Christian Works : Acts and monuments

Foxe, John 1516-1587

Christian Works

<p style='text-align: justify;'>The 160 images presented here are taken from one of the most significant works of the sixteenth century, and one of the most vividly coloured items in the Library’s collection. Digitised as part of the <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Remembering the Reformation digital exhibition</a>, they are taken from a work commonly known as ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’. This work – also known as the <i>Acts and Monuments</i> from its actual title <i>The first/second volume of the ecclesiasticall history contaynyng the actes and monumentes of thynges passed in euery kynges tyme in this realme</i> – was printed by John Day in London in 1570 as the second edition of one of the most ambitious works of history writing published in early modern Europe. Charting Christian history from the early church to the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558 (just five years before the first edition appeared in 1563), it provided a polemical Protestant account of both the distant and the recent past. As the popular nickname ‘the Book of Martyrs’ suggests, though, this book became known primarily for just one aspect of what it contained: the vivid descriptions of persecutions, and particularly of those Protestants who had been executed for their faith under the Catholic Queen Mary (r. 1553-8). The images seen here were a central and influential part of this narrative of Catholic cruelty and Protestant bravery.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>Spread over two volumes and well over 2000 pages, this second edition of the <i>Acts and Monuments</i> (as it will be referred to hereafter) represented a considerable expansion of the first volume, published in 1563. The author and compiler of this work was John Foxe (1516/17-1587). Foxe, who seems to have first become convinced by evangelical criticisms of the Catholic Church as a student under Henry VIII, was a committed and staunch Protestant who aimed in his work not only to record a confessional history, but to advance the cause of further reformation in England. When Mary Tudor came to the throne Foxe and his wife joined the perhaps 1000 other English Protestants who chose to flee abroad rather than live under this Catholic regime. During his time abroad Foxe published one martyrology and prepared another; although these were both in Latin and on a much smaller scale than the <i>Acts and Monuments</i>, they were important forerunners of the <i>Acts and Monuments</i>. Foxe’s work also seems to have taken some inspiration from other Protestant martyrologies published at the same time, such as that of the French author Jean Crespin, who first published his own history in 1554. This was thus part of a wider, international Protestant movement. Yet at the same time, Foxe’s decision to publish his most significant martyrology in the vernacular made this a distinctly and clearly English work, and the <i>Acts and Monuments</i> has often been identified as a major milestone and creator of English national identity.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'><b>The illustrations and their origins</b></p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>This mixture of broader influences in a distinctly English work can also be seen in the images themselves. Scholars have noted the range of ways in which these illustrations drew on broader traditions. These included earlier models provided from medieval martyrologies such as the <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Golden Legend</a>, early sixteenth-century German Lutheran visual propaganda, and classical and humanist ideals. Yet despite this range of influences upon them, these woodcuts are unique and place-specific, with the majority – though far from all – depicting events in England. Indeed, it has been noted that some of the illustrations are very clearly rooted in place, with the images of <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(127);return false;'>Thomas Cranmer’s execution in Oxford in 1556</a> or the <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(134);return false;'>burning of the bones of Martin Bucer and Paul Fagius in Cambridge in 1557</a>, for instance, both showing distinctive features of these cities in their backgrounds.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>Scholars have identified three main categories of illustration in the <i>Acts and Monuments</i>: large narrative scenes showing different specific historical moments (like <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(9);return false;'>this illustration</a>); small woodcuts of single or groups of martyrs (such as <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(129);return false;'>these</a>), which are often repeated at different points in the book; and ‘marker’ images introducing sub-divisions in the text (such as <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(83);return false;'>this image of the reign of Edward VI</a>, which compresses the events of several years into one allegorical image). However, as more recent work has highlighted, there was in fact considerable overlap between these categories and the purposes they served within the text. Along with the text, the number of illustrations was also considerably increased in the 1570 edition, with many new images including a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(5);return false;'>spectacular fold-out image of persecutions in the early church</a> and a series of anti-papal images showing the growing power of popes over medieval kings, such as <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(34);return false;'>this illustration</a>.