After the fall of Cromwell in 1540 the conservative felt emboldened to return to More’s orthodoxy. Wriothesley also saw this as an important function of his watch and instituted periodic purges to roots out heretics. He may have been a decade too late; the new evangelical ideas had taken strong root in England and many people in high places had taken on board the new faith, including many at court. And therein lay the rub for conservatives like Wriothesley, Gardiner and Rich; they were fighting a reactionary war against eventual dominance of the new creed. It was much like the North Americans Indians resisting the influx of Europeans; the numbers of European immigrants kept rising at a faster rate than the native population. These new ideas offered personal salvation and direct contact with the word of God printed in their native tongue. It was seductive. As we know the issue was not decided in Wriothesley’s time and would take a lot of martyrs, emigration and an eventual civil war to lay the issue of religious choice or conformity to rest. But Wriothesley was still living at a time when governments thought they could stamp out heresy. It was here that he appears to have lost control of himself.
Anne Askew (or Ascough) was the daughter of a middle-ranking Lincolnshire gentleman. She had enthusiastically taken on the practice of “gospelling”, that is reading the gospel in English to groups of interested listeners. This was an outcome of another government policy which banned the sale and ownership of bibles in translation. But you could not be prosecuted for listening to the book being read. Not for the first time and on many occasions since the effect of such a ban was to guarantee more widespread exposure.
More worryingly to Wriothesley perhaps was that she had court connections. One of her brothers was a member of the Gentlemen Pensioners. A spy was employed and she was arrested and tried by Bishop Bonner, bishop of London. He sent her back to the Midlands; out of sight out of mind.
When Gardiner returned from his foreign mission in March 1546 he pressed for a more thorough pursuit of heretics. He arrested and examined Dr Crome, a popular preacher of the day. Crome was interrogated by Wriothesley and in the course of his examination revealed a number of important names with whom he had had contact. The hunt was on and before long Bonner had found four men and one woman guilty. He sought the King’s permission to make an example of them but Henry advised caution. The two men who had repented were set free and the others consigned to be burned at the stake, but Henry insisted that the commission be dissolved.
The conservative faction were not to be deterred. They then developed a plan to discredit Henry’s last queen, a forthright and intelligent lady who had grasped the message of the evangelicals and was not shy of discussing such matters. Gardiner worked on the king and in an unguarded moment got the king’s permission to investigate. With the king’s permission Gardiner, Rich and Wriothesley were now in full cry, but they did not approach the queen directly, thinking it more politic to question the ladies of the court to see what they could dig up. Apparently at this point Wriothesley suggested they bring Anne Askew back into the frame. She had by this time been examined a second time and sentenced to burning at the stake, but on June 29 she was taken to the Tower to be examined by Wriothesley and Rich. She was questioned for hours but she would not speak, thus exasperating her interrogators. Wriothesley summoned the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir Anthony Knyvet, to prepare the rack.
He did as instructed and she was tied to the rack. Knyvet was not however prepared to do more than “pinch her”, in other words give her a light tug to scare her. He would not countenance racking her and ordered his man to set her free. Wriothesley and Rich would have none of it and ordered Knyvet to do as he was told. Knyvet, who may well have ordered and witnessed some brutal treatment of prisoners in the past had his scruples in this instance. It was firstly illegal to rack a woman in Tudor times, moreover it was in the eyes of most people immoral to rack a woman, especially a gentlewoman. He would not budge and was sure that he was in the right.
What happened next was truly astonishing and must forever colour our opinion of Wriothesley. Seeing that they would not get Knyvet to do or order the racking Wriothesley and Rich decided to do the dirty work themselves. They took off their gowns and stepped up to the apparatus to rack this unfortunate woman. Sir Anthony Knyvet, a soldier who had seen more than one battle and probably some of the atrocities of war was appalled and he immediately left the room and the tower wishing to have no part of this act of barbarity.
The two lords continued with their grim work and eventually Anne Askew fainted. She steadfastly refused to incriminate any other person throughout the whole sordid process. Tudor opinion was quite shocked. She had been tried and condemned to the stake, so the law had taken his course and she should have been entitled to have no injury done to her body before the sentence was carried out. The actions of Wriothesly and Rich were against the law, although Wriothesley lamely tried to argue that it was his duty to search out and destroy those who offended against the realm.1
It was, in the end, a pointless piece of savagery. Two men, in the highest offices of the land who should have been above such activities demeaned themselves and their cause. One can only assume that Anne Askew’s stubbornness drove them beyond reason.
At the time, neither Wriothesley nor Rich suffered. Henry was not particularly interested in the detail of what happened to Anne Askew. She was a heretic. She burned, and that was that. The conservative faction still had their propaganda coup in the burning at the stake and were mostly untroubled by her treatment. Posterity has come to a different judgement and Wriothesley’s actions cannot be explained away. It will remain as a permanent stain on a remarkable career.
1 Gibbons, op. cit., p. 180