One of the items selected by our researchers for our Explore Your Archive pop-up exhibition on Saturday 19th November was a hefty sixteenth century volume created by John Foxe, The Book of Martyrs printed in 1563. As a new member of the team constantly learning more about the collections we hold, I decided to look in to the background of this sizeable work.
The longer name of this work is the Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perilous Dayes, Touching Matters of the Church by John Foxe. With such a lengthy title, it is understandably often known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. The book gives a detailed history of the Church covering the apostles, a succession of popes, heretical episodes and accounts of martyrdoms running all the way to Foxe’s time. It is particularly well known for its detailed accounts of religious persecutions during the reign of Queen Mary I (1553-1558) and accompanying (somewhat gruesome) illustrations.
The book was very popular and influential. Following Mary’s death Queen Elizabeth I’s Privy Council to the Archbishop’s of York and Canterbury encouraged every parish church to acquire a copy. It would have been used by clergy to provide material for sermons and may also have been viewed by parishioners.
John Foxe was certainly ambitious in the scope of his book but what do we know about his life? The author was born in either 1516 or 1517 in Boston, Lincolnshire and died in 1587. Details on parts of his life are patchy although we know that he studied at Oxford and began his career with an academic role as a lecturer in logic. He became a master of the arts in 1543 but resigned that year as he did not want to be ordained as a priest which would have been obligatory.
Foxe later worked as a tutor to the children of prominent families. He also travelled to Rotterdam, Frankfurt and Strasbourg working in the great Basel print-shops and was a prolific publisher of his own religious writings. As well as this he had a network of influential Protestant friends.
I was interested (as an archivist) to find out more about the sources Foxe used in compiling the work. These were London episcopal registers, ecclesiastical records from the diocese of Norwich and extracts sent to him by friends from the episcopal registers for Coventry and Lichfield. Foxe also made use of oral testimony and eye witness accounts and drew on previously published works.
Alongside the written accounts, the book includes a number of woodcut illustrations. I was fascinated by the elegant classical flourishes and decorated letters throughout the book. The preface includes a particularly fine decorated C (pictured above) which forms the first letter in the word Constantine. It shows Queen Elizabeth I enthroned under a canopy with a cornucopia of fruit and flowers forming the letter that surrounds her.
The illustrations of martyrdoms taking place strengthen Foxe’s written accounts and would have been especially vivid to the reader in an age before photography. They also had the benefit of allowing people who could not read to understand something of Foxe’s message. Many more illustrations were included in the second edition than the first.
It is interesting to see the use of speech bubbles which gave the opportunity to highlight words the martyrs were well known for saying at the time of death. For example in the illustration of the Martyrdom of John Lambert, he is seen crying out “None but Christ, none but Christ”. The speech bubbles give the illustrations immediacy and bring to mind current day graphic novels and comic books which also have the aim of directly involving the viewer with the action taking place in the illustration.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (AF094/1563/3) is available to consult in the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research by prior appointment using the email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thomas S. Freeman, ‘Foxe, John (1516/17–1587)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/10050, accessed 21 Nov 2016]
Stuart Palmer, ‘Witnessing Martyrdom: Woodcuts & Gore in John Foxe’s Acts & Monuments’ Canterbury Cathedral, July 2014 [https://www.canterbury-cathedral.org/heritage/archives/picture-this/witnessing-martyrdom-woodcuts-gore-in-john-foxes-acts-monuments/#, accessed 21 Nov 2016].