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The Power of Polemic: Catholic Responses to the Calendar in Foxe's ‘Book of Martyrs’



Although scholars have come increasingly to recognise the considerable influence of early modern Catholic writers upon the historiography of the English Reformation, a crucial aspect of this influence has received scant attention: the impact of Catholic polemical writings upon perceptions of the Reformation. This article will examine a particularly striking and important example of the effects of Catholic polemic, the attacks on the calendar of martyrs included in editions of John Foxe's Acts and monuments. It will describe how these attacks merged with traditions of anti-Puritanism to create a stereotype of the Marian martyrs as being poor, from the lowest social classes, uneducated and disrespectful of authority to the point of rebellion. These attacks also laid the foundation for the myth, still prevalent today, that many of the Marian martyrs were guilty of Trinitarian or sacramentarian heresies which would have led to their condemnation as heretics even under a Protestant regime.



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1 Heal, Felicity, ‘What can King Lucius do for you? The Reformation and the early British Church’, EHR cx (2005), 593614.

2 Daniel R. Woolf, The idea of history in early Stuart England, Toronto 1990, 200–42.

3 Thomas S. Freeman, ‘Joan of contention: the myth of the female pope in early modern England’, in Kenneth Fincham and Peter Lake (eds), Religious politics in Post-Reformation England: essays in honour of Nicholas Tyacke, Woodbridge 2006, 60–79.

4 See W. B. Patterson, ‘The recusant view of the English past’, in Derek Baker (ed.), The materials, sources and methods of ecclesiastical history (Studies in Church History xi, 1975), 249–62; Thomas Betteridge, Tudor histories of the English Reformation, 1530–83, Aldershot 1999, 120–60, 212–18; and Christopher Highley, ‘“A pestilent and seditious book”: Nicholas Sander's Schismatis Anglicani and Catholic histories of the Reformation’, in Paulina Kewes (ed.), The uses of history in early modern England, San Marino, Ca 2005, 151–71. The survey of authors in Felicity Heal, ‘Appropriating history: Catholic and Protestant polemics and the national past’, in Kewes, The uses of history, 109–32, is an exception to the almost exclusive focus on recognised historians.

5 The calendar itself has been discussed: Damian Nussbaum, ‘Reviling the saints or reforming the calendar? John Foxe and his “Kalendar” of martyrs’, in Susan Wabuda and Caroline Litzenberger (eds), Belief and practice in Reformation England, Aldershot 1998, 113–36; John N. King, Foxe's Book of Martyrs and early modern print culture, Cambridge 2006, 249–67. These two authors also briefly summarise some of the polemical responses to the calendar. Anne Dillon examines the controversies over the calendar and their role in shaping concepts of English Catholic martyrdom: The construction of martyrdom in the English Catholic community, 1535–1603, Aldershot 2002, 341–55. None of these authors, however, discusses the impact of this debate on the continuing reception of Foxe's work and on the historiography of the English Reformation.

6 In 1565 Thomas Harding initiated the attacks against ‘that huge dungehill of your stinking martyrs which ye have intituled the Actes and monumentes’: A confutation of a book intituled An apologie of the Church of England, Antwerp 1565 (RSTC 12762), fos 13v–14r. Sharp but desultory attacks on Foxe's work appeared in various works by Thomas Harding, Thomas Stapleton and Thomas Dorman. In particular, Foxe inspired two substantial ripostes. One was Thomas Stapleton's translation of Bede's history, as well as a companion work, A fortress of the faith; both were designed to provide a ‘true’ alternative history of the early English Church to the ‘false’ history of Foxe: The history of the Church of Englande, compiled by Venerable Bede, Englishman, trans. Thomas Stapleton, Antwerp 1565 (RSTC 1778). And the sixth and (at over 260 pages) longest, dialogue in Nicholas Harpsfield's massive Dialogi sex, was devoted to a thorough criticism of the Acts and monuments: DS, 638 [recte 739]–1002.

7 Some of these controversies have themselves been closely examined. James Mozley has discussed the attacks on the reliability of Foxe's account of the burning of a newborn baby, along with its mother, in Guernsey in 1556 in J. F. Mozley, John Foxe and his book, London 1940, 223–35. The controversy surrounding Foxe's account of the providential death of William Grimwood (which included a lawsuit) is analysed in Thomas Freeman, S., ‘Fate, faction and fiction in Foxe's “Book of Martyrs”’, HJ xliii (2000), 601–10.

