Memorial and history, Part 2: in which John Foxe reveals his sources

Laura Sangha

This is the second of a series of posts on issues relating to Exeter’s martyr memorial. The first post discusses the details of the martyrs themselves.

A monumental achievement

Foxe’s [?] monumental [?] achievement.

The information about Exeter’s martyrs that I related in yesterday’s post was taken from John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, popularly known as the ‘Book of Martyrs’. Actes was first published in 1563, five years into the reign of Elizabeth I. It is a work of Protestant history and martyrology, mainly consisting of a polemical account of the sufferings of evangelicals under the Catholic Church.

I’ve previously discussed images of martyrdom on the monster, in this post I am more concerned with the text as a history of the ‘true’ Church. Foxe’s book is a textual and graphic monument (clue’s in the title) to the sufferings of those who were prepared to lay down their lives as witnesses to the truth of the Protestant faith. It is a physical, incontrovertible object, just as the Denmark Road obelisk memorial is. It went through four editions in Foxe’s lifetime and continued to be an important memorial throughout the history of the Church of England in subsequent editions – some of which expanded and extended his history, others that abridged it considerably. As an aside, whilst tracking down information for this series I came across an image of Agnes Prest in a 1887 edition of Foxe (see below) which includes picture book style coloured plates by lithographer Joseph Kronheim, and which appears to be aimed at children.

00001       prest and stonemason

Thus owning a copy of Foxe was a sign that you were a good English Protestant. But while Foxe was memorialising the history of his Church, he was also researching and compiling its history – he says as much on his title page, describing the process of research that lay behind the book. Foxe’s narratives were ‘gathered and collected according to the true copies and writings… of the parties themselves that suffered, as also out of the Bishops Registers’.

These days we are more sensitive to the fact that the Actes was a collaborative project, and that the work cannot be considered Foxe’s achievement alone. Many passages were copied verbatim from the letters and papers sent to Foxe by individual informants – eyewitnesses or folk in the localities, able to ferret out the relevant evidence. Both of the two Exeter martyrs reinforce this understanding of the work. In the case of Thomas Benet, Foxe had two informants, one a local antiquary, and the other Ralph Morice, who had been Thomas Cromwell’s principal secretary. In the text Foxe does indicate that he has multiple sources for this case, and he admits that their accounts contradict each other – hence the confusion over the exact order of events leading up to Benet’s arrest. Investigating the history of this history, Foxe’s most recent online editor Thomas Freeman has tracked down the original papers that Foxe worked from to flesh out Foxe’s narrative, In the process Freeman uncovered Benet’s earlier history when he was called Thomas Dusgate and resided in Cambridge. In the case of Agnes Prest, it seems that the first, shorter account of Prest’s persecution in the 1563 edition was from one informant, whereas the more extensive version of 1570 collated evidence from various testimonies. The fact that parts of Prest’s examination by the Bishop are recorded as a conversation suggests the information may have come from eyewitnesses – as in this extract from the 1570 edition (p. 2290). Incidentally, the passage also reveals Prest’s illiteracy – both her and the Bishop refer to her ‘hearing’ books, not reading them.

Bish. See this pratlyng woman. Doest thou not heare, that Christ did say, ouer the bread: This is my body, and ouer the cup: This is my bloud?

Wom. Yes forsooth, he sayd so, but he ment that it is hys body and bloud not carnally, but Sacramentally.

Byshop. Lo, she hath heard pratling among these new preachers, or heard some peuish booke. Alas poore woman, thou art deceiued.

Wom. No my Lord, that I haue learned was of godly preachers, and of godly bookes which I haue heard read.

This recent research helps us to understand not only the history of the Tudors, but it also enriches our understanding of Elizabeth’s reign, when Foxe’s book first appeared on the market. Later editions allow us to see how Protestant identities were emerging and developing over decades, even centuries, as the Protestant religion bedded in and Foxe’s work went through many new editions and adaptations.

