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Monarchs and Martyrs

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Lyd Havens

Lyd Havens is a senior Creative Writing major originally from Tucson, Arizona. Their poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal, among others. They also recently had an essay published by ENTROPY. Their poetry chapbook about grief, Chokecherry, will be published by Game Over Books in May 2021. Lyd will graduate from Boise State in December 2021, and hopes to pursue an MFA after that. Besides writing, Lyd is also passionate about history, reading, fiber arts, and the reality show Survivor.

Monarchs and Martyrs

England’s sixteenth century is remembered as one of the most eventful in the country’s history. One such event was England’s break from the Catholic Church, leading to the birth of the Church of England and the persecution of both Catholics and Protestants at one point or another. England also saw the rise of multiple female monarchs and religious mystics at this time, and inevitably, this led to the rise of misogynistic perceptions about powerful, outspoken women. Right before the death of the Catholic Mary I and the succession of Protestant Elizabeth I in 1558, the Calvinist exile John Knox wrote that “[t]o promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion or empire above any realm, nation or city is repugnant to nature, contumely to God.”[1] A woman who held any sort of power, no matter how small, was seen as unnatural and an abomination—and history shows just how many of them were killed for it. England’s history of capital punishment spans centuries, and some of its most notorious executions involved women. Whether they were of noble birth or low-class standing, killed for heresy or treason, later granted clemency or still seen as guilty, four women in particular—Anne Boleyn, Anne Askew, Mary Stuart, and Margaret Clitherow—show just how far hatred and prejudices were steeped through England’s Kingdom and judicial system through their brutal deaths.

Anne Boleyn’s execution in 1536 took place in the midst of Europe’s religious Reformation, which found a particularly unique stronghold in England. Though King Henry VIII’s version of the Reformation, which eventually manifested into the Church of England, is now remembered as an “idiosyncratic hybrid” of Catholicism and Protestantism,[2] the most well-known reason for the country’s break from the papacy is Henry’s desire to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, who was first the wife of the King’s older brother, Arthur, and Pope Clement VII’s refusal to grant that annulment. The eventual departure from the Catholic Church, and Henry’s divorce from Katherine, led to the King becoming the head of the Church of England (according to Henry, “popes had no authority over kings”[3]), and to his marriage to Anne Boleyn, a Lady from a family of growing noble importance.[4] When exactly Henry’s relationship with Boleyn began is unknown, but it was most likely in the late 1520s, before the two were married—most likely in secret—in late 1532 or early 1533. Soon after, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmner declared Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon null and void.[5]

Though issues such as Anne’s inability to give the King an heir and feuds with men such as Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys and Thomas Cromwell gradually contributed to it, her fall from grace was “short, but incandescent.”[6] The arrests, trials and executions of Anne Boleyn and the five men accused of sleeping and conspiring to kill the king with her—including her own brother—all occurred within less than three weeks. As there were multiple charges of adultery, incest and treason brought against these six people, multiple causes for the beginning of these rapid sequences of events have been brought forward over the last five centuries. Boleyn’s miscarriage of what everyone hoped would be a baby boy in January of 1536, as well as Henry’s budding infatuation with Jane Seymour, are mentioned throughout historical accounts of the last five months of Anne’s life.[7] Historians such as A.F. Pollard have also argued that “Henry’s old conscience began to work again” and he believed he had been “bewitched” into loving Anne, but it is clear that whether any of this is true, there were far simpler ways of “disposing” of Boleyn that did not involve such brutal deaths.[8]  Finally, though the true source of the first rumor of Boleyn’s adultery is not certain, a story about Elizabeth Browne, the Lady of Worcester, lashing out during an argument with her brother about her own “immoral behaviour [with men]” to tell him that she was “not the worst offender by any means, and [he] should look to the queen herself”[9] is also prominent throughout historical records—thus feeding the frenzy of hatred against her even further. Whatever the original cause of these pursuits was, the end result is always the same: Anne Boleyn was found guilty on all charges, her marriage to the King was annulled, and her death sentence was carried out on the morning of May 19, 1536 on the grounds of the Tower of London.

She was beheaded by a French swordsman rather than with the traditional axe, per her own request, and she was the first English queen to be publicly executed. At the scaffold, she gave a final speech: “Good Christian people! I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law, I am judged to death, and therefore I will speak nothing against it.”[10] Despite choosing not to speak against the King and his verdict, she firmly maintained her innocence before her execution, swearing it twice on the sacrament. In the end, she chose to die “boldly, not charitably.”[11]

As is the case with most historical women, Anne Boleyn is remembered in multiple ways, depending on the biases of whoever is writing it. No matter the perceptions of her, however, the general consensus among most historians is that the trials that lead to her death were “a hurried travesty,”[12] and the evidence supporting the six guilty verdicts is slim to none.  To a researcher in the twenty-first century, the misogyny deeply embedded in English society also reveals itself as a contributor to Boleyn’s demise. By all accounts, Boleyn was a deeply intelligent and outspoken woman who was not always as timid and obedient as Henry wanted her to be, and in her lifetime, she was most often called a heretic, a concubine, or a witch.  She was a learned woman who wanted to be taken just as seriously as any man, or she was a manipulative sorceress who bewitched the King of England—she could not be anything in between.

