The Book Of Martyrs By John Foxe Fox | eBooks | Religion and Spirituality

The Book Of Martyrs By John Foxe Fox

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The Times

There was never a worse place or time to be religious than Europe in the 16th Century. These were cruel times. There was the death penalty for all but the most petty offences, and hangings were a popular spectator sport. Indeed, hanging was a lenient punishment: flaying, impaling, breaking on the wheel, and being hung upside down and sawn through from groin to scalp were alternatives. Lesser crimes such as begging were punished with flogging, branding or mutilation. Torture was widespread and trials, if held at all, often a travesty of justice. Warfare, too, was conducted with the utmost brutality massacre, rape and pillage of the civilian population were standard practice, and the slaughter of enemy prisoners was common, sometimes even including those who had been promised their lives if they surrendered.

Religious hatred exacerbated these tendencies. Reading Foxe, or other authors of the time, whether Protestant or Catholic, it is striking how absolutely certain everyone was that not only were they right, but that their opponents were the agents of Satan.  Foxe knew that the Pope was the Antichrist predicted by the Bible in the same way as he knew that water was wet or that the sun went round the earth. From this certainty sprang the intolerance from which persecution arises. It was argued, that if a murderer, who only slew the body, deserved death how much more deserving of death was a heretic, whose evil falsehoods could destroy the victim's soul. This being so, it was clear that any means could and should be used to stamp out these devil's spawn. Catholics persecuted Protestants and vice versa each side persecuted its own heretics with equal vigor. In England, the official religion changed four times in less than thirty years, and each change was accompanied by persecution of those who would not change with it. The division of Europe into Catholic and Protestant powers, often at war with one another, meant that in some countries especially England preaching the wrong religion was regarded as supporting the enemy and punished as treason.

The Book

John Foxe or Fox 1518-1587, a staunchly Protestant divine, wrote his book as this story seen from the Protestant point of view. The Acts and Monuments of the Christian Church, better known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs, was first published in English in 1563.  In this enormously long history of the Church from the death of Christ to the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, he is anxious to prove firstly the complete hatefulness, evil and corruption of the Catholic church, the papacy and the monastic orders, and secondly to assert the right of the monarch to appoint bishops and clergy, and to dispose of church property and income at will. Everything and that means everything which supports this view goes in everything which does not is either left out, glossed over, or rejected as ipso facto untrue because asserted by his opponents. If his sources support his prejudices, his credulity knows no bounds he is as ready to peddle the myth of Jewish blood-sacrifices of Christian children as he is to believe in the foundation of the church in England by Joseph of Arimathea. When he gets closer to his own times, however, his accounts are in most cases taken from eye-witness evidence or official documents and must be accepted as basically factual. There is no doubt that Protestants were savagely persecuted by Henry VIII and especially by Mary I and that this contributed to the fear and hatred which animates the book. The gruesome and enormously detailed accounts of the martyrdoms of Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer and all the other victims of Bloody Mary's tyranny are sober fact. Nonetheless, any students tempted to regard the book as a work of history are warned to check anything Foxe says with some more even-handed historian before reproducing it.


Foxe's Book of Martyrs was very widely read and had a deep influence on English thinking for centuries. In the Seventeenth century, it contributed to what historians have called the "Catholic myth" that is the belief that English Catholics, in reality a powerless and beleaguered minority, were a vast conspiracy ready to seize any opportunity to overthrow the state, enslave the people, introduce the Inquisition etc. It is arguable that this belief was one of the principal causes of the English Civil War, and quite certain that it was a cause of the rebellion of Monmouth and the "Popish Plot" conspiracy, not to mention the expulsion of James II in the "Glorious Revolution". A century later, the Gordon riots of 1780 drew most of their strength from it in the words of Dickens in Barnaby Rudge:

. . . the air was filled with whispers of a confederacy among the Popish powers to degrade and enslave England, establish an inquisition in London, and turn the pens of Smithfield market into stakes and cauldrons when terrors and alarms which no man understood were perpetually broached, both in and out of Parliament, by one enthusiast who did not understand himself, and bygone bugbears which had lain quietly in their graves for centuries, were raised again to haunt the ignorant and credulous.

Well into the Nineteenth century these ideas were widespread. In vulgar form they were held among the less educated. George Eliot refers to this often, though of course she was too sensible to share them. Among the more educated and civilised, they were believed in a more educated and civilised way – see the introduction . William Cobbett, in his equally but oppositely biased History of the Protestant Reformation pub. 1826 - CHECK OUR eBAY STORE devotes some space to refuting Foxe.

&nbsp THE ACTS AND MONUMENTS OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH by JOHN FOXE or FOX Introduction The Times There was never a worse place or time to be religious than Europe in the 16th Century. These were cruel times. There was the death penalty for all b
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