Foxes' Book of Martyrs and the Face of England
Loades, David, History Today
John Foxe's graphic and angry work depicting the persecutions inflicted by the Roman Catholic church, was partly a response to the rising fide of intolerance across Europe in the mid-sixteenth century, but more specifically to the recent persecution of Protestants in England. Catholic Mary died in 1558, and was succeeded by the Protestant Elizabeth. The Acts and Monuments, published in 1563, was an attempt to exploit that situation, and to support the new and fragile regime. David Loades describes the impact of one of the most significant books of its time.
IF WE WANT TO UNDERSTAND modern England, Foxe's Actes and Monuments, better known as his 'Book of Martyrs', is a good place to start. John Foxe was born at Boston in Lincolnshire in 1517, the only son of a burgess father who died while he was still a child. He was educated (probably) at Tattershall College in nearby Coningsby. In about 1534 he went up to Oxford, to Brasenose College, and subsequently became a Fellow of Magdalene College. By about 1540 he had become a Protestant, and resigned his fellowship to avoid taking Holy Orders, which would have required celibacy to which he was opposed both in principle and practice. After a short period as a private tutor, during which he married, he went to London in 1547. There for a few months he scraped together a living as a proof reader, and was partly supported by his step-father. In spite of romantic stories, he was not rescued from destitution, but rather one of his Protestant friends put him in touch with a patron. He was employed as a tutor by Mary, the widowed Duchess of Richmond, who was sister to the recently executed Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and who had been given custody of his heir Thomas and his siblings. It was at this time that Foxe conceived the idea of writing a defence of the Reformation of the Church, which had been gathering momentum since the 1520s, and had become increasingly acrimonious. He was prompted by two considerations. Firstly, England had just become officially Protestant, the most important state so far to have taken such a step, and this required justification. Secondly, Catholic practice in attacking the Reformers was to demand rhetorically 'where was your church before Luther?': to them 'reform' was merely a pretext for destruction and plunder, and the whole doctrinal basis was a recent innovation (both 'recent' and 'innovation' being pejorative terms in the sixteenth century). To be Good, anything, especially in the Church, needed to be Old; and there was a corresponding supposition that the Old was usually Good. Foxe and his fellow Reformers did not dissent from this, but to them it was the present Roman Catholic Church and its ways which were innovative, whereas Protestants represented the Good Old teachings of the faith as it had been during the first four centuries of its existence. They argued that the Church had become progressively debased from its original purity by the Devil through the agency of the Antichrist. It seemed to them that at some point in the thirteenth century Antichrist had entered the popes themselves, and soon wholly possessed them. Since then the Church had been an entirely worldly and human organization, and only those who had resisted it, the so-called 'Godly Remnant' could be called the heirs of the Apostles--the True Church.
The test of this thesis was provided by martyrdom, the death of Christians for their faith at the hands of its enemies. Before the conversion of Constantine in AD 312 the Roman Empire had been the enemy of Christianity, and innumerable saints had died, often in the public spectacles of the arena. Thereafter, through the mercy of God, Satan had been bound for a thousand years (from AD 300 to about 1300) during which time there had been no martyrdom within Christendom, because the True Church does not persecute. However, once the papacy had fallen into the hands of Antichrist, Satan had been unbound, and the Church had become False. As such, it began again to persecute dissenters; the Waldensians (the followers of Peter Waldo [d.1218], also known as 'the Poor Men of Lyons' because they criticized the wealth of the Church), the Lollards (the followers of John Wycliffe [d.1384], who denied the Pope's authority), and more recently the Protestants. Because they died resisting the False Church, these victims were martyrs for the True Church, and their deaths in turn confirmed the truth of the cause for which they died.
Foxe therefore wanted to celebrate martyrdom, above all since the unbinding of Satan. Not only had the martyrs died for the Truth, but in persecuting them the ostensible Church had demonstrated its own Antichristian credentials. This agenda was not at first applied particularly to England, because Foxe was concerned to justify the True Church as he saw it, and that knew no national or linguistic boundaries. Although at that time he had had no experience of Continental Reformed practices, although he had read the Latin works of the European reformers, and corresponded with some of them.
