John Foxe and a Book That Inspired Generations
In 1563, the Protestant scholar John Foxe published a book with the typically long title Actes and Monuments of these latter and perilous days, touching matters of the Church, wherein are comprehended and described the great persecutions and horrible troubles that have been wrought and practiced by the Romish prelates, specially in this realm of England and Scotland, from the year of our Lord 1000 unto the time now present; gathered and collected according to the true copies and writings certificatory, as well of the parties themselves that suffered, as also out of the bishops' registers, which were the doers thereof; by John Foxe. The book, immediately known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs, became one of the most influential texts in Europe, remaining recommended reading in England for centuries.
Born at Boston, Lincolnshire, in 1517, John Foxe lived during turbulent times, witnessing England’s shift from the Roman Catholic Church to an independent state church run by King Henry VIII, then to a fully protestant church under Edward VI, going back to the Church of Rome under Mary I, and finally returning to Protestantism with Elizabeth I.
While some English people resisted change and clung to the safety of the religion they had known, Foxe embraced enthusiastically the teachings of the Protestant Reformation – probably, as it was the case with many young men, while he was in college. His tendencies were noticed by the conservative masters, who pressured him to the point that he called his college “a prison.”
Due to this pressure, and to a statute requiring every university fellow to take vows as Roman Catholic priest, he left his studies in 1545, preferring to face poverty and insecurity than to pursue a stable career against his conscience. He found work as private tutor. Around the same time, he married Agnes Randall, a “woman of some position.” Their marriage was happy. Foxe called Agnes his “faithful comfort.” Apparently, he learned an important lesson for husbands: when it was his wife’s turn to need comfort, if he couldn’t find a remedy, he would, “in assurance of his love … weep for her.”
While tutoring, he met and conversed with many English Reformers. He was especially influenced by the historian John Bale, who became one of his closest friends and introduced him to valuable historical manuscripts.
In the early months of 1554, after Mary’s ascension to the English throne, Foxe reluctantly set sail with his pregnant wife, reached the continent and settled first in Strasbourg, then in Zurich, and, for a short time, in Frankfurt.
Due to a controversy involving the use of the Book of Common Prayer among English exiles (Foxe defended John Knox who was expelled by Richard Cox – an excellent set up for a children’s rhyme), Foxe moved from Frankfurt to Basel, Switzerland, where he was reunited with Bale and began working with the city’s printers.
By this time, he had already written a first work of martirology, Commentarii rerum in ecclesia gestarum, focusing largely on English martyrs such as the Lollards. When, by early 1555, Mary started to burn Protestants, Foxe received a large number of reports by those who had managed to flee. It was an enormous amount of information, because Mary managed to execute over three hundred people over matters of faith. He also received news from other countries. His work of research, verification, and compilation of sources continued after Foxe’s return to England in 1559. The ensuing book, Acts and Monuments, first published in Latin in 1559 and then in an updated English version in 1563, was an immediate bestseller and was reprinted in three subsequent editions just during Foxe’s lifetime.
Less known is Foxe’s role as pastor (he was ordained priest in the Church of England in 1559), translator, and author of lesser works. Some of these were exhortations on several issues, such as a reform of canon law (including a controversial track on the abolition of the death penalty for adultery) and an appeal to Elizabeth’s council to desist from burning Anabaptists. He also wrote a plea to the Anabaptists to abandon their doctrines which he, as other orthodox Protestants, considered heretic. He participated in the controversy about vestments and wrote a collection of articles on the Lord’s Supper (begging Catholics to consider the irrationality of transubstantiation).
In 1563, he was among those who stayed in London to minister to those who had been afflicted by the plague, and wrote a booklet of comfort to the sufferers and bereaved, which included a passionate appeal to the wealthy to provide financial aid. One of his daughters might have died at this time.
Foxe died in 1587, famous but not wealthy. We know he had at least four children, but only two survived to adulthood, Samuel the diarist and Simeon the physician.
The first English edition of Acts and Monuments was published by John Day, who invested much time and money on this project, paying for expensive woodcuts portraying terrifying scenes of burnings and torture. The result was a massive volume, containing about 1800 pages. It included the Commentarii rerum and an introductory overview of church history, linking the suffering of the early church martyrs to the present.
It was, in part, an answer to a question Roman Catholics had posed to Protestants ever since Luther began to question unbiblical traditions and papal authority, “Are you alone wise?” In other words, “After 1500 years of church history, you have suddenly found the only truth?” Foxe showed continuity in the history of a persecuted church, this time with the papacy on the side of the antichrist. After all, over three hundred Christians had just been burned on the stake in England. Foxe included a calendar of martyrs.
The information contained in Foxe’s book was obviously challenged by Roman Catholics. Foxe responded by accepting some of the corrections and contesting others. Overall, Foxe’s work as historian remains impressive, meticulously correlated with references (many of which are now lost). While he had an obvious agenda and was therefore selective in his choice of accounts, later research has confirmed most of his descriptions, making the book a valuable source of historical information.
Though pricey (a middle-class man would have had to save his pay for three months in order to buy it), the book was a great success, and Foxe and Day immediately considered a second edition, enriched by the large quantity of new information Foxe continued to receive. The second edition, published in 1570, was even bulkier and more graphic than the first.
By the 17th century, the book was present in virtually every English parish, together with the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. It continued to inspire generations of Christians, and was still regularly read to children in the 19th century.
 Quotations from a memoir written by Simeon Foxe, son of John and Agnes, annexed to the 1641 edition of Acts and Monuments. Quoted in Carole Levin, Anna Riehl Bertolet, Jo Eldridge Carney, eds., A Biographical Encyclopedia of Early Modern Englishwomen: Exemplary Lives and Memorable Acts, 1500-1650, Routledge, 2016, p. 150.