There were those who believed that a reformation of religion could not be complete until a reformation of history had been attempted. They argued that the traditional story of early Christian conversion led by the divinely appointed leader of the Church, the Pope of Rome, was no longer valid. They claimed that the history of a united Roman Catholic Church acting against heretical groups and defending the West from heathen threats, no longer worked.
The Church, led from Rome had not acted in the best interests of humanity, they argued. It had not defended them from threats internal and external. Rather, it had misled the faithful, corrupted the holy men and the messengers, robbed from the poor to make themselves rich, forbidden all but the most learned from knowing the words that Christ had taught them. It had, in a word, failed. The price, and the danger, for such failure was the loss of the very soul of humanity. The stakes had never been higher.
In Germany the biggest attempt to resolve the problem of History was undertaken in the city of Magdeburg by a group of scholars who became known as the Magdeburg Centuriators. Over a period of fifteen years, they produced fourteen large volumes that analysed historical documents for a new, revised interpretation of past events. Heretics became the true faithful, the Church became corrupt and false, its heroes fell, and its laws were declared illegitimate.
Meanwhile in England, Queen Mary had died and her attempt to return the realm to Papal obedience died with her. The new queen, Elizabeth brought the realm back to a protestant religion, once again rejecting the divine authority of Rome, and setting out a string of laws meant as a final word on the question of religion. In this she was only partly successful. Many of those who had fled to the continent in the previous queen’s reign felt that much more needed to be done. The reformation of religion was, in their minds, far from complete.
This, then, is where John Foxe comes in and the topic of my new monograph, The Reformation of England’s Past: John Foxe and the Revision of History in the Late Sixteenth Century. If the past told a story that was no longer satisfying or useful, then what could be said to alter the interpretation? What new stories could be told to replace the old? What basis in evidence was needed to satisfy or deflect critics and enemies? These were the questions that Foxe tackled when he wrote his Acts and Monuments in the early 1560s, and again, when he revised and enhanced it for a second edition, published in 1570, and to a lesser extent in the revisions of 1576 and 1583. He believed that the past could be re-moulded to make sense of the present and, if told in a certain way, and if the sources were re-examined in a particular light, could provide much needed evidence for the pre-existence of the reformed faith. It could also, simultaneously, disrupt the claim to papal supremacy and continuity and offer an answer to the tricky question that Roman Catholics threw at Protestants: Where was your Church before Luther?
The answer Foxe gave turned the question on its head. His Church was the apostate church, the same Church that Christ had built, the one that the disciples had preached, the church that Rome had eventually betrayed. The Roman Church, Foxe claimed was not the Church of Christ that had survived for a millennium and a half, but the false church that had been warned of in Scripture. The Reformation had returned them to the beginning, to the purity of Christ’s intended faith.
Thus, were his claims and arguments. However, this tells us very little about the detail or the means that Foxe pursued to prove his version of past events. To say that the Bishop of Rome had no historical foundation for its supremacy over all other bishops was easy. To prove that this was true was another matter entirely. In The Reformation of England’s Past, I compare the portions of Foxe’s book dedicated to historical events to the sources that he claimed, or, in many cases, those that we can identify that he used.
For Roman history, Foxe used the records of ancient Church Councils to disprove Papal claims of superiority, continuity, and doctrine. He used Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (often relying on the interpretation first made by the Magdeburg Centuriators) to argue that Constantine the Great established a religion that differs markedly to that purported by Roman Catholics.
Foxe declared the Anglo-Saxons as foreign interlopers and failed Christians. Even when they demonstrated the Christian faith, they misunderstood. Kings endangered the safety of their subjects by abdicating to become monks or by building monasteries, or supporting monks over priests. He used early chronicles to make his claims, but referred more often to those that were lesser known, using the only extent copy of a chronicle ascribed to a John Brompton, rather than rely too heavily on Bede (as just one example).
The Norman Conquest, Foxe dismissed as another foreign invasion and another sign that the Roman Church had fallen to decay. He focused his history, using more chronicles and annals as proof, that the Church encouraged dispute and chaos. Foxe showed how Bishop fought Bishop over questions of power, and how the Pope declared war on secular rulers or used Crusades against heathens as a means of gaining increased power elsewhere. By the time that King John came to the throne a reckoning was overdue. In the traditional stories John was a tyrant and failure. For Foxe, he was a proto-Protestant, attempting to defend the true faith from further Roman encroachment and betrayal. John failed, leading to a period of servitude and slavery; England conquered by Rome. It was a failure only put right centuries later by Henry VIII, but more so, by his own queen, Elizabeth. More though was needed. Foxe also makes this abundantly clear.
Again and again, Foxe used his History to offer advice to the present. Foreign marriage was dangerous, as was no marriage at all. Treason and rebellion by the gentry never led to success; instead it encouraged enemies to further corrupt and disrupt the realm. These were messages for his Queen to marry properly, to provide further reform and defend the faith, and for the gentry of his own time to support their Queen or else foreign invasion and attack was likely. Foxe had in mind Spain, with her armada of ships looming ever darkly over English shores.
The Reformation of England’s Past is a book about sources and a book about interpretation. In it, I look first at the 1563 edition, and its initial rendition of history, and then at the larger history of the 1570 edition, starting with the Roman Empire, then the Anglo-Saxon’s, Norman Conquest, and Plantagenet kingship. What sources did Foxe use? Where did he obtain the from? How did he use them? These are the questions that this book asks and attempts to answer.
The Reformation of England’s Past is available now as part of the Routledge Research in Early Modern History series. It can be ordered direct from Routledge, or from other bookshop such as Amazon (UK) (US) and Waterstones.