Nicholas Shaxton was shaking. The July heat was sweltering in that Smithfield killing yard – London’s meat slaughtering district. The sweat swelled up inside his thick black gown. Hundreds were watching him. The whole affair was a hideous nightmare. He knew he was helpless to save the woman chained to the stake awaiting the torch. They looked at one another. They weren’t total strangers. Shaxton felt small, frail and cowardly. It was July 16, 1546.
That morning the racked and broken body of Anne Askew was carried to her execution site. A wooden saddle was affixed to the stake to hold her up. She was bound in chains. Shaxton opened his Bible. His hands shook. His notes fluttered. The crowd packed into the meat-market of Smithfield, London – a market turned execution yard – fell silent. Knowing what some of them knew about Shaxton and the accused it would be quite a show.
Anne was 25 years old, the mother of two, with the build of a teenager and thick black hair. She had become a ferociously literate Protestant. Henry VIII who had ordered her execution was dying because he was obscenely overweight. Anne was dying because she was an outspoken heretic. He wanted to rid the land of her type. Although he had broken with the Church of Rome in 1534, his churchmanship remained Catholic to the core. To prove it, he had drawn up the Statute of Six Articles in 1539. Some dubbed it Henry’s ” bloody whip with six strings.” The Six upheld some basic Catholic teachings, the most controversial was a the first – the doctrine of transubstantiation.
The Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation taught that the bread and wine changed into the actual body and blood of Christ during the Prayer of Consecration. Protestants like Anne strongly disagreed. Their theological hero was the German Reformer, Martin Luther who suggested an alternative – consubstantiation. This taught that the bread and wine stayed bread and wine, and only became the body and blood of Christ in a spiritual sense. Luther used this analogy: place an iron in the fire, and although the iron and fire are momentarily united, the two remain distinct from one another. However, to believe in transubstantiation was the litmus test of fealty as far as Henry was concerned. He was the Head of the Church of England. It was an easy way to separate loyal subjects from traitors.
Ironically Anne’s biblical literacy was fed by the women in Henry’s own court. Her father, Sir William Askew was an advisor to Henry and through him, she was introduced to the Queen, Catherine Parr and a circle of studious female companions. They read and discussed the forbidden writings of Martin Luther. They owned copies of William Tyndale’s banned English-language New Testament. Anne was like a sponge, but she wouldn’t stay with them long.
Her father married her off to a Catholic. She was 15, he was awkward and angry. The marriage was an unhappy. She refused to take his last name and left him, going to London. Her foray into the world of the religious free-thinkers was rekindled.
In London books and ideas were plentiful. Anne found scores of Protestants, kindred spirits who disregarded the law and relished Biblical arguments against Henry’s Six. Among her friends and confidantes was even a bishop – someone who would be in the killing yard the day of her execution. In London she met Joan Boucher, a preacher and smuggler who brought Bibles in from the Continent, hidden under her skirt. Joan was a role model. Unfortunately,
in 1543, Henry imposed an act prohibiting all women from reading the Bible. Anne got arrested for reading and distributing Bibles, and for preaching against the Six Articles. She was shipped back to her husband.
She ran away and returned to London. In 1545 she was arrested on the charge of heresy and was sentenced to the dread Tower of London for interrogation. She endured the abuses of a team of interrogators, the most infamous was Sir Richard Rich. They had two goals – have her recant her Protestant beliefs and get her to implicate Queen Catherine. Anne documented her imprisonment and eventual torture in her journal.
She made no effort to evade her own beliefs. As far as she was concerned, belief in transubstantiation was a joke. Yes, Jesus said he was the bread of the Eucharist but he also said he was the door to salvation. Did that mean he was present in any door that a priest chose to bless ? This was the spirit of her side of the interrogations. She was found guilty of treason and condemned to death. But Richard Rich and the Chancellor came back for a second round of questioning even more sinister.
They asked about her ‘sect’. Did it include any of the queen’s ladies? She shrugged. She said she knew nothing about the ladies they listed, or the Queen or their beliefs. Rich ordered she be racked. The constable of the Tower was disgusted. Women were never racked and she had already been condemned to die. He tried to stop them. An argument broke out. He left and went to the king to protest, leaving her in the hands of her abusers. Her cries from the rack were heard by two people strolling through the gardens outside. She refused to implicate anyone, repeatedly saying she was willing to suffer for her Lord Jesus.
Shaxton cringed as he stood in front of the pyre. Her body on the wooden stake was hideously deformed from the torture. Shared memories haunted him. He was no ordinary preacher. Like her, he had once been arraigned for heresy for also voicing opposition to the Six Articles. His co-accused was Anne, and he was the bishop who had tutored and encouraged her in London. Unlike her, Shaxton had recanted and begged for his life, and as a condition of his pardon, he had to preach to her. The situation was macabre.
Shaxton began, haltingly trying to defend transubstantiation. She interrupted him with a counter argument. He tried again. She countered. The pattern was repeated until the broken woman broke it by sating that it would have been better that he had never been born than to disgrace Christ the way he had, she said. He was powerless to respond and her death sentence was now sealed. The executioner hung a bag of gunpowder around her neck, the crowd gasped and pushed back. Shaxton ran. A torch was thrown onto the pyre and the young life of Anne Askew was over.
The night before she wrote… Like as an armed knight appointed to the field, with this world will I fight, And faith shall be my shield. … I now rejoice in heart, And hope bids me do so, that Christ will take my part and ease me of my woe. Not long after, the Church adopted her more Protestant view on the sacrament. Reformation came to the Church of England. Article 28 of the Thirty-Nine Articles (pp 709-710 in our Book of Common Prayer) said plainly that a belief in transubstantiation is “repugnant to the plain words of Scripture,” and that the Body of Christ is “taken, given, and eaten,” only in a “spiritual manner.” That position became a hall-mark of conservative sacramental theology.