How long it might have taken for this plan to come to fruition we do not know, but in the summer of 1553 God (or historical accident) intervened decisively. Edward VI, known as the 'Godly Imp' for his devotion to Reformed doctrine, died, and after a brief and bloodless struggle was succeeded by his half-sister Mary, who was well known for her opposition to the Protestant faith. Edward's allegiance to Reform had persuaded many of his subjects to accept a religious settlement which they did not themselves like, and Mary's conservatism was at first widely welcomed. She insisted upon the return of the mass, and the restoration of many traditional devotional practices. Protestant preachers and bishops were deprived and imprisoned, and Foxe lost his job. The Catholic Duke of Norfolk, who had narrowly escaped following his son the Earl of Surrey to execution in January 1547, emerged from the Tower and successfully claimed custody of his grandchildren. After a few months of agonized hesitation, during which the Catholic reaction gained momentum, Foxe and his family fled, first to the Low Countries and then to Strasbourg where a community of English exiles eventually formed. The experience was to be a formative one for him, as it was for many others. With him went his books, and all the notes for his magnum opus. More by chance than intention, these consisted for the most part of work on the English Lollards, the most accessible group for his researches. In Strasbourg, uncertain of what the future might hold, and no doubt needing some money, Foxe turned these tentative notes into a book, the Commentarii Rerum in Ecclesia Gestarum, written in Latin for an educated audience, and intended as the first part of a more comprehensive work.
During the next year, while Foxe struggled to support his family, and gathered material to expand his book, the situation in England went from bad to worse. In July 1554 Mary married Philip, the Prince of Spain, and by the end of the year with his help had reconciled the English Church to the papacy. A papal legate arrived in the shape of Reginald Pole and the fifteenth-century heresy laws returned to the statute book. It became once more a capital offence to deny Catholic doctrine, and those Protestant leaders who remained in prison faced the ultimate test. Starting with John Rogers in February 1555, nearly 300 of them were to be burned alive over the next three-and-a-half years. Heretics had occasionally been burned in England since the early fifteenth century but nothing on this scale, or with this ferocity of intention, had been experienced before, which is why the Queen later acquired the soubriquet, Bloody Mary. Many who could fled, either abroad or to less accessible parts of England, and most of those who suffered were humble people, labourers or artisans, and servants of both sexes.
Both popular and aristocratic opinion in England was divided. Some welcomed the persecution as a means of restoring credit with God, but most were uneasy, or positively hostile. The King and his Spanish followers got most of the blame. Foxe, by this time in Frankfurt, was horrified. Some of the victims were personal friends of his, and all were his fellow believers. He thought of returning to England to 'testify' by his own death, but then turned instead to collecting martyr stories. Religious persecution was no longer a matter of history, or of the barbaric habits of Spain, it was suddenly flourishing in his own land. Aware of the significance of this but uncertain at first how to react to it, Foxe worked on expanding his first martyrology, and began to incorporate some material from contemporary events in England.
In November 1558 the persecution ended as abruptly as it had begun. Mary died childless at the age of forty-three, and the Cardinal Legate, Reginald Pole, followed her to the grave within a matter of hours. There was only one possible successor, Mary's half-sister Elizabeth. The alternative by hereditary right was Mary Stuart, (Mary, Queen of Scots) the granddaughter of Henry VIII's sister Margaret, via her father James v of Scotland. However, Mary was both born an alien and living in France. Moreover, she had been ignored in the Succession Act of 1543, and there was no way in which either the English or the late Queen's Habsburg in-laws would have accepted such an heir. Consequently on the November 17th, 1558 Elizabeth became Queen--and Elizabeth was a Protestant.
Unlike her sister, she made no declaration of intent, but the burnings stopped, prisoners were released, and an air of expectation grew over the next few weeks. Early in 1559 bills were introduced into Parliament for a new religious settlement. To nobody's surprise and the satisfaction of most, the Royal Supremacy--the centrepiece of Henry VIII's break with Rome--returned, but much more controversially, so did Edward's Protestantism. The Queen's wish for this was achieved through the Act of Uniformity.
As under Edward, most of Elizabeth's subjects accepted this because it was her will rather than because they liked it, and she mortgaged quite a lot of her popularity to bring the settlement about. Those who had gone into exile for their faith were, of course, delighted, and most of them returned in the first half of 1559, many of them to high favour. John Foxe did not come at once because he was busy seeing two books through the press. The first of these was the revised Rerum, containing additional material from the last few years in England. The other was the Germaniae ad Angliam Gratulatio, a salutation from the churches in Germany to the True Church now reestablished in England. Having completed these tasks, and prepared the way by suitable letters, Foxe then returned to a position in the household of his former pupil, Thomas Howard, now 4th Duke of Norfolk.