The British Library- G 12101 t/pHence Foxe’s commemoration of the martyrs is an excellent example of how the act of remembering and memorialising also creates history, at the same time as being a work of history. Actes crops up all over the place because it is all things to all historians: a contemporary chronicle; a record of other records; one of the bestselling early modern books; a gripping insight into the most weighty issues of the day; a lesson in the construction of confessional identities and allegiances. It is also a compelling element of the Whiggish, linear narrative of the progress of British history from the backward, superstitious, Catholic dark ages to the enlightened, reasonable, Protestant modern age – a now rejected story underpinned by a sense of the English as God’s chosen people on their way to becoming an imperial superpower. Actes and Monuments is therefore a salutary reminder to always take notice of the political and polemical dynamics behind memorialisation, and the motives behind our selection and preservation of the past.

But what does this all mean for the Exeter monument? As well shall see tomorrow, the memorial was very much shaped by its source material, and it performs similar functions as Actes and Monuments. Foxe’s work therefore provides a framework and a model for understanding the Exeter monument, as his polemical history was perpetuated and extended in subsequent histories and ‘non-textual’ monuments.

Find out more:

  • Monday: what we know about the two martyrs on Exeter’s monument.
  • Wednesday: explores other English examples of Protestant monuments to martyrs and asks when and why they were erected.
  • Thursday: introduces the remarkable Harry Hems, designer of Exeter’s monument and an important collector of historical artefacts in his own right.
  • Friday: concludes with some thoughts on the ways that objects and places are invested with meaning, and the relationship between space, memory and history.
  • Appendix I: Jonathan jumps on the bandwagon with his own example of a similar monument in Norwich.
  • Appendix II: further ‘monumental’ discoveries in Oxford and the Wye Valley.

11 thoughts on “Memorial and history, Part 2: in which John Foxe reveals his sources

  1. Pingback: Memorial and history, Part 3: in which Mary Beard sits on a bench | the many-headed monster

  2. Pingback: Memorial and history, Part 4: in which several fights break out and a man is murdered in the Solomon Islands | the many-headed monster

  3. My childhood was dominated by an illustrated book (American, I think) retailing the lives and deaths of Catholic martyrs in graphic detail, from the Roman period to the Spanish conquests in Latin America and beyond.

    No doubt indirectly influenced by Foxe’s work it was designed to sway the young Catholic mind towards increased religiosity but instead disgusted me with its extreme piety and glorification of suffering, and certainly was a milestone on my journey to unbelief.

    I’ve sometimes wondered, from admittedly only reading short extracts from Foxe, whether its graphic details in words and pictures put off as many readers as it inspired, much as Amnesty’s necessarily bleak literature does.

    • Many thanks for reading and commenting, this is certainly an interesting question. Martyrologies were best sellers, and were often the most popular books in lending libraries, though this doesn’t necessarily tell us that much about how people read and thought about them. And Foxe contained a lot besides grisly descriptions – it taught the principles of the faith, often through lengthy descriptions of interrogations or the victims ‘crimes’, so that further complicates the question of the book’s appeal.

      My sense would be that the way martyrologies were viewed would be heavily dependent on context. In the early modern period, with capital punishment and a tradition of contemplating on the sufferings of Christ people had a different interpretive framework for understanding violence. For more modern editions, ideas of morality, justice and piety might be at odds with the events that they describe, leading to a different engagement with the content.

      • You’re right of course, I mustn’t attribute present-day sensibilities to the early modern period, though in my defence when I posted my reply early in the morning on my mobile I wasn’t thinking straight…

      • It’s an important point nevertheless – it’s entirely plausible that Foxe may have been more divisive in a nineteenth-century context, it’s just I know too little about it to offer more concrete thoughts!

  4. Pingback: Memorial and history, Part 5: in which history delivers a warning from history, and I talk about ‘feelings’ | the many-headed monster

  5. Pingback: Memorial and history, Part I: in which two people meet a terrible end | the many-headed monster

  6. Pingback: Memorial and history, Part 3: in which Mary Beard sits on a bench | the many-headed monster

  7. Pingback: Memorial and History, appendix i; in which Jonathan jumps on Laura’s bandwagon… | the many-headed monster

  8. Pingback: Memorial and History: appendix ii, further discoveries | the many-headed monster

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