The Book of Martyrs
John Foxe’s Actes and monumentes, more familiarly known as the Book of Martyrs, is fundamental to almost any study of the English Reformation.
John Foxe. Actes and monumentes. London, John Daye, 1570. Folger call number STC 11223.
This page from the second edition of 1570 of John Foxe’s Actes and monumentes, more familiarly known as the Book of Martyrs, includes a woodcut that is among the acknowledged highlights of the work. It shows the death of Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, who had earlier tried to save his life by agreeing in writing to some aspects of Catholic doctrine. In this scene, Cranmer is burned at the stake at Oxford on March 21, 1556.
As the flames rise, a Spanish Dominican friar, Juan de Villagarcia (labeled here as “Fryer Iohn”), waits in vain for Cranmer to once again recant his Protestant beliefs. Instead, Cranmer extends the treacherous right hand with which he signed his early recantations so that it will burn first.
Foxe’s work, while hardly an evenhanded account, is fundamental to almost any study of the English Reformation. First published in English in 1563, it recounts the fate of 300 English Protestants put to death during the restoration of Catholicism under Queen Mary, sometimes called Bloody Mary, in a five-year reign that ended in 1558.
It also served in its day as an important source of contemporary history. Shakespeare is thought to have drawn on episodes from the Book of Martyrs for the second and third parts of Henry VI and an incident in Henry VIII.
The two-volume 1570 edition of the Book of Martyrs is more than 2,300 pages long.