John Foxe: Exorcist

By Sands, Kathleen R. | History Today, February 2001 | Go to article overview

John Foxe: Exorcist


Sands, Kathleen R., History Today


Kathleen Sands reveals a little-known episode in the career of the famous English martyrologist.

THE EARLY MODERN English cleric John Foxe (1516-87) is best known today for his influential Protestant martyrology published in English in 1563 as Acts and Monuments of These Latter and Perilous Days, better known as The Book of Martyrs. In his own time, however, Elizabeth I's `Good Father Foxe' was renowned for much more than just this work. By the 1570s, when he was in his fifties, Foxe had become very famous, a favourite of both the Queen and her principal minister, William Cecil, Lord Burghley. In addition to his masterpiece, other works of Foxe's were widely read at the time, including his acclaimed Sermon of Christ Crucified, as well as biographies and editions of the works of Protestant martyrs such as William Tyndale and Robert Barnes. Respected even by conformist churchmen despite his reformist views, he worked with Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker on an edition of the proposals for a revised canon law, as well as an edition of the Anglo-Saxon gospels with a parallel text of the Bishops' Bible. Among the common people, however, Foxe was familiar primarily as a working minister: a well-liked preacher and evangelist, a celebrated prophet, healer, and dispenser of wisdom and charity, a cult figure approached by all sorts of people in need of alms, prayers, and spiritual healing.

This last course of action, spiritual healing, was necessary in cases of extreme mental distress -- cases in which the sufferer felt so mired in sin and guilt that he despaired of his eternal salvation and contemplated suicide. To a society that almost universally subscribed to the idea that Satan was an immediate, palpable, intelligent, and physical presence in the world of men, such extreme mental distress was sometimes perceived as demon possession. The casting out of the possessing demon by a godly man, a practice modelled repeatedly by Christ in the gospel narratives, had been considered a venerable and powerful weapon against evil for centuries. The exorcism of an evil spirit testified to the exorcist's favour in the eyes of God and the status of the exorcist's church as the true church. In post-Reformation England, which was officially hostile to Roman Catholicism but inhabited by a considerable Catholic population, the casting out of demons sometimes surfaced as a means by which the antagonistic religious factions could win converts away from the other side. Foxe's performance of this spiritual service (which the Protestants called `dispossession' rather than `exorcism'), was therefore quite in line with his roles as ministering cleric and Protestant propagandist. On Saturday, April 24th, 1574, he performed this service for a law student named Robert Brigges, freeing the latter from the clutches of no less a demon than Satan himself.

Then thirty years old, a responsible husband and father, Brigges was in his final year of a rigorous course of study at the Middle Temple to prepare himself for a career as a barrister. A wealthy and well-educated gentleman, Brigges had been raised in the predominantly Catholic county of Westmorland in the north-west of England, very probably in a Catholic family. Upon his move to London, he had encountered much theological schism, since the membership of the Middle Temple included both Catholics and radical Protestants, and the weekly sermons and theological lectures were delivered by both Calvinists and non-Calvinists. To further exacerbate spiritual confusion, he knew that upon his call to the bar some time during the following year he would be required to swear the oath of supremacy, an act effectively repudiating the Roman Church. No oath, no career. To remain loyal to the faith of his youth would be tantamount to an abdication of his responsibility to support his wife and child.

The profoundly difficult decision to convert to Protestantism prompted Brigges's mental collapse. …

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