THE ACTS AND MONUMENTS OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH
by
JOHN FOXE (or FOX)

Introduction

The Times

There was never a worse place or time to be religious than Europe in the 16th Century. These were cruel times. There was the death penalty for all but the most petty offences, and hangings were a popular spectator sport. Indeed, hanging was a lenient punishment: flaying, impaling, breaking on the wheel, and being hung upside down and sawn through from groin to scalp were alternatives. Lesser crimes such as begging were punished with flogging, branding or mutilation. Torture was widespread and trials, if held at all, often a travesty of justice. Warfare, too, was conducted with the utmost brutality; massacre, rape and pillage of the civilian population were standard practice, and the slaughter of enemy prisoners was common, sometimes even including those who had been promised their lives if they surrendered.

Religious hatred made things even worse. Reading Foxe, or other authors of the time, whether Protestant or Catholic, it is striking how absolutely certain everyone was that not only were they right, but that their opponents were the agents of Satan. (See here for a Catholic example and here for a Calvinist one). Foxe knew that the Pope was the Antichrist predicted by the Bible in the same way as he knew that water was wet or that the sun went round the earth. From this certainty sprang the intolerance from which persecution arises. It was argued, that if a murderer, who only slew the body, deserved death; how much more deserving of death was a heretic, whose evil falsehoods could destroy the victim's soul. This being so, it was clear that any means could and should be used to stamp out these devil's spawn. Both sides believed that there was only one true religion and all deviation from it was hellish; they only differed about which religion it was. Catholics persecuted Protestants and vice versa; each side persecuted its own heretics with equal vigour. In Eastern Europe, the Orthodox faith was both perpetrator and victim. In England, the official religion changed four times in less than thirty years, and each change was accompanied by persecution of those who would not change with it. The division of Europe into Catholic and Protestant powers, often at war with one another, meant that in some countries (especially England) preaching the wrong religion was regarded as supporting the enemy and punished as treason.

The Book

John Foxe or Fox (1518-1587), a staunchly Protestant divine, wrote his book as this story seen from the Protestant point of view. The Acts and Monuments of the Christian Church, better known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs, was first published in English in 1563. (see Bibliographic Note). In this enormously long history of the Church from the death of Christ to the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, he is anxious to prove firstly the complete hatefulness, evil and corruption of the Catholic church, the papacy and the monastic orders, and secondly to assert the right of the monarch to appoint bishops and clergy, and to dispose of church property and income at will. Everything (and that means everything) which supports this view goes in; everything which does not is either left out, glossed over, or rejected as ipso facto untrue because asserted by his opponents. For example, his treatment of Savonarola is breathtaking in its omissions. To read Foxe's account, one would think that Savonarola was a humble monk, plucked from his cell and burned for preaching a few sermons -- there is not a word about his capture of the government of Florence, theocratic rule (with bonfires of vanities,) nor of his inciting a French army to invade Italy and occupy Florence; still less of his claims to possess miraculous powers. If his sources support his prejudices, however, his credulity knows no bounds; he is as ready to peddle the myth of Jewish blood-sacrifices of Christian children as he is to believe in the foundation of the church in England by Joseph of Arimathea. When he gets closer to his own times, however, his accounts are in most cases taken from eye-witness evidence or official documents and must be accepted as basically factual. There is no doubt that Protestants were savagely persecuted by Henry VIII and especially by Mary I and that this contributed to the fear and hatred which animates the book. The gruesome and enormously detailed accounts of the martyrdoms of Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer and all the other victims of Bloody Mary's tyranny are sober fact. Nonetheless, any students tempted to regard the book as a work of history are warned to check anything Foxe says with some more even-handed historian before reproducing it. (We recommend Reformation: Europe's House Divided by Diarmaid MacCulloch)

Influence

Foxe's Book of Martyrs was very widely read and had a deep influence on English thinking for centuries. In the Seventeenth century, it contributed to what historians have called the "Catholic myth"; that is the belief that English Catholics, in reality a powerless and beleaguered minority, were a vast conspiracy ready to seize any opportunity to overthrow the state, enslave the people, introduce the Inquisition etc. It is arguable that this belief was one of the principal causes of the English Civil War, and quite certain that it was a cause of the rebellion of Monmouth and the "Popish Plot" conspiracy, not to mention the expulsion of James II in the "Glorious Revolution". A century later, the Gordon riots of 1780 drew most of their strength from it; in the words of Dickens in Barnaby Rudge:

. . . the air was filled with whispers of a confederacy among the Popish powers to degrade and enslave England, establish an inquisition in London, and turn the pens of Smithfield market into stakes and cauldrons; when terrors and alarms which no man understood were perpetually broached, both in and out of Parliament, by one enthusiast who did not understand himself, and bygone bugbears which had lain quietly in their graves for centuries, were raised again to haunt the ignorant and credulous.

Well into the Nineteenth century these ideas were widespread. In vulgar form they were held among the less educated. George Eliot refers to this often, though of course she was too sensible to share them. Among the more educated and civilised, they were believed in a more educated and civilised way - see the introduction . William Cobbett, in his equally but oppositely biased History of the Protestant Reformation (pub. 1826) devotes some space to refuting Foxe.

