Voices of the English Reformation: A Sourcebook

By John N. King | Go to book overview

6.5. John Foxe, from
The Book of Martyrs

John Foxe (1516–87) compiled the The Book of Martyrs under the auspices of John Day, the zealously Protestant printer. They collaborated on four everexpanding editions (1563, 1570, 1576, and 1583) that ballooned to more than three million words before they died. The collection contains hundreds of martyrologies from the time of the Roman emperors onward, but its focus is the burning of more than three hundred Protestants during the reign of Mary I. This book and its famous illustrations (see Figures 5, 8, 10, 12, and 13) were widely known in Elizabethan England because ordinary people could read, hear, or look at pictures in chained copies placed in churches, guildhalls, and schools.

Foxe identifies “true” sainthood with the act of witnessing to religious faith. In contrast to medieval legends of saints that celebrate alleged miracles, cures, and magical feats, he supplies instances of providential intervention to deliver the faithful or punish their opponents. The compiler inflamed Protestant fervor against the pope and the Church of Rome by attaching partisan comments to his narratives. In addition to scores of stories about ordinary individuals, the collection features well-known persons such as Anne Askew (see 6.1). Her Examinations typify the conventional movement from apprehension to interrogation by authorities to being burned alive after refusing to recant and delivering an eloquent testimonial of faith. In many instances, Foxe assimilates separately printed texts into the collection. Its reliability came under attack soon after its initial publication (see 6.9).

EDITION: Foxe 2000.

REFERENCES: Gregory; King 1989; Loades 1997; Loades 1999; White 1963.


A. From the Life of William Tyndale (1570)

Constructed out of divergent manuscripts and printed books, Foxe’s martyrology celebrates William Tyndale (c. 1495–1536) as “the Apostle of England.” The 1570 life differs markedly from the 1563 version, having undergone careful revision and expansion based upon research into diocesan registers and Tyndale’s own books. The preamble summarizes the translator’s education at Oxford University, where he instructed students and fellows in the Bible. The narrative then recounts how he outwitted unlearned clerics at Little Sodbury, Gloucester, because of his mastery of the Bible. Foxe’s source preserves the echo of Erasmus’s Paradesis in Tyndale’s famous claim that he would cause a plowboy to surpass the biblical knowledge of a Catholic cleric.

Foxe resorts to The Obedience of a Christian Man (see 1.2.A) to recount Tyndale’s goal of translating the Bible so that common people might understand it without mediation through nonscriptural traditions of the Catholic clergy. The compiler uses other writings by Tyndale to flesh out the story of how Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London and trusted servant of Henry VIII, declined to patronize the translation project. The narrative concludes with Tyndale’s migration to

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