Gender, Heresy and Law A Sixteenth Century Execution Debapriya Basu » ISHS: International Society for Heresy Studies



Gender, Heresy and Law 
A Sixteenth Century Execution 

Debapriya Basu


Woodcut of the burning of Anne Askew in 1546 (1548) (Source: )

The common understanding of heresy is dependent upon the assumption of a fixed and well-disseminated mainstream discourse (legislative or propagandist) aimed at soothing the paranoia of the powerful. What, however, happens when dominant ideology is itself in flux? Anne Askew’s martyrdom coupled with the textual record of it in her two (1546, 1547, ed. Elaine Beilin, 1996) is illustrative of one of the many answers possible to this question. Askew was one of the earliest English female Protestant martyrs, tortured in the Tower of London and burnt at the stake for heresy in 1546. Here I want to take a closer look at the state-sanctioned illegal torture and execution of this 26-year old woman in order to tease out the workings of law and gender in the category of the heretical as it obtained in early modern England.

England went through a period of ideological instability during the 1500s that is uncomfortably similar to events in our own times courtesy of a mercurial, hyper ambitious and paranoid tyrant. Henry VIII had famously broken with the Catholic church in 1534 and forced his subjects to acknowledge him as Supreme Governor of the Church of England in the (26 Henry VIII c. 1, 1534). This Act categorically claimed that common practice would not ‘decline or vary from the congregation of Christ’s Church in any things concerning the very articles of the Catholic faith of Christendom’ (225), thereby reassuring the Catholic populace that anticlericalism did not necessarily imply dissent. Nevertheless, a prominent casualty of Henry’s battle with Rome was Thomas More, who was executed for treason on charges of praemunire, i.e. the offense of introducing foreign authority in the kingdom (the pope in this case) in 1535 because he refused to acknowledge Henry’s supremacy over religious matters.

Portrait of a Lady, Called Anne Ayscough or Askew (1521–1546), Mrs Thomas Kyme’ (Hans Eworth, 1560) (Source)

Portrait of a Lady, Called Anne Ayscough or Askew (1521–1546), Mrs Thomas Kyme (Hans Eworth, 1560) ()

Historians have widely observed that the English reformation was unlike continental Protestantism because it was imposed from above and was coloured by the political, and sometimes personal, exigencies of the ruling monarch. Because of this, the legislation of the Henrician reformation never arrived at a firm position but remained oscillating between the two faiths, finally emerging as a new flavour altogether after Henry’s death. That Anne Askew fully understood this is evident from her dry question, recalling , to her interrogator Lord Chancellor Wriothesley ‘how long would he halt on both sides?’ (Examinations 97) It is well-known that under Henry monasteries were abolished, ‘feigned images’ ( of 1538, 277) were banished from the land, and pilgrimages and relics relegated to superstition and banned.  The Great Bible was made available at every church, and no man was to be discouraged from ‘reading or hearing of the said Bible’ (276). Sola scriptura, nevertheless, had a caveat: subjects were exhorted to ‘avoid all contention and altercation therein, […] and refer the explanation of obscure places to men of higher judgment in Scripture’ (276). A further restriction on the principle of sola scriptura put bible-reading outside the reach of certain segments of the population, including women.

Indeed, after having forced all churches to keep a copy of the ‘chained’ Great Bible on the premises, Henry sought to regain lost control through the (34 & 35 Henry VIII c. 1, 1543).  This Act restricted ‘women, artificers, apprentices, journeymen, serving-men of the rank of yeoman and under, husbandmen and laborers’ from reading the bible. In an added clause, women of the gentry were allowed to read the book, but only in private. Anne Askew refused to obey these dictates. By her own account, she sat for six days in Lincoln minster, reading the bible in an outright act of civil disobedience (Examinations 56), an act that was all the worse because it was committed by a woman.

Askew’s public performance, which veered precariously into lay preaching, was sufficient for her to be counted as a threat. Her possible reputation as female preacher is also significant with regard to female communities of dissent in an uncertain religious climate. As John Foxe recounts in his (1563–’83), Henry’s last wife, Queen Catherine Parr was suspected of harbouring heretical Protestant beliefs and had a warrant issued in her name by two of Askew’s interrogators Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor Wriothesley. In this context, Anne Askew’s connections to the Duchess of Suffolk and other prominent Protestant women, particularly her suspected secret and sectarian relationship with Queen Catherine, added to her potency as target. During her interrogation Askew is asked to identify some of the most powerful women of the court by name as belonging to her ‘sect,’ and her torture begins in earnest when Wriothesley and Richard Rich turn the rack with their own hands, desperate to break her silence. Askew’s use of silence and speech is always oppositional: she speaks when authority would have her silent; she is silent when it demands speech.