8 In his important article on the calendar, Daniel Nussbaum mentions (‘Reviling the saints’, 114 n. 3) that Foxe did not devise the calendar, yet then proceeds to assume throughout the rest of his article that the calendar was designed to serve Foxe's objectives. Nor does he suggest who else, apart from Foxe, might have devised the calendar or at least been responsible for it. John King, on the other hand, observes that Foxe denied responsibility for rubricating the calendar but does not observe that Foxe completely disclaimed responsibility for the calendar itself: Early modern print culture, 257.

9 For a detailed discussion of the errors and compromising materials which appeared in the calendar and also for the argument that the calendar was not compiled by Foxe see Elizabeth Evenden and Thomas S. Freeman, ‘Red letter day: Protestant calendars and Foxe's “Book of Martyrs”’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte (forthcoming 2010). Among the heterodox (by Foxe's standards) martyrs listed in this calendar is ‘Peter á Germane’ (Peter Frank), an Anabaptist, whom Foxe described as having been burned for denying transubstantation in 1539. Foxe, however, damningly added that Peter ‘defiled this good quarell with a nother foule erroure, touching that of Christ his mother’: 1563, 571. All mention of Peter Frank was dropped from subsequent editions of the Acts and monuments. It is inconceivable that Foxe would have included a person whom he regarded as a heretic in a calendar of martyrs – had he, in fact, compiled the calendar. The calendar was not reprinted in the second (1570) edition of the Acts and monuments. Perhaps this was a result of Harpsfield's criticisms of it, which will be discussed shortly. But it may also have been due to Foxe's disapproval of it.

10 For a detailed analysis of these issues see Evenden and Freeman, ‘Red letter day’.

11 For Foxe's flat denial that he had compiled the calendar see 1570, 831.

12 DS, 638 [recte 739]–1002.

13 DS, 745–9, 830–51, 853–60, 894–5, 933, 949–50, 959–63.

14 DS, 820–2, 836, 849–51.

15 DS, 832–3, 835–6, 953–4.

16 On the cult of the saints and the role of the traditional calendar of saints see Eamon Duffy, The stripping of the altars: traditional religion in England, c. 1400–1580, New Haven, Ct 1992, 51–2, 155–205.

17 TNA, SP 12/157, fo. 105v. Pound makes it clear (fo. 100r) that he was not the author of this poem but was simply transmitting a work that was circulating among Catholics.

18 The sonnets of William Alabaster, ed. G. M. Stury and Helen Gardner, Oxford 1969, 3 (my emphases).

19 Interestingly, Foxe, in a preface to the 1563 edition, ‘Ad doctum Lectorem’, anticipated, and denied, the charge that he was taking upon himself the perogative of canonising saints: ‘Hanc ego apothosin mihi numquam sumpsi’: 1563, sig. B4r.

20 Thomas Stapleton, A counterblast to M. Hornes vayne blast, Louvain 1567 (RSTC 23231), fo. 60v.

21 ‘quos vult, infert, quis vult de fastis Divorum eximit, et portentosa conversione Christi Martyres & caelo ad Tarteram deturbat, et arrogantem illum Luciferum, nova quadam Mercurii vigula & Tartaris, velit nolit Deus, in caelo rursus subvehit’: DS, 861–2.

22 DS, 802–17, 861–4.

23 TC.

24 TC ii, sigs a3r-f7r; iii, sigs **6r-8*r.

25 For example, TC ii. 76–7, 267–7, 359–63; iii. 59–63, 195–7, 279–84.

26 Cf. TC ii. 199–200, 245–52 with DS, 953–4, 859–60. This has tended to mislead even modern scholars. For example, John King credits Persons with ‘compiling’ an attack on Sir John Oldcastle based on the Polychronicon and the chronicle attributed to Raphael Holinshed: Early modern print culture, 263. In actual fact, Persons was, in this instance, merely repeating Harpsfield.

27 TC iii. sigs *2r-*8v.

28 TC iii. 370.

29 TC iii. 64.

30 TC ii. 501–2.

31 TC iii. 109.

32 TC ii. sigs f7v–f8r. In his expanded edition of the Concertatio ecclesiae catholicae, John Bridgewater added a list of Catholic martyrs by occupation: Concertatio ecclesiae catholicae in Anglia adversus Calvino-papistas et puritanos sub Elizabetha regina, Trier 1588, sig.) (1v. I am grateful to Susannah Monta for pointing this out to me. Both calendars emphasise the high social and educational status of the Catholic martyrs and Bridgewater's table may well have inspired Persons's tables. But there are differences between the tables; one important and interesting one is that while Bridgewater's table lists woman martyrs, unlike Persons, he does not make a distinction between virgin and other woman martyrs.

