Foxe’s Book of Martyrs Image of the month

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs Image of the month

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

In 1563 John Foxe published his Acts and Monuments, popularly known as the Book of Martyrs. In doing so, Foxe recorded the martyrdom of John Marbeck, one of St. George’s most famous organists. Or did he?

In actual fact, Marbeck’s story is one of a close escape. Whilst organist at St George’s, Marbeck began writing his Concordance, the first concordance in English covering the entire Bible ever to be compiled. Working at the time of a Catholic reaction to Protestant reforms, it was partly for producing a manuscript of this book that Marbeck found himself on trial for heresy. In March 1543 he was charged and condemned to death alongside Henry Filmer, Anthony Peerson and Robert Testwood.

At the last moment Marbeck received a reprieve, the remaining three were not so lucky and were burned two days after the trial. In his first edition of Acts and Monuments Foxe incorrectly states that Marbeck also died and subsequent editions, including the Windsor copy, carried the note ‘Marbecke saved by the King’s pardon’. Marbeck was eventually given leave to produce his concordance and it was finally published in 1550. December’s image of the month shows an engraving from Acts and Monuments of the execution which took place in front of the north wall of Windsor Castle.

John Foxe, a Protestant, began his most famous work in exile in Germany during the reign of Queen Mary. Published upon his return to a newly Elizabethan England, Foxe would see the martyrology run to four editions before his death in 1587. That a corrected second edition of Acts and Monuments was published in 1570 pays testament to its popularity. A year later a Convocation of the English Church decreed that a copy of the work should be kept for public inspection in all cathedrals and the houses of church dignitaries. The book was also to be found in many parish churches. In the centuries after his death, Foxe’s martyrology was edited and reissued in the form of what was arguably a weapon in sectarian disputes. Editions published between 1674 and 1832 were abridged and further Catholic ‘atrocities’ were added such as the 1641 Irish massacre. Thus Acts and Monuments took on a sensationalist tone which had not been intended by its author. In the 21st century Foxe’s reputation and impact as a scholar and historian in early modern England has gradually been reassessed to give a more balanced appraisal of his work.

To those of us working at St George’s the image is of real interest not because of the execution in the centre of the page but because of the depiction of Windsor Castle in the background. The Curfew Tower for example (tower on the far right) has changed significantly since this engraving was produced. It is a demonstration of the wide variety of source material used when researching the Castle’s sequence of building works. To the immediate left of the Curfew Tower the Vicar’s Hall can be seen.

The image itself is reproduced from the Chapter Library’s copy of the 1641 edition of Acts and Monuments [F.119]. Also to be found in the Chapter Library is a copy of Marbeck’s Concordance [M.62]. When placed side by side the two volumes serve as a forceful reminder of a turbulent period in the Church’s history.

Richard (Assistant Archivist)

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.