Foxes' Book of Martyrs and the Face of England

By Loades, David | History Today, December 2005 | Go to article overview

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. …

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