Bostonian John Foxe was very influential in the development of the Church of England as it is today. Queen Elizabeth I ordered that every parish church in England should have two books, The Book of Common Prayer by Cranmer and The Book of Martyrs by John Foxe. Some of the wording often used in baptisms, marriages and funerals is based on them.
John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was first published in English in 1563 by John Day. Called Acts and Monuments it recounted in graphic detail the persecution of Protestants by the Catholic Church. Further editions appeared in 1570, 1576 and 1583. The book gave a history of Christian martyrs going back to Roman times and highlighted more recent events including the sufferings of the Lollards such as John Wycliffe and Protestant martyrs such as Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer during the reign of Queen Mary. It was a must have book for the educated Protestant. Francis Drake even took a copy on his voyage to South America in 1579.
John Foxe was born in Boston in 1516 in a house on Fish Hill where the present ‘Stump & Candle’ stands. After the death of his father, his mother remarried and he moved to Coningsby. He attended Tattershall College before entering Brasenose College Oxford at the age of 16.
Although he resigned his College Fellowship in 1545 for religious reasons, Foxe was ordained as a deacon during the reign of Edward VI by the Bishop of London, Nicholas Ridley, who was later among the Oxford Martyrs burned at the stake on the orders of Queen Mary. John and his wife, Agnes, chose voluntary exile on the continent where they were often ‘wretchedly poor’.
After Mary’s death Foxe returned to England and completed his first English edition of his Book of Martyrs. It met with popular acclaim and was read by a wide circle of people. Although Foxe received no royalties for his work, it led to instant fame. Among its pages were many memorable pictures of the most recent martyrdoms, immortalizing the words of the 68 year-old Hugh Latimer at his burning: ‘Be of good courage master Ridley, and play the man. This day we shall light in England such a candle as I trust by God’s grace shall never be put out’. Foxe’s book is not impartial. It tries to link the earliest Christian martyrs, persecuted by Imperial Rome, with the Protestant martyrs, persecuted by a Catholic Rome. Both he saw as enemies of the true Church. This proved influential, particularly among Puritan circles. After Foxe’s death in 1587, his book continued to be printed. The Catholic Church and others saw it in terms of Protestant propaganda. It was challenged in the 19th-century with the rise of High Anglicanism and continues to be a source of debate in universities.