John Foxe Actes and Monuments: The Book of Martyrs

On 1 October, 1553, Mary Tudor was crowned Queen Mary I of England at Westminster Palace in London.

She was the daughter of King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, had been raised by her mother as a devout Catholic, and much like her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth she lived much of her early life in fear.

From the moment Mary succeeded to the throne she expressed her determination to roll back the Protestant Reformation and restore England to the Catholic faith. Her half-brother Edward, who reigned before her was a committed Lutheran who had done much to hasten the transformation of the country into a Protestant State but he had died on 6 July 1553, of a lung infection aged just 15, with his work still incomplete.

Prior to his death however, aware of his sister’s intentions he had altered the line of succession to ensure that he was followed as monarch by his reliably protestant cousin, the sixteen year old Lady Jane Grey.

The plans were already in place but no provision had been made to take Mary into custody should the need arise.

Following Edward’s death, Mary, with an army of her supporters marched on London. As the daughter of King Henry VIII she was seen by most people to be the rightful heir and became Queen by popular acclaim.

The reluctant “Thirteen Day Queen” Lady Jane Grey was arrested and later executed despite Mary’s promise that she would be spared.

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Being so nearly deprived not only of her inheritance but possibly her life made Mary even more determined to reverse the religious changes before they took hold and she was to introduce laws that made those who openly and actively continued to practice their Protestant faith liable to prosecution.

It was her destiny, she believed, to expunge the Protestant Heresy from England and return it to the one true Catholic faith, and it was to precipitate what has become known to history as the Marian Burnings.

Mary was encouraged in her actions by the Archbishop of Canterbury Reginald Pole, the Bishop of London Edmund Bonner, and the Lord Chancellor Stephen Gardiner.

They had all suffered and been imprisoned during the reign of Edward and were determined that they should never be so compromised again.

If Mary ever did waver in her convictions she had these men whispering sweet venom in her ear to ensure that she stayed the course.

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John Foxe was born in Boston, Lincolnshire in 1516 to a family prosperous enough to send him to Oxford University where he studied Logic but his early conversion to Protestantism and his inability to keep quiet about it at a time when England remained firmly within the Roman Catholic fold and to do so was perilous curtailed a promising academic career.

His fortunes improved somewhat during the reign of Edward VI but Mary’s ascent to the throne saw him flee abroad with his pregnant wife in fear of his life.

John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, or Book of Martyrs, was published early in the reign of Mary’s half-sister Queen Elizabeth I.

It was his response to the dark days of auto-da-fe in England and had been written whilst Foxe himself was in exile and wasn’t published in England until March, 1563.

It outlined in great detail and at great length the sufferings and sacrifices of the so-called Marian Martyrs.

The book was published in two large volumes lavishly illustrated with prints and woodcuts and ran to over two thousand pages, though it was later condensed into a single volume, and it was to cover the entire period from the early Christian Martyrs to what was then the present day, placing special emphasis on the iniquities of the Spanish Inquisition.

Its publication was to lend legitimacy to Elizabeth as the Defender of the Protestant faith and as the one person who could prevent the return of Catholic repression to England.

As a result, the book was well received, though the cost of its publication was so prohibitive that it ensured that John Foxe himself never became a wealthy man.

Nonetheless, Elizabeth, who was the first English Monarch to truly grasp the value of public relations, was quick to exploit its propaganda value and the Book of Martyrs, as it soon became known stood alongside the Bible on the lectern of many English Churches often paid for by public subscription.

Cathedrals were ordered to possess a copy and priests were expected to be able to provide one for both their household and their congregation though its cost made this a law largely ignored.

The Book of Martyrs berated superstitious popery, damned the adoration of false icons, mocked miracles and holy relics but more significantly it outlined in detail the terrible crimes committed during the reign of the old Queen Mary.

