Long, indeed, is the list that might be given of those who suffered for the truth in the fires of Smithfield, England. Perhaps the most interesting victim was the celebrated Anne Askew. She had been singled out by the crafty and ambitious enemies of Queen Katharine Parr and the godly ladies of her court, to be the instrument through whom they might find an accusation against the queen for holding the faith and the principles of the Reformation. Anne Askew was the youngest daughter of Sir William Askew, of Kolsey, in Lincolnshire. Her eldest sister had been engaged to marry a gentleman of the name of Kyme, a harsh and bigoted papist; but the sister died, and she was compelled by her father to take her sister’s place, and become the wife of Mr. Kyme. It had turned out a most unhappy marriage for poor Anne Askew. Her education had been superior to that usually given to her sex, and she was a woman of enlightened mind, unlike in character and disposition to her morose and narrow-minded husband. She seems to have been a child of God from her earliest years, and to have searched and prized the Holy Scriptures, which had made her wise unto salvation. Her love of truth, as it is found in its purity and freshness in the word of inspiration, had given great displeasure to her husband, and she was cruelly driven from her home. Being compelled to come up to London to sue for a divorce, the persecution of her husband and the popish priests followed her, and she fell into the toils which they had laid for her.
Two objects were plainly manifest in all the examinations which she underwent: The first was to make her incriminate herself, the second to lead her to incriminate the queen and those of her ladies who were suspected of holding “the new learning,” as the eternal truths of the gospel were termed by the papists.
We read that she was examined and questioned concerning her opinions by Christopher Dare, and Sir Martin Bowes, the then lord mayor, and their brother commissioners. With inimitable simplicity did she reply in the conversation which is recorded to have taken place between the lord mayor and herself.
But we pass over these examinations, in which the patience of those adversaries, who could not overcome her patience, was at length exhausted. These bold and crafty men were determined to spare neither threat nor violence, by which they might extort from her some word or other as a ground of accusation against the Lady Herbert, who was the queen’s sister, or the Duchess of Suffolk, and so at last Queen Katharine herself. As yet they discovered nothing.
Rich, and another of the counsel, came to her in the Tower, where she was then confined, and demanded that she should make the disclosures which they required concerning her party and her friends. She told them nothing. “Then they did put me in the rack,’’ she relates, “because I confessed no ladies or gentlemen to be of my opinion; and thereon they kept me a long time, and because I lay still and did not cry, my lord chancellor and Mr. Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands till I was nigh dead.” These two wretches, it is recorded, provoked by her saint-like endurance, ordered the lieutenant of the Tower to rack her again. He, Sir Anthony Knovitt, “tendering the weakness of the woman,” positively refused to do so. Then Wriothesly and Rich threw off their gowns, and, threatening the lieutenant that they would complain of his disobedience to the king, “they worked the rack themselves, till her bones and joints were almost plucked asunder.” When the lieutenant caused her to be loosed down from the rack, she immediately swooned. “Then,” she writes, “they recovered me again.” After that, “I sat two long hours reasoning with my lord chancellor on the bare floor, where he with many flattering words persuaded me to leave my opinion; but my Lord God, I thank His everlasting goodness, gave me grace to persevere, and will do, I hope, to the very end.” And she concludes this account to her friend by saying, “Farewell, dear friend, and pray, pray, pray.”
She gives her confession of faith, and concludes it with this beautiful prayer: “O Lord! I have more enemies now than there be hairs on my head, yet, Lord, let them never overcome me with vain words, but fight Thou, Lord, in my stead; for on Thee cast I my care! With all the spite they can imagine, they fall upon me, who am Thy poor creature. Yet, sweet Lord, let me not set by them that are against me; for in Thee is my whole delight. And, 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.”
Unable to walk or stand, from the tortures she had suffered, poor Anne Askew was carried in a chair to Smithfield, and, when brought to the stake, was fastened to it by a chain which held up her body; and one who beheld her there describes her as “having an angel’s countenance, and a smiling face.”
At the very last, a written pardon from the king was offered to Anne Askew, upon condition that she would recant. The fearless lady turned away her eyes, and would not look upon it. She told them that she came not thither to deny her Lord and Master. The fire was ordered to be put under her, “and thus,” to use the words of John Foxe, “the good Anne Askew, with these blessed martyrs, having passed through so many torments, having now ended the long course of her agonies, being compassed in with flames of fire, as a blessed sacrifice unto God, she slept in the Lord, A.D. 1546, leaving behind her a singular example of Christian constancy for all men to follow.” Her crime was the denial of the mass. “Lo, this,” she wrote, “is the heresy that I hold, and for it must suffer death.” She kept the faith to her God; she kept the faith to her friends, for she betrayed no one, enduring shame and agony with meek, unshaken constancy. None but Christ, none but Christ could have made the weakness of a delicate woman so strong, the feebleness of a mortal creature so triumphant!
And thus the square of Smithfield, which was made, in the reign of Henry the first, “a lay stall of all ordure or filth.” The place of execution for felons and other transgressors has become not only drenched with the blood of martyrs, but hallowed by the faith and patience of the saints, by the witness of their good confessions, and by the breath of their dying prayers and praises.
But why bring those horrible details forward? Because, if ever there was a time when it was right to show the real character of popery, it is now. The principles of popery are beginning to spring up throughout the length and breadth of the land, openly in some parts, covertly in others; and men whose Bibles might have taught them other things, are beginning to be enamored with the delusions and ensnaring allurements of a system which can appear to be anything or everything, in order to suit all times and all circumstances; a system which, in the doctrine of tradition, opens the door to the most unbridled license, and finds a cloak for every enormity. We are told that those deadly superstitions, those savage persecutions, those inhuman tortures, were rather the fruit of those dark ages than peculiar to popery. I cannot agree to this. Popery contains in itself the germ of all the deadly errors and dreadful practices which have ever been inseparable from bigotry and superstition. Memorials of the English Martyrs.
The Signs of the Times, August 14, 1884.