Foxe was a native of Boston, Lincolnshire, born around 1516. His father died during Foxe’s early youth, and his mother married for a second time, to a substantial yeoman named Richard Melton, from Conningsby. Foxe moved to Conningsby, and there he came to the attention of the rector, John Hawarden, a Fellow, and subsequently Principal, of Brasenose College, Oxford.
Hawarden, who was considered to be rather a difficult man – he was later exhorted by the College’s Visitor to display more charity towards his pupils – obviously thought well of the young Foxe, and exerted pressure on Melton to allow Foxe to enrol at Brasenose in 1534. His room-mate there was Alexander Nowell, who was to be Dean of St Paul’s and a close associate of Foxe.
By 1538, Foxe had moved to Magdalen College (the alma mater of Thomas Wolsey). He was elected a Fellow in 1539, and graduated MA. It was during his years at Magdalen that Foxe began to question traditional Catholic orthodoxy. His deep study of the Bible made him suspect to the college authorities, who accused him of being involved with ‘a certain new religion’. In 1544, the president of the college, Owen Oglethorpe (later Bishop of Carlisle, and the only bishop willing to crown Elizabeth) apparently accused Foxe of failure to attend Mass, a charge Foxe denied.
In 1545, Foxe should have taken holy orders – this was required of all Fellows of the college once they had completed the teaching duties that followed the MA. Foxe had no desire to enter a priesthood that was still required to be celibate. He did not wish to ‘castrate’ himself, as he wrote to a friend. He was therefore obliged to resign his Fellowship.
As a member of the evangelical set at Oxford, Foxe had made friends: Hugh Latimer, the Reforming Bishop of Worcester, who had had a brief spell in the Tower for failure to support the conservative Act of Six Articles, invited Foxe to stay with him for a period, but instead, Foxe took up a post as a tutor, to the Lucy family at Charlecote, Warwickshire. Foxe was right to feel that a celibate life was not for him – whilst in Warwickshire he met and married Agnes Randall, by whom he would have six children.
For unknown reasons, Foxe left the Lucy family, and moved to London. By 1548, in the newly Protestant atmosphere of Edward VI’s reign, he had had three books published by Hugh Singleton, known for his evangelical productions. He had also found employment in the household of Mary, Duchess of Richmond – briefly Henry VIII’s daughter-in-law, as the wife of his illegitimate son.
Mary Richmond had been part of the circle of evangelically-minded women who surrounded Queen Katherine Parr. Her brother, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, had been the last person executed under Henry VIII for treason, and Mary Richmond had the task of caring for his children. It was as tutor to the young Lord Thomas Howard and his siblings that Foxe was engaged. He lived with them at Mountjoy House, and later at Reigate.
Amongst Mary Richmond’s friends was Katherine Willoughby, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk, a noted evangelical. Katherine Suffolk was later to be highly praised by Foxe, and much of what is known of her exile during the reign of Mary I is drawn from Foxe’s account.
It may have been through Katherine Suffolk that Foxe was introduced to John Bale at Mountjoy House in 1548. Bale had been a Carmelite friar, before becoming an evangelical and was a writer both of plays and also of a collected biography of English writers. Foxe and Bale became friends, and Bale was an important supporter and help to Foxe in his first major work, a Latin martyrology called the ‘Commentarii in Ecclesia gestarum rerum’.
In the Protestant church of Edward VI, married clergy were permitted. Foxe (described as a member of the household of Katherine Suffolk) was ordained deacon, by Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London on 24th November 1550 and he then took a full part in the various arguments between the different Protestant groups as Archbishop Cranmer tried to forge a new, English, church.
In July 1553, Mary I became queen. Her adherence to traditional Catholicism was well-known, and it was not long before many of the ‘hotter’ (as they were termed) Protestants left England for more congenial religious atmospheres. Foxe himself was relieved of his duties as a tutor when his charges’ grandfather, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, was released from the Tower and became their guardian. His views were very different from those of his daughter, and Foxe’s teachings were not in line with them. Nevertheless, Foxe remained on excellent terms with his former pupil, Thomas, who became 4th Duke of Norfolk the following year.