33 TC ii. sig. F8r.

34 Dillon, Construction of martyrdom, 347.

35 Alice Driver was a Marian martyr who, although poor and relatively uneducated, was outspoken in her defiance of her interrogators. At one point she boasted to them that ‘you be not able to resist the spirite of God, in me, an honest poor mannes daughter, never brought up in the university as you have bene, but I have dryven the plough before my father many a time (I thank God), yet notwithstanding, in the defence of God's trueth and in the cause of my maister Christ, by hys grace, I wyl sette my fote against the foote of any of you all, in the maintenance and defense of the same’: 1563, 1672. Persons was clearly appalled at Driver's spirited replies during her examinations and peppers his account of her examinations with sneering marginal notes, such as ‘the arrogancy of Alice Driver’ and ‘mark the argument of a spincer against a doctor’: TC iii. 256–7. Later, when expiating on the presumptous resistance to learned authority of uneducated heretics, Persons added a marginal note: ‘see a notable example of Alice Dryver’: TC iii. 378.

36 TC ii. 339.

37 There were other agenda behind this polemical strategy which cannot be commented upon here for reasons of space. For the context of Persons's criticisms of the sexual immorality of Foxe's martyrs see the perceptive comments of Peter Lake and Michael Questier, The AntiChrist's lewd hat: Protestants, Papists and players in post-Reformation England, New Haven, Ct 2002, 282–92.

38 TC ii. 406. For examples of Persons's attacks on married clergy see TC ii. 216–17, 305, 317, 319–23, 330–2, 370–1, 379–80; iii. 119–20, 183, 247.

39 For a more detailed look at Persons's attacks on the chastity of women martyrs see Megan L. Hickerson, Making women martyrs in Tudor England, Basingstoke 2005, 82–95. In fact, Persons's attacks may have had greater popular impact than is generally recognised. In the early seventeenth century, a London apprentice got into trouble for declaring that the Acts and monuments contained ‘xx lyes’, that Foxe's martyrs had died for mere ‘vaine glorie’ and that Foxe himself was a ‘folysh fellowe’: Paul Griffiths, Youth and authority: formative experiences in England, 1560–1640, Oxford 1996, 124. These claims are obviously derived, whether directly or indirectly, from the Three conversions, particularly Persons's claim that he found more than 120 lies in three leaves of the Acts and monuments: TC iii. 412.

40 TC iii. 257.

41 Victor Houliston, ‘The martyr tallies: Robert Persons and his anonymous respondent’, in David Loades (ed.), John Foxe: at home and abroad, Aldershot 2004, 49.

42 TC iii. 245.

43 TC iii. 505.

44 TC iii. 378 (my emphasis).

45 See, for example, the dedicatory epistle in Robert Persons, A brief discours contayning certayne reasons why catholiques refuse to go to church, East Ham 1580 (RSTC 19394); The warn-word to Sir Francis Hastings wast-word, Antwerp 1602 (RSTC 19418), fos 53v–55v, 87v–88v, 116v–119r, 130v–131r; and Robert Persons, A treatise tending to mitigation, St Omer 1607 (RSTC 19417), 40–8, 112–30, 132–8. I would like to thank Victor Houliston for advice on this point.

46 On the Hacket affair and the way in which it was used to discredit Puritans see Walsham, Alexandra, ‘“Frantick Hacket”: prophesy, sorcery, insanity, and the Elizabethan Puritan movement’, HJ xli (1998), 2766.

47 TC ii. 251, 263; iii. 144.

48 TC iii. 378–81.

49 TC ii. 250–1.

50 TC ii. 220–1.

51 Ibid. The fact that Thomas was executed in 1554, while Green was not arrested until 1555, did not deter Persons from weaving these disparate strands into one large, albeit fictive, conspiracy theory.

52 TC ii. 430–1. And once again, Persons pointedly cited Bancroft's anti-Puritan treatise, Dangerous positions, in support of his claims. Peter Birchet (or Burchet), a zealous Puritan, stabbed John Hawkins, the privateer, in the mistaken belief that he was Christopher Hatton, a figure considered to be an enemy to the godly.

53 TC ii. sigs +2r–++5r; TC iii. 368–9.

54 Peter Lake, Anglicans and Puritans? Presbyterianism and English conformist thought from Whitgift to Hooker, London 1988, 111–13.

55 Lori Anne Ferrell, Government by polemic: James I, the king's preachers and the rhetoric of conformity, 1603–1625, Stanford, Ca 1998, 64–109.

