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“The same cause and like quarell”: Eusebius, John Foxe, and the Evolution of Ecclesiastical History1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2009

Gretchen E. Minton
assistant professor of Engiish at the University of Minnesota, Morris.


In 1563, just five years after Elizabeth ascended to the throne, John Foxe published the first edition of his Acts and Monuments. Part ecclesiastical history, part martyrology, part English chronicle, and entirely Protestant, this enormously popular work had a significant impact upon its age. The dedicatory letter to the Queen in this first edition begins with an elaborate woodcut of the letter C, in which Elizabeth sits enthroned. [See Figure 1.] This C is the beginning of the word “Constantine.” Foxe writes: “Constantine the greate and mightie Emperour, the sonne of Helene an Englyshe woman of this youre Realme and countrie (moste Christian and renowned Pryncesse Queene Elizabeth) … pacified and established the churche of Christ, being long before under persecution almost … 400 years” (1563 Pref. vi). Thus Foxe immediately emphasizes the supposed Englishness of Constantine and builds upon this link between Rome and Britain by implying that, just as Constantine had delivered the Christians from an age of persecution, so had Elizabeth. But there is another parallel that Foxe is interested in establishing, at which he hints as the letter continues. Foxe tells the story of how Constantine once traveled to Caesaria, where he promised to grant Eusebius, the Bishop, whatever he wanted for the good of the church: “The good and godly Byshop … made this petition, onely to obtaine at his maiesties hand under his seale and letters autentique, free leave and license through al the monarchie of Rome … to searche out the names, sufferinges and actes, of all such as suffered in al that time of persecution before, for the testimonie and faith of Christ Jesus” (1563 Pref., vi).

Research Article
Copyright © American Society of Church History 2002

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2. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from this work are taken from The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe, ed. Stephen, Cattley. 8 vols. (London, 1837–41; reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1965)Google Scholar. Quotations in my text are followed by the volume number and the page number (the prefatory letter from 1563 is included in Cattley separately from the main text, which is why the date is noted in my citation). Many critics have pointed out that this nineteenth-century edition is far from ideal (see especially King, John N., “Fiction and Fact in Foxe's Book of Martyrs,” John Foxe and the English Reformation, ed. David, Loades [Aldershot: Scolar, 1997]Google Scholar and David, Loades' introduction to John Foxe: An Historical Perspective, ed. Loades, [Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999])Google Scholar. However, until the work on the British Academy Foxe Project is complete, Cattley is still the most convenient way to cite Foxe because of the limited availability of sixteenth-century editions, especially when the argument does not depend (as mine does not) upon a detailed analysis of material that changed from one edition of the Acts and Monuments to the next.

3. The only full-length study on Foxe's use of Eusebius is a dissertation by Thomas S. Freeman, whose emphasis is upon the historical methodologies of these two writers. Freeman, Thomas S., “‘Great Searching out of bookes and auctors’: John Foxe as an Ecclesiastical Historian” (Ph.D. diss., Rutgers, 05, 1995)Google Scholar. Freeman argues that Eusebius “was not merely a stylistic model but one which shaped the research and the historical methodology of Foxe” (ii). While I am also interested in this phenomenon, there are significant differences between the way that Freeman approaches this issue and the way that I do. Freeman is interested in the “liabilities [and] advantages such a model presented to Foxe,” and in how “modern” his emphasis on documentary evidence was (ii). Although my focus is very different from his, I am nonetheless indebted to Freeman's impressive analysis of the relationship between Eusebian and Foxean methodology.

For a discussion of Foxe's portrayal of Constantine, see also Pucci, Michael S., “Reforming Roman Emperors: John Foxe's Characterization of Constantine in the Acts and Monuments,” in Loades, Historical Perspective, 2951.Google Scholar

4. My quotations from the Church History are taken from Eusebius: The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, Trans. Williamson, G. A. (London: Penguin, 1965)Google Scholar. See also the newer translation of the Church History by Paul, Maier (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 1999).Google Scholar

5. Jerome used this classical trope in his introduction to de Viris Illustribus, also with reference to Eusebius. Jerome writes, “But my situation is different from those I've mentioned. For they, you see, searched through old histories and chronologies and were able to braid, so to speak, from a vast meadow a small floral garland to create their own little treatise. For what I am about to do, I follow no guide…. Nonetheless, the ten books of the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus will be of great assistance to us, as well as the works of the specific authors about whom we shall write, works which often give evidence as to the life and times of their authors.” (Translation by Paul B. Harvey, Jr.).

