Transubstantiation: A Doctrine Worth Martyrdom?

Transubstantiation, a Doctrine Worth Martyrdom?

by Chuck Collins


It was on 16 July 1546 that Anne Askew was burned at the stake for denying transubstantiation.

Director of the Center for Reformation Anglicanism, The Revd Canon Chuck Collins writes about, “Anne Askew’s Torture”.

In 1534, when Anne was thirteen, King Henry VIII became supreme head of the Church of England, and the following year every adult male was required to sign an oath supporting the Act of Succession that denounced the papacy for usurping powers that belong to England’s sovereigns. Anne’s father, as good fathers did in the 16th century, arranged for her to marry for convenience and financial security. Bale commented that Anne was compelled to marry “agaynst her wyll or fre consent,” but he went on to say that she “demeaned her selfe lyke a Christen wyfe” (she submitted to her husband as was expected of Christian women). But by the regular reading of the Bible she became convinced of the gospel of God’s free grace for sinners, and increasingly suspicious of the pope and the unbiblical traditions of the medieval Catholic Church. When her priests found out, even though she had two young children, her husband kicked her out to the street where she spent her days in the Lincoln Cathedral reading her Bible. In 1538 the English Bible was ordered place in every church for everyone to read, but it was thought that Anne’s presence there was deliberately provocative. She eventually moved to London, perhaps to be nearer her younger brothers who were serving the king. 

As a woman, Anne Askew had no right to read the Bible in the hearing off others, much less to discuss it openly as she did. The Roman Catholic leaders were mostly offended by her evangelical views about the Eucharist. When examined by the mayor of London she was asked if a mouse under the communion table that ate the consecrated host was receiving God. She did not not answer, only smiled at the ridiculous logic of transubstantiation. While in jail a statement was prepared for her to sign affirming her belief in transubstantiation, the official Catholic teaching. She signed it, but hand-wrote in this proviso: “I Anne Askewe do believe all maner thynges contayned in the faythe of the Catholycke Churche.” 

With many others who were taking their lead from the Bible, Anne believed that God is the consecrator of the bread and wine of holy communion, not the priest who wears fancy clothes and says magic words in Latin. She could not stomach the inordinate power and authority the Roman Catholic church assumed over and above the clear teaching of the Bible. The English reformers knew that the real presence of Christ is not in the bread and wine, but in the hearts and affections of those who receive the grace of the sacrament by faith.

Anne was one of only two women on record known to have been tortured on the rack in the Tower of London before being burned at the stake. Her torturers were trying to force from her information that would implicate another convinced Protestants, like Catherine Parr, the last of Henry VIIIs wives. After her body was racked and broken she sat for two hours on the bare floor as the guards tried to persuade her to leave her opinions. She said that she would “rather dye, than to breake my faythe.”  Her broken body had to be transported in a chair to the stake where she would be burned alive because she was too injured to walk. Many English reformers believed that there are things worth dying for. In an exchange of correspondence with Bishop Gardiner, the bishop accused Anne of having no more business with Scriptures than did a pig with a saddle. She responded that a sow had as much business wearing a saddle as an ass does wearing a mitre. Susan Wabuda writes that according to John Bale, “Askew became the model of a Protestant saint: mild in manner, godly in the study of Scripture and a courageous defender of truth”.