Poet Claire Askew has composed three powerful new works to her probable 16th century ancestor.

Claire on Anne

Anne Askew (b. 1521) was an English poet and Biblical scholar, and — I’d argue — an early campaigner for women’s rights.  Anne’s sister, Martha, was betrothed to a landowner named Thomas Kyme, but Martha died before the marriage could take place.  As a result, Anne was pushed into a forced marriage with Kyme when she was only fifteen years old.

In protest, she continued to use her maiden name, and she also demanded a divorce — indeed, she was the first English woman ever to do so.  Eventually, Kyme turned her out of his house because of her commitment to Protestantism — and when she moved to London and began to meet and work with other Protestant scholars, he had her arrested.

After a year of being hounded by Kyme — and repeatedly arrested and released — Anne was imprisoned in the Tower of London.  There, she was cross-examined and tortured by traditionalist noblemen, in the hope that she would give up the names of other practising Protestants.  In particular, they hoped that she would name the Queen — Catherine Parr — and a number of other prominent noblewomen, who were suspected of practising Protestantism.

Anne was the first and only woman ever to be tortured in the Tower of London.  Though she was placed on the rack numerous times, she refused to give up any information.  Already perceived as a dangerous woman — with ideas that, for the time, were extremely radical — her amazing resilience under torture must have rattled her captors.  As a result, she was publicly executed by burning at the stake.

She was 26 years old.

It is believed that Anne Askew gave birth to two children while she was married to Thomas Kyme.  There is some question as to exactly who those children were, which means it’s hard for my family to trace a direct ancestral link to her.  However, we believe she is our ancestor.

I am both horrified at what Anne suffered, and intensely proud of her: for her defiance in the face of an abusive, forced marriage, and for her refusal to give up the names of fellow women, who she knew would likely also be executed if she talked.

Catherine Parr is famously the only one of Henry VIII’s wives who outlived him, and that might just be thanks to Anne’s incredible bravery.



Men of the rack
to David Harsent

Their craft was simple.
They expected it to work
as it always had: ripple
the surface of flesh,
bring the spirit down
like a bird in haar. Every voice
could be drawn out bloody,
won from the day’s wait
like a caught fish.

They were experts in men.
That desperation to live
they believed was in everyone.

But the light thinned.
Their ropes cast a rod
on the stone floor.
Her white clothes pooled
where she’d come up shining
into the net and they said
it would be effortless,
the work of an hour.

The idea that she took off her gown
for them. The idea
there was anything they could
have done – any tool
that would have opened her
beyond those bones merely
hooked from their cups.

Stepping out of that dress was
not surrender, was not
a hand extended
to her executioner –
and what striptease ends
with the pole pitched and lit?

She escaped it, the dress. Just
as her legs escaped from her hips.
With broken wrists, she pulled
the pins from her hair.

We all leave their world with nothing
but a tight old bundle of pain, and
in our mouths,
the untold names of women.



How To Burn A Woman

You will not need kindling.
I think I’ll go up quick
as summer timber, my anger
big and dry as a plantation
that dreams of being paper:
the updraft already made
in the canopy, and heading down.

Bring your axe to split me
into parts that you can stack
over the dry leaves, over the coals:
my old coat and my bedding box,
the things given to me by women.

You’ve heard of spontaneous human
combustion. They say it’s fat:
once lit, it flares so white-hot fast
the bones give in.
Make your touch-paper long.

Spread the word that the crowd
who will gather should stand
well back. I am coated
in the accelerant of men:
my craving for their good necks,
their bodies in button-downs
crisp as a new book.

As you douse the embers
I will smell like ground elder
choking the cemetery –
roots looping up
out of dead women’s mouths,
a problem thing
you’ll never get cleared.

Make the stake thick,
and the bonds on my innocent wrists.
Burn me the same way
you burned her: do it
because we took the plain
thoughts from our own heads
into the square, and spoke.



Two deaths

You lived for a month in the White Tower,
saying nothing in the cross-examination,
saying nothing as the men came in,
went out, as they swung the various instruments
of their work, whistled in the passageways.

It was June, and in the garden by the Tower
where the ladies walked, the honeysuckle
pushed its ragged blooms out of the wall like hands.

They showed you the rack: told you how
they’d pop your hips and shoulders from the sockets,
dislocate your elbows and knees.
You didn’t speak, but climbed the device’s side,
lay your ankles in the straps.

A man once told me, every human being
gets two deaths: the second one’s the last time
someone living says or writes your name.

Anne. It’s been five hundred and seventy years
since they lifted you down: your secrets
still wound in the cord of your throat,
the women whose locations you withheld
awake and listening from their beds.

I am weak, but Anne, I will keep
committing your name as if it’s a crime,
so the distant children’s children of those men
(whose second deaths came long ago)
will know you when you’re spoken of.

They’ll know that you were twenty-six,
that you were told you would be burned.
They’ll know that as you waited in your cell,
and though it punished every nerve,
you took up your pen. You wrote it all.


Claire Askew’s poetry has appeared in The Guardian, The Edinburgh Review, New Writing Scotland, The Dark Horse and PANK, among others. Her work has been thrice selected for the Scottish Poetry Library’s Best Scottish Poems (2008, 2009, 2014), and widely anthologised elsewhere. She is the author of The Mermaid and the Sailors (Red Squirrel, 2011), and This changes things (Bloodaxe, 2016). Poems from these volumes have been recognised by the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award (2014), the Mslexia Women’s Poetry Prize (2014, 2015), the Charles Causley Poetry Prize (2014) and the International Salt Prize for Poetry (2012), among others.

Text and poetry by Claire Askew, copyright 2016.

Image by Nick Askew, copyright 2016.