Foxe's martyrological labours had already attracted the attention of his fellow-exiles, some of whom had supported him by collecting stories and edifying letters. Among these was Edmund Grindal, who in 1559 became the new Bishop of London, when the Marian incumbent, Edmund Bonner, refused the Oath of Supremacy. Grindal quickly appreciated the significance of Foxe's labours for the new Elizabethan settlement, and with the assistance of William Cecil, now Elizabeth's Principal Secretary and influential adviser, persuaded him to redirect his efforts. The people of England needed to be persuaded that a Protestant Church was not merely the wish of the Queen, but the will of God. To achieve this they needed to be convinced that the Roman Catholic Church, and particularly its priesthood, constituted a diabolical conspiracy, not only against the True Faith but also against the English nation.
Mary had unwittingly provided useful material for such a thesis. Not only had the persecution been intense and brutal even by the standards of the time, it had also corresponded with the rule of a foreign king. Back in 1553 Protestantism had still been seen as a German import, and the 'face of an English church' was provided by the Henrician settlement. By 1558 the tables had turned, and Reformed doctrine had become associated with resistance to foreign (Spanish and papal) tyranny--and therefore much more acceptably English. With a Queen on the throne who was not only a Protestant but 'mere English' (as she was never tired of saying), the opportunity was too good to be missed. In 1560 John Foxe embarked on a new martyrology, addressed, in English, to the whole commonwealth of England, and intended to destroy both the religious and patriotic credentials of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1563 this appeared as the Acts and Monuments of the English Martyrs.
In form the Acts and Monuments was an 1,800-page blockbuster, starting with a brief survey of the early church, but concentrating mainly on England since 1400. The Lollard followers of John Wycliffe merged seamlessly into the Evangelicals of the 1530s, and then into the outright Protestants of Mary's reign. Everyone who had suffered at the hands of the Roman Church had died for the True Faith. The numerous, and sometimes profound, disagreements among them were suppressed. Where theological disagreements can be traced in the archives, they were usually ignored, and numerous submissions and recantations were quietly glossed over. Lollardy had been more a state of mind than a creed, and few had been willing to make the supreme sacrifice for it, but those who had done so now became proto-martyrs of the Reformation.
Foxe was a diligent researcher and he was assisted by others who were equally conscientious. Those of his stories that can be checked against other surviving evidence are usually accurate. However, the sources for the early period were often defective, and some of the stories are now unverifiable. When he came to the events of his own lifetime, however, he was better informed. He was also fiercely angry. Much of the Acts and Monuments is 'scissors and paste'--letters, transcripts from bishops' registers, eyewitness accounts taken down verbatim, and other verbal testimony, but where Foxe wrote his own accounts, they burn with indignation. He was unusual, even among reformers, in believing that the death penalty was inappropriate for heresy, and this gave free range to his moral indignation. How could any human being, let alone a priest, treat another with the savage cruelty of burning alive? Only men led by the Devil, and inspired by lust, greed or pride could behave in the way that Mary's bishops had behaved. We now believe that most of these men were far from being the demons that Foxe represented them to be. They were conscientiously performing a necessary task, which most of them found profoundly distasteful. Far from thirsting for their victims' blood, they would have been satisfied with the most equivocal submission. They were driven, not by the Devil, or even by the Pope, but by the Queen, whose hatred of heresy was paranoid, and who considered it to be her solemn duty to eradicate it by whatever means were available. It was a cancer which had to be cauterized.
This though did not suit John Foxe. A staunch upholder of the Royal Supremacy, he did not wish to present Mary as an evil tyrant. Some Protestant controversialists, such as Christopher Goodman, had argued that the Godly had a duty to rise up against idolatrous rulers, but Foxe remained true to Thomas Cranmer's principle of non-resistance. Tyranny could be a subjective classification, and Elizabeth, illogically but steadfastly, refused to condemn her sister's government as illegitimate. She was quite willing to destroy her predecessor's reputation, but not to represent her regime as unlawful. The line Foxe took, therefore, was that Mary had made a disastrous mistake in readmitting the authority of the Pope, and from that the whole tragedy had sprung. By placing her authority at the service of a False Church, she had allowed a corrupt priesthood to wreck their vengeance upon the Godly.
