, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, King maintains that, contrary to John Bale's depiction in his commentaries on the Examinations, Askew was a strong person who violated the patriarchal expectations of silent and obedient women.]

Anne Askew (1521-1546) was accused of heresy because of her denial of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and ritual of the mass. According to her own account, her husband, Thomas Kyme, drove her from their...

(The entire section is 862 words.)

Elaine V. Beilin (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Beilin, Elaine V. Introduction to The Examinations of Anne Askew, edited by Elaine V. Beilin, pp. xv-xliii. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Beilin provides a brief description of Askew's works and a short account of her life, sets the historical context for her martyrdom, surveys the background of the editions of the Examinations, and discusses the reputation of her life and work from the time of her death to the late twentieth century.]

Anne Askew (ca. 1521-1546) could have lived a prosperous, conventional life as a gentlewoman in Lincolnshire. Instead, she broke the law and defied the rules of her society: converting...

(The entire section is 10649 words.)

Thomas Betteridge (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Betteridge, Thomas. “Anne Askewe, John Bale, and Protestant History.” The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 27, no. 2 (spring 1997): 265-84.

[In the following essay, Betteridge examines the cultural conflicts reflected in the relation between Askew's interpretation of herself and that of her editor, John Bale.]

Anne Askewe was burned as a heretic in 1546, having been found guilty of denying the doctrine of transubstantiation. Askewe's place in history has been largely constructed within a narrative that views her first-person accounts of her examinations, and her martyrdom, as being important for the light they shed on the doctrinal struggles and...

(The entire section is 8099 words.)

Krista Kesselring (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Kesselring, Krista. “Representations of Women in Tudor Historiography: John Bale and the Rhetoric of Exemplarity.” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Reforme XXII, no. 2 (spring 1998): 41-61.

[In the following essay, Kesselring examines John Bale's appropriation of texts by Askew and Princess Elizabeth to show how he created a place for women in the new Protestant history and advocated a public role for women.]

John Bale, a Carmelite friar turned reformer, appropriated the writings of two women for the uses of protestant polemic. These works, Anne Askew's account of the interrogations that would lead to her death at the stake, and the Princess...

(The entire section is 9114 words.)

Further Reading


Stirling, Mary E. T. A Short Life of Anne Askew. London: Thynne, 1913, 31 p.

Biography that often takes liberties with the details of Askew's life.


Beilin, Elaine V. “Anne Askew's Self-Portrait in the Examinations.” In Silent but for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators, and Writers of Religious Works, edited by Margaret Patterson Hannay, pp. 77-91. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1985.

Earlier version of Beilin's 1987 essay, “A Challenge to Authority: Anne Askew,” reprinted above, that demonstrates how Askew's learned and virtuous persona...

(The entire section is 198 words.)