A brief introduction to Askew’s life and work
Who was Anne Askew (c. 1521-46)? Askew was one of the first female poets to compose in the English language. In this very short biography of Anne Askew, we sketch out the interesting and noteworthy highlights from her life and work.
Askew (sometimes spelt Ayscough or Ascue) was born in 1520 or 1521, the daughter of William Askew, who was one of the jurors at the trial of Anne Boleyn’s co-accused. She is now chiefly remembered for ‘The Ballad Which Anne Askew Made and Sang When She Was in Newgate’, which begins:
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.
You can read the rest of ‘The Ballad Which Anne Askew Made and Sang When She Was in Newgate’ here.
Anne Askew was forced to marry her dead sister’s would-be husband. It was Anne’s father William who arranged for Anne to be married to Thomas Kyme, a man who had been going to marry Anne’s older sister, Martha, until Martha died before the marriage could take place. The problem was, Thomas Kyme was a Catholic and Anne was a Protestant reformer and so didn’t exactly go gently into the marriage. But she had to comply with her father’s wishes, and bore Kyme two children before he threw her out of the house for being Protestant. This was a dangerous time to be a Protestant in England: although the Reformation under Thomas Cromwell had led to considerable dramatic changes in the English Church – the most notable being the placing of English Bibles on church pulpits and the declaring of King Henry VIII as Head of the Church of England – being too outspoken a reformer could still land you in trouble, in jail, or still worse, at the stake.
The name Anne Askew should be better known, not least because Askew was reportedly the first Englishwoman to demand a divorce. Because she objected to her marriage to the Catholic Kyme, it is believed that Askew sought a divorce from her husband, though eventually, it was he who threw her out for her Protestant beliefs.
The other notable ‘first’ in the biography of Anne Askew is not particularly pleasant, for Askew was also the only woman to have been both tortured in the Tower of London and burnt at the stake. (The only woman known to have undergone both these punishments, at any rate.) Torturers were often reluctant to rack a woman, though it is believed that Askew was subjected to that ordeal shortly before she was publicly burnt.
We should celebrate the name and the life of Anne Askew, an early female English poet and a woman who clearly fought for her beliefs. And ‘The Ballad Which Anne Askew Made and Sang When She Was in Newgate’ provides, along with Thomas Wyatt’s poetry, a valuable window on a bloody and momentous era in English history.
Image: Woodcut of the burning of Anne Askew at Smithfield in 1546, Wikimedia Commons.