John Foxe was born at Boston in Lincolnshire, England, in 1516, and was educated at Magdalen School and College, Oxford. He joined the more extreme Reformers early in life and under Edward VI acted as tutor to the children of the recently beheaded Earl Of Surrey. In Mary's reign he fled to Germany and joined the exiles at Frankfort. In the controversy which arose there he took sides with Knox and the extremists and after the break up of the Frankfort colony he went to Basle where poverty compelled him to take service with the Protestant printer Oporinus. In 1539 he returned to England and entered the ministry, he was helped by his old pupil the Duke of Norfolk and was mainly occupied with his martyrology. He still belonged to the extremists and objected to the surplice. His opinions interfered with his prospects, but he was not an ambitious man. Though violent and dishonest in controversy, he was personally of a kind and charitable temper. Besides his "Acts and Monuments" he published a number of sermons, translations, and controversial attacks on Catholicism. He died in 1587.
Even before leaving England in 1554 Foxe had begun the story of the persecutions of the Reformers. The result was the publication of a little Latin work dealing mainly with Wyclifism. While at Basle he was supplied by Grindal with reports of the persecution in England and in 1559 he published a large Latin folio of 740 pages which began with Wyclif and ended with Cranmer. After his return to England he began to translate this book and to add to it the results of fresh information. The "Acts and Monuments" were finally published in 1563 but came almost immediately to he known as the "Book of Martyrs ". The critism which the work called forth led to the publication of a "corrected" edition in 1570. Two more (1576 and 1583) came out during his life and five (1596, 1610, 1632, 1641, 1684) within the next hundred years. There have been two modern editions, both unsatisfactory; they are in eight volumes and were published in 1837-41 and 1877. The size may be gathered from the fact that in the edition of 1684 it consists of three folio volumes of 895, 682, and 863 pages respectively. Each page has two columns and over eighty lines. The first volume besides introductory matter contains the story of early Christian persecutions, a sketch of medieval church history and an account of the Wyclifite movement in England and on the continent. The second volume deals with the reigns Henry VII and Edward VI and the third with that of Mary. A large number of official documents such as injunctions, articles of accusation, letters, etc., have been included. The book is illustrated throughout by woodcuts, some of them symbolizing the triumph of the Reformation, most of them depicting the sufferings of the martyrs.
The Convocation of the English Church ordered in 1571 that copies of the "Book of Martyrs " should be kept for public inspection in all cathedrals and in the houses of church dignitaries. The book was also exposed in many parish churches. The passionate intensity of the style, the vivid and picturesque dialogues made it very popular among Puritan and Low Church families down to the nineteenth century. Even in the fantastically partisan church history of the earlier portion of the book, with its grotesque stories of popes and monks and its motley succession of witnesses to the truth (including the Albigenses, Grosseteste, Dante, and Savonarola ) was accepted among simple folk and must have contributed much to anti-Catholic prejudices in England. When Foxe treats of his own times his work is of greater value as it contains many documents and is but largely based on the reports of eyewitnesses; but he sometimes dishonesty mutilates his documents and is quite untrustworthy in his treatment of evidence. He was criticized in his own day by Catholics such as Harpsfield and Father Parsons and by practically all serious eccesiastical historians.
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