Anne Askew: The Extraordinary Life of a Reformation Martyr

When I think about the modern church's growing tolerance of divergent teachings, I wonder how many Christians today would be willing to die for the truths the Reformation martyrs died for.

A final refusal to recant her beliefs  landed Anne a conviction of heresy for denying the doctrine of transubstantiation and she was sentenced to death. Unable to stand, she was carried on a chair to Smithfield just outside the London Wall. She was fastened to the stake by a chain wrapped around her waist to hold her up and then burned alive alongside three fellow martyrs. These men were so greatly comforted by Anne’s “invincible constancy” and persuasions that “they did set apart all kind of fear.”

“But as concerning your mass, as it is now used in our days, I do say and believe it to be the most abominable idol that is in the world: for my God will not be eaten with teeth, neither yet dieth he again. And upon these words that I base now spoken, will I suffer death.” 1 Anne Askew (1521 – July 16, 1546)

On October 31st many of us will celebrate Reformation Day. When I think about the modern church’s growing tolerance of divergent teachings, I wonder how many Christians today would be willing to die for the truths the Reformation martyrs died for. These heroes of the faith understood the necessity of drawing lines in the creedal sand and would rather die than acquiesce to the idolatrous teaching of transubstantiation.

J.C. Ryle wrote:

“The principal reason why they were burned, was because they refused one of the peculiar doctrines of the Romish Church. On that doctrine, in almost every case, hinged their life or death. If they admitted it — they might live;  if they refused it — they must die! The doctrine in question was the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated elements of bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. 2

One such martyr was Anne Askew, a highly educated young English woman who was an anomaly amongst her peers. Critics viewed her as a truculent fanatic while supporters saw her as a courageous heroine.

Anne was born in 1521 to Sir William Askew of  Lincolnshire and his wife Elizabeth Wrottesley four years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 thesis to The Castle Church door at Wittenberg, Germany. We don’t know when Anne was converted to the “New Religion”, but we know the early years of the Reformation knit together a tight band of advocates to which her family had ties.

Anne was forced into an unwanted marriage with Thomas Kyme, a wealthy landowner and Catholic who had been engaged to her deceased sister Martha. The constant friction over Anne’s Protestant beliefs lead Thomas to throw her out. One of the accusations against her was ‘that she was the devoutest woman he had ever known, for she began to pray always at midnight, and continued for some hours in that exercise.‘ “3 Anne petitioned unsuccessfully for  a divorce and had to leave her two young children behind.

Resuming her maiden name, Anne handed out tracts and literature and became known as a “Gospeller” for the public speeches she gave in London. She debated doctrine with the local priests and was “seen daily in the cathedral reading the Bible, and engaging the clergy in discussions on the meaning of particular texts,”4

Sir William had been knighted by King Henry VIII and Anne’s youngest brother Edward served as the King’s cup-bearer. The family connections at court presented the opportunity for Anne to become one of the ladies-in-waiting to the Evangelical Queen Katherine Parr, Henry’s sixth and last wife. While the King looked the other way, this close knit group of women, which included the young Lady Jane Grey, met regularly to pray, study the Scriptures, and to hear from the Evangelical preachers Huge Latimer and Nicholas Ridley who were later martyred.

The Reformation was as much about politics as it was about faith.

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