Translating (Anne) Askew: The Textual Remains of a Sixteenth-Century Heretic and Saint [*]

Article excerpt

This essay explores how contemporary depictions of Anne Askew's examination and execution serve at textual sites of contested power between the Henrician conservatives and Protestant reformists who vied for control of English religion and politics during the mid-sixteenth century. Both the Anglo-Catholics who prosecute Askew as a heretic and the Protestants who vindicate her as a saint attempt to shape and exploit her identity as a woman who has been tortured and burned at the stake. Amid the inquisitional voice of the state officials and the reformist discourse of the Protestant hagiographers, Askew's own text provides yet a third version.

On 24 May 1546, Henry VIII's Privy Council sent two yeomen of the Chamber with "letters to oone [Thomas] Kyme and his wief for their apparance within x [i.e., ten] dayes after receipt." [1] Had the matter been settled simply when they appeared, we might have known little more about the identity of the nameless wife of Thomas Kyme. But this "wief" was already well known to the authorities -- it was at least her third encounter with the law, including a two-week long imprisonment during which time she was interrogated about her religious beliefs. [2] Because of her continuing confrontations with conservative ecclesiastic and state authorities connected with the late Henrician court, a particular and contradictory aspect of her identity survives in the various documents relating to her trials and execution by fire on 16 July 1546 at the age of twenty-five. [3] The picture that emerges in some materials produced by the Anglo-Catholics is that of a recalcitrant heretic who denied the central tenets of the establi shed faith, most especially the doctrine of transubstantiation. In texts and images created by reformist hagiographers, she appears as a Protestant martyr and saint. In keeping with the Protestant condemnation of relics, they do not focus devotion on Askew's body as a relic. Rather, in their translation of the woman into sainthood, they replace her bodily remains with textual ones, endowing her identity with more mundane qualities than those typically attributed to medieval saints, but nevertheless claiming for her story the miraculous ability to expose the wickedness of the enemies of reform and to convert the hearer to the right faith.

This essay looks at contemporary descriptions of Anne Askew's examination and execution as textual sites of contested power between the opposing religious factions that divided the court during the last years of Henry VIII's reign. [4] These several textual versions of Askew's ordeal provide an important locus in which both conservative and reformist factions shaped Askew's identity as they vied for control over English religion and politics during the years encompassing the end of Henry VIII's reign and the beginning of Edward VI's. On the one side are the more dominant conservatives who, although supportive of Henry's break with Rome, still maintain very Catholic-like doctrine. [5] On the other side are the slightly less powerful but religiously more radical Protestants. [6] In between the inquisitional voice of the state officials and the reformist discourse of the Protestant hagiographers, Askew's own account of the confrontation emerges to provide yet a third version. In the record of her experience -- the only relic of herself that will survive -- Askew negotiates the significant power of rumor and report. Askew's Examinations poignantly records her aggressive efforts to stave off interrogation, to demonstrate the error of her inferior inquisitors, and, above all, to make clear to her readers her own meaning and not that which her accusers would attribute to her. Although Askew works to promote an image of herself as faithful to Christ's teachings, it becomes imperative for her accusers to identify her as recalcitrant and obstinate in her heresy. The main point of contention between Askew and her interrogators centers on her sectarian beliefs (especially her denial of the doctrine of transubstantiation), and the authorities draft numerous statements of orthodox faith which she refuses to sign or insists on revising. …