John Foxe (1517 – April 18, 1587), martyrologist, is remembered as the author of what is popularly known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs, an account of Christian martyrs throughout history but especially emphasizing the sufferings of English Protestants from the fourteenth century through the reign of Mary I. Widely owned and read by English Puritans, the book helped mould British and American popular opinion about Catholicism for several centuries.
Foxe took his bachelor's degree on July 17, 1537, his master's degree in July 1543, and was lecturer of logic, 1539-40. A series of letters in Foxe's handwriting dated to 1544-45, shows Foxe to be "a man of friendly disposition and warm sympathies, deeply religious, an ardent student, zealous in making acquaintance with scholars. By the time he was twenty-five, he had read the Latin and Greek fathers, the schoolmen, the canon law, and had "acquired no mean skill in the Hebrew language.
After being forced to abandon what might have been a promising academic career, Foxe experienced a period of dire need. Hugh Latimer invited Foxe to live with him, but Foxe eventually became a tutor in the household of Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, near Stratford-on-Avon. Here Foxe married Agnes Randall on February 3, 1547 and shortly thereafter left the Lucys.
Foxe was ordained deacon by Nicholas Ridley on June 24, 1550, and his circle of friends, associates, and supporters included John Hooper, William Turner, John Rogers, William Cecil, and most importantly John Bale, who was to become a close friend and "certainly encouraged, very probably guided, Foxe in the composition of his first martyrology. From 1548 to 1551, Foxe brought out one tract opposing the death penalty for adultery and another supporting ecclesiastical excommunication of those whom he thought "veiled ambition under the cloak of Protestantism." He also worked unsuccessfully to prevent the two burnings for religion that occurred during the reign of Edward VI.
In the fall of 1554 Foxe moved to Frankfurt, where he served as a preacher for the English church ministering to refugees in the city. There he was unwillingly drawn into a bitter theological controversy. One faction favored the church polity and liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer while the other advocated Reformed models promoted by John Calvin's Genevan church. The latter group, led by John Knox, was supported by Foxe; the former was led by Richard Cox. (In other words, the exiles were divided into Knoxians and Coxians.) Eventually Knox—who seems to have acted with the greater magnanimity—was expelled, and in the fall of 1555, Foxe and about twenty others also left Frankfurt. Although Foxe clearly favored Knox, he was irenic by temperament and expressed his disgust at "the violence of the warring factions.
Moving to Basel, Foxe worked with his fellow countrymen John Bale and Lawrence Humphrey at the drudgery of proofreading. (Educated Englishmen were noted for their learning, industry, and honesty and "would also be the last persons to quarrel with their bread and butter." No knowledge of German or French was required because the English tended to socialize with each other and could communicate with scholars in Latin.) Foxe also completed and had printed a religious drama, Christus Triumphans (1556), in Latin verse. Yet despite receiving occasional financial contributions from English merchants on the continent, Foxe seems to have lived very close to the margin and been "wretchedly poor.
When Foxe received reports from England about the ongoing religious persecution there, he wrote a pamphlet urging the English nobility to use their influence with the queen to halt it. Foxe feared that the appeal would be useless, and his fears proved correct. When his friend Knox attacked Mary Stuart in his now famous The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, Foxe apparently criticized Knox's "rude vehemency," although their friendship seems to have remained unimpaired.
Foxe was ordained a priest by his friend Edmund Grindal, now Bishop of London, but he "was something of a puritan, and like many of the exiles, had scruples about wearing the clerical vestments laid down in the queen's injunctions of 1559." Many of his friends eventually conformed, but Foxe was "more stubborn or single-minded." Some tried to find him preferments in the new regime, but it "was not easy to help a man of so singularly unworldly a nature, who scorned to use his powerful friendships to advance himself.
Foxe began his Book of Martyrs in 1552, during the reign of Edward VI, with the Marian burnings still in the future. In 1554, in exile, Foxe published at Strassburg (and in Latin) the first shadow of his great book, emphasizing the persecution of the English Lollards, 1375-1500. But as word of the contemporary English persecution made its way to the continent, Foxe began to collect materials to continue his story to the present. He published the first true Latin edition of his famous book at Basel in August 1559, although the segment dealing with the Marian martyrs was "no more than a fragment. Of course, it was difficult to write contemporary English history while living (as he later said) "in the far parts of Germany, where few friends, no conference, [and] small information could be had. Nevertheless, Foxe who had left England poor and unknown, returned only poor. He had gained "a substantial reputation" through his Latin work.
Intending to strengthen his book against his critics, and being flooded by new material brought to light by the publication of the first edition, Foxe put together a second edition in 1570. Where the charges of his critics had been reasonably accurate, Foxe removed the offending passages. Where he could rebut the charges, "he mouted a vigorous counter-attack, seeking to crush his opponent under piles of documents. Even though he deleted material that had been included in the first edition, the second edition was nearly double the size of the first, "two gigantic folio volumes, with 2300 very large pages" of double-columned text.
The edition was well received by the English church, and the upper house of the convocation of Canterbury meeting in 1571, ordered that a copy of the Bishop's Bible and "that full history entitled Monuments of Martyrs" be installed in every cathedral church and that church officials place copies in their houses for the use of servants and visitors. The decision was of certain benefit to Foxe's printer Day because he had taken great financial risks printing such a mammoth work.
