Anne Askew was a Protestant reformer during the reign of Henry VIII. She was devoutly religious, and escaped her home (and her unhappy marriage to a Catholic) to preach in London. She was accused of heresy—not because she was a female “gospeller,” but because she didn’t believe in transubstantiation. According to records, she’s the only woman who’s ever been tortured at the Tower of London.
Askew was an important figure in the Tudor era (her death even takes center stage in the TV show The Tudors, Season 4, Episode 9), and I was shocked that I’d never read about her before. (At university, I had to take an upper-division history class on the Tudor monarchs in order to complete my creative writing major. I got the lowest grade of my college career in it, though, so maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.) It seemed to me that she’d done almost as much for religious reform in England as Joan of Arc did in France. And both Anne Askew and Joan of Arc were burned at the stake for heresy.
In Ceremony, Askew is the central figure of a (fictional) splinter-group church, and Askew’s themes from her poetry are central to the church’s teachings—and the religious ceremony of the title. While the church Askew preached in was never disassembled in London and moved to Milwaukee, most of the other information about Askew in the book is true (or at least is popularly believed to be true—the 1500s was a while ago).