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>This account of the types and development of the images raises the question of where the initiative and design for these illustrations originated – who decided on such detail, and on what should and should not be depicted visually? These images were printed from woodcut blocks, and we know very little of the workmen who would have carried out the skilled work of carving them. They were almost certainly men who had come from European printing centres, where the technical knowledge of such illustration was much more advanced than in England at the time. This was one respect among many in which this work, often regarded as quintessentially English, was reliant on immigrant labour; in 1566 Foxe asked for an exception to the law limiting the number of foreign workers in a print shop due to the demands of producing such a massive work.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>These illustrators were skilled craftsmen who brought their own style to these images, and may well have been responsible for many of the details of the images they produced. However, it is also clear that, given the common themes running throughout the illustrations, and their close integration with the text of the <i>Acts and Monuments</i>, they were given detailed instructions for their work. This is normally thought to have come not just from Foxe, as author/compiler of the text, but also from its printer, John Day. Day had already shown his own enthusiasm for woodcut printing in earlier works that he had produced under Henry VIII and Edward VI (indeed, in a couple of cases, these earlier woodcuts were reused for the <i>Acts and Monuments</i> – a common practice at the time, as it brought an extra economy of scale to the cost of producing the block). As a printer, producing such a highly illustrated work would have been both a huge technical challenge and a significant extra cost (and so financial risk), and so Day’s own commitment to illustration was crucial to the existence of these famous images.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'><b>Dazzling patrons and readers: the purposes of colour and image</b></p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>It has been suggested that one reason for Day’s own determination to include such elaborate and numerous images was a desire to show off his own accomplishment and skill as a printer and so to further his own search for patronage. This was a crucial part of the viability of the <i>Acts and Monuments</i> as a commercially viable venture; producing a work of this scale and complexity was expensive and risker for any printer. Day, unlike many of his contemporary counterparts, could do this because he had a reliable income from monopolies. But this required the aid of those in authority, and Day and Foxe’s courting of such powerful figures in the Elizabethan regime as William Cecil and Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, was vital for the success of their project. So important was Cecil that he can be seen in <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(3);return false;'>one of the illustrations in this work</a>, presenting the book to Queen Elizabeth alongside Day and Foxe. The scholars Elizabeth Evenden and Thomas S. Freeman have suggested that impressing men such as these may have been a primary purpose of these illustrations.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>The quest to attract patronage is even more obvious within this particular copy of the book, with its vivid coloured images. In almost all copies of the Acts and Monuments these are left as they were printed, in black and white, but this is one of only two known copies in the world where an artist or team of artists then painstakingly coloured the printed images, creating this beautiful and striking book. This is known to have been done shortly after printing, as the colouring must have been done before binding the book, and the binding is contemporary. The binding also reveals something else about the origins of this coloured copy, for it was done by the same workman as the other known coloured copy, which now belongs to Trinity College, Cambridge, but which bears the arms of Matthew Parker (1504-75), who served as archbishop of Canterbury from 1559 to his death. Evenden and Freeman have shown that this book was coloured and bound in Parker’s own house, showing his enthusiasm for producing such beautiful works, and his role as patron to this work. This colouring turned an already very expensive book into an even more prestigious work of art; as Elizabeth Evenden has written, such elaborate enhancement of the work created a ‘luxuriously crafted artefact [...] used as key pieces of propaganda to appease and persuade individuals with power.’</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>This particular use of the images as aesthetically pleasing displays of skill and wealth raises the broader question of their purpose. It was long assumed that they were primarily intended to provide access to the work for the illiterate majority in Tudor society. Some weight is lent to this argument by the fact that this was intended to be a publicly available book: orders went out that copies of the <i>Acts and Monuments</i> should be placed in cathedral and even parish churches, so that the populace might learn from it, thus increasing the enthusiasm of the population for Protestant reform. While this initiative was never fully realised, it does show that this was intended as a book that both could and should be encountered by and accessible to ordinary people. The images have long been assumed to have been an important part of this.