Foxe's Book of Martyrs

Foxe's Book of Martyrs

"The Book of Martyrs", by John Foxe, is an apocalyptically-oriented, English Protestant account of the persecutions of Protestants, mainly in England, many of whom had died for their beliefs within the decade immediately preceding its first publication. It was first published by John Day, in 1563. Lavishly produced and illustrated with many woodcuts, when issued it was the largest publishing project undertaken in Britain up to that time. Commonly known as, "Foxe's Book of Martyrs", the work's full title begins with "Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Church." There were many subsequent editions, also by Day, who worked closely with Foxe.

A Work of the Reformation

Published early the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, of England, only five years after the death of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary, the work is an affirmation of the Protestant Reformation in England during the ongoing period of religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Since the English monarchs also asserted control over the Church in England, a change in rulers could change the legal status of religious practices. As a consequence, adherents of one religion risked judicial execution by the State depending on the attitudes of the rulers. During Mary's reign, common people of Christian faith were publicly burned at the stake in an attempt to eliminate dissension from Catholic doctrines.

Foxe's account of Mary's reign and the martyrdoms that took place during it contributed very significantly to the belief in a distinction from the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope as a central aspect of English national identity. By compiling his record, Foxe intended to demonstrate a historical justification for the foundation of the Church of England as a contemporary embodiment of the true and faithful church, rather than as a newly established Christian denomination.

Outline structure

The work was therefore set in a historic perspective. The "First Part" covered early Christian martyrs, a brief history of the medieval church, including the Inquisitions, and a history of the Wycliffite or Lollard movement. During the period of the English Reformation, Foxe and others interpreted Wycliffe as a forerunner (or indeed "the morning star") of the Reformation, pointing the way toward the foundation and establishment of the Church of England.

The "Second Part" dealt with the turbulent reign of Henry VIII, and with that of Edward VI, in which the dispute with Rome had led to the separation of the English Church from papal authority, the foundation of the Church of England, and the issuing of the English Book of Common Prayer.

The "Third Part" was then concerned with the reign of Queen Mary and with the Marian Persecutions. The partisan agenda behind the church history of the earlier portion of the book, with its grotesque stories of popes and monks, possibly contributed to anti-Roman Catholic thought in England: this attitude, however, was also based on the actual experience and public example of the burnings, authorized by the notorious Roman Catholic Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner, and carried out by his agents following inquisitions of the victims often led by the Bishop himself.

Foxe's account of the Marian years is based on Robert Crowley's 1559 extension of a 1549 chronicle history by Thomas Cooper, itself an extension of a work begun by Thomas Lanquet. (Cooper who became a Church of England Bishop) strongly objected to Crowley's version of his history and soon issued two new "correct" editions. Cooper, Crowley and Foxe had all been students and fellows together at Magdalen College, at Oxford University. Foxe and Crowley both resigned from the college, apparently under pressure: Foxe then wrote to the college president objecting that all three had been persecuted by masters in the college, for holding evangelical beliefs.

Evaluation and perspectives

For the English Church, Foxe's book remains a fundamental witness to the sufferings of faithful Christian people at the hands of the anti-Protestant Roman Catholic authorities, and to the miracle of their endurance unto death, sustained and comforted by the faith to which they bore living witness as Christian martyrs. Foxe emphasizes these actions as motivated by the right of English people to hear or read the Holy Scriptures and understand them in their own language, and so to receive their message in their own hearts rather than as mediated through the priesthood. Their valour in the face of persecution is a historical component of English identity.

Roman Catholics often view Foxe's record of this period as extremely partisan and the primary propaganda piece for English anti-Catholicism. Among other objections, the accuracy of Foxe's claims regarding martyrdoms under Mary ignore the mingled political and religious aspects of the time period. Some of the victims may have been intent on removing Mary from the throne. [Hughes, "Reformation in England" (5th ed.), II, pp. 255-274, 288-293; Loades, "Reign of Mary Tudor", pp. 273-288.]

Although the work is more accurate when dealing with events during Foxe's time, it is generally not a correct or impartial account of the period, and includes occasional "wilful falsification of evidence" ["John Foxe", 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica] .

Development in later editions

Foxe continued to collect material and to expand the work throughout his life, producing three revised editions. After the completion of the second edition (1570), the Convocation ordered that every cathedral church should own a copy.

Foxe's work was enormous (the second edition filling two heavy folio volumes with a total of 2,300 pages – estimated to be twice as long as Edward Gibbons', "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

In later years abridged editions, often also containing accounts of later persecutions, were produced.

The passionate intensity of the style and the vivid and picturesque dialogues made it very popular among all Protestant readers from the time of its first appearance, and it remained so among Puritan and Evangelical Anglican congregations until the 19th Century.


ee also

* Martyrology
* "Martyrs Mirror" (1660), by Thieleman J. van Braght

External links

* [ Complete e-book] at [ Christian Classics Ethereal Library]
* John Foxe. [ "Acts and Monuments." The Variorum Edition.] (hriOnline, Sheffield 2004).
* [ Foxe Digital Project] (Ohio State University) Images of selected woodcuts and sections of text on the "Book of Martyrs".
* [ Catholic Encyclopedia entry]
* [ "Text of the Book"] of martyrs (unabridged, but not yet complete)
* [ chapter selections of Foxs Book of Martyrs]

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  • Foxe, John — (1516–87)    Historian.    Foxe was a native of Lincolnshire and was educated at the University of Oxford. He was acquainted with John bale who encouraged his interest in history and he was ordained in 1550 by Nicholas ridley. During the reign of …   Who’s Who in Christianity

  • Foxe, John —  (1516–1587) English clergyman, most remembered for the book commonly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs; not to be confused with George Fox (1624–1691), founder of the Society of Friends, or Quakers …   Bryson’s dictionary for writers and editors

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