6. On the apologetic nature of the Church History, see Droge, Arthur J., “The Apologetic Dimensions of the Ecclesiastical History,” Eusebius, Christianity, and Judaism, ed. Attridge, Harold W. and Gohei, Hata (Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1992), 492509.Google Scholar

7. Jewish Antiquities, Book 14, passim.

8. As Williamson notes, “Eusebius was doing something new: no one before him had attempted a history of the Church, and earlier historians had written a very different type of history from what Eusebius attempted, which is … not only annalistic but really the extended notes of a chronologer” (xx). See also Arnaldo, Momigliano, “Pagan and Christian Historiography in the Fourth Century A.D.” in The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century, ed. Arnaldo, Momigliano (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), especially 8991Google Scholar; reprinted in Momigliano, , Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1977), 107–26.Google Scholar

9. Arnaldo Momigliano explains that “in no other history does precedent mean so much as in ecclesiastical history. The very continuity of the institution of the Church through the centuries makes it inevitable that anything that happened in the Church's past should be relevant to its present. Furthermore—and this is most essential—in the Church, conformity with the origins is evidence of truth.” Arnaldo, Momigliano, The Classical Foundations of Medieval Historiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 136.Google Scholar

10. Perhaps the most popular English use of this strategy was John Jewel's “Challengi Sermon.” Jewel preached this sermon at St. Paul's Cross in 1564, defending the Church of England against the charges of its enemies by asserting that this church was much closer than the Roman Catholic Church to the primitive apostolic church and to the fathers. Jewel's “challenge” was for the Roman Catholics to show evidence from the fathers for the beliefs of their church. This was typical of the debates over authority / authenticity in the sixteenth century. See Haaugaard, William P., “Renaissance Patristi Scholarship and Theology in Sixteenth-century England,Sixteenth Century journal 10.3 (1979): 52–3Google Scholar; and Mark, Vessey, “English Translations of the Latin Fathers, 1517–1611,” The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West: From the Carolingians to the Maurists, ed Irena, Backus, vol. 2 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1997), 775835.Google Scholar

11. Markus, R. A., “Church History and the Early Church Historians,” The Materials, Sources and Methods of Ecclesiastical History, ed. Baker, D. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 6Google Scholar. For more on Eusebian methodology, see also Robert, Grant, Eusebius a Church Historian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), especially Chapter 4: “The Composition of the Church History.”Google Scholar

12. The most famous abridgement was that of Timothy Bright (1589), who is also known for his invention of modern shorthand (see the Dictionary of National Biography, s.n. “Bright, Timothy”). He reduced the Acts and Monuments to a fraction of the length (and cost), yet kept its essential format and structure; he did this largely by omitting the various primary documents Foxe includes. See Damian, Nussbaum, “Whitgift's ‘Book of Martyrs’: Archbishop Whitgift, Timothy Bright and the Elizabethan Struggle over John Foxe's Legacy,” in John Foxe: An Historical Perspective (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), 135–53.Google Scholar

13. Markus, Robert A., The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 99, 95.Google Scholar

14. As Markus explains, “to bridge the generation gap, Eusebius and his contemporaries and successors had to convince themselves that, essentially, nothing had changed and that their church was still the church of the martyrs.” Markus, , End, 90.Google Scholar

15. Despite the masculine nature of this imperative, both of these martyrologists included female martyrs as a significant part of their works—most notably, Blandina for Eusebius, and Anne Askew for Foxe.

