Book of Martyrs
Book of Martyrs
Excerpt from Book of Martyrs
By John Foxe
Reprinted in Foxe's Christian Martyrs of the World
Published by Moody Press, 1963
After the Bible, the Book of Martyrs by John Foxe (1516–1587) did more than any other book to shape Protestant identity in England. Its first English edition appeared in 1563, just a few years after Elizabeth I (1533–1603) succeeded to the throne in 1558 and restored Protestant rule. The country had experienced years of turmoil and bloodshed during the reign of Elizabeth's Catholic half-sister, Mary I (1516–1558), who had brutally persecuted Protestants in an attempt to restore the Catholic religion in England. Though the country had rejoiced when Mary's ruthless policies had ended with her death in 1558, it still faced considerable religious strife and was far from united in embracing the Protestant church. The Book of Martyrs, which described the suffering of Protestants under Mary's rule, reached English readers at a time when they needed guidance and support. The book helped them feel justified in their struggle to remain loyal to what they believed to be the true religion. It gave them pride in the Protestant church, and helped strengthen their belief that God willed England to be a Protestant country.
"When Simon Miller heard her cry, he put out his hand toward her, and asked her to be strong and of good cheer; 'for, good sister,' said he, 'we shall have a joyful meeting hereafter.'"
Religious controversies had plagued England for several decades before Elizabeth came to power. In the 1530s her father, Henry VIII (1491–1547), had severed ties with the Roman Catholic Church, declaring himself the supreme head of the church in England. He demanded that government and church officials accept his religious authority; those who refused were executed for treason. Though many Catholics resisted Henry, there was considerable support for the Protestant cause in England. The Protestant nobles who ruled on behalf of Henry's son and heir, Edward VI (1537–1553), who inherited the throne at age nine and could not govern the country on his own, went on to strengthen the position of Protestantism as the official religion. They outlawed Catholic worship and persecuted those who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, which required individuals to swear that they recognized the monarch's supreme religious authority. Though Protestantism became widely established during Edward's reign, Catholic dissent did not die out.
When Mary succeeded to the throne after Edward's death in 1553, she instituted policies to persuade her subjects to return to the Catholic Church. She believed that this is what most English men and women wanted, and that it would be easily accomplished if she stopped the Protestant leaders who, she believed, were preaching heresy. (Heresy is a religious opinion that conflicts with the church's doctrines.) In Christian kingdoms heresy was considered the most terrible of all crimes because it threatened both the moral and the social order. Its punishment was death, most often by burning at the stake. In 1555 Mary began enforcing heresy laws against Protestants. Under these conditions some English Protestants did return to Catholicism, but others, including Foxe, fled to Europe where they could practice their religion without fearing for their lives. Many more remained in England, where they faced persecution for their beliefs.
Mary's policies did not succeed in destroying support for the Protestant cause. She responded by intensifying the persecution. Over the course of about three years, she ordered approximately three hundred men, women, and children burned to death for heresy. What had begun as a way of restoring Catholic authority soon developed into a program of excess and cruelty.
Foxe, a scholar and Protestant deacon, had begun writing a history of Christian martyrs while he was still living in England. He continued working on this book, which he wrote in Latin, while in exile. The first sections of the book covered the stories of the early Christian martyrs and the history of Christianity in England. Foxe also tried, in the final sections of his book, to incorporate information about those who had died under Mary's rule. He published the first edition of this book in Latin in 1559. By this time Elizabeth had taken the throne, making it safe for Foxe to return to England. Here he was able to obtain a wealth of documentation about Protestant victims of Mary's persecution. He set about adding their stories to his initial book. This expanded work, the full title of which was Actes and Monuments of These Latter and Perilous Dayes, Touching Matters of the Church but more commonly known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs, was published in English in 1563.
Foxe's purpose was to explain, through the simply told stories of these martyrs, what Protestantism represented: a desire to return to the true teachings of Christianity and to reject what Protestants considered to be the corrupt practices of the Catholic Church. Foxe used letters that the martyrs had written from prison, documents from trials and official examinations, and eyewitness accounts of the executions as sources for his book. He double-checked information whenever possible in order to ensure the accuracy of his accounts. He presented the story of each martyr from beginning to end: the circumstances of the arrest; the trial, and any arguments or statements made by the victim; and the details of the burning—including graphic descriptions of the victim's prolonged agony if the fire burned too slowly. Most of Foxe's subjects endured their torments willingly as proof of their faith, and he emphasized their steadfast refusal to betray their religion. He also emphasized their joy in martyrdom. For example, in an account of three men burned in 1558, Foxe wrote that they "joyfully made their prayers" to God after being fastened to the stake. Then, "with the fire flaming fiercely about them they triumphantly praised God, and offered up their bodies as a lively sacrifice unto his holy Majesty." In several stories Foxe noted that the martyrs felt no pain and sang or prayed in joy as they burned to death.
