Mid-Victorian Foxe
by Vivienne Westbrook

In the middle of the nineteenth century, and in response to a set of conflicts that were very different from those that had provoked the Evangelical zeal of the sixteenth century, Foxe's Book of Martyrs again became important as a marker of English Protestant national identity.[1] Foxe's Book constituted a set of records pertaining to those who had been executed for their adherence to the true Church. Foxe celebrated John Rogers (1500-1555) as the first martyr of Mary's reign, registering a new phase of antichristian tyranny and resistance to it by God's chosen few. When, in 1863, Thomas Hope Aston addressed the Birmingham Protestant Association to appeal for a monument to John Rogers, a native of the City of Birmingham, it was within a broader context of mid-Victorian monumentalisation of Reformation martyrs. Aston noted that

Only last year I believe a monument was erected to the youthful martyr of Brentwood, William Hunter. Only last month a monument was unveiled, amongst assembled thousands at Gloucester, to the memory of Bishop Hooper, and it is not therefore too late to erect a monument in Birmingham to the first martyr, John Rogers.[2]

Aston hoped for a publicly visible statue that would serve as a statement of Birmingham's adherence to Protestant values in the wake of perceived encroachment of Roman Catholicism, or some version of it. Newman, who had anathematised himself by converting in 1845, had in 1848 decided to establish the Oratorians at Birmingham, a geographical location from which he could reach and influence the populations of other large industrializing Cities. In 1851 he had delivered a series of lectures in Birmingham on the Present Position of Catholics in England, which offered a more sympathetic view of Roman Catholicism than would have been palatable to men of Aston's constitution. Aston's urge to monumentalise Rogers can be understood, at least in part, as an aggressive response to Newman's activities on his own doorstep, but whilst some regional Protestant Associations were gathering strength, others were struggling to maintain their independent identity from other anti-Catholic organizations.

The London Protestant Association, had been established in 1835 with the principle tenet: That the influence of true religion over a people forms the best security for their individual rights, and the surest basis of national prosperity.[3]. On Tuesday, 17 July, 1866 the LPA assembled at the National Club, Whitehall-gardens for its 31st annual general meeting. A Vice-President of the Association, James Bateman, celebrated the choice of the National Club as the LPA's venue on this occasion and exhorted LPA members who were not already NC members to become so as part of the effort to consolidate Protestant power in Britain against the Romanizing evils of the age.[4] The Chairman, James Lord, admitted that some of the circumstances that had led to the formation of the LPA in 1835 no longer existed and argued that the Association had always suffered from lack of funds and a lack of necessary support throughout the country. In the present circumstances he suggested that the best course might be to amalgamate the Protestant Association with the Protestant Alliance.[5] The motion was rejected by the LPA. The National Church, James Bateman argued, was threatened with two great evils; - on the one hand, Rationalism and Infidelity, and on the other, Popery or Puseyism.[6] In order for the National Church to be upheld, he asserted, it must be cleansed and purified, and that he viewed this as the work of the Association was evident from his Mercutian attack on the proceedings of the two Houses over the vestments question. Appended to the annual report was a list of publications, which included The Persecution of the Church of England by Queen Mary, a copy of which could be purchased for two pence, or one hundred copies for twelve shillings, and The Examinations and Martyrdom of Dr. Taylor which could be purchased for one and a half pennies, or nine shillings for one hundred; these publications were clearly offered for the mass-circulation by regional branches of the Protestant Association in mind.

The Bradford Protestant Association, established in 1857, was a late addition to the movement. In the published minutes of its annual general meeting of 10 June, 1859, it announced that This Association is formed for the purpose of opposing, by religious arguments, and in a Christian manner, the errors of the Romish Church.[7] Its chief success to date was in having rescued a building from its intended purpose as a pub and having elevated it to the status of the headquarters of the Bradford Protestant Association, where: correct information as regards the errors and practices of Popery' was available through lectures, and secular instruction was offered to destitute children.[8] To the minutes was attached a letter from the Bishop of Ripon dated 3 November, 1858, a response to an invitation to preside at the annual tea meeting. In this letter he apologized for having hesitated before accepting such an invitation from a Protestant Association, but he explained that he had wanted to make some enquiries about the work of the organization before he lent his support to it. He concluded:

I have made these enquiries and am satisfied that your Protestant Association is doing a good work. You may rely upon my countenance and support. It is absolutely necessary in these days that Protestantism should assume an antagonistic attitude with regard to Romanism, unless Truth is to be sacrificed to Error.

