Anne Askew (also spelled Anne Ayscough) (1521 - 16 July 1546) was an English poet and Protestant who was persecuted as a heretic. She is the only woman on record to have been tortured in the Tower of London before being burnt at the stake.


Born at Stallingborough into a notable family of Lincolnshire, she was forced by her father, Sir William Askew (1490-1541), to marry Thomas Kyme when she was fifteen, as a substitute for her sister Martha who had recently died. Anne rebelled against her husband by refusing to adopt his surname. It is also speculated that Anne had two children, their sex and names being unknown. The Dictionary of National Biography says no more than that she left her children to go "gospelling". Her marriage did not go well, not least because of her strong Protestant beliefs. When she returned from London, where she had gone to preach against the doctrine of transubstantiation, her husband turned her out of the house. She then went again to London to ask for a divorce, justifying it from scripture (1 Corinthians, 7.15), on the grounds that her husband was not a believer.

Eventually, Anne left her husband and went to London where she gave sermons and distributed Protestant books. These books had been banned and so she was arrested. Her husband was sent for and ordered to take her home to Lincolnshire. Anne soon escaped and it was not long before she was back preaching in London.

Anne was arrested again. This time, Sir Anthony Kingston, the Constable of the Tower of London, was ordered to torture Anne in an attempt to force her to name other Protestants, and so Anne was put on the rack. Kingston refused to carry on torturing her, left the Tower, and sought a meeting with the King at his earliest convenience to explain his position and also to seek his pardon. Henry VIII pardoned Kingston but did not put an end to the torture. It was now left to Thomas Wriothesley and Richard Rich to take over.

According to Anne's own account--and also that of gaolers within the Tower--she was tortured only once. It was usual to take a prisoner to see someone being put to the question before their turn came, and that often resulted in an immediate confession. In Anne's case, however, it was not thought decent for her to see a man naked on the rack, so her first visit to the chamber involved the actual application of the torture. She was taken from her cell, at about ten o'clock in the morning, to the lower room of the White Tower to where the torture chamber was situated. Then, she was shown the rack and asked if she would name those who believed as she did. Although she never said so, she might have realised that the intention of her interrogators was to implicate Catherine Parr, the Queen Consort through the latter's ladies-in-waiting and close friends, who were suspected of having also harboured Protestant beliefs. These ladies included the Queen's sister, Anne Parr, Katherine Willoughby, Anne Stanhope, and Anne Calthorpe. Anne declined to name anyone at all, so she was asked to remove all her clothing except her shift, which she did. Anne then climbed onto the rack and lay quite still as she was spreadeagled and her wrists and ankles fastened. Again, she was asked for names, but she would say nothing. The wheel of the rack was turned, pulling Anne along the device and lifting her so that she was held taut about 5 inches above its bed and slowly stretched. In her own account written from prison, Anne said that she fainted with the pain. It was then that she was lowered and revived. This procedure was repeated twice more before the Lieutenant of the Tower stopped it and went to complain to the king.

Wriothesley and Rich were unable to persuade the professional torturers to carry on, so they set to work themselves. The rack was worked by a wheel at the head, and, in the first stage, that was turned and held taut by hand. For more reluctant prisoners, a ratchet could be applied, which stopped the rack from going slack between turns. Wriothesley and Rich put the ratchet on, and went to work stretching Anne. Apart from the pain of stretching muscles and cracking joints, the rack constricted the wrists and ankles, causing blood to flow from the finger nails. Anne's cries could be heard in the garden next to the White Tower where the Lieutenant's wife and daughter were walking. So piteous were the cries that they turned indoors and shut the windows. Anne gave no names, and her ordeal was finally ended when the Lieutenant ordered her to be returned to her cell.

She wrote a first-person account of her ordeal and her beliefs, which was published as the Examinations by John Bale, and later in John Foxe's Acts and Monuments of 1563 which proclaims her as a Protestant martyr. Several ballads were written about her in the 17th century. She was burnt at Smithfield, London aged 25, on 16 July 1546. As Fuller described it, "she went to heaven in a chariot of fire."

Anne Askew was carried to execution in a chair as she could not walk after her torture. She was dragged from the chair to the stake which had a small seat attached to it, which she sat astride. Those who witnessed her execution (including Lady Jane Grey) were impressed by her bravery, and many witnesses reported that throughout the long execution she did not scream until the flames reached her chest whereas the 3 men burned with her cried out from the first touch of the fire.

There was a resurgence of interest in her story during Victorian times, and the Bleets company produced an Anne Askew doll complete with rack and stake. One is on show at the Leeds Toy Museum.


  • Elaine V. Beilin, ed., The Examinations of Anne Askew (Oxford, 1996) ISBN 0-19-510849-3
  • "Prisoners Tortured in the Tower of London". Accessed 29 June 2005
  • "The Queen's Friend," written by Douglas M. Jones (Canon Press, Moscow, ID., 2007)
  • The History of the Worthies of England By Thomas Fuller, P. Austin Nuttall (Published by T. Tegg, 1840)
  • Diane Watt, 'Secretaries of God,' (Cambridge, 1997).

External links

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