Another woman labeled a witch, though for vastly different reasons, was executed ten years after Anne Boleyn. Anne Askew was a woman of minor nobility from Lincolnshire, who divorced her Catholic husband and relocated to London to convert to the Protestant religion in the early 1540s.[13] Despite England’s separation from the Catholic Church, the original Church of England was never strictly Protestant, and by the time Askew arrived in London, Protestantism was considered heresy. In 1545, members of Henry VIII’s council and local bishops were working alongside bishops to persecute active Reformers, and Askew was arrested and examined for the first time. Again, it is unclear how the councilors came to know about her and her strong Protestant beliefs, but the likeliest explanation is through Askew’s connections to the ladies-in-waiting of Katherine Parr[14]—Henry VIII’s sixth wife and consort, who was believed to be a secret Reformer.

What is particularly remarkable about the case of Anne Askew is that she recorded her own account of her examinations and imprisonments, which still survives today and has been republished multiple times in its original late Middle English. Askew recalls that during her first examination in March 1545, she was asked a series of questions about her religious beliefs, including if she “ded not beleve that the sacrament hangynge over the aultre was the verye bodye of Christ reallye,”[15] and if she “ded not theynke, that private masses ded help sowles departed.”[16] These repetitive interrogations continued for twelve days, until Askew’s cousin Brittany was allowed to visit and bail her out. However, this was not permitted until Askew wrote that she did “beleve all maner of thynges contained in the faythe of the Catholyck churche.”[17]

Askew was not arrested again until June 1546, and this time she would not leave the Tower of London alive. She was cross-examined for two days, after which she wrote to the King asking for justice. Instead, two of Henry VIII’s councilors, Sir Richard Rich and Lord Chancellor Wriothesley, continued her interrogation while torturing her on the rack.[18] Despite having her limbs stretched until she was in excruciating pain, Askew was able to record this in her examinations as well, recalling that because she “laye styll and ded not crye, [Rich and Wriothesley] toke paynes to racke me their owne handes, tyll I was nygh dead.”[19] After the torture, Lord Chancellor Wriothesley brought Askew a copy of a confession for her to sign, which she refused. The Lord Chancellor said her refusal was “no great matter”[20]—and he was right. Like Anne Boleyn, it appears the councils and courts of London had already decided Askew was guilty and deserved to die. On July 16, 1546, she was burned at the stake, as was the custom for convicted heretics. According to multiple eyewitness accounts, Askew had to be carried to the stake, unable to walk due to the torture she had endured.[21]

Again, like Anne Boleyn, Anne Askew maintained her innocence until her dying day. From her own accounts, it is clear that she did not see her religious beliefs as criminal, even in a time when they legally were. This shamelessness, and her relentless defiance even while her arms and legs were on the verge of being broken in half, had to have enraged the lords and bishops responsible for her imprisonment. Anne Askew did not confess, but more importantly, she did not submit to the wills of men. She died a heretic, yet lived a second, posthumous life as a Protestant martyr, thanks to writers such as John Bale and John Foxe.[22] For better or for worse, Anne Askew was an extraordinary woman who died under extraordinary circumstances, and refused to call what she believed in a crime.

Another extraordinary woman who died under extraordinary circumstances had much more power than Anne Askew or Anne Boleyn. Mary Stuart, typically called Mary, Queen of Scots, held a throne in some capacity or another from the time she was less than one week old. She succeeded her father, James V of Scotland, six days after her birth in 1542. She spent most of her childhood in France, however, betrothed and later married to the future Francis II. Her tenure as Queen of France only lasted for a year and a half before Francis died in 1560, and she returned to her homeland at the age of eighteen, ready to truly rule as Queen of Scotland.[23] She would go on to remarry twice, and gave birth to a son, James, in 1566.

Mary’s life was one of countless, intricate details, many of which go far beyond the scope of this particular research. However, it is worth noting that she was the first cousin once removed of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the only child of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. It is also worth noting that the validity of Elizabeth’s reign was questioned by Catholic loyalists from the moment her half-sister, Mary I, died childless in 1558. Since Elizabeth had also been declared illegitimate from the time of her mother’s execution until right before her father’s death in 1548, this further complicated the perceived validity of her claim to the throne. Therefore, “to the Catholics, Mary Queen of Scots was Mary Tudor’s rightful successor.”[24] In short: Mary Stuart was seen as the only hope for a return to a wholly Catholic England.