The Bishop's response indicates the trepidation with which the Church associated itself with anti-Catholic organizations in mid-Victorian Britain, though the Bradford Protestant Association's work was mostly that of educating and helping the poor.

Established on 17 February, 1851, the Preston Protestant Association held its first public meeting on 30 June that year. Its stated priority was that of: concentrating the efforts of Protestants in support and defence of the Principles of the Reformation. In the lecture delivered at this meeting entitled: The Grace of the Gospel - how Popery mars it, Rev. Hugh Stowell, the Canon of the Cathedral Church of Chester, in the alliterative, Balean, language of Renaissance Protestant resistance, shared his observations about the religious constitution of Preston with his audience:

I have long looked upon Preston with a considerable degree of interest, as being the Papal citadel of Lancashire. They are strong here, and have boasted of their strength; and I heartily rejoice to find that our brethren in Preston have at length girded themselves to the righteous conflict. I will venture to say that the Popish priests considered it a dark and perilous day on which a Protestant association was formed in Preston. (Applause).[9]

In order to accommodate the large numbers of Preston Protestants who wished to hear the lecture, the PPA hired the local theatre for the occasion, a venue that Stowell found rather disconcerting: I had rather anticipated this meeting would have been held within the walls of one of your sanctuaries.[10] The Chairman and President of the Association, Rev J. Owen Parr, Vicar of Preston, and Rural Dean, noted, however, that the theatre was: densely crowded in every part - stage, boxes, pit, and gallery.[11] Speaking of the recent Protestant successes in Ireland, Stowell argued:

the soul of the poorest bogman in that country is as precious as the soul of Dr. Newman or my Lord Fielding. (Enthusiastic applause.) We must convert Popery to Protestantism, and not be afraid to face Rome … I believe that since you have begun to act upon the offensive, the Popish priests in Preston have been very quiet. I hear that they have even cut short their course of controversial sermons. (Hear, hear).[12]

Clearly the Preston Protestant Association had been formed in response to a powerful, and consolidated, Roman Catholic presence in the town. Edward Norman's The English Catholic Church in the Nineteenth Century confirms Stowell's claims of the strength of the Roman Catholicism in Preston when he observes that:

the traditional Catholic centres, where groups had survived since the Reformation - Lancashire, the West Midlands, and parts of the north-east - continued to provide the basis of Catholic organization.[13]

Anti-Catholic regional organizations that shared the name of the Protestant Association clearly had a range of agendas that betrayed their local interests and needs. However, in fighting for the one true religion, these organizations were not merely fighting Roman Catholicism, but a whole host of religious infiltrators, as the Reverend Robinson pointed out in his address to the Blackburn Protestant Association on 4 September, 1855:

From the published report of the Census, it appears that on the 30 March, 1851, there were, exclusive of the Church of England, thirty-five incorporated religious communities in England, of which seven were strictly foreign, namely, Lutherans, French Protestants, Reformed Church of the Netherlands, German Protestant Reformers, Greek Church, German Catholics, and Italian reformers.[14]

The fact that the Protestant Associations were aggressively canvassing for support is signalled in some of the formal, and what must have been less welcome, responses to their invitations. Not all those who counted themselves good Protestants felt that the Protestant Association was in tune with the times. Indeed, As John Wolffe has argued in his The Protestant Crusade in Great Britain 1829-1860 Protestant organizations even generated antipathy among those whose support they sought and most needed:

Above all, they failed to overcome, except superficially, the fundamental divide between Church and Dissent. Even within the Church of England, the antipathy of conservative High Church men to the Protestant Association, and of some Evangelicals to the national club, was a significant stumbling-block.[15]

The Reverend Hugh G. Robinson announced in his sermon Shall we go up to Ramoth-Gilead? which he delivered on 9 February, 1851 in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Preston, that:

I object to a Protestant Association as not being in harmony with the spirit and constitution of the church of England. Our church indeed is herself a grand protestant association, but then hers is not a partial and one-sided Protestantism.[16]

Advocating Christian example, rather than conflict, as a more effective means of demonstrating the errors of the Roman Church, he exhorted the congregation to

Fling, then, from you, my brethren, the weapons of agitation. Though others may run with the multitude, stand you still - stand still, and you shall see the salvation of God.[17]