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>More recently, however, historians have questioned the appeal and utility of many kinds of reformation visual propaganda to the illiterate, including these images in the <i>Acts and Monuments</i>. Many of these illustrations are highly complex. Many of them are augmented with text, provided either as a heading to the image or within the illustration itself. As well as labelling particular figures, the text often serves to heighten the message of the image by providing such details as the last words uttered by a martyr. Interpreting such scenes without the aid of the text would have proved challenging and uncertain. Some have suggested, therefore, that the images were not primarily for the illiterate but as extra resources to aid the literate in understanding and recalling the text, and indeed to increase the appeal of the work to the elite.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>These two purposes – to provide for the illiterate and to create a visually arresting object for the elite – were, in any case, mutually compatible: it has been suggested that the courtly patrons of the <i>Acts and Monuments</i> may have valued the idea of this work as a tool for the uneducated, even if this purpose was never fully recognised. Some contemporaries certainly thought that the images might have an effect upon those that could not read; the Catholic Robert Persons – who was deeply critical of Foxe’s work – wrote that one of the dangers of the <i>Acts and Monuments</i> was that the ‘representation of martyrdomes (as they are called) delighteth many to gaze on, who cannot read’. We should also recognise Tudor literacy as both a scale and a shared social resource: the semi-literate may have been able to gain something from these images, and others might have been shown the images by those who could read them, even if they themselves could not. This, however, may not have been the primary motivator of the printer John Day, who had to balance his own Protestant principles and beliefs in bringing these messages to the people with the financial need to please his patrons. The images may happily have proved a way of achieving both these objectives at once.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'><b>Memory and the Reformation: the impact of images</b></p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>Whatever their purpose, these illustrations were some of the most iconic images surviving from Tudor England. Both reproduced and reinterpreted, they provided the basis for the depictions of many of these events for centuries to come, and created a visual memory that proved enduring. Scholars have shown how these images permeated many aspects of early modern society, from cheap print to domestic decoration. The images of martyrdom in Foxe became iconic. Here, of course, text and image worked together, and in these digitisations the images are shown in their context within the pages to demonstrate how the two were integrated – a technical challenge for the printer, but a key part of their success in conveying their message. It is worth noting that most of this book is not illustrated; the 160 images shown here represent only a fraction of the two volumes of the work itself. Nonetheless, while only a small part of this text, the images took on an importance perhaps disproportionate to their number. It has been noted that they concentrate primarily on the period under Mary I, and this may be one reason that this work, which aimed to cover a huge swathe of Christian history, has been so strongly associated with the five short years of this reign. In other ways, too, the illustrations may have shaped a memory of the past that was not entirely representative: it has been noted that the executions of women under Mary are comparatively under-depicted, perhaps influencing which deaths were most remembered in ways that accorded with gendered early modern expectations. This shows that these images were not just recording the recent past, but shaping memories of it.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>The anti-papal focus of the images, too, helped to cement an <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>anti-Catholicism</a> that would prove a <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>powerful force in English politics and religion</a> for centuries. Indeed, the <i>Acts and Monuments</i> became one of the most important contributions to a much longer and wider exchange of polemic as different Christian confessions made their own claim to be the true Church, and claimed their dead as true martyrs. From <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Catholics</a> to <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Mennonites</a>, many other groups, just like English Protestants like Foxe, used martyrology as a way to present their own version of religious truth. This was part of an exchange of religious polemic and process of conflict that both divided and shaped early modern Europe. Images such as these presented here were intended by their early modern creators as memorials to the past, but they now also represent the process of memory-making itself. Here we can see early modern English Protestants using their own history as a weapon and thus appropriating the past in order to serve their present. In doing so they utilised and created memories of ‘the Reformation’ that helped to shape ideas of this as a historical event, and which have proved influential even into the present day.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>Dr Ceri Law<br /> <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Remembering the Reformation</a><br /> Faculty of History<br /> University of Cambridge </p> <p style='text-align: justify;'></p>

Want to know more?

Under the 'More' menu you can find , any transcription and translation we have of the text and find out about downloading or sharing this image.

No Contents List Available
No Metadata Available


If you want to share this page with others you can send them a link to this individual page:
Alternatively please share this page on social media

You can also embed the viewer into your own website or blog using the code below: