John Foxe must have been asked why his Book of Martyrs was necessary or needed when he was writing it in the early 1560s. He seems to have feared that another book of History lacked readers as his audience was already overwhelmed by books. In his final preface to the first edition he reflects on those concerns. Foxe makes a declaration intended to prove the utility and profit of yet another history book, especially one so large. He notes that there are an infinite multitude of books ‘daily put forth everywhere’, many of which were to be regarded as superfluous and only made to pester the circumspect reader.
Part of the problem lay in Foxe’s own doubts about his ability (although these were often rhetorical words and should, perhaps, not be taken literally). Foxe described how difficult it was to write something ‘singular’ that could join ‘thinges’ together (i.e. various histories and events) and provide something of use to the reader (‘increase the industry of the learners, the utility of the studious, and the delight of the learned’). Foxe’s defense was the one that he purported throughout his prefaces and the book itself:
“I thought it not to be neglected, that the precious monuments of so many matters, and men most meet to be recorded and registered in books, should lie buried by my fault in the pit of oblivion” (A&M, 1563,A declaration concerning the ultility and profit of this history)
The concern was a simple one. Although they would not have admitted it, the reformers were partly to blame for the scattering of England’s manuscript heritage upon the purging of monasteries in the 1530s. Little had been done since to recover those texts – many of which were unique and irreplaceable.
Furthermore, the story of History told from generation to generation did not any longer fit the needs and requirements of a Protestant Church of England. That story claimed conversion to Christianity by the Pope’s hand. It argued for allegiance to Rome and the denouncement of any and all attempts to criticise that relationship.
Protestants, like Foxe, needed to retell the past in their own image. But, crucially, that retelling had thus far been piecemeal. Foxe mentions that ‘the number of trifling pamphlets may grow out of remembrance’. It was certainly a concern. Campaigns to bring over opinions can be won through bombardment of pamphlets and other writings, but these are a weak bridge, with little concrete foundation, stability or persistence. What was needed was a central resource from which those other works could be divulged. Foxe wanted to provide that foundation; a large work, containing all that was necessary: in essence the Acts and Monuments or Book of Martyrsthat he was producing.
Foxe called it his duty and considering the interest and patronage given to him by the likes of Sir William Cecil, Archbishop Matthew Parker, and Edmund Grindal, then Archbishop of York; it most probably wasn’t an exaggeration, even if that was not quite what he meant. Previous to Foxe’s publication there were indeed a multitude of shorter texts published regarding the martyrs so recently burnt at the stake.
In 1559 Thomas Brice had published a poem which listed the Marian martyrs in order of the dates of their executions. The same year John Day printed The complaynt of veritie, made by Iohn Bradford, a short treatise that transcribed the martyrs writings. It was the first of many. In 1560 William Powell printed A frutefull treatise and full of heauenly consolation against the feare of death. Whereunto are annexed certaine sweete meditations of the kingdom of Christ … Gathered by that holy marter of God, John Bradford. Bradford’s writings and examinations were also printed by William Griffith and William Copeland in 1561 as well as by Rowland Hall in 1562.
For other martyrs, Thomas Marsh published Arthur Golding’s A briefe treatise concerning the burnynge of Bucer and Phagius, at Cambrydge, in the tyme of Quene Mary. Also in 1559, Henry Sutton had printed The examination of the constante martir of Christ, Iohn Philpot. In 1562 Henry Bull had published An apologye made by the reuerende father and constante Martyr of Christe John Hooper (1562). In this text Bull noted that ‘manye frutefull workes did they [the Marian martyrs] write in prison…but fewe are come to lighte’. A year after the Acts and Monuments had seen print, Bull published the writings of Miles Coverdale as yet another example. Foxe also added to this growing collection with his Friendly Farewell, a collection of the writings of Nicholas Ridley.
It is probably these tracts that Foxe was referring to when he stated that he didn’t want to overload people with yet another book on the subject. His argument was that his book would be the last word on the subject; a synthesis of the other tracts in one big volume. In this, at least Foxe succeeded. Other than subsequent editions of his own book, there were relatively few other publications focused on martyrs after 1563. The Acts and Monuments had smothered all competition, and it had done so extremely well.