Sunday, 14 January 2018


Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, SURVIVED, BUT ONLY JUST !

     When the chronicle of Henry VIII's ill-used wives is related, the one who gets little mention is Catherine Parr. In the popular imagination she often features as an unglamorous coda, a dowdy middle-aged nursemaid who - patiently and uncomplaining - tended the sick and corpulent tyrant through his last few years. In fact she was only 30 or 31 when she married the king. She was a passionate woman who understood - and used - the arts of sexual allure. She was feisty, knew her own mind and wrote about the things that were important to her (the first Englishwoman to do so under her own name). Through her writing and through the considerable influence she had on Henry VIII's children her beliefs and ideals long outlived her. As late as the eighteenth century the narrative of her own conversion was being quoted in evangelical circles. Catherine was prominent among a coterie of female intellectuals and religious devotees that included Marguerite of Navarre, Margaret More, Catherine Brandon, and Anne Bacon, among others. As such she had a greater impact (and thus is more important to history) than the more 'romantic' of the second Tudor's unfortunate bedfellows. Not that her position was any less fraught with potential danger than theirs. In 1546 she survived execution - BUT ONLY JUST.

     And this is where the other remarkable woman enters the story. Like Catherine, Anne Askew belonged to that 'middle class' of English society, the rural squirearchy. Her family was just one of the many that central government relied on to maintain law and order in the shires. Anne had relatives and friends in the royal court but, unlike Catherine, she was not destined for the glamorous life of a lady-in-waiting to one of Henry's queens. But she refused to be debarred from the exciting world of new ideas swirling around among the fashionable set in Renaissance and Reformation England. She could - and did - read avidly, opening her mind to unorthodox concepts. Somehow, this Lincolnshire maiden who should have had nothing more adventurous to contemplate than marriage to some neighbouring gentleman's son and a life of conventional domesticity carved a place for herself in the nation's history.  Married Anne was - but not for long. Her husband, Thomas Kyme, was not, as far as we know, a cruel man but he tried to inhibit the free spirit he had married. It was not her place, he insisted, to go around PREACHING, particularly when what she was broadcasting to any who would listen was heresy. When the tension reached breaking point Anne chose obedience to God - as she saw it - to obedience to her husband. She continued, and extended her scandalous 'gospelling', eventually ending up in London. There she associated with like-minded people of the capital and the court. There she was investigated for heresy. There she stood up for her beliefs when challenged even by the Bishop of London and members of the royal Council. There she was interrogated, tortured and condemned to death by burning. There she, like the queen, ventured into print, smuggling out accounts of her faith and her personal story which would eventually find their way into John Foxe's Book of Martyrs and become an inspiration to countless readers down the centuries.

     And this was where the stories of these two quite extraordinary women converged in a dramatic and historic crisis. The enemies of reform were determined to remove wife number six from the royal bedchamber, and the Stalinesque tyrant who, by this stage, trusted no-one, was not averse to having Catherine's 'heresies' pointed out to him. Anne Askew was the chief weapon in the plotters' arsenal. If they could prove the link between a convicted heretic and the Queen of England they could halt Reformation in its tracks. It was a technique that had worked before when they wanted rid of influential enemies. But they reckoned without the determination of Anne and the ingenuity of Catherine. What happened was ...

The Queen and the Heretic will be published on 23 March and advance orders may be placed now.

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