The history of the English Bible
John Foxe (1516/17 – 18 April 1587) was an English historian and martyrologist, the author of Actes and Monuments (popularly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs), an account of Christian martyrs throughout Western
history but emphasizing the sufferings of English Protestants and proto-Protestants from the fourteenth century through the reign of Mary I. Widely owned and read by English Puritans, the book helped mould British popular opinion about the Catholic Church for several centuries.
Foxe was born in Boston, in Lincolnshire, England, of a middlingly prominent family and seems to have been an unusually studious and devout child. In about 1534, when he was about sixteen, he entered Brasenose College, Oxford, where he was the pupil of John Hawarden (or Harding), a fellow of the college. In 1535 Foxe was admitted to Magdalen College School, where he may either have been improving his Latin or acting as a junior instructor. He became a probationer fellow in July 1538 and a full fellow the following July.
Foxe took his bachelor’s degree on 17 July 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.”
Resignation from Oxford
Foxe resigned from his college in 1545 after becoming a Protestant and thereby subscribing to beliefs condemned by the Church of England under Henry VIII. After a year of “obligatory regency” (public lecturing), Foxe would have been obliged to take holy orders by Michaelmas 1545, and the primary reason for his resignation was probably his opposition to clerical celibacy—which he described in letters to friends as self-castration. Foxe may have been forced from the college in a general purge of its Protestant members, although college records state that he resigned of his own accord and “ex honesta causa.” Foxe’s change of religious opinion may have temporarily broken his relationship with his stepfather and may even have put his life in danger. Foxe personally witnessed the burning of William Cowbridge in September 1538.
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. Before leaving the Lucys, Foxe married Agnes Randall on 3 February 1547. They had six children.
In London under Edward VI
Foxe’s prospects, and those of the Protestant cause generally, improved after the accession of Edward VI in January 1547 and the formation of a Privy Council dominated by pro-reform Protestants. In the middle or latter part of 1547, Foxe moved to London and probably lived in Stepney. There he completed three translations of Protestant sermons published by the “stout Protestant” Hugh Singleton. During this period Foxe also found a patron in Mary Fitzroy, Duchess of Richmond, who hired him as tutor to the orphan children of her brother, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, a Catholic who had been executed for treason in January 1547. (The children were Thomas, who would become the fourth duke of Norfolk and a valuable friend of Foxe’s; Jane, later Countess of Westmorland; Henry, later earl of Northampton; and their cousin Charles, who would later command the English fleet against the Spanish Armada.) Foxe lived in the duchess’s London household at Mountjoy House and later at Reigate Castle, and the duchess’s patronage “facilitated Foxe’s entry into the ranks of England’s Protestant elite.” During his stay at Reigate, Foxe helped suppress a cult that had arisen around the shrine of the Virgin Mary at Ouldsworth, which had been credited with miraculous healing powers.
Foxe was ordained deacon by Nicholas Ridley on 24 June 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 who 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.
On the accession of Mary I in July 1553, Foxe lost his tutorship when the children’s grandfather, the Duke of Norfolk was released from prison. Foxe walked warily as befitted one who had published Protestant books in his own name. As the political climate worsened, Foxe believed himself personally threatened by Bishop Stephen Gardiner. Just ahead of officers sent to arrest him, he sailed with his pregnant wife from Ipswich to Nieuwpoort. He then traveled to Antwerp, Rotterdam, Frankfurt and Strasbourg, which he reached by July 1554. In Strasbourg Foxe published a Latin history of the Christian persecutions, the draft of which he had brought from England and “which became the first shadowy draft of his Acts and Monuments.”
In the autumn 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.
Return to England
After the death of Mary I in 1558, Foxe was in no hurry to return home, and he waited to see if religious changes instituted by her successor, Elizabeth I, would take root. Foxe was also so poor that he was unable to travel with his family until money was sent to him. Back in England, he seems to have lived for ten years at Aldgate, London, in the house of his former pupil, Thomas Howard, now Fourth Duke of Norfolk. Foxe quickly became associated with John Day the printer and published works of religious controversy while working on a new martyrology that would eventually become the Actes and Monuments.
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.”
Death and legacy
Foxe died on 18 April 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, and they are now in the British Library.