This article was first published in the February 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine


Walk into the men’s department of a big store in Cardiff and you are confronted with an unexpected reminder of the British archipelago’s bitter religious past. A plaque, erected “by two Protestants of this town” and originally on the wall of a chapel which was swallowed up by the store, commemorates the burning for heresy of a 60-year-old fisherman called Rawlins White.

The execution had taken place close by in the centre of Cardiff on March 1555. All that we know about it comes from the pages of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. This book did more than most to cement a certain view of that contested past, and to inscribe it into part of the (English) national consciousness.

The 16th-century Protestant Reformation shattered Christendom and divided Europe. It created a fundamental rift between Protestants and Catholics which then fractured the existing political and social firmament. It had begun in Germany with Martin Luther’s defiant stand against the Holy Roman emperor and the papacy, but it quickly spread, becoming most bitterly contested in Europe’s middle latitudes.

The English Reformation had begun with Henry VIII’s divorce. But the ‘King’s Great Matter’ opened the door to Protestantism, an import from abroad which was positively encouraged under the minority of his successor Edward VI (reigned 1547–53) and, with similar determination, repressed in the reign of Mary Tudor (r1553–58).

Rawlins White’s fate reflected the see-saw of religious change in England – and so does the description of his death in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. It is an emotional account of a local fisherman. Illiterate, White put his son to school “to learne to read English” (they were probably native Welsh-speakers), and he, in turn, read out the newly “Englished Tyndale Bible” to his father in the evenings.

The New Testament translation by William Tyndale (c1494–1536), smuggled into England, played a major part in the nation’s Protestant birth-pangs. Rawlins White had a prodigious memory – few of us would be capable of rehearsing such long passages by heart. White became a Protestant autodidact, holding informal prayer meetings in the reign of Edward VI. Come the reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor, however, and his activities attracted the suspicion of the authorities. He was arrested and imprisoned in the bishop’s palace at Chepstow.

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Foxe gives us a version of what transpired in its chapel where Anthony Kitchin, bishop of Llandaff, did his best to make the “obstinate and wilfull” White recant. White’s ‘obstinacy’ in the face of his accusers is key to Foxe’s take on the events that led to the fisherman’s execution in Cardiff. Every element of the account emphasised his stoicism and evoked parallels in the reader’s mind with Christ’s death.

Sprawling text

Why should that story matter to us now? Why should a group of scholars, based at the University of Sheffield, have spent the last 20 years (with financial support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and sponsored by the British Academy) transcribing and collating the different versions of Foxe’s vast text? What can the study of this sprawling work – over two millions words in the 1583 edition alone – tell us what we did not already know? The answers to those questions lie in the remarkable obsessions of its progenitor, John Foxe, as well as the extraordinary history of the book to which he gave his name, and the multiple and complex ways in which it was received, read and eventually absorbed into a certain pattern of Englishness.

John Foxe (1517–87) was a Protestant but no martyr, save figuratively to his own singular perception of what history could achieve. His career began as that of a bright young man from Boston, Lincolnshire who made it to Oxford. It was there that his entanglement with the early Protestant Reformation began. Unwilling to “castrate himself” (his own evocative language) into taking priest’s orders to become a fellow at Magdalen College, he chose the riskier route in 1545 of making his living as a private tutor, translator and writer. That led him to make contacts in high places. Foxe was the tutor to Thomas Howard, who became the 4th Duke of Norfolk, and later a steadfast patron of his. Through his highly placed evangelical connections, Foxe came to know Elizabeth I’s secretary of state, William Cecil, the sponsor, in all but name, of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

He also struck up a friendship which, more than any other, explains Foxe’s historical endeavours. John Bale (1495–1563), the friend in question, was a former Carmelite friar whose sharp mind and even sharper pen (‘bilious Bale’ was how he was known to contemporaries) showed how history could be the handmaid of Reformation.

While great monastic libraries were being dispersed in England, Bale set about collecting the materials which would prove that the Protestant Reformation was a necessary response to the false claims and scandalous activities of the clergy. For Bale, a heroic British past had been corrupted. The Reformation fulfilled God’s millennial destiny for the world, destroying the papal antichrist, as foretold in the Book of Revelation.

Foxe fled the England of Mary Tudor in the spring of 1554, taking ship from Ipswich with his pregnant wife to the Rhineland, joining Bale in exile at Basel.