And today? Ian Paisley and his followers certainly sleep with it under the pillow, as do some Scottish Presbyterians and US Deep South fundamentalists, and the religion described in Philip Pullman's Dark Materials series bears a close resemblance to the Catholic church as imagined by Foxe. (Most modern opponents of the Catholic church, however, have entirely different reasons for their views.) In his splendid book The English, Jeremy Paxman makes the case that Foxe, more than anyone else, is responsible for the half-fearful, half-contemptuous attitude of many English people towards their fellow-Europeans:

This sense of being uniquely persecuted and uniquely guarded must, obviously, be connected with religious belief. But the relevant text is not in the Bible. It is John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, a lurid piece of propaganda detailing the suffering and death of Protestants executed during Queen Mary's attempt to turn England back to Rome. It ought to be taken as the third Testament of the English Church. The book first appeared in 1563. It had expanded by 1570, the year of Elizabeth's excommunication, to 2,300 pages of often gory descriptions of the oppression of English Protestants at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. Anglican authorities ordered it to be displayed in churches across the country, and the illiterate had it read to them. It stayed on show in many churches for centuries, a ready reference for anyone who doubted the willingness of English-men and -women to die for their beliefs. By the end of the seventeenth century, perhaps 10,000 copies were in circulation. Throughout much of the following hundred years, new editions were produced, often in the form of serializations: after the Bible, it was the most widely available book in the land.

John Foxe's purpose in describing the executions of the victims of persecution was to demonstrate the Church of England as "the renewing of the ancient church of Christ:" it was the church in Rome that was deviant. Christianity, Foxe suggested, had arrived in England in the reign of King Lucius of Colchester, and only later with missionaries from Rome. (Another fable, the Glastonbury Legend, tells, of course, that Joseph of Arimathea brought Christianity -- and the Holy Grail -- to England soon after the crucifixion.) The accession of Mary to the throne, and the reign of terror that followed as she tried to restore the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church, was, therefore, some mad aberration. . . . .

The influence of this great tract must have been profound. At a religious level, the historian Owen Chadwick believes that

"the steadfastness of the victims, from Ridley and Latimer downwards, baptized the English Reformation in blood and drove into English minds the fatal association of ecclesiastical tyranny with the See of Rome ... Five years before, the Protestant cause was identified with church robbery, destruction, irreverence, religious anarchy. It was now beginning to be identified with virtue, honesty, and loyal English resistance to a half-foreign government."

Not only did The Book of Martyrs identify the Roman Catholic Church with tyranny, it associated the English with valour. Any citizen could enter almost any church and discover for themselves the ruthlessness of foreign powers. They learned at the same time of the unbending courage of the English casualties. The effect of the book was not merely to dignify English Protestantism and demonize Roman Catholicism, but to hammer home the idea of themselves as a people alone. Being embattled had a moral purpose.

It sometimes seems that the English need to think of themselves like this . . . .
(Extract from pp. 89-91 of the 1st edition, Michael Joseph, London, 1999. Copyright, and quoted by Mr. Paxman's permission, which is gratefully acknowledged)

 

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Table of Contents

PART 1 (A.D. 33-1360)
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VOL.1 From the Death of Jesus Christ to
Frederic Barbarossa

VOL.1 From the Death of Jesus Christ to
Frederic Barbarossa

Glossary

PART 2 (A.D. 1360-1512)
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VOL.2 From Thomas Becket to
King Edward III

VOL.2 From Thomas Becket to
King Edward III

List of Illustrations

PART 3 (A.D. 1512-1540)
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VOL.3 From King Edward III to
King Henry V.

VOL.3 From King Edward III to
King Henry V.

Bibliographic note

PART 4 (A.D. 1540-1555)
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VOL.4 From John Huss to
the Death of Pope Julius II

VOL.4 From John Huss to
the Death of Pope Julius II

 

PART 5 (A.D. 1555)
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VOL.5 The Reformation in Europe

VOL.5 The Reformation in Europe

 

PART 6 (1556-1559)
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VOL.6 The Reign of King Henry VIII. - Part I.

VOL.6 The Reign of King Henry VIII. - Part I.

 

 

VOL.7 The Reign of King Henry VIII. - Part II.

VOL.7 The Reign of King Henry VIII. - Part II.

 

 

VOL.8 The Reign of King Edward VI.

VOL.8 The Reign of King Edward VI.

 

 

VOL.9 The Reign of Queen Mary I. - Part I.

VOL.9 The Reign of Queen Mary I. - Part I.

 

 

VOL.10 The Reign of Queen Mary I. - Part II.

VOL.10 The Reign of Queen Mary I. - Part II.

 

 

VOL.11 The Reign of Queen Mary I. - Part III.

VOL.11 The Reign of Queen Mary I. - Part III.

 

 

VOL.12 The Reign of Queen Mary I. - Part IV.

VOL.12 The Reign of Queen Mary I. - Part IV.

 

 

VOL.13 The Reign of Queen Mary I. - Part V.

VOL.13 The Reign of Queen Mary I. - Part V.

 

 

VOL.14 Addenda

 

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