Reformation propaganda (note #2 from the Levine library)

This post is one of a series about books that my father left to me and that now line my office shelves at Tufts. More on how that happened is here.

In a folio volume of almost 2,000 dense pages, informally known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, John Foxe describes the persecutions of true-believing Christians since Roman times. Most of the book is devoted to its own period, when the persecutors were Catholics. This narrative helped create a sense of Protestantism as distinct from Roman Catholicism, and of England as a Protestant nation. It influenced and supplied some illustrations for my book The Anachronist.

Foxe’s Booke was a massive undertaking. It required the vast collaborative labor of collecting the names and stories of tortured and executed Protestants from across Europe. Foxe published numerous editions as new names arrived, and many copies were sold.

I have the 1576 edition, a great block of Gothic text with numerous engravings, most of which depict Protestants being tried or killed by Catholics. Here, for example, is the image on p. 1468, which shows “The talk between M[r] Bradford, and two Spanish Friers.”

John Bradford (1510–1555) was a Protestant clergyman who was burned by the government of Mary Tudor. The image shows him in his cell in the Tower of London, being interrogated by Spaniards. Queen Mary–“Bloody Mary” to Protestants–had married King Phillip II of Spain and brought England back into the Roman Church. However, by the time Foxe published an edition of his Booke in England, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth was “our gracious Lady now reigning,” and Spain was the hated enemy. This is an image of foreign treachery as well as Roman Catholic intolerance.

I thought of it last spring when I saw a painting in the Carthusian monastery of Granada, Spain. Painted in the early 1600s, it shows Thomas Cromwell condemning four Catholic clergy to death for their faith. He is likely sitting in an imagined Tower of London. That is where John Bradford met the Spanish friars under Queen Mary and where Cromwell had his own head chopped off (meriting a heroic account in Foxe’s book).

Juan Sánchez Cotán, Historia de los mártires de Inglaterra. Tres priores y un monje de Santa Brígida juzgados por C[r]onwel, Granada, Spain, via

This painting hangs in the refectory, where the monks would dine, as part of a series entitled “The History of the Martyrs of England” by Juan Sánchez Cotán. Its didactic purpose was to remind the Spanish friars of Granada that Protestant Englishmen were their persecutors and foes.

The two images have some iconographic and stylistic similarities, although the “Gaoler” in the English print looks Mannerist (with his elongated body), and the Spanish painting is baroque.

Most of the specific stories that both sides collected were probably true. Each side interpreted the persecutions of their own co-religionists as clear evidence that their enemy was cruel. There is perhaps a lesson here about selection bias …

See also Coryat’s Crudities (note #1 from the Levine library); twenty-five thousand books to Bosnia; and my father’s books are going to James Madison’s desk at Montpelier.