The first of the Marian Martyrs was John Rogers, A preacher at St Paul’s Cathedral. He had warned his flock against the return of pestilential popery, idolatry, and superstition, and had openly praised the – true doctrine of King Edward’s day.

He was arrested and refusing to recant was burned at the stake at Smithfield in London. His fate, Mary had hoped, would serve as a warning to others who might otherwise be inclined to continue in their heretical and sinful ways, but it was to be nothing of the sort.

Indeed, the fate of John Rogers only seemed to confirm others in the truth of his words.

Some of the victims of the Marian Burnings were high-profile.

On 16 October 1555, at Balliol College in Oxford, Nicholas Ridley, Bonner’s predecessor as Bishop of London, and Hugh Latimer, the former Chaplain to Edward VI, were cast to the flames.

Before the fires were lit Latimer shouted to the obviously terrified Ridley:

“Play the man Master Ridley, and we shall this day light a candle, by God’s Grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

But the great prize for those proponents of the restoration of Catholicism in England was Thomas Cranmer.

He had been Archbishop of Canterbury under both Henry VIII and Edward VI and along with Thomas Cromwell had been the architect of the English Reformation.

Together they forged ahead with the break from Rome, the deposition of Mary’s mother Catherine of Aragon, and the bastardisation of Mary herself.

As a result she had been placed under many years of house arrest and refused permission to visit her mother or to see her father.

For this Thomas Cranmer would be made to pay in full.

From the moment Mary ascended to the throne Cranmer was a wanted man, but despite the advice of both his family and friends, he had refused to flee the country. This may have been because he had been assured that should he recant his previous beliefs and condemn the Reformation he would be spared burning at the stake.

He was arrested and brought before the Star Chamber to hear the offences he had been charged with.

Following this he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

If Cranmer truly believed his willingness to co-operate would spare him from execution he was to be sorely mistaken. The new Establishment sought his condemnation for all that had been done in the name of the Protestant religion and nothing he could say would save him, seemingly unaware of this Cranmer went onto say a great deal.

Indeed, he could not have been more contrite.

This would not be the first time that Cranmer’s previously held convictions had crumbled under pressure. He had earlier abandoned Anne Boleyn when she fell out of favour with Henry VIII, and had distanced himself from Thomas Cromwell when he had similarly fallen from grace.

After five separate but half-hearted recantations, Cranmer disavowed Protestantism in its totality, denying all of the teachings of Martin Luther, recognising the authority of the Pope, and stating that there was no salvation outside the embrace of the Catholic Mother Church.

He could not have been more abject in his contrition. He was a blasphemer and a persecutor, he said. He was unworthy of any kindness and deserving only of punishment and eternal damnation. He even admitted to being the cause of Henry VIII’s divorce from Mary’s mother Catherine that had been the cause of so much woe in the country.

He then took confession and repented of his sins.

Following such a frank and thorough recantation the normal procedure would have been for Cranmer to be absolved of his sins and released from his captivity, but it was not to be.

At Mary’s insistence he would be burned regardless, but first he would be made to make a full public recantation and confession.

On 21 March, 1556, the 67 year old Cranmer was made to stand in the pulpit of Oxford University Church and recant of his sins in front of an invited audience.

The speech he had prepared the night before had been submitted for authorisation and thoroughly vetted.

Cranmer began his address nervously and it was remarked upon just how old and frail he looked. But as he progressed he appeared to calm down, his words became clearly audible, and the address was going as expected.

He was penitential – he prayed out loud, begged for forgiveness, and demanded of the audience that they obey the Queen in all things; but then he deviated from the prepared text and declaring his own degradation, to jeers and howls of derision from the crowd, he said in a clear and loud voice:

“I renounce and refuse the things written with my hand, contrary to the truth I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life. And for it be as much as my hand offended, writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall first be punished. For it shall be first burnt. And as for the Pope I declare him as Anti-Christ, and as Christ’s enemy with all his false doctrine.”