For those who could not appreciate this argument, there is no doubt that Foxe's Book of Martyrs was a crucial weapon in the Protestant armoury. The Church of England Tract Society published a series of exemplary lives that incorporated large borrowings from Foxe's Book mixed with fierce anti-Catholic rhetoric. In 1840, within the context of the life of the Proto-Marian martyr, the reader was assured:

Popery was cut down at the time of the blessed Reformation of the Church of England; and against this two-edged sword it will never be able to hold up its head. Let the light of the holy scriptures be diffused, and the darkness of Popery must retreat before it.[18]

In an article entitled: Plea for the Reformed Church which was published in The Protestant Magazine, V, 1843, under the direction of the London Protestant Association, the Reverend C. S. Bird also argued for the importance of maintining a focus on the Protestant martyrs during the current crisis. He added that by bringing the word Protestant into disrepute, Newman was doing no less than attacking the Reformers who called themselves Protestants. He continued

Bring the word, therefore into disrepute, and you bring them with it; keep up its credit and esteem and you keep up theirs. Which of these will be the course pursued by this nation? If it be a wise and reflecting nation, if it be a generous and grateful nation, who can doubt? It will adhere to its old name of a Protestant people and glory in it, as it did of old; it will continue to honour and revere its Reformers, and to chisel out, bright and clear, every syllable and letter of the immortal Protest against Romish error that history inscribes upon their tomb.[19]

Keeping alive the memory of the Reformation martyrs was perceived to be fundamental to maintaining England's identity as a Protestant nation. But even those who understood the importance of Foxe did not necessarily advocate raw Foxe for the Victorian household hearth. In 1838 Rev. M. Hobart Seymour proudly announced, in the preface to an edition which he had cleaned up for family use, that: There is no volume in the range of our literature, that has been more effective in maintaining the principles of the Reformation - that noblest of all achievements - than the Acts and Monuments of Martyrs, by master John Foxe.[20] Seymour had created a narrative of England's martyrs that left out the mass of official documents and forms, which, though interesting to the writers of history, possess no interest or value for the religious, or general reader.[21] The records, he argued, were included with preservation, rather than reading, in mind, and there seemed no point in forcing the reader to toil through unnecessary and uninteresting documents.[22] The harsh language which he deemed indecent was sanitized in order to render Foxe fit for the family circle. In spite of his severe editing policy he maintained that this edition could also serve as a primary source for: those who wish to obtain a practical knowledge of the controversy with Rome.[23] That Foxe's Book of Martyrs continued to be regarded in this way through the nineteenth century can be witnessed in Thomas Hope Aston's lecture delivered to the Birmingham Protestant Association 6 January, 1873, in which he asserted Foxe as a primary text for all good Protestants. He argued:

The dark days of Queen Mary are well-known to the students of English history. Thanks to the wide-spread distribution of the Book of Martyrs by the laborious and reliable compiler John Foxe, no period in our country's history is better known to the youth of both sexes. Old and young have read its pages; its pictures have given increased interest; and its present cheap form enables every school boy or girl to have a copy in their possession.[24]

The stated necessity of generating cheap forms of the Book of Martyrs so that everyone could have a copy echoed the Reformation argument for the mass production of cheap Bibles. The Birmingham Protestant Association, of which Aston was the honorary secretary, offered a variety of Foxe versions for sale priced at two shillings and sixpence, one shilling and sixpence, two pence and a penny. At a penny, Foxe was three to four times cheaper than most of its shelf companions, such as The Number of the Beast or Dr. Pusey's Insane Project considered. The relative cheapness of the Pamphlets of Martyrs clearly played an important role in promoting the purchase and the use of Foxe in the nineteenth century. Aston's plan was to turn the Birmingham Protestant Association's John Rogers Memorial Library into a depository for all the editions of Foxe's Book, from its first edition to its most recent printing, and to create a space in which members of the Association could spend their leisure hours reading it. The cornerstone of this library was an edition of Foxe's Book of Martyrs that had formerly been chained up in a Warwickshire church, possibly Mancetter, and later recovered from the library of the Rev. Benjamin Richings, the late vicar of Mancetter. Aston's efforts to promote Foxe's Book of Martyrs extended to placing his magic lantern, with which he had been delighting the schoolchildren of Birmingham, at the services of the Birmingham Protestant Association on the condition that it purchase a set of twenty lantern slides of illustrations of Foxe's Book of Martyrs. With the slides duly purchased in July 1873, it was hoped that by the following winter more school rooms might be acquired so that thousands of children may be instructed on the endurance of their martyred forefathers; and the necessity of upholding Bible Protestantism in this highly favoured land.[25]