Mary therefore became, in the Acts and Monuments a deluded victim rather than a criminal. The curse of God had fallen upon her, and upon England, but for weakness and folly rather than for evil intent. She had died relatively young and childless, her husband had deserted her and 'all her purposes had gone awry'. Her kingdom had suffered harvest failure, disease and defeat in war. What more comprehensive demonstration could be given of the wrath of God against those who murdered his saints? Elizabeth was described by Foxe in his Dedication as the New Constantine, a reincarnation of the first Christian emperor who had rescued the Church from the devastating persecution of Diocletian. While Foxe struggled with the equivocal figure of Henry VIII, who had been Godly when he dismissed the Pope and brought in the English bible, but Ungodly when he harried John Lambert, the Norwich preacher, to death for his Protestant views on the sacrament in 1538, he demonized the Marian Church absolutely and uncompromisingly. His particular villains were Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester and Mary's Lord Chancellor, and Edmund Bonner, the Bishop of London. Against these two no libel, however implausible, was ignored, and their principal assistants, such as Richard Thornden, the suffragan Bishop of Dover, were given the same treatment. Foxe's main emphasis was upon the pious and patient sufferings of the martyrs, who were always presented as orthodox Edwardians and always dutifully submissive to authority, but in an interesting final section he dealt with the judgements of God upon the persecutors. He was nothing if not ruthless and simplistic in describing the horrible ends of these offenders--and occasionally quite mistaken.
The Acts and Monuments was both hugely successful and hugely controversial. In spite of its enormous size, large capital outlay and high retail cost, John Day, the printer, made a lot of money out of it. Among the affluent and the Godly, ownership of a copy became a badge of loyalty to the regime. Cecil even arranged for copies to be placed in the lodgings at court. The families of the martyrs rejoiced, and bombarded the author with new material. Committed Catholics--by this time often abroad--denounced him as a liar, and a few persecutors whose vile deaths he had chronicled revealed themselves indignantly to be alive. Those who reacted in print, such as Thomas Harding and Nicholas Harpesfield, were mostly Catholic controversialists, and it is hard at this stage to judge the impact upon the English Church itself. Foxe was rewarded with the prebend of Shipton-under-Wychwood (Salisbury Cathedral), the only preferment he was to hold for any length of time, but he came to be held in high esteem by the establishment, particularly by Grindal and Cecil.
While not prepared to give an inch to those who claimed that his martyrs were just common criminals, Foxe took his critics seriously. He was sensitive to those who pointed out errors or omissions. It soon became clear that a second edition would be needed. Demand remained buoyant, but there were corrections to be made and the agenda had changed. The Reformers' triumphalism of 1563 was replaced by anxiety at the end of the decade. Elizabeth had proved unwilling to complete her Godly Reformation in the manner that the more zealous expected. Suppose she were to die, or marry a Catholic prince? Perhaps the False Church was merely biding its time. By 1570, the date of the second edition, the political landscape had changed again. Mary Stuart had lost her Scottish crown, and was a fugitive (and prisoner) in England. Relations with Spain had deteriorated sharply, a Catholic rebellion in northern England in 1569 had failed, and the Pope was about to excommunicate Elizabeth, absolving her subjects of their allegiance.
The Acts and Monuments did not address this turmoil directly, but reflected the enhanced level of anxiety. A few discredited stories disappeared, but others replaced them, while more importantly, the emphasis shifted somewhat off recent events and onto the continuing role of martyrdom as a 'mark' of the True Church. The non-English material was expanded, but the story was taken back to the early Church in a much fuller sense, so that the similarities between the martyrs of the second century and those of the sixteenth became more marked. John Hooper, for example, became the 'new Polycarp' after a bishop in Smyrna who had been martyred in the second century. The whole work expanded to two volumes, 2,300 pages in total, but the reference to the New Constantine disappeared from the dedication. The papal excommunication of the Queen came very shortly after it was published, and was seen by both sides as a declaration of war, so the Acts and Monuments became a patriotic manifesto as well as a Protestant one. The Convocation of the Church ordered copies to be placed in cathedral churches and in the houses of senior clergy. Parishes were also urged to acquire copies, at a cost which may have been as high as ten shillings each, and display them alongside the Bible, and many did so.