There was uproar, shocked and enraged those attending dragged him from the pulpit straight to his place of execution. He was bound to the stake and as the flames lapped about him he thrust the hand that had signed the recantation into the fire as he had earlier promised he would do.

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Most of the victims of the Marian Burnings were not as exalted as Latimer, Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer. They were simple people, the common people, who had embraced the new religion with the devotional fervour of those who have stumbled across a revealed truth for the first time.

No longer reliant upon a priest for the word of God, oppressed by ritual, or confused by Latin texts they were able to read a Bible written in English for themselves for the first time.

John Foxe detailed their story too.

People like Joan Waste, a blind woman from Derby who had been raised a devout Protestant and had complained that the Church services she now attended were read out in Latin. She also denied the transubstantiation saying that the bread and wine provided at Mass was no more than what it appeared to be.

For this she was arrested and charged with heresy.

At her trial she was accused of purchasing an English translation of the New Testament and of paying people a penny a time to read it to her.

Found guilty she was burned at the stake on 1 August, 1556.

Mary desired that her people be reconciled back into the Catholic faith and insisted that the heresy trials be conducted according to the law and without vindictiveness. As such, many of the accused were offered a pardon if they recanted in full, most refused.

But despite Mary’s demand that the Authorities behave judiciously the Heresy Trials were soon to become an anti-Protestant witch-hunt that provided some with the opportunity for revenge.

On the Island of Guernsey a woman, Katherine Cowchen lived with her daughters Guillemine Gilbert and Perrotine Massey. When Perrotine informed the Authorities that another woman, Vincent Gosset, had stolen a gold goblet from her, Gosset accused the family of being heretics.

All three women were tried, found guilty, and condemned to be burned at the stake. Perrotine Massey had not informed anyone that she was pregnant and as the fires were lit the sheer terror of it induced her to give birth. Someone rushed forward from the crowd to rescue the baby from the flames but the Sheriff ordered that it be thrown back onto the fire.

Being burned at the stake was no guarantee of a quick death.

Fires could go out and need to be re-lit with only part of the body burned. A change of wind direction could leave the victim badly burnt on one side but untouched on the other. Limbs could fall off and eyes pop out whilst the victim was still alive, and it was not unusual for the accused to still be alive up to an hour after the first flames had been lit.

Sometimes gunpowder would be placed among the faggots to provide for a quicker and more merciful death.

There were to be many victims of Mary’s religious intolerance and the vengeful fervour of her over-zealous acolytes.

In total 277 people were burned at the stake for remaining true to their faith during the five years of Mary’s reign, including nine in a single day at Lewes in Sussex, another 30 died in prison whilst awaiting execution.

John Foxe assiduously recorded them all, and with the exception of the King James Bible no other book has had such a profound influence upon the growth and spread of Protestantism not just in England but around the world.

He only returned to Elizabethan England once he felt assured that Catholic worship would never again be tolerated except by force of arms and that any attempt to reinstate it would be resisted to its fullest measure.

Having dedicated the book to Elizabeth he was disappointed to learn that there would be no reward.

The ascendancy of the Protestant faith in England should have been reward enough of course but that did not put bread on the table.

But he had many admirers and his fortunes would fluctuate according to mood and temper for though amiable by nature he could often be truculent and scorn help.

He also fell out with many of his more vehement adherents who could not understand how a man so violently anti-Catholic in word so hated violence in deed and disavowed bloodshed.
But then his book had done as much to kill Catholicism in England as the unsheathing of any sword.

Mary’s attempt to re-establish Catholicism in England ultimately failed.

Her sister Elizabeth who succeeded her as Queen would return the country to Protestantism with the declaration that she ‘would not make windows into people’s souls’, and embraced John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as a useful propaganda tool in the Protestant cause.

It, along with the behaviour of Mary, was a constant reminder to the people what the return of Catholicism to England would mean.

John Foxe would die on 15 April 1587, just a year before the Spanish Armada.

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