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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XV. Chroniclers and Antiquaries

§ 9. John Foxe

An encyclopaedic method claims for John Foxe, the martyrologist, a place among the chroniclers. Not that his aim and purpose resembled theirs. It was not for him to exalt his country, or to celebrate the triumphs of her past. His was the gloomier task of recounting the torments suffered by the martyrs of all ages, and he performed it with so keen a zest that it was not his fault if one single victim escaped his purview. In other words, he was content only with universality, and how well he succeeded let Fuller tell: “In good earnest, as to the particular subject of our English martyrs, Mr. Foxe hath done everything, leaving posterity nothing to work upon.” And so he goes back to the beginning, describing the martyrdoms of the early church, and of those who suffered in England under king Lucius. As he passes by, he pours contempt upon Becket, proving that he, at least, was no true martyr, being the open and avowed friend of the pope. But it is when he arrives within measurable distance of his own time that he finds the best food for his eloquence. The prowess of Henry VIII, the exploits of Thomas Cromwell, his prime hero, the magnanimity of Anne Boleyn, “who, without controversy, was a special comforter and aider of all the professors of Christ’s gospel,” tempt him to enthusiasm, and he rises to the highest pitch of his frenzy when he recounts the tortures of those who suffered death in the reign of queen Mary. He is no sifter of authorities; he is as credulous as the simplest chronicler; he gathers his facts where Grafton and Stow gathered theirs, and he makes no attempt to test their accuracy. His sin is the greater because he is not writing to amuse or to enlighten his readers, but to prove a point in controversy. He is, in brief, a violent partisan. His book is the longest pamphlet ever composed by the hand of man. It is said to be twice as long as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and never for one moment does it waver from its purpose, which is to expose the wickedness of “the persecutors of God’s truth, commonly called Papists.” It is idle, therefore, to expect accuracy or a quiet statement from Foxe. If anyone belong to the other side, Foxe can credit him neither with honesty nor with intelligence. Those only are martyrs who die for the protestant cause. The spilt blood of such men as Fisher and More does not distress him. For the author of Utopia, indeed, he has a profound contempt. He summarily dismisses him as “a bitter persecutor of good men, and a wretched enemy against the truth of the gospel.” It follows, therefore, that Foxe’s mind also was enchained. It was not liberty of opinion which seemed good in his eyes, but the vanquishing of the other side. Though he interceded for certain anabaptists condemned by queen Elizabeth, it was his object to rescue them not from punishment but from the flames, which was, he thought, in accord with a Roman rather than with a Christian custom. However, the success of his Actes and Monuments was immediate. It was universally read, it aroused a storm of argument, it was ordered to be chained in churches for the general edification of the people. The temper in which it is written, the inflexible judgment which, throughout, distorts the truth with the best motive, have rendered the book less valuable in modern than in contemporary eyes. If we read it to-day, we read it not for its matter or for its good counsel, but for its design. As a mere performance, the Actes and Monuments is without parallel. Foxe was an astounding virtuoso, whose movement and energy never flag. With a fever of excitement he sustains his own interest (and sometimes yours) in his strange medley of gossip, document and exhortation. The mere style of the work—homely, quick and appropriate—is sufficient to account for its favour. The dramatic turn which Foxe gives to his dialogues, the vitality of the innumerable men and women, tortured and torturers, who throng his pages—these are qualities which do not fade with years. Even the spirit of bitter raillery which breathes through his pages amazes, while it exasperates, the reader. From the point of view of presentation, the work’s worst fault is monotony. Page after page, the martyrologist revels in the terms of suffering. He spares you nothing, neither the creeping flames, nor the chained limb, until you begin to believe that he himself had a love of blood and fire.

The man was just such a one as you would expect from his book. Born in 1517, to parents “reputed of good estate,” sent to Oxford, in 1533, by friends who approved his “good inclination and towardness to learning,” and elected fellow of Magdalen College, he was presently accused of heresy and expelled from Oxford. He was of those who can neither brook opposition nor accept argument. Henceforth, though he never stood at the stake, he suffered the martyrdom of penury and distress. Now tutor in a gentleman’s house, now in flight for the sake of his opinions, he passed some years at Basel reading for the press, and, in 1559, he published at Strassburg the first edition of his masterpiece, in Latin. In 1563, it was printed in English by John Day, with the title Actes and Monuments of these latter and perilous times touching matters of the Church. With characteristic ingenuity, he composed four dedications: to Jesus Christ, to the queen, to the learned reader and to the persecutors of God’s truth, commonly called papists. The last is a fine example of savage abuse, and, as Foxe wrote in safety and under the protection of a protestant queen, its purpose is not evident. No more can be said than that rage and fury are in his heart and on his tongue, that he possessed a genius of indignation which he had neither wish nor power to check and that he bequeathed to us a larger mass of invective than any writer in any age has been able to achieve.