John Foxe (also spelled Fox, 1516—1587) was an English Puritan preacher and church historian. As a youth, Foxe’s brilliance was recognized, and at Oxford University he earned a master’s degree and a fellowship (similar to a modern scholarship) at Magdalen College. His first literary endeavors were in poetry and Latin comedies. Foxe began researching church history to help him better understand the controversies regarding the Catholic Church and the Reformation (see “Sketch of the Author” in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Create Space Independent Publishing, 2017, p. ix). Foxe studied the Scriptures as well as the writings of the early church fathers. When he finally and publicly embraced Protestantism, he was denounced as a heretic by the college, lost his fellowship, and was disowned by his family. He turned to tutoring to earn a living and had to live in hiding for a while.
When Edward VI (1537—1553), who was sympathetic to Protestantism, came to the throne, Foxe was able to move about publicly. However, when the Roman Catholic Mary I (“Bloody Mary,” 1516—1558) came to power, Foxe fled to Europe where he began working as a printer. In Switzerland, Foxe published a work on martyrs of the early church, first in Latin (1554) and then in English (1563). Because so many English Protestants were martyred during Mary’s reign, Foxe felt the need to add to his work to include more recent history.
With the ascension of Queen Elizabeth I, who was sympathetic to Protestantism, Foxe returned to England where he received a pension from one of his former students.
“On his resettlement to England, he employed himself in revising and enlarging his admirable Martyrology. With prodigious pains and constant study he competed that celebrated work in eleven years. For the sake of greater correctness, he wrote every line of this vast book with his own hand, and transcribed all the records and papers himself. But in consequence of such excessive toil, leaving no part of his time free from study, nor affording himself either the repose or recreation which nature required, his health was so reduced, and his person became so emaciated and altered, that such of his friends and relations as only conversed with him occasionally could scarcely recognize his person. Yet, though he grew daily more exhausted, he proceeded in his studies as briskly as ever, nor would he be persuaded to diminish his accustomed labors. The papists foreseeing how detrimental his history of their errors and cruelties would prove to their cause, had recourse to every artifice to lessen the reputation of his work; but their malice was of signal service, both to Mr. Fox himself, and to the Church of God at large, as it eventually made his book more intrinsically valuable, by inducing him to weigh, with the most scrupulous attention, the certainty of the facts which he recorded, and the validity of the authorities from which he drew his information” (“Sketch of the Author,” p. ix).
Foxe’s book was formally titled A History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Triumphant Deaths of Many of the Primitive As Well As Protestant Martyrs. The title is often given as Acts and Monuments of the Christian Church but has come to be known simply as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Four editions were released during Foxe’s lifetime, as the author continued to research, respond to critics, and incorporate new material. The original edition (1563) “was a striking volume with extensive documentation, stirring narrative, and horrifying woodcut illustrations, including accounts of many of the 300 martyrs of Mary’s reign” (christianitytoday.com/history/people/scholarsandscientists/john-foxe.html, accessed 5/28/2020). The second edition (1570) was about 2,500 pages long.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is considered a landmark of church history and martyrology. It was instantly popular, and the second edition “was ordered displayed in every church, common hall, and college” in England (ibid.). Since Foxe’s death, others have continued to add to the work to include martyrs after Mary I up to the present day, and the book is often released in an abridged format.
After the publication of his work, Foxe continued to work for religious tolerance in England. When the plague broke out, rather than leaving, he stayed to minister in London as best he could. He was a friend to the poor. He also prevailed upon Queen Elizabeth to abandon the practice of executing religious opponents (“Sketch of the Author” p. ix).
“At length, having long served both the Church and the world by his ministry, by his pen, and by the unsullied luster of a benevolent, useful, and holy life, he meekly resigned his soul to Christ, on the eighteenth of April, 1587, being then in his seventieth year of his age. He was interred in the chancel of St. Giles’, Cripplegate; of which parish he had been, in the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, for some time vicar” (ibid., p. ix)
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs proved to be highly influential in shaping English views of Catholicism. It is one of the reasons that Queen Mary I was given the nickname “Bloody Mary.” For decades, Foxe’s book and the Bible were the only reading material widely available to people in England. John Bunyan had those two books with him in prison, and he read them over and over for encouragement and inspiration as he endured his own persecution and wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress.
What follows are the main divisions of the original work:
The First Book: The acts and monuments, containing the three hundred years next after Christ, with the ten persecutions of the primitive church.
The Second Book: Containing the next three hundred years following with such things specially touched as have happened in England from the time of King Lucius to Gregorius, and so after to the time of King Egbert.
The Third Book: From the reign of King Egbertus unto the time of William the Conqueror.
The Fourth Book: Containing another three hundred years, from William the Conqueror to the time of John Wickliffe, wherein is described the proud and misordered reign of Antichrist beginning to stir in the church of Christ.
The Fifth Book: The last three hundred years from the loosing out of Satan.
The Sixth Book: Pertaining to the last three hundred years from the loosing out of Satan.
The Seventh Book: Of the acts and monuments, beginning with the reign of King Henry the Eighth.
The Eighth Book: Pertaining to the last three hundred years from the loosing out of Satan. Continuing the history of English matters appertaining to both states, as well ecclesiastical, as civil and temporal.
The Ninth Book: Continuing the acts and things done in the reign of King Edward the Sixth.
The Tenth Book: The beginning of the reign of Queen Mary.
The Eleventh Book: Wherein is discoursed the bloody murdering of God’s saints, with the particular processes and names of such good martyrs, both men and women, as, in this time of Queen Mary, were put to death.
The Twelfth Book: Containing the bloody doings and persecutions of the adversaries, against the faithful and true servants of Christ, with the particular processes and names such as were put to slaughter from the beginning of January, 1557, and the fifth year of Queen Mary.
The Appendix: Of such notes and matters, as either have been in this history omitted, or newly inserted.