Anne Askew was burnt at the stake along with John Lascelles (a lawyer and Gentleman of the King’s Privy Chamber), John Hadlam (a tailor from Essex) and John Hemsley (a former Franciscan friar), on 16 July 1546. A great stage was built at Smithfield for the convenience of Chancellor Wriothesley, other members of the Privy Council and City dignitaries, to watch the burning in comfort. Anne herself, having been broken on the rack, was unable to stand, and was chained to the stake in a sitting position. John Louth, the Archdeacon of Nottingham, who witnessed the execution, described Anne as smiling throughout her torment and looking like an angel, and insisted that, at the moment of her death, there was ‘a pleasant cracking from heaven’. Whether that was the sound of the flames, or summer lightning, or merely a figment of the imagination, cannot now be determined; nor can we know how, or if, the witnesses could actually have identified the precise moment of death.
So what was the terrible crime that Anne was deemed to have committed and that led her to this appalling end? Why was being a ‘Protestant’ or ‘reformer’ considered so heinous, and what was this ‘heresy’ with which she was charged?
A word deriving from the Greek, ‘heresy’ originally meant merely ‘choice’, but by the Middle Ages it had come to mean ‘wrong choice’, especially in matters of religion. In Europe, and particularly Spain, the ‘Inquisition’ had been set up to identify heretics, with the aim of their contaminating heresy being cut out of society, like a cancer. Heretics were given one chance to ‘abjure’ or ‘recant’ – effectively, to make a public confession that they had been wrong, to accept some kind of ‘shaming’ penance (such as standing in front of a church congregation wearing a white sheet or being paraded through the streets on a cart), and to agree to follow ‘orthodox’ belief (‘orthodoxy’ meaning both ‘right doctrine’ and ‘right worship’) from now on. If a heretic, having recanted, fell back into his or her old ways, there was to be no second chance. They were to be handed over by the Church to the civic authorities for punishment – which meant death by burning.
But the nature of what constituted heresy kept changing, particularly in England during the tumultuous years of the mid-sixteenth century. There were several types of possible heretical belief under the respective reigns of the three monarchs which constitute the burning time (the period which saw the greatest number of burnings for heresy) in Tudor England – Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I. Some were based entirely upon interpretations of religious doctrine; some hinged on changes in society and questions of authority and were linked to the increased availability of the printed word; others were dictated by the whim of the individual monarch …
Read more in The Burning Time