16. See Bowersock, G. W., Martyrdom and Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17. Bowersock quotes Jan den Boeff, one of the participants from a 1984 colloquium on Jewish martyrology, who remarked, “In Christian martyr acts, despite all the differences in form, the kernel is the authentic documentation of the legal hearing. That is perhaps the real difference from Jewish martyr acts, and accordingly the concept of [martus] should be understood as a typically Christian title” (27). Bowersock's argument for the non-Jewish origin of martyrdom runs directly counter to Frend, W. H. C., Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church: A Study of a Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967)Google Scholar, who argues that “Judaism was itself a religion of martyrdom” (31). But see now Daniel, Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999), who helpfully suggests that Jewish and Christian martyrdom shared common innovations and transformations between the second and fourth centuries C.E., and that the boundaries between “Christian,” “Jew,” and “Roman” are not helpful in theorizing what was clearly an evolving discourse between all of these (not so clearly distinguishable) groups. See especially Boyarin, Chapter 4: “Whose Martyrdom is this, anyway?”Google Scholar

18. The central role of the legal process in Christian martyrdom is evident in many writers preceding Eusebius. Perhaps the most notable example is the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs (180 C.E.; for an English translation, see Musurillo, H. A., Acts of the Christian Martyrs [Oxford: Clarendon, 1972], 106–31)Google Scholar. This work purports to be a document of Roman legal proceedings, but while it may reflect official protocol, it was likely a memorial recorded by a Christian witness of these events. Compare, from the Roman administrative point of view, Pliny Epist. 10.96 & 97, and Hadrian's rescript to Minicius Fundanus: Eusebius 4.9, cf. 4.26.10. See Sherwin White, A. N., The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), 691712Google Scholar and “Appendix V: The early persecutions and Roman law,” 772–87; Frend, W. H. C., The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 180–84.Google Scholar

19. Like Eusebius, Foxe is following a recent tradition of martyr stories that were developed during and after periods of persecution. John Bale had essentially begun the English Protestant martyrological tradition by writing on the Lollard martyr John Oldcastle and, then, concentrating on more recent times, producing The Examination of Anne Askewe—a work focused much more heavily upon the trial and Askew's theological arguments with her captors than on her eventual execution. Foxe printed his own version of this trial in the Acts and Monuments (though it was substantially copied from Bale's).

20. Warren Wooden describes how in the Acts and Monuments “The first movement of the stories … involves the martyr's initial conflict with the authorities, his apprehension, and the physical oppression or torture…. The second stage derives from the success of the first. Having taken a public stand and resisted the temptation to give way under physical suffering, the martyr is examined on the grounds of his belief by a clerical court or committee made up of the bishop of his diocese and various other inquisitors drawn from the ranks of the clergy.” Wooden, Warren W., John Foxe (Boston: Twayne, 1983), 6061Google Scholar. On the relationship between martyrdom and law in Foxe, see Lydia Whitehead, who argues that the martyrs' recitation of Psalm 51 is connected to their sense of being part of a divine court of law. Lydia, Whitehead, “A Poena et Culpa: Penitence, Confidence and the Miserere in Foxe's Actes and Monuments,” Renaissance Studies 4.3 (1990): 287–99.Google Scholar

21. Or, more likely, awaiting the next in a series of trials, for most of the martyrs Foxe writes about endured long series of trials. One example is John Philpot, who had 14 examinations, all of which Foxe records (7.605ff). Despite the implication of Bowersock (cf. n. 17 above) and Pucci's claim that “martyrdom required an inquisition by a Roman magistrate as is demonstrated by the verbatim records of legal cross examination and the plethora of civic documents preserved in martyr stories” (34), in Roman law oral testimony was much more important than written testimony. The centrality of the written word in early Christianity and Protestantism alike may have contributed to an increased emphasis upon the written aspect of trials.

22. Bowersock, , Martyrdom, 52.Google Scholar

23. As Mark Breitenberg says of Foxe's martyrs, “Without control over the visible operations performed on their own bodies, the martyrs seized their invisible and thus inviolable souls as the basis for a symbolics of power.” Mark, Breitenberg, “The Flesh Made Word: Foxe's Acts and Monuments,Renaissance and Reformation 254 (1989): 402–3.Google Scholar

24. See Foxe's Fourth Question in his Preface to the Catholics: “Why are all of your observances external and corporeal?” (xxxii).