The events that eventually led to Mary’s execution in a Northamptonshire castle in 1587 spanned across twenty years, many of which she spent while under house arrest in various castles across England—and again, many of these events span far beyond the purpose of this research. By the time Mary first arrived in England in 1568, her second husband, Lord Darnley, had been murdered under mysterious circumstances, and she had been held captive in Scotland before being forced to abdicate and escaping to England. In one of many letters between the two cousins, Mary asked Elizabeth if she could “have her aid and support in recovering her throne defeating her rebels.”[25] However, a series of letters dubbed the Casket Letters soon turned up as evidence that she had colluded with Scottish lords to have Lord Darnley killed. Though the authenticity of these letters has now been questioned for over four centuries,[26] Elizabeth and her advisors believed them to be true, and Mary’s eighteen years of imprisonment began. Her title of “prisoner” was more of a formality, however, considering she was “allowed many if not all of the courtesies and luxuries due to an exiled ruler and guest.”[27]

While Mary was under house arrest, multiple Northern Uprisings in favor of her claiming the English throne came and went, though at first Elizabeth did not think Mary had anything to do with them.[28] As the years dragged by, though, Mary became more defiant, and she “was prepared to listen to any plot that might offer a chance of escape”[29]—one such plan was to assassinate Elizabeth in 1586. Unfortunately for these conspirators, a letter in which Mary explicitly consented to the plan to kill the Queen of England was infiltrated,[30] and she was arrested for treason. Within months, she was convicted, and her death sentence was carried out on February 8, 1587. Mary was beheaded with an axe in the great hall of Fotheringhay Castle, and chose to die while dressed in “the color of dried blood: the liturgical color of martyrdom in the Roman Catholic Church.”[31] Mary’s death ended up being almost as painful as a martyr’s—the executioner’s axe first struck through the back of her head, and it took two more blows for her head to fully detach from her body. Her last words were believed to be words of agony: “Lord Jesus receive my soul.”[32] In the end, Mary was exactly the kind of queen men such as John Knox feared: willful, cunning, and willing to fight for her independence or die trying.

Only one of the four women of this research officially achieved the title of martyr, however, and that was Margaret Clitherow. Perhaps the most significant difference between her and the other three executed women is that she was not descended from nobility in any way. She was the wife of a butcher, and lived her entire life in the city of York. She was part of a movement of radical Catholics living during the Elizabethan era, when Catholicism “subsequently turned into the principal ideological expression of resistance to the authority of the Elizabethan regime.”[33] Clitherow is believed to have converted to the Catholic faith around 1574, and joined her local group of recusants, which mostly consisted of other women. Together, they began holding secret meetings called prophesyings, in which “scriptural texts were worked through by learned clergy for the better instruction of their less adept colleagues.”[34] Queen Elizabeth and her councilors tried to suppress these meetings, but local authorities refused to.

What is remarkable about Margaret Clitherow and her fellow female Catholic dissenters is how quickly they found their own independence and freedom through their religion, despite still living in a viciously patriarchal society. Clitherow was committed to her cause, and her commitment is now seen as “her own space” to be herself outside of being a wife or a mother. However, Clitherow was imprisoned several times for her outspoken Catholicism, and many people—specifically men—resented how Clitherow would “separate herself from her husband and children”, and therefore her duty as a woman, for the sake of her own heretical pursuits.[35] This resentment and fury climaxed when Clitherow began harboring Catholic priests and laypeople in her home.

This keeping of priests and other dissenters in her own home would eventually be her downfall. In early 1586, she also sent her son, Henry, to France to begin his training as a priest. Like the harboring, the education of children for the purpose of priesthood was illegal, and after questioning her husband, York authorities arrested Clitherow and searched her home, where multiple Catholic fugitives were found.[36] Clitherow was arraigned on March 14, 1586, but she refused to comply with the judges, and even refused to enter a plea in the case against her. She was described as being possessed by “joyful serenity” after being arrested,[37] as though she knew her fate was sealed. This serenity did not cease after being sentenced to death, which was carried out on March 25, and which she gleefully called her “marriage”. Margaret Clitherow was pressed to death, a “sharp stone, as much as a man’s fist” under her back, and the door from her own house laid across her naked body to hold the heavy stones that aided in crushing her to death.[38] Since she was so willing to die, especially so brutally, it is easy to see how perfect a martyr Margaret Clitherow was to become for the Catholic Church. The people who executed her, however, only saw her as a willful, tyrannical heretic who put her own desires before her husband and children. Heresy was the official charge against her—but it is clear her independence was considered almost, if not just as serious.

