Truth is laid in prison. The law is turned to wormwood. And there can no right judgment go forth.
– Anne Askew
Newgate Prison, 2 July 1554
My God, my God, look upon me; why hast thou forsaken me: and art so far from my health, and from the words of my complaint? (Ps. 22)
The words of the Psalmist are a great comfort to me, knowing that my own dear Saviour himself spoke them from the Cross. No sorrow was like unto his sorrow, no pain so great as the pain he endured. What then that I, a poor weak woman, should suffer a little hurt in the few days before my death? For I hope by His grace very soon, at Smithfield, to wear the intolerable shroud of flame, and my soul like the smoke of sacrifice rise up to God.
This writing I do now, which has always been such a pleasure to me, I can scarcely perform, injured as I am from the tortures of the rack.
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. (Ps. 22)
On Tuesday last I was sent from Newgate to the Tower, where Master Rich with Lord Chancellor Wriothsley charged me upon my obedience to reveal the names of any of my sect at court. My answer was, that I knew none. He asked me of many ladies, such as my Lady of Suffolk, my Lady of Sussex, my Lady of Hertford, my Lady Denny, and my Lady Fitzwilliam. I told him that even if I were to pronounce anything against any of them, he would be able to prove nothing.
Though my words were bold, I was sorely afraid.
My heart also in the midst of my body is even like melting wax. (Ps. 22)
For I knew that they had already condemned me as a heretic, from my opinion on the Eucharist alone, and that only God’s mercy or the king’s could save me from the flames. I had told them that after the priest has spoken the words of consecration, the bread remains but bread, though the same is a most necessary remembrance of his glorious sufferings and death. They say, and teach as a necessary article of faith, that after those words be once spoken, there remains no bread, but even the self-same body that hung upon the cross on Good Friday, both flesh, blood, and bone. To this belief of theirs say I, nay. Christ sits at the hand of the Father Almighty; he is not baked into a common loaf. Lo, this is the heresy that I hold, and for it must suffer the death.
The Tower of London, 29 June 1545
As I was already condemned, they needed no further confession from me, and no need to put me to the pain. So it was clear that their intention to torture was for the purpose of gaining information, not for the purpose of proving guilt. I knew they would stint nothing in applying their punishments, since they were merely breaking a body soon to be burned; and I knew that since I should tell them nothing, the suffering they would visit on me would be most severe.
They told me that the king knew of a great number of my sect in his own court. I replied that in this he was deceived, as in many other matters. Meaning by their dissemblance and untruth. They demanded to know how I had been supported while in the Counter prison, if certain gentlewomen had sent me money. I said there was no creature that therein did strengthen me.
All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying, He trusted in God, that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, if he will have him. (Ps. 22)
And so because I confessed no ladies or gentlewomen to be of my opinion, then they did put me on the rack.
Newgate Prison, 2 July 1545
You will think it strange, gentle reader of the future, that such cruelty should be used by men of authority on the tender body of a woman, for no reason other than her holding fast to a true and honest opinion. It is my hope that sufferings such as mine may move the consciences of some of those in power, and that the spirit of God my Saviour will prompt them to bring the people of England back to true religion. I have seen that spirit at work, even in some of those who have been set on to torment me: such as the jailor who tried to guard my modesty, even on the rack; or the brave Lieutenant of the Tower, who put himself in danger by refusing to torture me further. For nothing I have ever preached, or said, or confessed to my accusers, is in any way contrary to the truths of scripture. Nor have I ever broken any laws, knowing better than my accusers the laws of God as laid down in that same holy gospel.
I cherish the hope, that after my death, these my beliefs will become in the future as familiar and uncontested, as today they are held heretical and unlawful. Let me here rehearse some of the interrogations to which I was subjected before my ordeal in the Tower, so that you may see the common sense of my opinions, and the absurdities of those set upon to question me.
My first examination took place at Saddler’s Hall in Cheapside. I was asked by the Lord Mayor whether the sacrament of the altar was indeed the very body of Christ? In return I asked my interrogator why St Stephen was put to death, and he said he knew not. He asked me if I believed that God did not dwell in temples made of hands? I cited to him chapters 7 and 17 of the Acts of the Apostles. He said it was reported of me that I had said, I had rather read five lines of the Bible than hear five masses in the church. I confessed that I said no less, and offered to defend this opinion from the text of holy scripture. If my lord knew the scripture as well as the Mass, I told him, he would better be able to debate theology with me.