Nevertheless, Foxe often treated this material casually, and any reader "must be prepared to meet plenty of small errors and inconsistencies. Furthermore, Foxe did not hold to later notions of neutrality or objectivity. He made unambiguous side glosses on his text, such as "Mark the apish pageants of these popelings" and "This answer smelleth of forging and crafty packing.—although in his defense, his was an age not only of strong language but of cruel deeds. Foxe was, after all, describing the burning of human beings for the crime of holding unfashionable religious opinions.
In any case, Foxe maintains a high standard of honesty. Sometimes he copied documents verbatim; sometimes he adapted them to his own use. Although both he and his contemporary readers were more credulous than most moderns, Foxe presented "lifelike and vivid pictures of the manners and feelings of the day, full of details that could never have been invented by a forger. Foxe's method of using his sources "proclaims the honest man, the sincere seeker after truth.
By 1565 Foxe had been caught up in the vestments controversy led at that time by his associate Crowley. Foxe's name was on a list of "godly preachers which have utterly forsaken Antichrist and all his Romish rags" that was presented to Lord Robert Dudley some time between 1561 and 1564. He was also one of the twenty clergymen who on March 20, 1565 petitioned to be allowed to choose not to wear vestments; but unlike many of the others, Foxe did not have a London benefice to lose when Archbishop Parker enforced conformity. Rather, when Crowley lost his position at St Giles-without-Cripplegate, Foxe may have preached in his stead.
At some point before 1569, Foxe left Norfolk's house and moved to his own on Grub Street. Perhaps his move was motivated by his concerns about Norfolk's exceptionally poor judgment in attempting to marry Mary Stuart, which led to his imprisonment in the Tower in 1569 and his condemnation in 1572 following the Ridolfi Plot. Although Foxe had written Norfolk "a remarkably frank letter" about the injudiciousness of his course, after Norfolk's condemnation, he and Alexander Nowell ministered to the prisoner until his execution, which Foxe attended, on June 2, 1572.
In 1570, at the request of Edmund Grindal, Bishop of London, Foxe preached the Good Friday sermon at Paul's Cross. This lofty exposition of the Protestant doctrine of redemption and attack on the doctrinal errors of the Roman Catholic Church was enlarged and published that year as A Sermon of Christ Crucified. Another sermon Foxe preached seven years later at Paul's Cross resulted in his denunciation to the Queen by the French ambassador on grounds that Foxe had advocated the right of the Huguenots to take arms against their king. Foxe replied he had been misunderstood, that he had argued only that if the French king permitted no foreign power (i.e. the Pope) to rule over him, the French Protestants would immediately lay down their arms.
In 1571, Foxe edited an edition of the Anglo-Saxon gospels, in parallel with the Bishop's Bible translation, under the patronage of Archbishop Parker, who was interested in Anglo-Saxon and whose chaplain, John Jocelyn was an Anglo-Saxon scholar. Foxe's introduction argues that the vernacular scripture was an ancient custom in England.
Foxe died April 18, 1587 and was buried at St. Giles's, Cripplegate. His widow, Agnes, probably died in 1605. Foxe's son, Samuel Foxe (1560-1630) prospered after his father's death and "accumulated a substantial estate." Fortunately for posterity, he also preserved his father's manuscripts, currently in the British Library.
Certainly Foxe had a hatred of cruelty in advance of his age. When a number of Flemish Anabaptists were taken by Elizabeth's government in 1572 and sentenced to be burnt, Foxe first wrote letters to the Queen and her council asking for their lives and then wrote the prisoners themselves (having his Latin draft translated into Flemish) pleading with them to abandon what he considered their theological errors. Foxe even visited the Anabaptists in prison. (The attempted intercession was in vain; two were burnt at Smithfield "in great horror with roaring and crying.")
John Day's son Richard, who knew Foxe well, described him in 1607 as an "excellent man...exceeding laborious in his pen...his learning inferior to none of his age and time; for his integrity of life a bright light to as many as knew him, beheld him, and lived with him. Foxe's funeral was accompanied "by crowds of mourners.
By the end of the seventeenth century, however, the work tended to be abbreviated to include only "the most sensational episodes of torture and death," thus giving to Foxe's work "a lurid quality which was certainly far from the author's intention." Because Foxe had been appropriated by evangelicals to make attacks on Catholicism and the rising tide of high-church Anglicanism, the book was savaged in the early nineteenth century by a number of authors, most importantly, Samuel R. Maitland. In the words of one Catholic Victorian, after Maitland, "no one with any literary pretensions...ventured to quote Foxe as an authority.
A change in perspective occurred after the publication of J. F. Mozley's biography of Foxe (1940), which challenged many of the negative evaluations of Foxe's work and "initiated a rehabilitation of Foxe as a historian which has continued to this day. Recently, renewed interest in Foxe as a seminal figure in early modern studies has created a demand for a new critical edition of the Actes and Monuments. To that end, the Foxe's Book of Martyrs Variorum Edition was conceived with a planned completion date of 2008.
In the words of Thomas S. Freeman, one of the most important living Foxe scholars, "current scholarship has formed a more complex and nuanced estimate of the accuracy of Acts and Monuments....Perhaps [Foxe] may be most profitably seen in the same light as a barrister pleading a case for a client he knows to be innocent and whom he is determined to save. Like the hypothetical barrister, Foxe had to deal with the evidence of what actually happened, evidence that he was rarely in a position to forge. But he would not present facts damaging to his client, and he had the skills that enabled him to arrange the evidence so as to make it conform to what he wanted it to say. Like the barrister, Foxe presents crucial evidence and tells one side of a story which must be heard. But he should never be read uncritically, and his partisan objectives should always be kept in mind.