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Thursday, 15 January 2015

History of Freedom of Speech in the UK

There has been a lot of discussion about freedom of expression since the killing of the eight journalists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly newspaper, that had published a number of controversial Muhammad cartoons. It has been suggested that there is a long tradition of freedom of speech in the UK and that we need to defend this ancient right in response to this terrorist outrage. Although journalists have been keen to point this out it seems their editors are unwilling to publish any of the offending cartoons. It has also emerged that official guidelines previously published online said that the Prophet revered by Muslims “must not be represented in any shape or form” in BBC output.

Freedom of expression is something that has taken a long time to establish in this country. Dominant religious, political and cultural institutions have always used their power to protect themselves from criticism. An interesting case in our history concerns Anne Askew who was burnt at the stake on 16th July 1546. Anne had taken on every powerful institution that existed in Tudor England. 

Anne was the daughter of Sir William Askew (1489–1541) a large landowner and the former MP for Grimsby. When she was fifteen her family forced her to marry Thomas Kyme. Anne rebelled against her husband by refusing to adopt his surname. The couple also argued about religion. Anne was a supporter of Martin Luther, while her husband was a Roman Catholic. From her reading of the Bible she believed that she had the right to divorce her husband. For example, she quoted St Paul: "If a faithful woman have an unbelieving husband, which will not tarry with her she may leave him"? 

In 1544 Askew decided to travel to London and request a divorce from Henry VIII. This was rejected and in March 1546 she was arrested on suspicion of heresy. She was questioned about a book she was carrying that had been written by John Frith, a Protestant priest who had been burnt for heresy in 1533, for claiming that neither purgatory nor transubstantiation could be proven by Holy Scriptures. She was interviewed by Edmund Bonner, the Bishop of London who had obtained the nickname of "Bloody Bonner" because of his ruthless persecution of heretics. 

After a great deal of debate Anne Askew was persuaded to sign a confession which amounted to an only slightly qualified statement of orthodox belief. With the help of her friend, Edward Hall, the Under-Sheriff of London, she was released after twelve days in prison. She was sent back to her husband. However, when she arrived back to Lincolnshire she went to live with her brother, Sir Francis Askew.

You can read the rest of the article here:

http://spartacus-educational.com/spartacus-blogURL47.htm