25. See Catharine Randall, Coats, (Em)bodying the Word: Textual Resurrections in the Martyrological Narratives of Foxe, Crespin, de Beze, and d'Aubigne (New York: Peter Lang, 1992)Google Scholar. Coats observes that “Textual resurrection does not aim at constructing an anatomically–correct physiology of the martyr. What is significant is the use of reference to the body as a path to the word. In like fashion, many of the descriptions of martyrdoms effectively turn the martyr's body into a text” (39).

26. Knott, John R., Discourses of Martyrdom in English Literature, 1563–1694 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 7.Google Scholar

27. Philip Hughes, quoted in Knott, 31. This is also a strong element of the desert-ascetic tradition of early Christianity that was developing around the same time as Eusebius was writing. Douglas Burton-Christie explains that the desert monks interpreted Scripture by putting it into practice, thus transforming Word into event. Douglas, Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). See especially Section II: “Approaches to the Word in the Desert.”Google Scholar

28. Richard, Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 267.Google Scholar

29. The Oxford English Dictionary provides a range of sixteenth-century usages for “act,” including: (1) A thing done; a deed, a performance; (2) A state of accomplished fact or reality; (3) Activity, active principle; (4) The process of doing; (5) Something transacted in council, or in a deliberative assembly; hence, a decree passed by a legislative body, a court of justice, etc.; (6) A record of transactions of decrees.

30. Quoted from Markus, , End, 90.Google Scholar

31. Williamson makes the point that the Church History “is peopled not by men of events, but by those who wrote books. It is much more a survey of Christian literature” (xxiii). Grant also notes that Eusebius “intended to create a Church history that would be a literary history at the same time” (63).

32. By including himself as part of the lineage of Christian writers, Foxe was once again following the example of his predecessors, both late antique and recent. Jerome inaugurated a precedent in his de Viris lllustribus of cataloguing Christian writers and including his name at the end. Others who continued this literary form (such as Gennadius) imitated this practice. John Bale, in his chronicle of English writers, the Catalogus (1557), also followed suit, and undoubtedly Foxe was profoundly aware of this tradition, even when following not Jerome's western literary form, but Eusebius's eastern one (which also, of course, had its own continuators).

33. Both Eusebius and Foxe also came to be more measured about their original enthusiasm over the triumph of their respective monarchs. This is evident in Eusebius in the Vita Constantinii (see the introduction to the translation by Averil, Cameron and Hall, Stuart G. [Oxford: Clarendon, 1999], 412)Google Scholar. In the case of Foxe, his changing attitudes toward the Elizabethan church and state can be seen even in subsequent editions of the Acts and Monuments. See Pucci; as well as Glyn, Parry, “Elect Church or Elect Nation? The Reception of the Acts and Monuments,” in Loades, Historical Perspective, 167–81Google Scholar; and Tom, Betteridge, “From Prophetic to Apocalyptic: John Foxe and the Writing of History,” in Loades, English Reformation, 210–32.Google Scholar

34. See Oastler, C. L., John Day, The Elizabethan Printer (Oxford: Oxford Bibliographical Society, 1975)Google Scholar. Oastler describes this woodcut as “One of the finest initial-letters to appear in an English book of this (or perhaps any) period. Perhaps specially cut for the Book of Martyrs and depicting Day, Foxe and another before the Queen enthroned” (49).

35. Momigliano, , Classical Foundations, 141.Google Scholar

36. This was a central problem for all Christian historians. As Momigliano remarks, “Calculations about the return of Christ and the ultimate end had never been extraneous to the Church. Since the Apocalypse attributed to St. John had established itself as authoritative in the Church, millennial reckonings had multiplied. Universal chronology in the Christian sense was bound to take into account not only the beginning, but also the end; it had either to accept or else to fight the belief in the millennium. Chronology and eschatology were conflated” (“Pagan and Christian Historiography,” 84).