In the Book of Martyrs Foxe clearly sympathized with the Protestant martyrs. He usually depicted Catholics in extremely negative terms, describing them as bloodthirsty, merciless, and evil. Yet Foxe also took pains to be as accurate as possible. In some of his accounts he noted that the Catholic officials begged their victims to reject heresy and were extremely reluctant to pass sentence on them. In a case from May 1556, for example, Foxe described a trial in which the government official burst into tears when he was forced to read the death sentence against three men in Suffolk.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from the Book of Martyrs:
- Religious heresy was considered an extremely serious crime in sixteenth-century Europe. Catholics and Protestants alike approved of the death penalty for heresy. Foxe was one of the few who opposed it.
- Before the mid-1500s, executions for heresy in England and Scotland were relatively infrequent. As conflict between Catholics and Protestants increased after the 1530s, however, heresy laws became more rigorously enforced.
- Mary's persecutions had already ended by the time Foxe published his book. His purpose was not to provoke political action against persecution, but to teach English Protestants about the history of their religion. He hoped to remind them that their religion, based on original Christian teachings, was the true one, and to inspire them to continue fighting against Catholic influence.
- Foxe adhered as much as possible to reliable sources, but he did not witness the executions about which he wrote. He constructed his accounts from eyewitness reports as well as government records, and he tried to verify details whenever possible. The accuracy of his accounts, however, has been questioned, as has his objectivity. Though Foxe was clearly biased in favor of the Protestant martyrs, historians have found that he did accurately describe the facts as they were recorded.
Book of Martyrs Account of Simon Miller and Elizabeth Cooper
Simon Miller was a prosperous merchant of the town of Lynn-Regis. He was an earnest supporter of the doctrines of the reformers; and having occasion to go to Norwich on business, he inquired while there for their place of worship. This being reported to chancellor Dunning, he ordered Miller to appear before him. When the chancellor asked him the usual questions, he answered them without attempting to hide his thoughts on the subject of religion, so he was committed prisoner to the bishop's palace.
After being some time in prison, Miller was allowed to go home, to settle his affairs. On his return he was again examined by the chancellor, who warned him to recant his opinions, and return to the church of Rome; but Miller remained firm in his faith, so he was finally condemned as a heretic, and delivered over to the sheriff.
Elizabeth Cooper (who was burned with Simon Miller) was the wife of a tradesman at Norwich. She had formerly been persuaded to recant; but being troubled in her conscience for so doing, she went one day to St. Andrew's church, and there, in the presence of a large congregation, stood up and withdrew her recantation. For this she was immediately arrested and sent to prison. The next day she was brought before the bishop, and examined as to her belief. This time she remained true to her faith; therefore she was condemned as a relapsed heretic, and delivered to the sheriff for execution.
On the 30th of July, 1557, Simon Miller and Elizabeth Cooper were both led to the stake. It was set up in a field outside Norwich, near Bishopsgate. When the fagots were lighted, Elizabeth Cooper was afraid, and cried out. When Simon Miller heard her cry, he put out his hand toward her, and asked her to be strong and of good cheer; "for, good sister," said he, "we shall have a joyful meeting hereafter." Upon hearing her companion's words, the woman seemed reassured, and stood still and quiet, as one almost glad to finish the hard trial which she had begun: then she and her companion committed their souls to Almighty God and thus ended their lives.
A Woman Burned at Norwich
Cicely Ormes, of the city of Norwich, wife of Edmund Ormes, was arrested on the day that Simon Miller and Elizabeth Cooper were executed. She drew the attention of the officers to herself by speaking encouraging words to the two prisoners, on their way to the stake. For this she was put in prison and soon after taken before the chancellor for examination.
The chancellor offered to release Cicely Ormes, "if she would go to church and keep her beliefs to herself," and told her "she could hold to any faith she would." But she answered, "I will not enter your church." Then the chancellor told her he had shown more favor to her than he ever did to any person, and that he was loth [reluctant] to condemn her, considering she was only a foolish young woman. Upon this she told him, if he thought so, he should not be so anxious about her belief; and said that, foolish or not, she was content to give up her life in so good a cause.
The chancellor then read the sentence of condemnation, and delivered Cicely Ormes to the care of the sheriffs of the city, who immediately carried her to the Guidhall at Norwich, where she remained until the day she was led to the stake.
Cicely Ormes was a young woman in the prime of life, uneducated but very earnest in the cause. She was born in East Dereham, and was the daughter of Thomas Haund, a tailor. The first time she was brought before the magistrate [official] she recanted, but was afterward so troubled in conscience that she wrote a letter to the chancellor, to let him know that she repented her action from the bottom of her heart, and would never do the like again while she lived. But before she could succeed in having it delivered, she was taken, tried, and condemned, as previously told.
Cicely Ormes was burned the 23rd of September, 1557, between seven and eight in the morning, the two sheriffs were there, and about two hundred people. When she came to the stake, she kneeled down and made her prayers to God; that being done, she rose up and said, "Good people, I believe as I have been taught from the Bible. This I do, nor will I ever change from it. This my death is a witness of my faith to all here present. Good people, as many of you as believe the same as I believe, pray for me."
