Rhetoric in the ‘Acts and Monuments’ of John Foxe

The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe, first published in 1563,  told a detailed history of the Protestant religion and of the martyrs for Christianity. In his book Foxe effectively used rhetoric to achieve various ends, producing eloquent arguments in the mouths of his subjects that were pro-Protestant and against Queen Mary and Catholicism.

In the story of Lady Jane Grey, Foxe painted a picture of an extremely intelligent and well-spoken young woman. A protestant, she was named successor to the crown of England by her cousin, king Edward VI, while he was on his deathbed. However, Edward’s half-sister, Mary, was proclaimed Queen instead and Lady Jane Grey was sent to the tower of London and sentennced to death for high treason. Before her execution, Queen Mary sent her chaplain, John Fecknam, to try to convince her to convert to Catholicism. Foxe described the debate that followed, showing Lady Jane Grey to have a strong command of the English language and an extremely firm grasp of the bible. In the debate, Fecknam could not get anywhere with her. They did not discuss the political issues involving her claim to the throne (for which she admitted guilt), but focussed entirely on theological issues. Lady Jane Grey was only 17, and yet she had enough understanding of the bible to successfully debate an adult who had spent nearly his entire life studying theology. Either she was a master of rhetoric and had an uncommon knowledge of the bible, or Foxe was slightly distorting just how savvy Lady Jane Grey was in favor of his powerful Protestant convictions.

Foxe described the executions of Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, and Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester and Chaplain to Edward VI, in great detail. This acute attention to detail was perhaps a way to give his writing more historical credibility. Probably the most memorable quote from the book comes from this section. Latimer was recorded saying to Ridley in Acts and Monuments, “We shall of this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out”. He was referring to their eminent execution, which was to burned at the stake. Latimer was extremely eloquent if Foxe accurately documented this phrase.

Finally, we come to the execution of Thomas Cranmer, a figure who was instrumental in the Protestant reformation in England. He was Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I (for a short time). When Mary brought Catholicism back to England she executed many Protestants, including Thomas Cranmer. In 1553 he was put on trial for treason and sentenced to death. He was moved from his prison to the house of the Dean of Christ Church, which was a very different experience. In this place he was treated as a guest, not a prisoner, and engaged in scholarly debate with Catholic clerics. In Foxe’s account, some of them tried to persuade him to renounce his Protestant beliefs, promising him that the Queen would be lenient towards him and that he may escape death if he made a recantation. At this point Foxe’s account and historical fact parted ways. Foxe wanted to paint a very dramatic picture of Cranmer and Queen Mary, so he omitted some things from his otherwise extremely detailed narrative. He told the story of a weary and broken former Archbishop who had held on until the end, but had finally succumbed under pressure and recanted:

But at last, when they made no end of calling and crying upon him, the archbishop, being overcome, whether through their importunity, or by his own imbecility, or of what mind I cannot tell, at length gave his hand.

However, according historical fact, Cranmer recanted not once at the very end, but a total of five times, the first four only around a month after he had been moved to the house of the Dean of Christ Church. Foxe wanted a dramatic story, and frankly, four recantations within two months of being installed in a comparatively luxurious facility could simply not make the cut. Foxe wanted to portray Queen Mary as a deceiver because she went ahead with the execution even though various clerics had made certain promises to Cranmer. He was told to make a final public recantation at his execution so he prepared a speech. Towards the end of his speech he very memorably deviated from his prepared text, and renounced his previous recantation(s). He was liberated by the fact that Mary could do nothing more to punish him but kill him, which was about to take place. He said with great eloquence that he would punish the offending hand that wrote the recantations by thrusting it into the fire first, which, according to Foxe he did. Foxe made Mary the ultimate loser in this story, because in the end she could not do anything about Cranmer’s reversal. The story did indeed concern actual historical events, but Foxe did some doctoring to make it much more dramatic.

John Foxe told the histories of the martyrs of Protestantism, but he shifted them around a bit to get his across his convictions. He may have made Lady Jane Grey slightly more eloquent and knowledgeable than she was, or perhaps he did not. He may have over dramatized Latimer’s famous quote, or perhaps he did not. However, one thing is for sure: He definitely altered the story of the imprisonment and execution of Thomas Cranmer for dramatic effect and to showcase his particular beliefs. Foxe was biased in favor of the protestant cause, and used his skills rhetoric to emphasize certain aspects of history in a book that remains compelling to read to this day.



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