The Queen and the Heretic

Two truly remarkable women

Chapter 4 : The Fair Gospeller

The English Bible was unpadlocked. Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s reformist chief minister, after a long campaign, persuaded the king that the best way to stop religious strife was to produce an officially approved vernacular version of the word of God and make it available to everyone who could read. The Great Bible (much of it based on Tyndale’s earlier work) was, by royal decree, set up in every parish church. Imagine the rejoicing felt by Anne and thousands like her. No longer did they have to pore over the sacred text in secret like guilty subversives. They could go into the local church, take up the Bible and read it openly for themselves. And for others. It seems that this was when Anne Askew earned her nickname of 'the Fair Gospeller' by reading aloud the sacred text to servants and neighbours. This opened a rift between husband and wife. Local clergy ordered Kyme to stop his wife’s ‘scandalous’ behaviour. He tried. She refused. To her the issue was clear: she could either obey God or Thomas Kyme. To someone of Anne’s temperament and religious conviction the choice was obvious. Whether she deserted home, husband and children or whether Thomas threw her out is neither clear nor relevant. Anne returned to South Kelsey and her brother’s protection (Sir William, in the meantime, having died). Then, sometime in 1543 or 1544, she moved to London, where she had, as well as two brothers, other relatives and friends who shared her faith.

Life for Catherine had been even more spectacular in these years. All began quietly enough. She spent most of her time at Stowe, her husband’s manor near Northampton, while he was largely active on royal business at court and in the North. Her siblings were enjoying life in the royal household where she could, and did, visit them but she preferred the quiet of her Midlands domain. For religious rivalry at the centre was turning exceedingly nasty. Cromwell tried to follow up his Great Bible triumph by fixing a royal marriage with the German Protestant Anne of Cleves. When that went pear shaped the Catholic faction, led by the Duke of Norfolk, pulled down Thomas Cromwell and popped Norfolk’s niece, Catherine Howard, into Henry’s bed. Some of the evangelicals at court (now becoming quite numerous) gathered information about the new queen’s infidelities and she ended up on the block. Catholic-inspired reprisals were not slow in coming. This time it was Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was their target but an elaborate plot to tar him with the brush of heresy failed. In the midst of all this poisonous intrigue Catherine Latimer became a widow for the second time. Still only thirty years of age, she hoped, now, to be able to marry for love and had come to an understanding with the dashing Thomas Seymour. Unfortunately, King Henry had marked her down for his sixth wife.

As we approach the dramatic climax of this story there is a vital fact we have to accommodate – a fact which, when pointed out, is obvious, but which often gets missed. Catherine stated it in The Lamentation of a Sinner, the spiritual autobiography she published in 1547:

… neither, life, honour, riches, neither whatsoever I possess here, which appertaineth unto my own private commodity, be it never so dearly beloved of me,  but most willingly and gladly I would leave it, to win any man to Christ, of what degree or sort soever he were.

If the word ‘evangelist’ means anything at all, Queen Catherine Parr was an evangelist. Anne Askew, as we know was prone to ‘gospelling’. Both ladies in their own way and in their own circumstances sought to spread their faith. In London Anne continued the activities that had stirred up trouble for her in Lincolnshire. Catherine held Bible studies in her private apartments and welcomed progressive preachers there. She even took whatever opportunities she could to commend her understanding and experience of the faith to her husband.

And this is what angered and frightened their enemies. To everyone at court it was obvious that the monstrously overweight and pain-wracked Henry VIII could not live much longer, that he would be succeeded by the underage Prince Edward and that those who had the management of affairs in the new reign would be in a position to settle, once and for all, the official religion of England. Norfolk and the other Catholic members of the royal Council knew that they had to act – decisively and quickly. They arrested Anne and subjected her to a series of interrogations. Finally they took her to the Tower and subjected her to a form of torture so outrageous that the Lieutenant of the Tower would have nothing to do with it. Their objectives were twofold. First they had to establish that she was a heretic. That was not difficult. Anne steadfastly refused to recant her beliefs. The second was to establish that the prisoner had close connections with the queen and others in her circle. And in that they failed; Anne refused to name any ‘of her sect’. Catherine ‘survived’, as the well known rhyme states, but so did other ‘Protestants’ at the centre of national affairs. In the religious see-saw of the last vital months of the reign it was they who were ‘up’ and the reactionaries who were ‘down’. The stage was set for the ‘Edwardine Reformation’.

But the contribution of Catherine and Anne to shaping England’s religious identity did not end there. They left behind them first-hand written accounts of their beliefs and their experiences. In this they were unique. Never before had English women had religious works published under their own name. Without Catherine’s devotional works and Anne’s accounts of her trials we would be left to speculate about their contributions to the Reformation story. Their motivation would be open to argument by revisionists and anti-revisionists. But, in the case of these two amazing ladies, and, whether or not we sympathise with them, we know what they believed.