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The Book of Martyrs, by John Foxe, is an apocalyptically-oriented account of the persecutions of Protestants, mainly in Englandmarker, many of whom had died for their beliefs within the decade immediately preceding its initial publication. It was first published by John Day, a committed Protestant, in 1563. Lavishly produced and illustrated with many woodcuts, when issued it was the largest publishing project undertaken in Britain up to that time. Commonly known as, "Foxe's Book of Martyrs", the work's full title begins with "Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Church." There were many subsequent editions, also by Day, who worked closely with Foxe.

A work of the Reformation

Published early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, only five years after the death of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary, the work is an affirmation of the Protestant Reformation in England during the ongoing period of religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Since the English monarchs also asserted control over the Church in England, a change in rulers could change the legal status of religious practices. As a consequence, adherents of one religion risked judicial execution by the State depending on the attitudes of the rulers. During Mary's reign, common people of other Christian denominations were publicly burned at the stake in an attempt to eliminate dissension from Catholic doctrines.

Foxe's account of Mary's reign and the martyrdoms that took place during it contributed very significantly to the belief in a distinction from the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope as a central aspect of English national identity. By compiling his record, Foxe intended to demonstrate a historical justification for the foundation of the Church of England as a contemporary embodiment of the true and faithful church, rather than as a newly established Christian denomination.

Outline structure

Title page of the first English-language edition, 1563
The work was therefore set in a historical perspective. The First Part covered early Christian martyrs, a brief history of the medieval church, including the Inquisitions, and a history of the Wycliffite or Lollard movement. During the period of the English Reformation, Foxe and others interpreted Wycliffe as a forerunner (or indeed "the morning star") of the Reformation, pointing the way toward the foundation and establishment of the Church of England.The Second Part dealt with the turbulent reign of Henry VIII, and with that of Edward VI, in which the dispute with Rome had led to the separation of the English Church from papal authority, a new foundation of the Church of England, and the issuing of the English Book of Common Prayer.

The Third Part was then concerned with the reign of Queen Mary and with the Marian Persecutions. The partisan agenda behind the church history of the earlier portion of the book, with its grotesque stories of popes and monks, possibly contributed to anti-Roman Catholic thought in England: this attitude, however, was also based on the actual experience and public example of the burnings, authorized by the notorious Roman Catholic Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner, and carried out by his agents following inquisitions of the victims often led by the Bishop himself.

Foxe's account of the Marian years is based on Robert Crowley's 1559 extension of a 1549 chronicle history by Thomas Cooper, itself an extension of a work begun by Thomas Lanquet. Cooper (who became a Church of England Bishop) strongly objected to Crowley's version of his history and soon issued two new "correct" editions. Cooper, Crowley and Foxe had all been students and fellows together at Magdalen Collegemarker, at Oxford Universitymarker. Foxe and Crowley both resigned from the college, apparently under pressure: Foxe then wrote to the college president objecting that all three had been persecuted by masters in the college, for holding dissenting beliefs.

Evaluation and perspectives

For the English Church, Foxe's book remains a fundamental witness to the sufferings of faithful Christian people at the hands of the anti-Protestant Roman Catholic authorities, and to the miracle of their endurance unto death, sustained and comforted by the faith to which they bore living witness as Christian martyrs. Foxe emphasizes these actions as motivated by the right of English people to hear or read the Holy Scriptures and understand them in their own language, and so to receive their message in their own hearts rather than as mediated through the priesthood. Their valour in the face of persecution is a historical component of English identity.

Roman Catholics often view Foxe's record of this period as extremely partisan and the primary propaganda piece for English anti-Catholicism. Among other objections, the accuracy of Foxe's claims regarding martyrdoms under Mary ignore the mingled political and religious aspects of the period. Some of the victims may have been intent on removing Mary from the throne.

Although the work is more accurate when dealing with events during Foxe's time, it is generally not a correct or impartial account of the period, and includes occasional "wilful falsification of evidence". But, it is also "factually detailed and preserves much firsthand material on the English Reformation unobtainable elsewhere.".

Development in later editions

Foxe continued to collect material and to expand the work throughout his life, producing three revised editions. After the completion of the second edition (1570), the Convocation ordered that every cathedral church should own a copy.

Foxe's work was enormous. The second edition filled two heavy folio volumes with a total of 2,300 pages – estimated to be twice as long as Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

In later years abridged editions, often also containing accounts of later persecutions, were produced.

The passionate intensity of the style and the vivid and picturesque dialogues made it very popular among all Protestant readers from the time of its first appearance, and it remained so among Puritan and Evangelical Anglican congregations until the 19th century, The book still enjoys considerable popularity at present. (Its sales rank at Amazon.com averages between 15,000 and 40,000, out of the more than 4 million ranked book titles.)

Media

From an 1887 edition illustrated by Joseph Martin KronheimFile:Joseph Martin Kronheim - Foxe's Book of Martyrs Plate I - Martyrdom of St. Paul.jpg|Martyrdom of St. PaulFile:Joseph_Martin_Kronheim_-_Foxe's_Book_of_Martyrs_Plate_II_-_Death_of_Admiral_de_Coligny.jpg|Death of Admiral de ColignyFile:Joseph Martin Kronheim - Foxe's Book of Martyrs Plate III - Assassination of La Place.jpg|Assassination of la PlaceFile:Joseph Martin Kronheim - Foxe's Book of Martyrs Plate IV - Barnes and his Fellow-Prisoners Seeking Forgiveness.jpg|Barnes and his Fellow-Prisoners Seeking ForgivenessFile:Joseph Martin Kronheim - Foxe's Book of Martyrs Plate V - Latimer before the Council.jpg|Latimer before the CouncilFile:Joseph Martin Kronheim - Foxe's Book of Martyrs Plate VI - Bradford Appeasing the Riot at St. Paul's Cross.jpg|Bradford Appeasing the Riot at St. Paul's CrossmarkerFile:Joseph Martin Kronheim - Foxe's Book of Martyrs Plate VII - Death of Cranmer.jpg|Death of CranmerFile:Joseph Martin Kronheim - Foxe's Book of Martyrs Plate VIII - Prest's Wife and the Stonemason.jpg|Prest's Wife and the Stonemason

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