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English Bible History

John Foxe

John Foxe

In the 1550’s, the Church at Geneva, Switzerland, was very sympathetic to the reformer refugees and was one of only a few safe havens for a desperate people. Many of them met in Geneva, led by Myles Coverdale and John Foxe (publisher of the famous Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which is to this day the only exhaustive reference work on the persecution and martyrdom of Early Christians and Protestants from the first century up to the mid-16th century), as well as Thomas Sampson and William Whittingham. There, with the protection of the great theologian John Calvin (author of the most famous theological book ever published, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and John Knox, the great Reformer of the Scottish Church, the Church of Geneva determined to produce a Bible that would educate their families while they continued in exile.

John Foxe was born at Boston, in Lincolnshire, in 1516, and died April 8, 1587. He is most famous for is publication of “Foxe’s Acts and Monuments of the Christian Church” more commonly known as “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs”.

The Early Years of John Foxe

At the age of sixteen, John Foxe is said to have entered Brasenose College, Oxford, where he was the pupil of John Harding, and had for room-mate Alexander Nowell, who went on to become the Dean of St. Paul’s. Foxe’s authenticated connection at the university is, however, with Magdalen College. He took his B.A. degree in 1537 and his Masters Degree in 1543. He was lecturer on logic in 1540 to1541. Foxe wrote several Latin plays on Scriptural subjects, of which the most notable, “Christo Triuinphante”, was repeatedly printed, and was translated into English by Richard Day, son of the printer.

John Foxe became a fellow of Magdalen College of Oxford in 1539, resigning in 1545. It is said that he refused to conform to the rules for regular attendance at chapel, and that he protested both against the enforced celibacy of fellows and the obligation to take holy orders within seven years of their election. On leaving Oxford he acted as tutor for a short time in the house of the Lucys of Charlecote, near Stratford-on-Avon, where he married Agnes Randall. Late in 1547 or early in the next year he went to London. He found a patron in Mary Fitzroy, duchess of Richmond, and having been ordained deacon by Ridley in 1550, he settled at Reigate Castle, where he acted as tutor to the duchess’s nephews, the orphan children of Henry Howard, earl of Surrey. As Queen Mary I took the throne, Foxe was deprived of his tutorship by the boys’ grandfather, the duke of Norfolk, who has been released from prison.

John Foxe Begins his Research on Christian Martyrs

John Foxe retired to Strassburg, and occupied himself with a Latin history of the Christian persecutions which he had begun at the suggestion of Lady Jane Grey. This book, originally dealing chiefly with Wycliffe and Hus, and coming down to 1500 AD, formed the first outline of what would become “Foxe’s Acts and Monuments”, later to be called “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs”. It was printed by Wendelin Richelius. In the year of its publication Foxe removed to Frankfort, Germany, where he found the English colony of Protestant refugees divided into two camps. He made a vain attempt to frame a compromise which would be accepted by the Calvinist Party and by the partisans of the Anglican doctrine. He moved to Basel, Switzerland in 1555, where he worked as printer’s reader to Johann Herbst. Foxe made steady progress with his great book as he received reports from England of the religious persecutions there, and he issued from his press a pamphlet containing a plea for toleration addressed to the English nobility.

In 1559, John Foxe completed the Latin edition of his martyrology and returned to England. He lived for some time at Aldgate, London, in the house of his former pupil, Thomas Howard, now duke of Norfolk, who retained a sincere regard for his tutor and left Foxe a small pension in his will. There, John Foxe became associated with John Day the printer, himself once a Protestant exile. Foxe was ordained priest by Edmund Grindal, bishop of London, in 1560, and besides much literary work he occasionally preached at Paul’s Cross and other places. Foxe’s work had rendered great service to the government, and he might have had high preferment in the Church were it not for his Puritan views which he consistently maintained. Foxe held, however, the prebend of Shipton in Salisbury Cathedral, and is said to have been for a short time the Rector of Cripplegate.

The First English Edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

In 1563, the press of John Day issued the first English edition of what may indeed be the longest-titled book in history: “The Actes and Monuments of these latter and perilous Dayes, touching matters of the Church, wherein are comprehended and described the great Persecution and horrible Troubles that have been wrought and practised by the Romishe Prelates, Epeciallye in this Realme of England and Scotland, from the yeare of our Lorde a thousande to the time now present. Gathered and collected according to tile true Copies and Wrytinges certificatorie as well of the Parties themselves that Suffered, as also out of die Bishop’s Registers, which were the Doers thereof, by John Foxe, commonly known as the Book of Martyrs”.

Several errors in the Latin version, were corrected in this English edition. Its popularity was immense among the people. The persecution of Queen “Bloody” Mary was still fresh in men’s minds, and the graphic narrative intensified in its numerous readers the fierce hatred of Spain and of the Inquisition which was one of the master passions of the reign of Mary. For generations the popular conception of Roman Catholicism was derived from the pages of this book. Its accuracy was immediately attacked by Catholic writers. These criticisms induced John Foxe to produce a second corrected edition.

In 1570, a copy of the latest edition was ordered by Convocation to be placed in every collegiate church. Foxe based his accounts of the martyrs partly on authentic documents and reports of the trials, and on statements received direct from the friends of the sufferers. John Foxe died on the 8th of April 1587, and was buried at St Giles’s, Cripplegate.

Second Only to the Bible

Outside of the Bible itself, the three most important and influential books ever printed in Christian history are undoubtedly: John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Among these giants of printing history, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs remains the only exhaustive reference work on the history of Christian Martyrs, and is without rival. While very severely edited and abridged versions are commonly available, it was not until the late 1990’s that a complete edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (the 1684 three-volume edition… last of full-size editions) was again available to the public. This was done in facsimile reproduction form by “The Bible Museum” and offered online at Original large multi-volume printings of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs from the 1563 to 1684 are unspeakably rare and can fetch $10,000 to over $75,000.