Foxe did not welcome the prospect of exile, but, by spring 1554, decided it was the right move. He and his family embarked for the Low Countries, then travelled on to Strasbourg, arriving there by July 1554. It was here that Commentarii… was published, dedicated to Duke Christoph of Württemburg, although that did not result in the hoped for patronage. The Commentarii chronicled the persecution of the English Lollards (followers of John Wycliff, whom many saw as a proto-Protestant).
From Strasbourg, Foxe went to Frankfurt, which became riven with division between the ‘Knoxians’ and ‘Coxians’. Foxe was a supporter of the Knoxians and was expelled with them, when the dispute could not be mediated.
Foxe returned to Strasbourg and he and his family shared lodgings with John Bale, now resident there. Foxe largely earnt his living as a proof-reader for the publisher Johann Oporinus. Moving in these circles, Foxe met many of the key figures of the European Reformation and it was a time for a fertile exchange of ideas. He published more works: one was Locorum Communium Tituli, which was a species of journal or commonplace book, with 10 categories divided into 154 headings, for the user to write his or her own reflections on the topic.
The Marian exiles, as they were known, were distressed and horrified at the persecution of their fellow Protestants in England. Foxe, perhaps with his former pupil in mind, published another tract Ad inclytos ac praepotentes Angliae procures … supplicatio which exhorted the English nobility to prevent persecution.
Another literary project was planned, this time with Edmund Grindal, later Archbishop of Canterbury. It was to be a parallel martyrology in Latin and English, with Foxe writing the former, and Grindal the latter. It was not completed in its original conception, but contributed to Foxe’s next work.
In November 1558, Mary I died, to be succeeded by Elizabeth I. The Marian exiles began to return home – hoping for the institution of their vision of a Christian commonwealth. The Duke of Norfolk invited Foxe to return, promising him help. Foxe, however, was too busy to return immediately. He was now deep in his preparation of the Rerum in Ecclesia Gestarum, a Latin martyrology of English men and women who had been martyred for the sake of the Gospel, up to his own day. The work was in six books, of which four were devoted to the Marian martyrs. The Rerum was printed in September 1559, dedicated to Norfolk.
Acts and Monuments
Foxe and his family returned to London. They lived at Norfolk’s home in Aldgate, and Foxe was finally admitted as priest to the Church of England on 25th January 1560. As well as printing other minor items, Foxe now began his most famous work: Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Church. Generally shortened to ‘Acts and Monuments’ and often called ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’. The publisher was John Day.
The book was successful, and a second edition was printed in 1564. It was also successful politically, and led to Foxe being given an ecclesiastical position – prebend of Shipton-under-Wychwood in Salisbury Cathedral. Demonstrating his lack of interest in church hierarchy, Foxe entirely ignored Salisbury, never visiting, taking part in services, or contributing a tithe. Similarly, he showed his belief in the ministerial calling by ensuring that his vicar in Shipton was a ‘godly’ man, who would care for the parish. He did not extend his views on the duties of ministers so far as to actually inhabit the parish himself.
During the plague that swept through London in the summer of 1563, Foxe was anxious to minister to the sick and the dying, and to obtain funds from the authorities to help the afflicted. He also became involved in what was known as the ‘vestarian controversy’. Archbishop Parker and Queen Elizabeth were at the conservative end of Protestantism and both supported the wearing of vestments by clergy.
For Foxe and others of his bent, vestments were ‘the dregs of Popery’. He, and some nineteen other ministers requested consent from the Ecclesiastic Commission to follow their consciences and reject vestments. This cut no ice with Archbishop Parker, and the wearing of suitable vestments was enforced. Foxe held no living in London, so did not end up as his friend Richard Crowley did – suspended from his parish – in fact, Foxe may have stepped into the breach and ministered in the church of St Giles Cripplegate on Crowley’s behalf.
