Where do you find feminist religious inspiration when you need it? Sometimes the answer is hidden in plain sight. So it was for me at school. For I was involved with a number of social transformations at my local secondary school, including being part of the first year of the historic admission of females. This not only seemed a self-evident justice to me, but it was also a personal saving grace. Indeed, in my final two years, I was part of otherwise all-female classes for most of my subjects, bar one other male assigned student (in religious studies). Also, to the initial chagrin of some, our 19th century grammar school (founded in 1863 out of the medieval charity created by Thomas De Aston, a 13th century monk) two years later finally fully joined the modern world as a 'comprehensive' school: merging with the local 'secondary modern' school, whose pupils were traditionally divided from us by the selective examination known as the '11 plus'. At which point school 'houses' suddenly appeared, under the names of the well-known local Lincolnshire worthies Tennyson and Wesley; the explorers (Joseph) Banks and (Matthew) Flinders (actually much better known in Australia than in their homeland); the fearsome Hereward (famed indigenous resistance fighter against the Normans), and, more mysteriously, (Anne) Askew. Happily I was placed in her house, but who was this, to us, unknown woman? Sadly, I never really found out then. On asking, apart from guessing that she was the 'token' woman in the list, we were told she was martyred at the Reformation. 'Great', said most of the boys: 'not only do we not get to be associated with a fighter like Hereward, or at least an intrepid explorer like Flinders, but we get landed with a woman, and one whose claim to fame is being slaughtered.' Even the girls had sympathy with the latter affirmation. Yet, had we been given a richer explanation, we might have had a very different viewpoint. For, of all the Lincolnshire icons, it is arguable that Anne Askew was the greatest of all. She was not just a type of freedom fighter (like Hereward), an intrepid adventurer of the new (like Flinders and Banks), a poet (like Tennyson), or a model of renewing spirituality and freedom (like (the) Wesley(s)). She was all these in one, and she did it all as a woman to boot...
Deepening the story of Reformation
Anne's story, particularly for her age, is remarkable and highly significant. Sadly, it is also still so little told, including in many standard accounts of the English Reformation, although scholarship has given her recent welcome attention (for example in the Sixteeenth Century Journal here). Indeed, my interest in her has been revived by preparing materials for the 'Anglican Foundations' course being taught this next semester at St Francis College Brisbane, as part of Charles Sturt University's B.Th. For, all too often, Anglican Reformation Foundations have been taught, almost exclusively, through the selected official formularies and elite men of the era, with a nod to the importance of female monarchs. and perhaps to some of Henry VIII's wives and their respective interests and coteries. Understandably, figures like Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker thus bulk large, together with official Prayer Books and the Thirty Nine Articles. Yet, with Anne's story, we are also illuminated by other key forces at play, notably the importance of a wider range of forces - particularly the role of martyrs and populist propaganda, and including the impacts of change felt by, and with the agency of, women.
Not just 'another' martyr
Anne's story has also often been construed as essentially 'only' another, if striking, example of evangelical martyrdom. Undoubtedly those strong Reforming advocates who later wrote about her in the 16th century (such as John 'bilious' Bale, in his Examinations of Anne Askew and John Foxe, in his hugely influential 'Book of Martyrs') posited her in this way. As a female, her particular sufferings added spice and shock to such effective later propaganda : not least as she was the first English woman to be tortured in the Reformation - an act which was almost a complete departure from established tradition even in the history of such horrors. Indeed, it was illegal, requiring permission from the king for male victims, and with women excluded. Stretched however on the rack, her joints were dislocated, and she had to be carried in a chair to be burned. Yet she never gave up the names of her fellows. Like others, she was also tried and convicted for 'crimes' others carried out, including a denial of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Born of new contemporary learning, as she clearly expressed it, the priestly miracle made no sense:
“As for that ye call your God, it is a piece of bread. For a more proof thereof… let it but lie in the box three months and it will be mouldy.”
Her story is also intimately bound up with power struggles at court, as she was closely associated with Katherine Parr, Henry VIII's sixth, surviving, and Protestant sympathising, wife. In this, as a martyr, Anne was a little unusual. For whilst many women were martyred in the violence of the Reformation (one fifth of all martyrs in Mary's reign being female for instance), they were often quite poor. In contrast, Anne was from a wealthy family, daughter of Elizabeth Wrotessley and the landowner and court gentleman William Askew. However, it is above all in her distinctive religious challenges to the patriarchal status quo that Anne is most to be remembered, with three aspects to the fore. Certainly this was no meek and mild martyr, if such a person exists.
