John Foxe was one of the most influential writers of the English Reformation. In the forty years between 1547 and his death, he produced some forty works in English and Latin. However, both in his own lifetime and since and has been principally known for only one of them, The Acts and Monuments of the English Martyrs.
Foxe commenced The Acts and Monuments during the reign of Edward VI (r1547-53) as an historical justification of the Reformation, along the lines of The Image of Both Churches, published in London in 1545 by his friend John Bale. Foxe's intention was to portray human history as a cosmic struggle between the forces of Christ and Antichrist, in which the Protestants represented the latest incarnation of the true Church. This task was interrupted, and Foxe himself forced into exile, by the access of the Catholic Queen Mary (r1553-8). He was consequently driven into print earlier than he had intended, and the Commentarii Rerum in Ecclesia Gestarum, which he published in Strasburg in 1554, was only a very partial realisation of his intention. In spite of expressing the purpose of the text as tracing the working of the Holy Spirit since the fourteenth century, the Commentarii Rerum dealt almost entirely with the English Lollards.
The persecution which began in England in January 1555 changed Foxe's agenda. The victims of the persecution were his own friends and colleagues. Not only did they, and the cause for which they had died, urgently required justification, but Foxe became bitterly angry at the infliction of such cruelty so close to home. Nevertheless his plans did not immediately change. In 1559 in Basle, he produced an expanded version of his original work under the title Rerum in Eccesia Gestarum, which contained primarily a list of the recent victims in England.
Following the accession of Queen Elizabeth (r 1558-1603), and the pressures and opportunities which that generated, Foxe turned his attention to the traumatic events of the last few years. Persuaded by his friend, Edmund Grindal, and partly by the published, John Day, he commenced work on a major new martyrology in English. Foxe was now not only concerned to justify the Reformation, and to vindicate the sufferings of those who had recently died, but also to support the new Protestant establishment of Elizabeth with the most powerful propaganda he could command. The result was The Acts and Monuments of these latter and perilous days, published in London in 1563.
Commencing with the "unbinding of Satan", which he dated to the late-thirteenth century, he recanted the persecutions inflicted upon the "godly, as the English Protestants of his day are now often called. He did so, of course, with particular reference to England, and specific attention to the Marian period. This very large book over over eighteen hundred folio pages, made an immediate impact with its extensive documentation and impassioned polemic. Foxe was bombarded with criticism, but was also provided with large quantities of new material by the friends and families of those who had suffered. Once created, this magnum opus dominated the remainder of his life.
He produced new editions in 1570, 1576 and 1583, each to a slightly different agenda. In 1563 he had been triumphalist; Elizabeth was the new Contstantine who had defeated the forces of evil, and God was using England in a special way to prepare for his second coming. In 1570, he was apprehensive that the enemy was not totally defeated, and returned to his original intention by including much material on the early persecutions of the Church. By 1583, he was reasonably sure that the Reformation had triumphed in England, but he remained very uncertain that the new generation of Englishmen were worthy of their calling.
Foxe died in April 1587, by which time his book was a national institution. In 1570 the Privy Council had ordered it to be set up in cathedral churches alongside the English Bible. Many parishes followed suit, despite the expense of acquiring a work which (by then) ran to two folio volumes and over two thousand pages. After the author's death, the Acts and Monuments was abridged in 1589, and issued in new full editions in 1596 and 1610.
Foxe never intended his work to be a particular celebration of England. His later editions devoted much space to the continental martyrs, and his conception of godliness knew no national boundaries or priorities. Nevertheless, it became a foundation stone of English Protestant nationalism, thanks largely to Elizabeth's longevity, which gave her Settlement a chance to take root.
Subsequent generations used it, abridged it, and rewrote it to suit their own purposes. In 1632, a new edition added material on the imminence of a new persecution, which effectively converted it from a work supporting a Protestant establishment into a polemic for a godly opposition; and in that form it had great influence on such puritan leaders as William Prynne, John Bunyan and George Foxe. Further editions appeared in the significant years 1641 and 1684, and during the eighteenth century bowdlerised and adapted versions maintained the popular appeal of anticatholicism throughout the Enlightenment.
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