Dr Matthew Phillpott, the School of Advanced Study’s digital projects officer, discusses his new book, ‘The reformation of England’s past: John Foxe and the revision of history in the sixteenth-century’.

John Foxe, the English historian and martyrologist, published the first edition of his Book of Martyrs in March 1563. Its purpose was to expose the horrors of the persecution that had occurred in England during the previous reign of Mary I and to argue that the Protestant faith was not some latecomer, but the original faith that the Roman Catholic Church had abandoned centuries before.

The book was a success. Work quickly began on a second, expanded edition, in which John Foxe worked in allegiance with the archbishop of Canterbury and various scholars, collectors of manuscripts, clergymen and gentry. The purpose was to strengthen the evidence-base for the various martyr stories and to bring the work back in time, by exposing through historical evidence exactly how the Roman Catholic Church had fallen away from Christ’s teachings and had been welcomed into the hands of Satan.

Much has been written about John Foxe and the various editions of his Book of Martyrs. It was popular not only in his own time but all the way into the 19th century. Scholarly interest in the book developed in the mid-20th century, cumulating in The John Foxe Project (1992–2009) which successfully brought the first four editions of the work online in a searchable format.

I came into this project in 2005, via an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) postgraduate scholarship, to look at the historical portions of Foxe’s book. My job was to identify, where possible, the sources that Foxe used to compile his history, where he obtained those sources (and what this might tell us about a network of scholarship in the period) and then to analyse how these sources were used.

The resulting thesis touched on each of these points, but even when I completed it in late 2009, I knew that I had not had my last say on the subject. The thesis looked at what Foxe wrote on Anglo-Saxon history, on the Norman Conquest, and medieval history up to the reign of Henry III in the 13th century. It said nothing on the era of the Roman Empire and due to the structure that I had chosen for the thesis, hid quite a lot of what I wanted to say about the first edition, as separate from the second edition of the book. There was also more clarity needed on the network of scholars that Foxe was a part; much more to be written about the role of John Bale, Matthew Parker and the Magdeburg Centuriators.

Over the last few years I have been delving back into the world of John Foxe and, through his eyes, English and continental history from the Roman Empire through to the 13th century. The result is The reformation of England’s past: John Foxe and the revision of history in the late sixteenth century, published in June as part of the Routledge Research in Early Modern History series.

One of the first points I’d like to make is that although Foxe’s book is often called the Book of Martyrs or even Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, it’s actual title, as given to it by Foxe himself, is (in shortened form) the Acts and Monuments.

The distinction is important. First, the title Book of Martyrs mistakes the most popular aspects of this 2,000-page book, for the whole of its contents. Foxe, himself, made the point that:

‘I professe no such title to wryte of Martyrs: but in general to wryte of rites and Monuments passed in the church and realme of England. Wherin, why should I be restrained from the free walke of a story wryter [historian], more than other that have gone before me?’

Why, indeed, should we ignore one-quarter of the text, a massive 513 pages, and 653,576 words? Classical and Medieval history was not just a prologue to the story of burning martyrs. It was essential to the argument that Foxe made, and to the need for the Elizabethan government to prove, beyond doubt, that through a proper understanding of history, the reformed non-Roman faith could be shown as legitimate.

In the first edition, published in 1563, only a relatively small portion of the work was dedicated to history before the 14th century. Furthermore, there is a notable focus on those moments in history that best aided a Protestant argument for their faith.

Foxe describes in detail the disruption caused by various early archbishops of York and Canterbury, as they vied for supremacy over each other. He extols the virtues of Frederick Barbarossa and Frederick II – two Holy Roman Emperors, which the papacy attempted to undermine. He declares King John a proto-protestant, and deconstructs the story of Thomas Becket. For Foxe, Becket was no martyr, but a treasonous priest who laid down his life for reasons of worldly desire, not religious faith.

The second edition, published in 1570, expands on these topics but also tackles more tricky issues. Did St Peter instigate the Roman Church and was it historically always considered supreme? The answer is Foxe believed not, but could he prove it?

What role could be granted to Augustine as the Roman Catholic priest, who first brought Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons? Was it possible to suggest, with enough certainty, that Christian faith existed in England before Augustine’s mission? Could it further be shown that a non-Roman faith survived in England for any length of time? The answer? Foxe could not prove those claims, but neither could he fully accept Augustine as a holy figure.

Could Richard Lionheart’s Crusade and the resulting problems in England be interpreted to show Papal conspiracy? Could an upsurge in papal activity in the late thirteenth-century be made out as a story of English servitude? Foxe believed that the evidence could claim those things.

The Reformation of England’s Past is my attempt to look at these issues and to understand how Foxe used his sources to construct an argument that better suited his view of history. It is, therefore, a book about sources, but equally a book about interpretation and the processes of research and writing in the 16th century.

One thing that is certain, Foxe’s book had a significant impact on English culture and religious belief. Its history has often been ignored, in favour of the more gruesome elements of martyrdom, but this does not make it any less interesting. History has always been used to make claims about the present and to make it relevant. Such attempts often lead to obfuscation or purposeful misinterpretation, but they can also provide new insights and useful advice for new circumstances. Studying past attempts to re-frame history, such as what we find in Foxe’s book, is therefore useful as a means of judging claims made today and understanding how the past can be used and misused.

Dr Matthew Phillpott works at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and in addition investigates early modern printed materials for ideas about knowledge, history, culture, health and food. He has just published a book on The Reformation of England’s Past: John Foxe and the Revision of History in the Late Sixteenth Century, as part of the Routledge Research in Early Modern History series, looking at the appropriation of history at a time of religious change. He discusses his research on his website, Sixteenth Century Scholars.


Cover image: Woodcut showing King John offering his crown to the Legate, Acts and Monuments (1570), 953.