The second edition of Acts and Monuments was published in 1570. A year before, Foxe had been obliged to distance himself from his patron. The Duke of Norfolk had become embroiled in a plan to marry Mary, Queen of Scots. Foxe had written to him, warning that such a scheme could only end badly, and he was right. Norfolk, having initially been pardoned, was attainted for treason.
Norfolk’s sister, Jane, Countess of Westmoreland, also once Foxe’s pupil, had been deeply involved in the Rebellion of the Northern Earls, which had sought to put Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne and restore the Mass. In answer to the Papal Bull, excommunicating Elizabeth I, after the Rebellion, Foxe preached at St Paul’s and his ‘Sermon of Christ Crucified’ condemning the Pope and the Roman Catholic church and contrasting it with ‘true religion’ based on the Gospel, was printed and went through many editions.
In 1572, Elizabeth felt she had no choice but to have the death sentence against Norfolk carried out. Facing execution, Norfolk requested the comfort of Foxe’s presence and was accompanied by him to the scaffold. In gratitude, Norfolk left his old tutor an annuity of £20.
Whilst Foxe and Archbishop Parker thought differently about vestments, Parker loved the Acts and Monuments. He was a great antiquarian and believed that the English church of Bede had been corrupted by foreign domination, leading to all the ills that Protestants believed had infiltrated the once pure Catholic and Apostolic church. Convocation ordered that the book be placed alongside the Bible in every cathedral.
Foxe continued to publish other works including a collection of writings of Tyndale, Frith and Barnes, and an edit of a translation of Luther’s commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. He also became involved in a series of exorcisms – fears of demons giving rise to mass hysteria were not uncommon in the period. Foxe no doubt believed sincerely in demonic possession, and prayed vigorously over a lawyer, Robert Briggs, who was suicidal and inclined to seizures because of his great burden of sin. Foxe’s intervention was deemed a success when Mr Briggs’ seizures ceased.
Archbishop Parker was more sceptical about demonic possession, and cracked down hard on similar cases, exposing them as frauds. This was followed up by publication of a tract by Parker’s office, stating that those pretending to be possessed by demons were frauds, and those who believed they could cure them, sorcerers who ‘would delude Gods good people and the Queenes maiesties subiectes with manifest untruth.’ Foxe took the hint and refrained from any further exorcisms.
Foxe had originally been unhappy with the Act of Settlement of 1559, hoping that the Book of Common Prayer could be revised to be more in line with Reformed Confessions, but Elizabeth had been adamant – there would be no further movement in the English church. As time passed, the more radical elements, who became known as the Puritans, still sought further reform. Foxe, however, mellowed, and began to see the Puritans as divisive.
Foxe strongly disapproved of the death penalty for heresy, believing that prayer and teaching, with perhaps some milder corporal punishment, such as branding or flogging, was the answer to wrong beliefs. In April 1575, he pleaded with the government for the lives of two Flemish Anabaptists, sentenced to burn, even though he thought their views completely abhorrent. He continued to hope they would renounce their beliefs, and accompanied them to Smithfield but they were adamant, and went to the fire.
Two more editions of Acts and Monuments were published, and Foxe continued with his anti-Catholic polemics, although he was in declining health. Foxe died in 1587 with his last work Eicasmi seu meditations in sacram Apocalypsim – a disquisition on the Book of Revelations, incomplete. His wife, Agnes, survived him, probably dying in 1605.
Evenden, E. & Freeman, T. S. (2011) Religion and the book in early modern England: the making of Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’. Cambridge studies in early modern British history. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Freeman, Thomas 'The Life of John Foxe', section 1.4. in The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online or TAMO (HRI Online Publications, Sheffield, 2011). (HRI Online Publications, Sheffield, 2011). Available from: http//www.johnfoxe.org
Principals of Brasenose - Brasenose College, Oxford’. (n.d.). . Retrieved July 7, 2018, from <https://www.bnc.ox.ac.uk/about-brasenose/history/216-brasenose-people/470-principals-of-brasenose>