In his pocket he had the text of his first martyrology, written with Bale’s material and encouragement in Latin (the Commentarii). One of Foxe’s greatest (and now least appreciated) gifts was his ability to write elegant, persuasive Latin.

The next five years on the continent proved decisive for the English martyrologist. He found himself part of the network of one of Europe’s great Protestant printers (Johannes Oporinus).

At the same time, his researches into the prehistory of the Protestant Reformation in England were deepened by materials from other exiles like himself, which he put to good use in a much expanded, second Latin martyrology (the Rerum), published in 1559 just as he prepared to return to the England of Elizabeth I.

From the first, Foxe put the Reformation into a European context, relying on continental Protestant martyrological sources who, in turn, drew on his own writings for their accounts of what happened in England.

Back in England, Foxe put his experience in a print shop to good use, teaming up with the most enterprising and imaginative printer in 16th‑century London, John Day (c1522–84). Day, who had been imprisoned in the previous reign for printing Protestant writings, proved to be as committed to the production of the Book of Martyrs as Foxe.

From the beginning, two decisions were made that had a decisive impact on the book’s destiny. The first – to print it in English – cost it prestige, but earned it a larger audience. The second was to reprint official records and documents as well as sizable extracts from chronicles, histories and theological works.

The desire to turn Foxe’s Book of Martyrs into unassailable truth presented John Day with a huge challenge. He was charged with the task of producing a larger book than any previous work printed in England. That meant delays and costs. It took 18 months for Day to print the first edition, occupying his presses to the exclusion of other works and income. Fortunately, Cecil came to the rescue, giving Day monopolies over steadily selling textbooks and psalters that others paid Day to print.

That, however, did not buy the materials, especially the paper (imported from abroad, because England had no native producers). Day had to borrow over £500 to pay for that (at a time when a skilled workman in London did well to make £12 a year). Yet Day shouldered the burden and in March 1563, the first edition appeared in a folio of about 1,800 pages. Every time we look at Foxe’s text, we should remember the monumental commitment that created it.

Stinking martyrs

Yet this was only the beginning. In the ensuing haste, the book was disorganised. There were factual errors. Worst of all, material which turned out to be embarrassing to English Protestants had been included. Foxe and Day decided to remedy these faults by printing a new edition, reinforced by the “stingyng waspes” of criticism from Catholic writers, for whom it was a “huge dungehill” of “stinking martyrs” – ie those who were not martyrs at all.

The researches of the Foxe Project (see Journeys box right) have demonstrated to what extent Foxe’s Book of Martyrs owed its evolving shape to its opponents, part of an ongoing contest in which the status and veracity of martyrdom was itself in doubt.

Foxe and Day took their time, expanding the chronological range to begin with the early church.

It offered the first coherent narrative of the English pre-Reformation Christian church in relation to the Anglo-Saxon (and Angevin) kingdoms. More importantly, it included new archival research aswell as a torrent of personal testimonies about martyrs, their persecutors and communities of ‘sustainers’ who supported them before their capture, which the first edition had unleashed. Almost the entire account of Rawlins White appeared first in 1570 from a single informant.

There would be two further editions of the Book of Martyrs in Foxe and Day’s lifetimes, one in 1576 and another in 1583. Each time it was different. By 1583, it noted the French Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre and reflected Foxe’s preoccupation with the apocalypse, magnifying the need to unite against the Catholic onslaught.

Which edition is the ‘true’ Foxe? The answer is that – though all texts from this period are ‘unstable’ – they all are. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was a collaborative enterprise – with his printer, his sources, and (in a roundabout way) with his opponents.

The book’s influence did not grow through enormous sales or wide dissemination. Works we do not now remember – like Arthur Dent’s Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven (1601) – sold in much greater numbers. Only a minority of churches, mostly in south-east England, acquired copies through gift or purchase. But it remained in print, thanks to subscription selling and scores of abridgements. These varied in size and fidelity to the original, but some of them (including the most popular) were massive works. Many of them were profusely illustrated with images which became iconic. Foxe’s book was never out of print in England before 1900, a distinction shared with that Desert Island duo, the Bible and Shakespeare.

Ultimately, it was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’ readers who turned it into an icon of ‘Englishness’. Francis Drake took his 1576 copy on his voyages and, according to three Spanish prisoners examined by the Inquisition, knelt in prayer in front of it for 15 minutes before reading extracts aloud to his crew.