37. Chesnut, Glenn F., The First Christian Histories: Ensebius, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, and Evagrius (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1986), 173.Google Scholar

38. Eusebius wavered in his view of the Apocalypse. He originally believed that it was by John the Apostle (a view expressed in Eusebius's Chronicle, as well as in Church History 3.18 and 4.18). However, Eusebius later doubted that it was written by the same John (cf. CH 3.39 and 7.25). See also Grant, 126–41, who notes that “Eusebius' thought about the New Testament canon developed as he was writing the book. The most significant changes took place in regard to the Apocalypse of John, politically and theologically unattractive during the years just after the Diocletianic persecution” (140). Eusebius's apprehension was also connected to his condemnation of various millenarian sects.

39. For more on Foxe and the apocalypse, see Firth, Katharine R., The Apocalyptic Tradition in Reformation Britain 1530–1645 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979)Google Scholar, who argues convincingly that “During those years from the return of the exiles to his death, Foxe was the single most important contributor to the establishment of the apocalyptic tradition in English Protestant historiography” (84). See also Richard, Bauckham, Tudor Apocalypse: Sixteenth-century Apocalypticism, Millennarianism and the English Reformation (Appleford: Sutton Courtenay, 1976)Google Scholar; and Paul, Christianson, Reformers and Babylon: English Apocalyptic Visions from the Reformation to the Eve of the Civil War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978).Google Scholar

40. See Pucci; and Oleson, Palle J., “Was John Foxe a Millenarian?Journal of Ecclesiastical History 45.4 (1994): 600–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

41. On Eusebius's interest in the genealogy of heresy, beginning with Simon Magus, see Droge, 505.

42. Momigliano notes that “What characterizes the new historiography of the Reformation and counter-Reformation is the search for the true image of Early Christianity as opposed to the false one of the rivals—whereas Eusebius wanted to show how Christianity had emerged triumphant from persecution” (Classical Foundation, 150).

43. This emphasis on apocalyptic and national identity was reflected in the martyrologies of continental reformers at the time as well. See Irena, Backus, Reformation readings of the Apocalypse: Geneva, Zurich, and Wittenberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)Google Scholar. Foxe's own interest in the apocalypse came quite early in his career, for around 1556 he wrote an “apocalyptic comedy” entitled Christus Triumphans, and he also included apocalyptic ideas in the earlier Latin versions of the Acts and Monuments (Commentarii rerum in ecclesia gestarum [1554] and Rerum in Ecclesia gestarum [1559]). Although his time in exile allowed for conversation with the continental Reformers on this subject, Foxe's apocalypticism seems to have been more closely connected to the English movement. As Firth, William Haller, and others have argued, apocalypticism was particularly prevalent in national thinking at the end of the sixteenth century in England in a way that it was not in other countries. See William, Haller, The Elect Nation: The Meaning and Relevance of Foxe's Book of Martyrs (New York: Harper and Row, 1963).Google Scholar

44. Bale wrote the first English commentary on Revelation—The Image of both Churches (c. 1548). He had a decided influence on Foxe's own apocalyptic thought, as evidenced both in his “apocalyptic comedy” Christus Triumphans and in the larger framework of the Acts and Monuments.

45. In the 1632 edition, for example, the title page includes a reference to Apocalypse 7:15: “Solus sedenti super Thronum et Agno.” This passage was included in the later printings of the Acts and Monuments by the Company of Stationers in 1641 and 1684, thus emphasizing the apocalyptic message from the title page onward. Later versions and abridgements, in order to save on length (and cost), invariably cut the primary documents as Bright had.

46. Markus, , “Church History,” 8.Google Scholar

47. Hanmer is often considered a proto-Puritan because of his adamant objection to any kind of images or valuable materials in the church; he was known, for instance, for removing brasses in the church and converting them to coin. See the Dictionary of National Biography, s.n. “Hanmer, Meredith.”

48. “Patrick Collinson has speculated that Foxe may have inspired and encouraged Meredith Hanmer's translation of Eusebius Ecclesiastical History in 1577” (Freeman, 41). Collinson, “Truth and Fiction in Sixteenth-Century Protestant Historiography,” Unpublished lecture (Woodrow Wilson International Center, 1993).Google Scholar