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The Bible’s companion piece

27 September 2013

Foxe's Book of Martyrs, which is now 450 years old, once sat side by side with the Bible in churches and homes. Peter Street examines its significance

By the book: a graphic depiction of the execution of Tyndale's friend John Rogers

By the book: a graphic depiction of the execution of Tyndale's friend John Rogers

LITERATURE is no stranger to violence. From Little Red Riding Hood to A Clockwork Orange, graphic, lengthy descriptions, and illustrations of cruelty and torture can prove perversely popular. And, to the fury of many, they can bring fame and fortune to their authors.

But this is not what we might expect of a Christian book; and we might be more surprised if a national Church issued a directive that its violent contents should be made familiar to all. But this was the case in the 1560s, with Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

Because its contents were deemed to be both true and significant, it was soon placed - metaphorically and literally - alongside the Bible in people's homes, and in places of worship. It was read from during Divine Service, and it inspired sermons. It is still widely published, and is available (free) online.

When it was first published, 450 years ago this year, the title was nearly 90 words long. Not surprisingly, this was soon truncated to its opening phrase, Acts and Monuments, and subsequently to its more familiar title.

Acts and Monuments could be said to have created the first literary celebrity in England. Certainly it has proved to be one the most famous, influential, and controversial works in the history of English Christianity. Alongside the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, it played a part in shaping the national identity of England, Scotland, and (eventually) the United States.

JOHN FOXE was born in Boston, Lincolnshire, in 1516 or 1517, studied at Brasenose College, Oxford, in the mid-1530s, and was a Fellow of Magdalen College from 1539 to 1545. While at Oxford, Foxe became an ardent Reformer, and, refusing to take Holy Orders (a college requirement for further academic progress), resigned in 1545. In due course, he became tutor to the family of Sir William Lucy at Charlecote, Warwickshire, and, while there, married Agnes Randall. They had six children.

When Foxe came to London, he acquired influential Protestant friends. The Duchess of Richmond invited him to tutor the children of her brother the Earl of Surrey, who had been executed by Henry VIII in 1547. Working for the Duchess brought Foxe into contact with other leading figures of a similar religious outlook to himself.


He was made deacon by Nicholas Ridley in June 1550. Ridley, along with Latimer and Cranmer (both of whom were also known personally to Foxe), was later to be executed at Oxford. All three feature in Foxe's book. He was also acquainted with Joan of Kent, who was burnt for heresy in 1550.

These events turned him into a lifelong opponent of burning heretics - or indeed of any form of capital punishment for heresy, irrespective of whether he agreed with their views. Foxe believed that convincing people of true Christianity was better than punishing them for upholding error in ignorance.

BY MID-CENTURY, he was also friendly with John Bale, another early Evangelical, who passed on to Foxe his belief that history was an unfolding of God's purpose. It was Bale, more than anyone else, who was responsible for Foxe's becoming a martyrologist, convincing him of the subject's importance and providing sources for the book.

When the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor acceded to the throne in 1553, Foxe found refuge in Frankfurt, and then Strasburg. While abroad, he started to collect details of those who had suffered at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church.

Foxe returned from exile in 1559 and settled in London, where he was ordained to the priesthood by its Bishop, Edmund Grindal, a future Archbishop of Canterbury. Foxe did not take up any parish responsibilities, however. Instead, he completed and published Acts and Monuments.

Initially, the work had aimed to link the sufferings of English Protestants under Queen Mary with those of Christian martyrdom in the age of the early Church. But, drawing on his understanding of Revelation, he went further, placing recent events in a wider context.


He argued that there were four ages in the history of the Church, and that he lived in the final age. The Church of Rome was the Antichrist, and the mission of true servants of God, of whom John Wyclif was the first in this latest age, was to testify against this false Church.

QUEEN MARY's reign, and its aftermath, had witnessed the climax; Elizabeth was the pre-ordained pinnacle and culmination of the English Reformation. For Foxe, belief in scripture, the godly prince, and royal supremacy were all linked, and all would play their part in the defeat of the Antichrist.

Similarly, he recognised the power of the printed word. Luther had considered printing to be "God's highest and extremist act of grace, by which the business of the gospel is driven forward." Foxe was of the same opinion: "God has opened the press to preach, whose voice the pope is never able to stop."

The scope of the proposed work in English was thus expanded. When it first appeared, in late March 1563, it was a single folio volume comprising some 1800 pages - making it the largest printed work in English to that date. Three further editions were issued during Foxe's lifetime (1570, 1576, and 1583). The second edition of Foxe's Book of Martyrs was about 2300 pages long, and contained four million words (four times as many as the King James Version of the Bible).

The large size of the first edition was due, in part, to an introductory section that outlinined Church history, essentially from 1000, together with some Continental European history. Its coverage of martyrs also fell within that period, although he interpreted the term (more accurately than now) to mean "witness".

While those included in the 1563 edition of Acts and Monuments might have suffered for their understanding of the true faith, they were not confined to the 16th century, nor necessarily Protestant, nor put to death for their beliefs. The work also reflected the great range of Foxe's sources. He drew on official archives, notably London episcopal records (he would cut pages from court books and registers), speeches, letters, and papal bulls, as well as oral testimony and eye-witness accounts.