56 Lake, Anglicans and Puritans, 114–19. See also Lake and Questier, AntiChrist's lewd hat, 530–5.

57 For Persons denouncing the covetousness of the pseudo-martyrs see TC ii. 384. On the construction of the stereotypical Puritan in popular culture, particularly in the theatre, see Patrick Collinson, ‘Ecclesiastical vitriol: religious satire in the 1590s and the invention of Puritanism’, in John Guy (ed.), The reign of Elizabeth I: court and culture in the last decade, Cambridge 1995, 150–70, esp. pp. 167–8; Peter Lake, ‘Anti-Puritanism: the structure of prejudice’, in Fincham and Lake, Religious politics, 80–97; and Kristen Poole, Radical religion from Shakespeare to Milton: figures of nonconformity in early modern England, Cambridge 2000, 16–73.

58 Miles Hogarde, The displaying of the Protestantes, London 1556 (RSTC 13558), fos 121r–125v.

59 On the disputes over the naming of Oldcastle/Falstaff see Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge (eds), The Oldcastle controversy, Manchester 1991. On Falstaff as a caricature of a Puritan see Poole, Radical religion, 32–41.

60 John Speed, The history of Great Britaine, London 1611 (RSTC 23045), 637 (my emphasis).

61 Collinson, ‘Ecclesiastical vitriol’, 166–9, and ‘The theatre constructs Puritanism’, in David L. Smith, Richard Strier and David Bevington (eds), The theatrical city: culture, theatre and politics in London, 1576–1649, Cambridge 1995, 157–69.

62 Lake, ‘Anti-Puritanism’, 94.

63 See Ann Hughes, Gangraena and the struggle for the English Revolution, Oxford 2004.

64 William Beale, An almanacke, for the yeere of our Lord God, 1631, London 1631 (RSTC 412). Apart from certain modifications to make it more practical – for example, term days, movable feasts and phases of the moon – and apart from the fact that, in order to conserve space, it listed only one martyr for each day, Beale's calendar was the same as that printed in the 1610 edition of the Acts and monuments.

65 No record survives of the High Commission's proceedings against Gellibrand. However, there was a fairly detailed discussion of the matter at William Laud's trial: William Prynne, Canterburies doome, London 1646 (Wing P.3917), 184 [recte 182]–3; William Laud, The works of William Laud, ed. W. Scott and J. Bliss, Oxford 1847–60, iv. 265; The manuscripts of the House of Lords: 1514–1714, ed. Maurice F. Bond (Historical Manuscripts Commission ns xi, 1962), 427–8.

66 Damian Nussbaum, ‘Laudian Foxe-hunting? William Laud and the status of John Foxe in the 1630s’, in R. N. Swanson (ed.), The Church retrospective (Studies in Church History xxxiii, 1997), 329–42.

67 Prynne claimed that Laud declared at Gellibrand's trial that the queen had complained to him about the almanac and ordered him to prosecute its author: Canterburies doome, 184 [recte 182]. According to John Browne, the clerk of the House of Lords at the time of Laud's trial, the archbishop declared that he could not remember Henrietta Maria sending him such a message and that, if she had done so, he could not have prevented it: Manuscripts of the House of Lords, 428. Laud's own account of his trial is even more coy regarding the queen's alleged involvement. He maintained that he responded to Prynne's charge that Henrietta Maria was behind Gellibrand's prosecution with two questions: Was there any crime on Laud's part even if the queen had sent such a message? And how could he have prevented her from sending it in any case?: Works of William Laud, iv. 265. Laud's non-denial denials would seem to confirm Henrietta Maria's role in initiating the actions taken against Gellibrand.

68 The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. E. S. de Beer, Oxford 1955, iii. 45–6, 635. See also Anthony Milton and Alexandra Walsham, ‘Richard Montagu: “Concerning recusancie of communion with the Church of England”’, in From Cranmer to Davidson: a Church of England miscellany, ed. Stephen Taylor, Woodbridge 1999, 79. I would like to thank Anthony Milton for pointing out to me the connection between the Gellibrand affair and Cosin's book of devotions.

69 William Prynne, A brief survay and censure of Mr Cozens his couzening disceptions, London 1628 (RSTC 20455), 34–5.

70 For the other side of the coin, Laud's veneration and respect for his episcopal predecessors (even the bitterly controversial Thomas Becket) see Milton, Catholic and reformed, 311–12.

71 The petition of the inhabitants of Isleworth, London 1641 (Wing P.1802), 4–5.

72 John Pocklington, Altare christianum, London 1637 (RSTC 20075), 92.

73 Peter Heylyn, A briefe and moderate answer, London 1637 (RSTC 13269), 72.

74 For more on the disdain and unease that Laudian writers felt towards Wyclif and other Lollards and early Protestants, whom they regarded as fractious and unruly, see Milton, Catholic and Reformed, 312–14.