Challenging patriarchal religious law
Firstly, Anne Askew challenged the law as a woman. For her offence was not merely that of sharing in the growing Reformed emphasis on Holy Scripture. It was also that she sought to manifest this as a female. She thus refused to be intimidated by priests when she went to Lincoln Cathedral to read the Bible publicly, something specifically made illegal for women according to the inaptly named Act for the Advancement of Religion of 1543. Whether she had a formal legal education is unlikely, but recent scholarship has also rightly emphasised how able Anne defended herself with reason and scripture. To read the records of her Examinations (based on accounts smuggled out by her from imprisonment) is certainly to be duly impressed by the her intellectual and spritual calibre. Ironically, today she therefore perhaps receives more attention than other similar women of her day who also deserve recognition for their articulate theological advocacy and spiritual and political agency. Yet, as a key model of this, as a evangelical leader in her own right, Anne demonstrates something of the remarkable power many women found in Reforming religion, and exhibited in their lives: another aspect of the hidden history of her times, her faith, and of women as a whole. As an acknowledged 'gospeller', or preacher, she was also a notable example of active female ministry which was continually suppressed until more recent times.
Challenging the patriarchal family
Secondly, Anne Askew challenged the family and marital norms of society. For she was the first English woman to plead for divorce on religious grounds, arguing, on scriptural grounds, that she had been 'unjustly yoked'. This case she took to the court of Chancery in London. After all, if divorce was acceptable to the KIng, the proclaimed Head of the Church of England, why not for her too? Her marriage to Thomas Kyme was certainly very unhappy. Indeed it appears that it was originally intended for her sister Martha to marry Kyme, only for her sibling to die. Anne was then impelled by her father to take Martha's place, perhaps in the interests of money and saving face. As a whole, in Anne's story, we thus undoubtedly have here a striking example of the patriarchal construction of relationships, reinforced, and to some extent developed, by much mainstream Reformed male leadership. Anne Askew's actions however demonstrate both the capacity of some women to challenge this shared male 'power of the fathers', and to employ theology in the task of liberation. For the Reformation was a great upheaval in theological engagement with marriage and the appeal to 'plain scripture', as we know in our own age, can lead to other conclusions than the patriarchal.
Challenging patriarchal space and words
Thirdly, Anne Askew challenged patriarchal power in the sharing of her words and writings. Again, as scholarship in recent times as shown, she was not 'alone among her sex' in doing so. Late Medieval, Renaissance and Reformation Europe has notable examples of other female poets and writers. Other women elsewhere, such as Argula von Grumbach and Marie Dentiere, also furthermore defended their own agency by appeal to the Bible. Similarly, in her standard response to questioning, Anne Askew affirmed the right of every Christian, female and male, highborn or low, to read and interpret as their own. As she put it, 'I beleve as the scripture doth teche me'. Her Ballad which Anne made and sang in Newgate (prison), has also come down to us as a powerful expression both of contemporary evangelical religion and women's voice and action (found in full on the Poetry Foundation website here). A leading modern poet, Carol Rumens, is among those who have written about this work - here - struggling with its possible use in an age of resurgent fundamentalism, yet admiring its poetic structure and skills. For those of Christian Faith, it also remains however a striking evocation of biblical faith, organised around the Pauline trio of virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity) and affirming the power of Christ in the midst of suffering and the usurpation of Justice. In this, in evangelical style, Anne Askew claimed the vocation of a knight of Christ, clad in Pauline armour:
Like as the armed knight
Appointed to the field,
With this world will I fight
And Faith shall be my shield.
Faith is that weapon strong
Which will not fail at need.
My foes, therefore, among
Therewith will I proceed.
As it is had in strength
And force of Christes way
It will prevail at length
Though all the devils say nay.
Significantly, Anne also affirmed the authority of God and her forebears over the 'fathers' of her day. For:
Faith in the fathers old
Which make me very bold
To fear no world’s distress.
I now rejoice in heart
And Hope bid me do so
For Christ will take my part
And ease me of my woe.
Freeing today's 'household' as a dangerous woman
Like others, at school and later, I may have missed Anne's significance for too long. Today however her 'house' is one which can inspire. Thankfully, I, and those around me, may never personally endure the extremes of treatment she suffered, though many do so, for their faith and/or gender and/or sexuality in many places of our world. Yet, if some of the struggles many of us face are less extraordinarily violent, they are real enough, and sometimes accompanied by great distress and even destruction. Anne's words, courage and example are therefore an enduring witness, not least in strengthening the vision and energy of the marginalised. Claire Askew, a modern poet and probable descendant, has indeed paid due tribute to this remarkable 'foremother' in sharing three powerful poems about her - Men of the Rack, How to Burn a Woman, and Two deaths - to be found on the website of Edinburgh University's Dangerous Women Project here. As Claire concludes in Two deaths, written in 2016, Anne's liberating story is not forgotten unless we let it be. Since:
A man once told me, every human being
gets two deaths: the second one’s the last time
someone living says or writes your name.
Anne. It’s been five hundred and seventy years
since they lifted you down: your secrets
still wound in the cord of your throat,
the women whose locations you withheld
awake and listening from their beds.
I am weak, but Anne, I will keep
committing your name as if it’s a crime,
so the distant children’s children of those men
(whose second deaths came long ago)
will know you when you’re spoken of.
They’ll know that you were twenty-six,
that you were told you would be burned.
They’ll know that as you waited in your cell,
and though it punished every nerve,
you took up your pen. You wrote it all.
May we always honour such dangerous women, and men. That's what history calls for - and why some of us try to write and witness too.
see further this online account of her life
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.