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July 16, 1546 – Anne Askew Burned at Smithfield

Woodcut of the burning of Anne Askew at Smithfield in 1546, from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Anne Askew was an unfortunate pawn in Tudor politics. She was tortured (the only woman on record to have experienced this) and burned for heresy less for her actual beliefs than for the hope that she would implicate Katherine Parr and her ladies. This was a plot by Stephen Gardiner to regain power – and thanks to Anne Askew’s courage and fortitude it was unsuccessful. Not for lack of his trying – the poor woman had to be carried to the stake because all of her joints had been dislocated

I actually recently finished writing about this for The Path to Somerset. Like the execution of Margaret Pole, it has come to be one of those events that defined Henry’s rabid cruelty even though one could argue that he could be shielded from some of the blame.

Yes I understand those are fighting words, but think about it – while Henry did give the unconscionable order to execute his elderly aunt, it was an unfortunate coincidence that the beheading fell to a novice executioner who did not know how to deal with Margaret Pole’s refusal to lay her head on the block…Similarly, Henry was not the one who gave the order to have Anne Askew racked – that was Stephen Gardiner. The acting Constable of the Tower, Anthony Kingston, refused to have anything to do with it, and went to alert Henry so that Anne Askew was racked by Wriothesley himself. Yes, yes, Henry did agree after being consulted that the racking would be permitted, that cuts against my argument…but my point is that the actual event happened without his approval.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I do fully blame Henry for the orders themselves, and for creating the context in which these atrocities could occur. But it made for interesting writing, since the outcomes were not what he had intended…

I also am in absolute awe of Anne Askew, a brave and brilliant woman – without her fortitude, it is quite possible that Henry would indeed have had the opportunity to take a seventh wife. If you get a chance, read Askew’s Examinations – her own chronicle of her persecution and a compelling account of the arguments in her case (I incorporated some of her reasoning into Somerset, but there is a lot more than I had room for). And raise a glass in her honor today.

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Published inOn This Day

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