75 Charles Dodd, The church history of England, Brussels 1737–42, i. 462–3. For an earlier example of this approach see the denunciation of the Marian martyrs as traitors and the censure of their ‘Insolence to Magistrates, their Disturbing Congregations and other strange misdeamonours’, in Roger Palmer and Robert Pugh, The catholique apology, Antwerp 1641. It is worth noting that Palmer and Pugh cite both Nicholas Harpsfield and Robert Persons (pp. 193–9).

76 John Milner, Letters to a prebendary, 2nd edn, London 1801, 149–50. The Catholic journalist William Eusebius Andrews similarly echoed Persons in claiming that many of Foxe's martyrs were ‘felons and traitors’ while others ‘would have been sent to the fire by Cranmer himself … which father Parsons pointed out in his Examination of Foxe's Calendar’: A critical and historical review of Foxe's Book of martyrs, London 1826, ii. 326. Similar sentiments were expressed by the great Catholic historian John Lingard: A history of England, 6th edn, London 1844–5, v. 485–6.

77 William Cobbett, A history of the Protestant Reformation, London 1824, letter 8, no. 249.

78 For a striking example example of this see Semper iidem or a paralell between the ancient and modern phanatics, London 1661 (Wing S.2493). This work lists Foxe's martyrs in parallel columns with such later radical or revolutionary figures as Oliver Cromwell, Hugh Peters, William Hacket, James Naylor and Praise-God Barebones.

79 S. R. Maitland, Essays on subjects connected with the Reformation in England, London 1849, 41–2.

80 James Gairdiner, Lollardy and the Reformation in England, London 1908–13, i. 336–42, 356–64; ii. 391.

81 A. F. Pollard, The history of England from the accession of Edward VI to the death of Elizabeth, 1547–1603, New York 1910, 138.

82 TC ii. 258.

83 C. H. Smyth, Cranmer and the Reformation under Edward VI, Cambridge 1926, 3.

84 G. R. Elton maintains that some of the martyrs were ‘manifestly extremists disliked by all the major denominations’: Reform and reformation, London 1977, 386. Andrew Pettegree also argues that the ranks of the Marian martyrs included ‘many whose beliefs strayed far beyond the orthodox’: Marian Protestantism: six studies, Aldershot 1996, 158. Neither Elton nor Pettegree identify these unorthodox extremists. In fact, less than a dozen of the Marian martyrs are known to have held truly radical beliefs, such as a denial of the Trinity or the incarnation of Christ. Admittedly Foxe may well have concealed heterodox beliefs for martyrs so successfully that we don't know about them, but even if the numbers of martyrs holding radical beliefs was tripled, they would still be a relatively small minority of the 285 people who were executed for heresy in Mary's reign.

85 William Monter, Judging the French Reformation: heresy trials by sixteenth century parlements, Cambridge, Ma 1999, 48. Elton describes the martyrs as ‘people of little standing’: Reform and reformation, 386; Anne Weikel claims that they came largely from the ‘lower classes’: ODNB, s.v. ‘Mary i’. John Guy has claimed that the ‘majority of martyrs were wage-labourers’: Tudor England, Oxford 1998, 238. The descriptions of Elton and Weikel are vague and, unless everyone who was not an aristocrat or a professional was lower class, disputable. Guy's claim is simply inaccurate – although labourers and servants were well-represented, the majority of the martyrs were artisans of widely varying degrees of affluence and local standing.

86 Gina Alexander, ‘Bonner and the Marian persecutions’, in Christopher Haigh (ed.), The English Reformation revised, Cambridge 1987, 166.

87 TC ii. 511. For Woodman's wealth see 1583, 1985.

88 1583, 2039-40.

89 For example Anne Dillon has dismissed Persons's Three conversions as relatively ineffective because it was written too late to check the influence of Foxe's martyrology and it ‘was too heavily invested with Persons's own unrealistic objectives’: Construction of martyrdom, 340.

I would like to thank Victor Houliston, Paulina Kewes, Susannah Monta, Alison Shell and Daniel R. Woolf for their invaulable comments on earlier versions of this article. Particular thanks are due to Elizabeth Evenden, who generously shared her unrivaled knowledge of John Day and made a major contribution to this article. The punctuation of all quotations has been modernised where necessary, but the original spelling has been retained, except for the letters i, j, u and v.

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The Power of Polemic: Catholic Responses to the Calendar in Foxe's ‘Book of Martyrs’



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