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  • Writer's pictureAbby Brenker

The Dark History of Foxe's Book of Martyrs

In our recent series on the real history of Bloody Mary, we talked at length about Foxe's Book of Martyrs. It became so well known it definitely shaped the perception of Queen Mary the 1st of England.

Foxe's Book of Martyrs is a famous work written by John Foxe. It was first published in 1563 during the English Reformation and was later expanded and revised. The book is a detailed account of the persecution and martyrdom of Protestants in England and other parts of Europe during the reign of Queen Mary I, who was a Catholic monarch known for her harsh treatment of Protestants. Though our series, and most modern scholars, ask the question, was Mary I particularly harsh, or was it a combination of propaganda and exaggeration?

A man is burned at the stake

The book provides a comprehensive chronicle of the lives, sufferings, and executions of various Protestant martyrs, including reformers, preachers, and ordinary individuals who refused to renounce their Protestant faith during a time when the official religion in England was shifting between Catholicism and Protestantism.

While the book contains historical accounts, it is also polemical and propagandistic in nature. Foxe was a staunch Protestant, and his work was intended to promote the cause of the English Reformation and portray Catholics, particularly Queen Mary I, in a negative light.

Many editions of "Foxe's Book of Martyrs" included numerous woodcut illustrations depicting the various methods of execution and the suffering of the martyrs. These images served to make the book more vivid and emotionally impactful.

The book played a significant role in shaping public opinion and attitudes toward the Catholic Church and its role in the persecution of Protestants. It reinforced the narrative of Protestant martyrs as heroic figures who died for their faith.

A man is burned at the stake

You can see from these wood carvings how explicit some of the accounts are. We actually read several passages from them in this episode.

Foxe's Book of Martyrs was not without controversy. Some contemporary scholars criticized the accuracy of the accounts, and there were accusations of exaggeration and embellishment in some cases. Nevertheless, the work had a profound influence on English Protestant identity and anti-Catholic sentiment.

The book's impact extended beyond its initial publication, as it was republished and expanded upon in subsequent editions throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Foxe's Book of Martyrs remains a significant historical and literary work, reflecting the religious and political tensions of its time and continuing to be of interest to scholars studying the English Reformation and religious history.

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