These four executions of women in England show just how far the intersections of gender, class and religion fed into their violent deaths. As queens, Anne Boleyn and Mary Stuart were treated with much more dignity and respect while imprisoned, and their deaths by beheading were far cleaner and less painful than Anne Askew’s burning and Margaret Clitherow’s pressing. Despite this, many of the names these women were called before and after their deaths are the same: witch, harlot, devil’s whore, beast, sin against nature. Many of them also had male admirers who helped carry on their legacies—though whether any of these men truly believed in the rights of women or would have stood up for them is unclear. All of them also seemingly chose to die for what they believed in, whether it was their religion, their kingdom, or simply themselves. In a time of political and religious unrest, and in a patriarchal society when a woman’s sole duty would still be considered marrying and birthing children for centuries to come, none of these women gave up on their own ideas or morals, even while looking death in the face—which might have been the worst crime of them all.
























Primary Sources:

Askew, Anne. The Examinations of Anne Askew, ed. Elaine V. Beilin. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 1996.

Boleyn, Anne, and Henry VIII. The Love Letters of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn. Boston: J.W. Luce, 1906.

Secondary Sources:

Bernard, G.W. Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Bernard, G.W. “Henry VIII: ‘Catholicism without the Pope?’.” History 101, no. 345 (2016): 201-21. doi:10.1111/1468-229X.12230.

Collinson, Patrick. “The Politics of Religion and Religion of Politics in Elizabethan England.” In This England: Essays on the English Nation and Commonwealth in the Sixteenth Century, 36-60. Manchester University Press, 2011.

Foxe, John. “The Words of Queen Anne at her Death.” In The Acts and Monuments. England: John Day, 1563. 134-5.

Guy, John. Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.

Ives, E.W. “Faction at the Court of Henry VIII: The Fall of Anne Boleyn.” History 57, no. 190 (1972): 169-88.

Knox, John. “The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women.” In Renaissance Women: a Sourcebook, edited by Kate Aughterson, 138-9. Oxford; Routledge, 1995.

Lake, Peter, and Michael Questier. The Trials of Margaret Clitherow: Persecution, Martyrdom and the Politics of Sanctity in Elizabethan England. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

Moss, Candida R. “The Discourse of Voluntary Martyrdom: Ancient and Modern.” Church History 81, no. 3 (2012): 531-551.

Walker, Greg. “Rethinking the Fall of Anne Boleyn.” The Historical Journal 45, no. 1 (2002): 1-29.


[1] John Knox, “The first blast of…”, 138.

[2] Bernard, “Henry VIII: Catholicism without…”, 201.

[3] Bernard, “Henry VIII: Catholicism without…”, 201.

[4] Bernard, Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions, 10-12.

[5] Bernard, Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions, 67-8.

[6] Ives, “Faction at the Court…”, 169.

[7] Bernard, Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions, 133.

[8] Walker, “Rethinking the fall of…”, 12.

[9] Walker, “Rethinking the fall of…”, 17.

[10] Foxe, “Words of Queen Anne…”, 135.

[11] Ives, “Faction at the Court…”, 172.

[12] Bernard, Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions, 151.

[13] Beilin, The Examinations of… introduction, xv.

[14] Beilin, The Examinations of… introduction, xv.

[15] Askew, The Examinations of…, 20.

[16] Askew, The Examinations of…, 25.

[17] Askew, The Examinations of…, 62.

[18] Beilin, The Examinations of… introduction, xvi.

[19] Askew, The Examinations of…, 127.

[20] Askew, The Examinations of…, 138.

[21] Beilin, The Examinations of… introduction, xxxii.

[22] Beilin, The Examinations of… introduction, xxxiii.

[23] Guy, Queen of Scots, 127.

[24] Guy, Queen of Scots, 51.

[25] Guy, Queen of Scots, 357.

[26] Guy, Queen of Scots, 384.

[27] Guy, Queen of Scots, 424.

[28] Guy, Queen of Scots, 449.

[29] Guy, Queen of Scots, 463.

[30] Guy, Queen of Scots, 468.

[31] Guy, Queen of Scots, 7.

[32] Guy, Queen of Scots, 8.

[33] Lake and Questier, The Trials of…, 13.

[34] Lake and Questier, The Trials of…, 16-7.

[35] Lake and Questier, The Trials of…, 36-7.

[36] Lake and Questier, The Trials of…, 87-9.

[37] Lake and Questier, The Trials of…, 91.

[38] Lake and Questier, The Trials of…, 108.