'Foxe's Book of Martyrs'

A leaf from the 3rd edition of the 'Book of Martyrs', compiled by John Foxe and printed in London by John Day in 1576 (306 x 212 mm)

The massive book universally known as 'Foxe's Book of Martyrs' was first published in the reign of the protestant Queen Elizabeth 1, and soon became a best-seller. Every cathedral in the country was supposed to have a copy. The work is an ecclesiatical history, primarily intended to highlight the cruelties inflicted on non-catholics during the reign of Elizabeth's catholic predecessor, 'Bloody' Mary. The full title of the edition from which this leaf comes runs to 80 words and makes clear the stance the book will adopt; it begins 'The [first/second] volume of the ecclesiasticall history conteyning the actes & monumentes of martyrs, with a generall discourse of these latter persecutions, horrible troubles and tumultes, stirred up by Romish prelates in the Church, with divers other thinges . . .'. The lives and deaths, usually by burning at the stake, of more than 300 protestant martyrs are described in a two-volume work running to some 2000 pages.

Contributions from many sources were collated, expanded and edited by the Oxford-educated cleric John Foxe (described as a 'martyrologist', though he might himself have become a martyr had he not fled abroad while Queen Mary was on the throne). According to Encyclopedia Britannica the book 'has been criticized as prolix, carelessly edited, one-sided, sometimes credulous, but it is factually detailed and preserves much firsthand material on the English Reformation unobtainable elsewhere'.

 My leaf carries pages 1573 and 1574, part of the entry – running to more than 30,000 words in total – concerning the imprisonment and eventual burning of one of the more important martyrs, John Bradford. It reproduces some of the 'ghostly' (i.e. spiritual) letters he wrote to his mother from prison in the days before his death on 1st July 1555. Among the touching farewells on the verso page is this passage: 'I require you Elizabeth and Margaret my sisters,  that you will feare God, vse Prayer, loue your husbandes be obedient vnto them, as GOD willeth you: bryng vp your children in Gods feare: and be good housewiues, GOD blesse you both, with both your husbandes my good brethren, whom to do good, because I now can not, I will pray for them and you.' (The full text of these pages can be read online here: p1573, p1574.)

The production of such a vast book required a printer with substantial capital resources. John Day was one such, himself a protestant supporter, and one of the wealthiest members of the Stationers' Company.  Even so, this third edition of the Book of Martyrs may have stretched Day financially, as it is printed on flimsy paper and apparently contains many misprints.