PRESSURE from his publisher, John Day, meant that the work first appeared before he had completed his researches. Consequently, there were errors and omissions, which Foxe corrected, to some extent, later; but the accuracy and coverage of events caused controversy from the outset, and his reputation as a historian has been called into question ever since.

Even so, it is generally recognised that, in some instances, accounts of the processes from episcopal registers or court records now survive only in Foxe's work, or in his manuscript collections. Foxe's particular goal was to replace what he saw as the myths of the (medieval) Roman Catholic Church - especially in terms of miracle-working saints - with the evidence of those who had witnessed to, and suffered for, the truth, and who could inspire others as a result.

It is Foxe's account that records Latimer's purported words of consolation to Ridley - "we shall this day light such a candle by God's grace in England as (I trust) shall never be put out"- as they were about to be burnt alive.

But it was the nature and choice of the wood-block illustrations that accompanied Acts and Monuments which readily demonstrated, and reinforced, the book's purpose. There were 50 in the first edition, and more than 100 in the second edition. This expansion enjoyed government backing: Day was given permission to exceed legal quotas for hiring foreign workmen.


The illustrations included a naked Tyndale being strangled, Cranmer placing his right hand in the flames, and Bishop Bonner enjoying beating a prisoner in his orchard. The vivid, gruesome character of the illustrations and their widespread availability meant that they, and stories of popish atrocities, entered and remained in popular consciousness for the next few centuries.

The success of the first edition may be linked to Foxe's appointment to the prebend of Shipton-under-Wychwood in Salisbury Cathedral, which he retained until his death in 1587. It was his single most significant ecclesiastical living and source of income.

THE second edition of Acts and Monuments removed some content and errors, besides introducing new material. It now included martyrs of the apostolic and Early Church (St Alban, for example), more about Continental Europe, and argued that the corruption of the English Church could be dated from St Augustine's mission in 597. The new version was thoroughly proofread and cross-referenced.

This edition, too, was well received. The Upper House of the Convocation of Canterbury in 1571 ordered that a copy of Acts and Monuments be installed in every cathedral. Furthermore, church officials were to have copies in their homes, for the benefit of servants and visitors.

The third edition (1576) was essentially a reprint of the second; the fourth (1583) was the largest of the versions which appeared in Foxe's lifetime, and probably the most demanding book, technically, in the first 300 years in British printing.

By the late 16th century, Mary Tudor's reign came to be seen as the starting point of the joint struggle against Roman Catholicism and Spain. Acts and Monuments may be said to have initiated the link in public consciousness between brutal religious persecution by Roman Catholicism with foreign intervention.

Mary's early death and the long reign of Elizabeth (1558-1603) led many in England to see themselves as the new Israel, a chosen people especially elected to serve as a holy nation before the world, and to resist foreign intervention. It was the destiny of England, under God, and protected by him, to spread the good news throughout the British Isles and beyond. This, in turn, proved a significant impetus for colonisation.

It is also argued that Foxe's martyrs could stand for Everyman, hitting home with memorable anecdotes. For example, he told the story of Katherine Cawches, a "poor widow", burnt together with her two daughters, one of whom was heavily pregnant. While being burnt alive the baby allegedly burst forth from its mother into the crowd, but was tossed back into the fire by order of the bailiff.

FOXE died in 1587, but the work continued to be available in a variety of forms, including periodic updates. Such have been classed as "Foxe's bastards" and it was their popularity that, arguably, made the greatest single influence on some forms of Protestant thinking (other than the Bible) well into the 20th century.

It substantiated and and perpetuated anti-Catholicism, anti-popery, distrust of foreigners, and the celebration of Englishness, and being favoured by God.


Acts and Monuments became part of the national cultural stock. It was transmitted by opinion-formers and celebrated in drama and print. It was never the author's intention that Foxe's Book of Martyrs should become a manifesto of Protestant nationalism.

Nevertheless, it took on a contemporary resonance in the 1630s with what, for many, was the persecution of the faithful under the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Similarly, it was eagerly sought out by those in Cromwell's New Model Army, and provided solace for Bunyan while he was imprisoned.

In the late 17th and early 18th century, pulp versions, tracts, and ballads appeared. The illustrated accounts also appealed to some because of their accounts of judicial torture, and their macabre, sexual nature. One Smithfield printer made it available in weekly instalments.

During the 19th century, five unabridged editions appeared, together with the near continuous reissue of shorter versions, often as Sunday-school prizes. This was partly as a means to counter increasing toleration of Roman Catholicism, and partly to strengthen Evangelical opposition to High Anglicanism.

The Protestant Truth Society published Foxe's work to counter "Romanism" until at least the 1950s. Foxe's work and reputation suffered, however, within the academic community until the mid-20th century. Since then, it has become more highly regarded, and the British Academy produced a new, definitive edition of Acts and Monuments, based on a textual reconstruction of the four editions published in Foxe's lifetime.

Dr Peter Street is a lecturer in religious studies and history at the Open University. The Acts and Monuments Online (TAMO) is available at www.johnfoxe.org.

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