When Cicely Ormes had said this, she laid her hand on the stake and seeing her hand blackened (for she was burned at the same stake Simon Miller and Elizabeth Cooper had been), she wiped it on her dress.
After she had been bound, and the sheriff's men had kindled the fire, she clasped her hands together against her breast, turning her face upward, and so stood raising up her hands little by little, till they fell helpless at her side—when she yielded up her life as quietly as if she had been in slumber, and seemed to feel no pain.
What happened next …
The Book of Martyrs was an immediate best-seller in England. At a time when relatively few families could afford to buy books, many households owned copies of Foxe's work. In fact, Book of Martyrs was often the only book that families owned other than the Bible. Elizabeth's government saw the book as a useful tool in confirming the rightness of the Protestant cause. Her secretary of state, William Cecil (Lord Burghley; 1520–1598) arranged for English bishops to order copies of it to be placed in cathedral churches along with copies of the Bible. Many smaller churches also bought copies.
Through the remainder of his life Foxe continued to revise his work to ensure its accuracy. He also expanded it as he came across additional materials. During his lifetime three new editions were published, and in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries five additional volumes came out. Schoolchildren were encouraged to copy passages from the Book of Martyrs, in their commonplace books, notebooks into which students copied quotes and stories that taught moral behavior. Between 1573 and 1631 at least twelve plays inspired by the Book of Martyrs were published. Broadside ballads—popular songs printed on a single sheet of paper—describing the ordeals of Foxe's martyrs were sold in England in the 1620s. Around the same time separate editions of the book's illustrations went on sale.
The stories from Foxe's Book of Martyrs strengthened England's resolve to resist any Catholic influence. In time England was drawn into Europe's wars of religion, providing financial and military support to Protestants in France and the Netherlands who were rebelling against Catholic governments. Protestantism was established as England's official religion. During Elizabeth's reign many English Catholics suffered persecution; priests who said Mass or heard confessions were executed for treason. Anti-Catholic legislation remained in place for centuries, contributing to political tensions that periodically erupted in violence as late as the twentieth century.
The Book of Martyrs played a crucial role in forging England's identity as a Protestant nation. In the view of many historians, no book except for the Bible exerted more influence on English readers.
Did you know …
- Foxe's Book of Martyrs included 170 illustrations, many of which showed Protestants being burned at the stake. These illustrations, which were quite expensive to produce, helped to convey the brutality of the executions and the heroism of the victims, who were depicted enduring the flames without flinching.
- Foxe's first edition of the book ran to about eighteen hundred pages, and it was the largest publishing project ever completed in England up to that time. An edition published in the mid-1800s consisted of eight large volumes, six thousand pages, and more than four million words.
- England was not the only country where heresy was punishable by burning at the stake. France, Switzerland, Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic), and Spain were among the other countries where heretics received this sentence. In some cases, French heretics also had their tongues cut out, or they were hanged and burned simultaneously.
- Burning at the stake remained a legal sentence for certain crimes in England until 1790. Women convicted of high treason (usually the counterfeiting of coins) or of murdering their husbands were burned to death in public. Men convicted of these crimes were hanged. In some cases the women were first hanged and may already have been dead before the fires under them were lit. The last woman to be burned to death in England was executed in 1789.
Consider the following …
- Foxe wrote at a time when modern media did not exist. If he had had access to modern media tools, such as photographs, video, and sound recordings, how might these have affected his work? Would they have necessarily made his accounts more accurate?
- Research a recent death penalty case in the United States. Write a brief account of the trial and execution from the perspective of a death penalty supporter. Which details did you choose to emphasize? Were there any details that you chose to leave out? Now write the same story from the point of view of a death penalty opponent. How did you use specific details in this case?
For More Information
Foxe, John. Foxe's Christian Martyrs of the World. Chicago: Moody Press, 1963.
Gregory, Brad S. Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, MA and London, UK: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Highley, Christopher and John N. King, eds. John Foxe and His World. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2002.
Ridley, Jasper. Bloody Mary's Martyrs: The Story of England's Terror. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001.
Williamson, G. A., ed. Foxe's Book of Martrys. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1965.
Loades, David. "Foxe's Book of Martyrs and the Face of England." History Today, December 2005, pp. 40-49.
"Burning at the Stake." Capital Punishment U.K. http://www.richard.clark32.btinternet.co.uk/index.html (accessed on July 24, 2006).
Forbush, William Byron, ed. Foxe's Book of Martyrs. http://www.ccel.org/f/foxe/martyrs/home.html (accessed on July 24, 2006).
Foxe Digital Project Home Page. http://dlib.lib.ohio-state.edu/foxe/ (accessed on July 24, 2006).
Chancellor: A high-ranking government official.
Recant: Take back.
Relapsed: Slipped back into a former state.
Fagots: Bundles of sticks.