Then he asked me a question designed to trap me: whether a mouse, eating the host, received God or no? I made him no answer, but smiled. For if I said no, they would take that as proof that I disbelieved in the sacrament of the Eucharist. If I said yes, I would be speaking folly, that a mouse can receive Christ.
Then the bishop’s chancellor rebuked me, and said that I was much to blame for preaching on the Scriptures. For St. Paul, he said, forbade women to speak or to talk of the word of God. I answered him that I knew Paul’s meaning as well as he, which is, in 1 Corinthians xiv., that a woman ought not to speak in the congregation by the way of teaching: and then I asked him how many women he had seen go into the pulpit and preach? He said he never saw any. Then I said, he ought to find no fault in poor women, unless they had offended the law, which for my own part I never had.
All they were able to allege against me, is that I often read the Bible in the minster at Lincoln. Some had told me beforehand that the priests would harass and assault me if they found me reading, so when I heard that, I went swiftly there, not being afraid, because I knew my matter to be good. Moreover I remained there nine days, to see what would be said unto me. And as I was in the minster, reading upon the Bible, they approached me, two by two, and stared at me, but said nothing, and went their ways again without words speaking. Not one of those priests had the knowledge to challenge my understanding, or the courage to forbid me to read the word of the Lord.
In several examinations, at Saddler’s Hall, the Guildhall, in St Paul’s Church, great lords of the realm, bishops, priests and doctors again and again questioned me, and sought to compel me to acknowledge the bread of the sacrament to be the body of Christ, flesh, blood and bone. This doctrine was both the king’s will, they said, written in his own work called the King’s Book, and the law, as enacted by Parliament in the Six Articles some five years past. If I did not believe in this transubstantiation, then I was a heretic, damned by the church, and condemned by the law to death at the stake.
Now it was my earnest desire that they should fully understand my opinion on this doctrine, and so I took trouble to explain it to them. Christ said unto his apostles, I reminded them, ‘Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you’. He gave them bread as a visible sign or token to receive his body, which would be crucified for them, and to understand his death to be the only health and salvation of their souls. The bread and the wine were left us for a sacramental communion, or a mutual participation of the inestimable benefits of his most precious death and blood-shedding, and that we should, in the end thereof, be thankful together for that most necessary grace of our redemption. And I referred them to the scriptures where St. Paul says, ‘The letter slayeth, the Spirit giveth life’; and to the sixth chapter of John, where all is applied unto faith; and to the fourth chapter of St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, which says that things which are seen are temporal, but they that are not seen are everlasting.
Is the consecrated bread the body of Christ? They repeated their question. ‘My belief is’, I said, ‘that the sacramental bread was left us to be received with thanksgiving, in remembrance of Christ’s death, the only remedy of our soul’s recovery; and that thereby we also receive the whole benefits and fruits of his most glorious passion’. But still they urged, is the bread in the box, God, or no? I said, ‘God is a Spirit, and will be worshipped in spirit and truth.’ Then they demanded, ‘Will you plainly deny Christ to be in the sacrament?’ I answered, that I believe faithfully the eternal Son of God not to dwell there; in witness whereof I recited again the history of Bel, Daniel xix., Acts vii. and xvii., and Matt. xxiv.
Still they persisted, becoming more and more angry, ignoring my arguments, and demanded to know, if I would deny the sacrament to be Christ’s body and blood? I said, ‘Yes, I deny it. For the Son of God, that was born of the Virgin Mary, is now glorious in heaven, and will come again from thence at the latter day, to judge both the quick and the dead. And as for that ye call your God, it is a piece of bread. Let it but lie in the box three months, and it will be mouldy, and so turn to nothing that is good. Whereupon I am persuaded that it cannot be God’.
At last they were satisfied. They had their answer. And so I was condemned.
Will you have a priest, they asked, thinking that facing death I would wish to confess. I smiled. Why do you smile, they said? Is it not good to confess? I said, I would confess my faults unto God, for I was sure that he would hear with favour. They shook their heads, and laughed me to scorn.
‘I neither wish death’ I said in conclusion, ‘nor yet fear his might. God have the praise thereof’.
Newgate Prison, 10 July 1545
After my condemnation I was sent again to Newgate for present execution at Smithfield. But first they had me to the Tower to be laid on the rack, in the hope that I would betray my fellow Protestants by informing on them. Since I was now a condemned heretic, any connection or correspondence they could discover between myself and others could be used to condemn them to the same fate. In the event they showed no interest in the common people I knew to be engaged in the Lord’s work of Reformation, and I was scarcely acquainted with any great ladies at court. Rumours had reached me that my lady Queen Catherine herself was secretly of our number, that she had the tutelage of the young prince Edward, and that once he succeeded his father he would complete the great work of Reform. But I knew no more of this than every man or woman with eyes to see, and ears to hear. God is at work in the world, and he is preparing the way for his faithful children. I am only sorry that like Moses, I will not live to see the Promised Land. So in refusing to provide them with the damning evidence they sought, and testifying to the truth of the Gospel, I was only speaking the truth, though the truth has condemned me to the fire.