Another key legislative text for understanding both Henry VIII’s idea of reform and the context of Anne Askew’s trial and conviction is , also known as An Act abolishing diversity of opinions (31 Henry VIII c. 14). This Act was born out of Henry’s conservative doctrinal leanings, his need for better relations with the growing Catholic powers of France and Spain, and his desire to reaffirm his sovereign power through the ruthless suppression of any kind of dissent whatsoever given the religious troubles in Continental Europe. The first article of this Act relates to the traditionally thorny issue of transubstantiation (without using that word), enforcing the Catholic belief that Christ’s body and blood is present ‘really’ (305) in the consecrated bread and wine. The rest of the articles are also unambiguously Catholic. Any person who denied the articulation of the miracle of the Eucharist in ‘word, writing, imprinting, ciphering, or in any other wise […] publish, preach, teach, say, affirm, declare, dispute, argue, or hold any opinion’ would be adjudged heretics and would be punished with ‘execution, pain, pains of death by way of burning (309). After the tentatively pro-reform activities of the past few years, this was a blow to English Protestants, who nicknamed the Act ‘The Whip with Six Strings.’

The irony of this Act is that in trying to forcibly standardize the belief of the Church of England in the Catholic mould, Henry ended up confusing both Catholic and Protestant subjects and strengthening dissent. Askew does precisely what this Act warns against, but this does not make her torture less illegal. Although British common law had never sanctioned torture, the possibility of it, as evidenced from the ‘pain’ in the above quote, was always present and it was in reality regularly employed. Torture could take place because it was an instrument of state and not of law, performed with the monarch’s special warrant. Torture of a gentlewoman, however, was unheard of. Askew had been illegally condemned without a ‘quest’ i.e. a grand jury of twelve (Examinations 112). Her racking was equally illegal. Indeed, as Foxe dramatically reports (), the Lieutenant of the Tower Sir Anthony Knevet refused to rack her with full force and rushed to the king to plead for a pardon, which was granted, but too late. Foxe’s project of glorifying Henry as the harbinger of the English reformation possibly informs the thesis that Askew’s torture took place without the king’s warrant, although that is an unlikely scenario. However, Askew too figures Henry as a victim of manipulative ministers when she defends the king as ‘well-deceyved’ (Examinations 123). Apart from treason, criticizing the monarch compromises the fundamental assumptions of the state and its government and is too disruptive even of organized dissent.

As the texts discussed above reveal, Henry’s articulation of the religious ideology of the state was as unpredictable as his personality. It was based on whimsy and short-term strategy rather than long-term vision. Excommunicated from his own church – arguably a heretic himself – he concentrated his energies exclusively on control of heresy at whatever cost, executing both Catholics and Protestants indiscriminately. However, constant vacillation inevitably leads to a disconnection between the laws of the land as embodied through the supreme leader and the reality of everyday jurisprudence carried out through prejudiced officials with their own agendas. This situation is exacerbated by the addition of gender. As one eyewitness to Askew’s execution wrote, female torture was exceedingly ‘strange’ (Examinations xxvii). State-sanctioned physical violence on bodies that the state itself proclaimed as frail and marginal is capable of generating strong emotions because the discourse is perceived as contradicting its own terms. Askew’s torture and execution introduces gender and the liminal figure of the woman heretic into the fraught relationship between religion, jurisprudence and state power, thereby amplifying outrage and the inadequacy of the legal system in face of an unstable dominant ideology. Her co-religionists recognize this when they urge her to write, encouraging her to break the mould of the normative ‘chaste, silent, and obedient’ Renaissance woman. Askew’s weak female presence, at once accusingly silent and eloquent in defence, throws the lacunae of the dominant discourse into high relief. This is precisely why Mistress Anne Askew, gentlewoman, heretic and martyr, victim of the breakdown of law in face of a volatile lawmaker, manages to produce a bestselling book and her editor John Bale is successful in turning her into the poster child of the English reformation after her death.

Title page of First Examination of Anne Askew, edited by John Bale (Source: )

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