John Foxe “Acts and Monuments”

John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, a.k.a. The Book of Martyrs is an immense volume filled with stories of the martyrs persecuted for their faith, starting from the Roman times through the persecution of Wycliffites and the stories f the people executed during the last years of Henry’s reign and during the reign of Mary I. The books had four editions in Foxe’s lifetime and countless more after his death, including the cheap chapbook editions, sometimes reduced not nothing more than a few grisly woodcuts with captions underneath. This, combined with the fact that Acts and Monuments were by the decree of Elizabeth I to be placed in every church so that everyone could read them, ensured that the memory of Protestant martyrdom and the fear of Catholicism were deeply ingrained in the national psyche.

This very short excerpt describes the death of Anne Askew. She had to be carried on a chair to Smithfield. When she was tied to the stake, she was handed the king’s pardon on the condition she recanted, but she refused to even look at the letter. Then Nicholas Shaxton, the bishop of Salisbury who was imprisoned on the same charges as she, delivered a sermon which was going to make her recant, but she remained staunch. Thus “being compassed with flames of fire… she slept in the Lord”. The description rather downplays the gruesome circumstances of Anne’s death. I’ve read somewhere else that the executioner tied a bag of gunpowder to her neck, which was then a popular way of shortening the sufferings of the convict. I hope it’s true. Anyway, the emphasis is here rather on the sufferings caused by the tortures, while the death itself is more of a joyous event, “a blessed sacrifice” transporting Anne straight to heaven.

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