Written by Naomi Wallace
On 16 July 1546, during the reign of Henry VIII, 25-year-old Anne Askew was burnt at the stake as a heretic at Smithfield. Her radical Protestant beliefs and support for female religious involvement condemned her in the eyes of the Catholic faction at the English Court. She was one of only two women ever on record to have been tortured at the Tower of London, so badly maimed on the rack that she had to be carried on a chair to her execution. Throughout her imprisonment, torture, and execution, Anne displayed an indomitable spirit, refusing to name her associates or recant her faith. Though she is little remembered today, she was an extraordinary figure in the Reformation, both as a woman preacher, poet, theologian, and staunch denier of the fundamental Catholic doctrine of the transubstantiation.
They are burning women now. Smithfield’s putrid reek attacks my nose, carried from the meat markets and the stagnant Thames by a tepid breeze. A cluster of bodies has gathered, sweating, flustered in the oppressive London air. Thuggishly, they push and shove toward the front of the crowd, wrestling for the best view. The prime spot for death watching. Perspiration rests on the brows of men who hungrily await the spectacle, eyes glinting with eager anticipation. They are hot, restless, impatient. They falter in the muggy heat. Soon they will long for the balmy humidity. Soon it will be blistering. Worth it, to watch a woman burn.
I am a heretic, they say. Like Jezebel or Delilah or any other wicked woman. I know that I am no such thing. Heretic, they call me, because I love God by the instruction of those scriptures that I believe to be sufficient for our salvation, and by which alone we may rule His church. Because I hold the Gospel in my heart and guard it from their falsehoods. Heretic, they spit, because I sit in their churches and read aloud the same words that they do. Six days I spent at Lincoln, with the English Bible that was placed for any parishioner to read at will. Only in these delicate hands I inherited from Eve it was no longer freedom. It was explosive. Forbidden fruit. Heretic, they sneer, because I do not believe the body of our Lord can be eaten with teeth, and I told them as such that their Eucharist, as it is used today, is the most abominable idol in the world. Heretic, heretic, heretic. An empty word washing over me. The heresy is theirs.
Names, they demanded from me, but I refused, even when they broke my body. They showed me the rack and I did not quiver, but lay defiant, proud, silent as a lamb. Torturing women is illegal; that they would go to such lengths told me that they feared me more than I did them. No, I would not give them names, not even when I heard – for the pain was so excruciating I lost any sensation at all -my limbs pop from their sockets like bulbs uprooted from their soil, or as my eyes rolled so far into my head that only the milky whites remained visible. Torture me all you like, my lord Chancellor and master Rich, wrap your own rough hands around my neck and stop my breath if you will. The names you seek are locked away in a fortress within my chest, penetrable by no measure of torment.
“I would rather die, than to break my faith,” I told them. They scoffed. Their threats would be too much for my feeble, female stomach and surely then could they extract a confession, they thought. But my soul – which, despite the unfortunate circumstance of my sex, I am certain I possess – will not be torn apart like my weary body. I refuse to give them their recantation. For this I condemn myself to death.
Because I can no longer walk, they carry my limp, lifeless form on a chair, as if I am a king upon his throne. My very own crown of thorns. As I am brought forth through the sea of people, I look on in defiance.
They tie me to my funeral pyre while my heart beats, strong, assured. I must not let them see me tremble. A faint smell of damp oak overwhelms me as I am secured to the stake. Closing my eyes, I imagine I am at Golgotha, Christ on his cross beside me. Splinters of wood scratch and prick me through my flimsy linen shift, and specks of scarlet begin to pepper the white fabric. I try not to think about how this very blood will boil within my veins. Red hot. Death welcomes me, inviting and warm, but I await the pain of burning with consuming terror. I am told that my flesh will begin to spit and sizzle, bubbling as it is licked by the flames. I picture the disgust that will appear on the faces of the crowd as the acrid stench of my searing body envelopes them. Will they leer and shout as I begin to combust before their eyes? I pray for the nightmare to end. For quick, merciful death to swallow me. I will sleep in the Lord and let the blaze consume me in happy martyrdom.
My tormentors look on smugly. I know that they are merely misguided men. Weak, corrupt, cowardly, men. The kindling beneath my naked feet is lit. Something guttural emerges in my throat, but I cannot give them the satisfaction. They do not deserve to relish in my pain. No sound leaves my lips until the flames reach my chest and I cry out in agony, a primal scream. Then all goes numb. They watch as a woman burns.
Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.
As I go up in flames, they are the ones who will burn.
Foxe John. The order and manner of the burning of Anne Askew, Iohn Lacels…. 16th century. Woodcut. The British Museum, London. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1880-1113-4117
Askew, Anne, and Elaine V. Beilin. The Examinations of Anne Askew, edited by Elaine V. Beilin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.