After my racking I was returned to the prison, and laid in a bed, with as weary and painful bones as ever had patient Job.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaveth to my gums: and thou shalt bring me into the dust of death. (Ps. 22)
And here in great pain and anguish I have written this confession, and this prayer.
O Lord! I have more enemies now, than there be hairs on my head. With all the spite they can imagine, they fall upon me, who am thy poor creature. Yet, sweet Lord, I heartily desire of thee that thou wilt of thy most merciful goodness forgive them that violence which they do, and have done, unto me. Open also thou their blind hearts, that they may hereafter do that thing in thy sight, which is only acceptable before thee, and to set forth thy verity aright, without all vain fantasies of sinful men. So be it, O Lord, so be it!
– By me, ANNE ASKEW.
Newgate Prison, 16 July 1545
This day is the day appointed for my execution, so presently this narrative will, perhaps abruptly, cease. Be of good comfort, gentle reader: for know that once my presence has departed this page, I will be looking upon the face of God. My Lord said, on the Cross, to the penitent thief, this day you will be with me in Paradise. I too, like him, have been so tormented, that I cannot live long in such great distress. And so I yearn for death, and the release from suffering it brings. For He shall wipe away every tear from my eyes.
I have looked upon the scene of my death, and found strange comfort in the sight. Since I cannot stand or walk, I begged my friend the jailor to lift me up to the window so I could behold the place of execution. He urged me not to do so, saying it was better not to dwell on bodily things, but to think only of heaven. I assured him that it would be of comfort for me to see the shape of the future, and I should fear it less. And so he lifted me in my chair, so I could gaze down at Smithfield.
There in the centre of the market-place stood the stake, surrounded by a great pile of faggots and straw. Heaps of fuel lay nearby, ready to cast onto the flames should they be needed. Men were busy at work constructing a dais under the wall of the hospital, which provided a covered platform for the nobles, churchmen and court officials to sit and watch the spectacle of my burning. I knew that Wriothsley the Lord Chancellor would be there, and the Dukes of Norfolk and Bedford, the Lord Mayor of London, sundry bishops and priests and lawyers. All eager to see the immolation of this woman whose mouth they could not shut, this ‘fair Gospeller’ who would speak out of turn, and shame men by showing she knew more than they; whose beauty thy both desired and hated, and whose voice they could neither ignore, nor harness to their own will. Well, they have marred my fairness, and soon my voice will be stilled for ever.
Facing the stake in the marketplace was a pulpit, from which a priest will deliver a sermon before I am put to the fire. I believe it will be Dr Nicholas Shaxton, that great Judas who professed our reformed faith, and then recanted to save his skin. I told him it were better he had never been born. If I am able, I will answer his discourse, and correct his learning, a still small voice speaking out of the whirlwind of flame.
I must needs be carried to the stake in a chair, since I cannot go on my feet, by means of my great torments. They will tie me to the stake with a chain about my middle, to hold up my body. Other Protestants who have seen their friends go to the stake tell me that the common practice is to lay gunpowder about the body of the condemned, to shorten the suffering. In my case, I can tell, there will be no such relief. Those bold and honourable men, my accusers, would not sit so close to the site of an explosion. Because of my intransigence, because I would not submit to their will, say what they want me to say, tell them what they wanted to hear, they have resolved to prolong my torment, and deliver me here to a slow and agonising death.
Perhaps they will offer me a reprieve, the king’s pardon, if I will recant. But even in the face of such terror, I must say to them that I have not come here to deny my Lord and Master. The priest will finish his sermon, and commend my soul to the mercy of God. The lord mayor will command that fire be put to me, and cry with a loud voice, fiat justitia.
And so I, Anne Askew, having passed through so many torments, will there end the long course of my agonies, being compassed in with flames of fire, as a blessed sacrifice unto God. And so at last I will sleep in the Lord.
It is time. They are come. I must go. Pray for me, gentle reader. Pray for my soul.
(From Graham Holderness, Meat, Murder, Malfeasance, Medicine and Maryrdom: Smithfield Stories [EER, 2019])