I love church history. One of the reasons I love it is because we see God working through so many kinds of people to achieve his purposes.

In 1538 Henry VIII ordered an English Bible to be in each parish church in England.

In 1538 Henry VIII ordered an English Bible to be in each parish church in England. The obvious influencers responsible were Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer. But some suggest that the King also agreed to this because of his second wife, Anne Boleyn (whom he had executed in 1536). Even before their marriage, Anne had suggested that there should be an English Bible in every church.[1]

Regardless, King’s directive was an incredible turn of events, given William Tyndale had been strangled and burned only two years earlier for his work on a vernacular Bible. English Bibles in churches meant that more people would be able to understand God’s word as it was read. It also meant literate people would be able to read the parish Bible privately between Sundays. Concern about where that might lead, prompted Parliament to pass The Act for the Advancement of True Religion 1543, limiting who could read the Bible.

Anne Askew

But one young woman who was able to read the Bible was Anne Askew (born, 1521). Married off to Thomas Kyme by her gentleman father (for financial reasons), Anne had two children and a miserable life.[2]

Yet she found comfort in the Bible. Already a reader of Scripture before her marriage, Anne’s devotion continued afterwards—even to the point of choosing to absent herself from confession.

If she didn’t stop reading the Bible, he would banish her from their home.

Thomas was scandalised. Under priestly advice, he told his wife that if she didn’t stop reading the Bible and go back to confession, he would banish her from their home.

Believing herself thus to be free from their marriage, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:15-16, Anne applied for divorce. The appeal seems to have failed, but she reverted to her maiden name for herself and her children and eventually headed to London.

Her in-laws, however, accused her of leaving Lincoln because she feared her heresies would come to light. So, she returned and, for a time, sat in the cathedral reading the Bible. She was not arrested for any heresies and so went back to London.

Yet the Kymes continued to spread the word that Anne was a dangerous heretic.[3] With her connections to the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting—and likely with Catherine Parr herself—Anne was on the radar of those hostile to the Protestant cause.

Thus, it was not long before Anne was summoned before the inquisitors. They asked her views about transubstantiation, God’s presence, and the sufficiency of Christ’s death for sin. She was imprisoned for eleven or twelve days, while several priests and the bishop of London were sent to examine her. Anne answered their questions according to Scripture, and she was eventually released.[4]

Political Pawn

But a year later, she was under scrutiny once again. Traditionalists concerned about the Queen’s Protestantism turned to Anne, hoping she would say something that would provide them with ammunition. She faced a second examination and was once again imprisoned.

She did not oblige.[5] She also refused to recant despite Bishop Gardiner’s threat to burn her. Frustrated at failing to secure any evidence against the Queen and her ladies, her interrogators then decided to try Anne on the rack, even though it was illegal to torture a woman. When, finally, the torturer refused to proceed, the Lord Chancellor and Sir Richard Rich continued on their own. Still, she gave them no names.

Her interrogators then decided to try Anne on the rack, even though it was illegal to torture a woman.

Anne’s injuries from her ordeal were so severe, that even several weeks later, she could not walk to her execution and needed to be carried on a chair. The revelation of her torture shocked England.


There are many tragic betrayals in Anne’s story, but one of the saddest is Nicholas Shaxton. He had worked with Thomas Cromwell, Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer for religious reform, including the introduction of English Bibles. He had been a chaplain to Anne Boleyn. In 1539, along with Latimer, he had spoken in the House of Lords against The Six Articles, due to its forbidding of clerical marriage and its promotion of transubstantiation and purgatory. As a result, he and Latimer both resigned their bishoprics. In 1546 he was arrested for preaching against The Six Articles, found guilty, and condemned to be burnt. However, Shaxton recanted.

To make sure his recantation was genuine, Gardiner got him to speak to Anne:

Then came there to me Nicholas Shaxton, and counselled me to recant as he had done. I said to him that it had been good for him never to have been born, with many other like words.[6]

Finally he preached against her at her execution.

Anne was burned at the stake at Smithfield aged twenty-five, on 16 July 1546. She was executed with John Lascelles, her former tutor (who had played a key role in the demise of Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard), Nicholas Belenian and John Adams. Even at the final stage of her life, she was offered the King’s pardon if she recanted, but once again she refused, testifying to her ultimate King, “I came not hither to deny my Lord and Master.”[7]


By not naming anyone, some have suggested that Anne saved the life of the Queen, an influential woman for the Reformation cause in England. Six months after Anne’s death, Henry VIII died and Catherine Parr took nine-year-old Lady Jane Grey under her wing.[8] Eight years later, after reigning as Queen for only nine days, Jane too would be executed for her Protestant beliefs. But like Anne and Catherine, her Christian writings live on.

In 1571 under Queen Elizabeth I, there was an order for John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to be chained alongside the Bible in cathedrals and some churches and halls. Anne’s own testimony of her faith and trials was included. As Foxe said of her:

She being born of such stock and kindred that she might have lived in great wealth and prosperity, if she would rather have followed the world than Christ …[9]

[1] S.L. Greenslade (ed.)., The Cambridge History Of The Bible, (London: Cambridge University Press) 1963, 149.

[2] Anne Askew’s great-granddaughter was Margaret Fell one of the founders of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakerism). See Maria Webb, The Fells Of Swarthmoor Hall And Their Friends, With An Account Of Their Ancestor Anne Askew, The Martyr (London: Aldred W. Bennett) 1865.

[3] Webb, Fells Of Swarthmoor Hall, 9.

[4] Webb, Fells Of Swarthmoor Hall, 11.

[5] Derek Wilson, The Queen And The Heretic: How Two Women Changed The Religion Of England (Oxford: Lion Hudson) 2018, 155-157.

[6] Cited in Webb, Fells Of Swarthmoor Hall, 19.

[7] Cited in Webb, Fells Of Swarthmoor Hall, 25.

[8] Paul F. M. Zahl, Five Women Of The Reformation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) 2001, 28.

[9] Cited in Webb, Fells Of Swarthmoor Hall, 24.