Making memory, crafting reform: the ballads of Anne Askew and the Duchess of Suffolk

Ballads and folk songs have a long and diverse history in Europe and they continue to be used as a means of raising awareness about political and social issues around the world. Designed to be sung to simple formulaic tunes and phasing, balladry is a flexible art form that can easily be committed to memory. This lends ballads an inherent social dimension in keeping with and testimony to their historically important place in popular social movements.

The Ballad of Anne Askew

During the late medieval and early modern period, and especially with the advent of print culture, the potential for the wider dissemination of ballads grew and ballads eventually made their way onto broadsheets. For the religious reformers of the sixteenth century, the broadside ballad was an important device for galvanising communities and cultivating popular support, since the ballad, as an innovative form of anthem or hymn, could work with the popular imagination, and, as research in the history of emotions has shown, was readily responsive to the emotional regimes current in the cultural milieu.[1] The ballads of Anne Askew and the Duchess of Suffolk are two very good examples of ballads that manipulate emotional conventions and invert expectations of gender, artfully invoking issues of place and memory in order to present a compelling and rousing popular history.

Anne Askew (ca. 1521-1546) was condemned as a heretic Protestant divorcee during the reign of Henry VIII. In the ‘Ballad of Anne Askew’, Anne, a self-cast authoress of reformed spiritual practice, moulds her prison cell and the ballad she performs into platforms for protest and instruction. In her ballad, Anne rejects and condemns out-dated and corrupt rituals and performances of penance, framing the story of her imprisonment in a lament for a much longed for garden – suggesting a new Eden. Working in dialogue with echoes of the written Word of God in Scripture, Anne reinvigorates the instructive power of the written word for a new age, making the history of her persecution in its ballad form complement the ‘new learning’ so feared by the establishment and so fundamental to the Protestant Reformist movement of the fifteenth century.

Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk

The broadside ballad also proved to be a fitting devise for cementing the legacy of another female religious reformer of the Early Modern era: Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk (1519-1580). Katherine was an important patron of Protestant culture during the reign of Edward VI. However, when the crown passed to Queen Mary in 1553 and the primacy of Roman Catholicism was reinstalled, Katherine was placed in a dangerous position. Katherine fled to the continent with her family and servants. The family’s exile was made famous in the ballad of The Duchess of Suffolkes Calamite, a ballad which retained its popularity well into the eighteenth century, demonstrating the efficacy of the ballad form as a means of crafting and fixing commemoration of a protest figure. In the Duchess’s ballad, in ways resonant to those in the ‘Ballad of Anne Askew’, moments of implied literary and religio-historical parallelization operate as nexuses capable of integrating the reader (with his/her own storehouse of emotional memories and iconic exempla) into the ballad’s story. Thus, the ballad becomes a site for establishing a community bound by cultural memory.

Broadside ballads are complex multi-media devices for spreading news and ideas and for disseminating tools in the form of stories and histories vital to social and political movements. In the case of the histories of Anne Askew and the Duchess of Suffolk, their ballads were a means of presenting female figures of reform and resistance in ways that invoked the shared emotions, memories and cultural histories of readers so that these figures of resistance were aligned with the socially integrated currency and gendered agency of past icons and instigators of reform. In the face of political and religious strife, broadside ballads and ballad culture offered its audiences roles in the making of the reform by enabling readers and singers to participate in moments of memorialization, and in so doing, to become agents of protest and change.

Dr Sarah McKeon, Academic Coordinator Heritage Consortium, University of Hull

[1] See Sandra Garridos and Jane Davidson, ‘Emotional Regimes Reflected in a Popular Ballad: Perspectives on Gender, Love and Protest in ‘Scarborough Fair’, Musicology Australia, 38.1 (2016), 65-78.


Image of The Ballad of Anne Askew: A ballad of Anne Askew, intituled: I am a woman poore and blind, 1624. Tract Supplement / A3:3[57], Bib name / number: STC (2nd ed.) / 853.5. Early English Books Online.

Image of Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk: Portrait of Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543) – Royal Collection, Public Domain,

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