By the 1570s reading Foxe's 'Book of Martyrs', or listening to it being read, had become a popular devotional exercise, and its message that the Reformed Church of England (in spite of its many defects) had passed a great test and was pleasing to God, was being widely received. There were, however, complaints about the cost, but Foxe steadfastly resisted calls for an abbreviated version. Instead an attempt was made in 1576 to issue a cheaper edition. This was probably on the initiative of Richard Day, the printer's son, and was not particularly successful. In substance it was little changed from the version of 1570.
Foxe, meanwhile, continued to work on what had by now become his Great Book. He wrote many other things, but it was this that really retained his interest and gave him his sense of purpose. In 1583 he published a fourth edition, again in two volumes and 2,100 pages. With a few exceptions the stories remained the same, but the tone was different. 1563 had been triumphant and 1570 worried, but this could be described as quietly confident. Elizabeth was by now unlikely to marry, and increasingly the Church seemed secure. Foxe, now in his sixties, had also retreated from the radical evangelicalism of twenty years before. However, as Foxe's confidence in the Queen recovered, his confidence in his fellow citizens diminished. The radical flag was now borne by the Presbyterians, who threatened to divide the Protestant cause in the face of the Catholic enemy. His dream of a Godly society, devoted to the service of Christ had withered. His sinful contemporaries were unworthy of the great sacrifices their fathers and grandfathers had made. There was now little chance of the Reformation being overthrown, but every chance that England would prove unworthy of its calling. In 1583 his introduction was a spiritual call to arms. The Church had triumphed in adversity only to languish in prosperity. With hindsight we can see that the Papal Bull of 1570, and the war which was about to break out with Spain in 1585, had sealed Foxe's victory in the struggle for 'hearts and minds', but that was not clear to him and he died, still disappointed, in 1587.
John Foxe never believed or claimed that England was an Elect Nation chosen by God, let alone a nation of the Elect, but he did believe that it enjoyed a special providence, and if he had lived to see the Armada turned back in 1588, he would have felt vindicated. When Timothy Bright at last produced an abridgement of the Acts and Monuments in 1589, he beat the patriotic drum, declaring resoundingly 'England, the first Reformed'. When the Jesuit Robert Parsons renewed the Catholic attack on Foxe in 1590, the field was already lost and he was seen to be defending the cause of Spain.
By the time that Elizabeth died in 1603 the Protestant Church was firmly imbedded in the English sense of identity. The first thing that an Englishman knew about himself was that he was not Spanish (or French); and the second thing was that he was not a Catholic. Tragic as this was for those who tried to remain loyal both to their country and to the Old Faith, English Protestantism had become one of the great mythological truths of history, and Queen Mary and John Foxe can divide the credit between them.
The Acts and Monuments is one of the foundation texts of English nationality. Only the Bible and the collected works of Shakespeare can compare in their influence, and neither had the single minded purpose of Foxe. Moreover, at a time when religious fanaticism seems again to be stirring in the world, so that it acceptable in some quarters both to die and to kill for the faith, Foxe's great tract against ideological cruelty remains relevant.
FOR FURTHER READING: J.F. Mozley, John Foxe and his Book (Octagon, 1940/1970);William Hailer, Foxe's Book of Martyrs and the Elect Nation (Cape, 1963)V. Norskov Olsen, John Foxe and the Elizabethan Church (University of California Press, 1973) W. Wooden, John Foxe (Twayne, 1983) D. Loades, ed., John Foxe and the English Reformation (Ashgate, 1997) Variorum edition on-line at http:/www.hrionline.ac.uk/foxe/
FROM THE HISTORY TODAY ARCHIVE Kathleen Sands, 'John Foxe: Exorcist' (February 2001); Greg Walker, 'Heretical Sects in Pre Reformation England' (May 1993); Diarmaid MacCulloch, 'Cranmer's Ambiguous Legacy' (June 1996); Jennifer Loach, 'Mary Tudor and the Re-Catholicisation of England' (November 1994); David Gaimster, 'Fragments of the Reformation' (May 2004). See www.historytoday.com David Loades is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Wales and editor with Eamon Duffy of The Church of Mary Tudor (June 2005).…
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Publication information: Article title: Foxes' Book of Martyrs and the Face of England. Contributors: Loades, David - Author. Magazine title: History Today. Volume: 55. Issue: 12 Publication date: December 2005. Page number: 40+. © 2009 History Today Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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