Its images echo through English culture. In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the execution of ‘Faithful’ consists of a series of tortures that clearly reflects a woodcut from Foxe. When the East India Company depicted a massacre by the Dutch on Malaku Island (‘Amboyna’), which had occurred in 1623, they did so by reproducing one of Foxe’s woodcuts.

Foxe’s text may have played its part in fostering anti-Catholicism and a sense of England’s (and, more problematically, Britain’s) ‘Protestant identity’. But it was a wider and vaguer, less ‘national’ cultural identity to which Dickens referred when the young David Copperfield visited Seaman Peggotty. He remembered a “large quarto edition” of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs in the parlour, and his “kneeling” (as in prayer) and opening “the casket where this gem was enshrined”, gazing at the pictures (of the text he could not “recollect one word”).

The new online edition of Foxe, which our project has produced, lets us now go beyond David Copperfield’s experience, and rediscover an enduring part of our cultural identity.

The death of Rawlins White

Unlike many of the woodcuts in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, that of Rawlins White (added in the 1570 edition) was only used once in the text, and followed the details of the story. The old man is chained to the stake, dressed in his long white shirt (“wedding garment”), his white hair and beard making him “altogether angelicall” amid the flames until his body collapsed around the chain into the pyre. Foxe did his best to emphasise how the martyr’s life and death conformed to the passion of Christ.

Elizabeth I receives the book

The opening woodcut capital ‘C’ of the 1563 edition depicts three figures presenting Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to Elizabeth I. In the middle is John Foxe himself, the “gatherer and collector” of the work, according to its title page. To his right is probably William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s secretary of state. To Foxe’s left is John Day. The image is a reminder that the book was a collaborative venture, and dedicated to a new ‘C’onstantine the Great (the allusion in 1570 would be changed to ‘C’hrist). Above Elizabeth is the cornucopia to be expected from full Protestant Reformation; below are the broken keys of Rome and the snakes of the antichrist.

Protestants are executed in Norwich

Foxe’s images were iconic, even to the extent of becoming embedded in English culture. This iron fireback is a much later copy of one which apparently existed at Brick House, Burwash (Sussex) and was perhaps produced in the mid-17th century. Burwash had a flourishing iron foundry and the image resembles closest an illustration in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs of the burning of Simon Miller and Elizabeth Cooper at Norwich (Book 12, 1570 edition). We know that copies of Foxe were read aloud in domestic circumstances.

With the fire in front, the stories were brought to life.

Mass burning at Smithfield

This large woodcut first appeared in the 1563 edition and depicts seven martyrs burned at Smithfield on 27 January 1556. In the haste of that edition, the artists were apparently given the wrong information. The print shows four women and three men instead of five men and two women, and (in 1563) the labels were all blank (probably because of the discrepancy). They were added in later editions. Foxe’s brief account of the event includes primary evidence from Bishop Bonner’s no-longer extant court book. The image evokes oppressive royal authority.

In the last burning recorded by Foxe, on 27 June 1558, also at Smithfield, he explicitly referred to the “great multitude and congregation” of “godly people” that attended the event.

Making a book of martyrs

It is rare to have more than a printed text to study for 16th-century publications. In the case of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, we have a great deal more with which to piece together the archaeology of the printed book.

The changes in each edition provide valuable clues as to how Foxe’s information about particular martyr stories grew and changed as what he had said was contested by his critics, or new information came in. The marginal notes also provide an important guide as to how he wanted the text to be read.

In addition, we have some of the raw materials on which he based his accounts. Interestingly, we can sometimes see how he edited these, leaving out names of individuals who might be compromised and omitting passages which might cast doubt upon the orthodoxy of those whose testimony was crucial to their status as Protestant martyrs.

The numerous woodcut illustrations presented challenges. The images had to be inserted, either ‘tipped in’ (ie added as separate sheets to a quire or, in the case of the larger ones, folded in) or placed within the text. Text legends (‘banderoles’) were added as type-set within the wood-block. In a comedy on the London stage in 1651, one character accuses another of wanting to “become a martyr, and be pictur’d with a long labell out o’ your mouth, like those in Foxe’s book”.

A few presentation copies of the 1570 edition were also elaborately hand-coloured by specialists working for the archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. It was one of those coloured editions which accompanied Francis Drake on his navigations.

Thomas Freeman is a visiting research fellow at the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and a visiting lecturer at the University of Essex


Mark Greengrass is emeritus professor at Sheffield University and senior research fellow at FRIAS, Albert-Ludwigs Universität Freiburg