Amid growing criticism of Foxe's own agenda and his unhistorical methods, competing editors sought to erase the errors of the past in Mid-Victorian versions of Foxe's Book, or else stand accused of deliberately perpetrating error themselves. For Protestant organizations that had a war to fight Foxe's Book of Martyrs remained an incontestable vessel within which were contained the testimonies of the illustrious chosen martyrs, the established history of the true church, and a warning against an insidious form of ecumenism.

[f1]

John Wolffe reminds us that no seamless history of Reformation can be drawn from the sixteenth through to the nineteenth century, and that the cultural contexts for these historical peaks of religious zeal were entirely different. See

John Wolffe, The Protestant Crusade in Great Britain 1829-1860 (Oxford, 1991).

[f2]

Thomas Hope Aston, 'John Rogers, the Martyr of Birmingham', A lecture delivered to the members and friends of the Birmingham Protestant Association, Tuesday, March 24th 1863 (Birmingham, 1863), p. 19.

[f3]

'The Thirty-first annual report of the Protestant Association', Tuesday, July 17th, 1866 (London, 1866), p. 4.

[f4]

'The Thirty-first annual report of the Protestant Association', Tuesday, July 17th, 1866 (London, 1866), p. 19.

[f5]

'The Thirty-first annual report of the Protestant Association', Tuesday, July 17th, 1866 (London, 1866), p. 15).

[f6]

'The Thirty-first annual report of the Protestant Association', Tuesday, July 17th, 1866 (London, 1866), p. 20.

[f7]

'Report read at the general meeting of the Association', Friday, June 10th, 1859 (Bradford, 1859), p. 2.

[f8]

'Report read at the general meeting of the Association', Friday, June 10th, 1859 (Bradford, 1859), p. 4.

[f9]

Hugh G. Robinson, 'The Expediency of Establishing a Protestant Association Disputed', A sermon preached on Sunday, February 9th, in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Preston (London, 1851), p. 7.

[f10]

Hugh G. Robinson, 'The Expediency of Establishing a Protestant Association Disputed', A sermon preached on Sunday, February 9th, in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Preston (London, 1851), p. 8.

[f11]

Hugh G. Robinson,'The Expediency of Establishing a Protestant Association Disputed', A sermon preached on Sunday, February 9th, in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Preston (London, 1851), p. 5.

[f12]

Hugh G. Robinson, 'The Expediency of Establishing a Protestant Association Disputed', A sermon preached on Sunday, February 9th, in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Preston (London, 1851), p. 25.

[f13]

Edward Norman, The English Catholic Church in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1994), p. 7.

[f14]

Rev. C. Robinson, 'A Scheme for the Restoration of Dissenters to the Church', A lecture delivered before the Blackburn Protestant Association, Tuesday, 4th September, 1855 (Blackburn, 1855), p. 4.

[f15]

John Wolffe, The Protestant Crusade in Great Britain 1829-1860 (Oxford, 1991), p. 292.

[f16]

John Wolffe, The Protestant Crusade in Great Britain 1829-1860 (Oxford, 1991), p. 11.

[f17]

John Wolffe, The Protestant Crusade in Great Britain 1829-1860 (Oxford, 1991), p. 17.

[f18]

'The Life and Martyrdom of the Reverend John Rogers', The Church of England Tract Society, X (Bristol, 1840), p. 19.

[f19]

'The Life and Martyrdom of the Reverend John Rogers', The Church of England Tract Society, X (Bristol, 1840), p. 386.

[f20]

Rev. M. Hobart Seymour, ed, The Acts and Monuments of the Church … by John Foxe (London, 1838), p. A1r.

[f21]

Rev. M. Hobart Seymour, ed, The Acts and Monuments of the Church … by John Foxe (London, 1838), p. VIIIv.

[f22]

Rev. M. Hobart Seymour, ed, The Acts and Monuments of the Church … by John Foxe (London, 1838), p. IXr.

[f23]

Rev. M. Hobart Seymour, ed, The Acts and Monuments of the Church … by John Foxe (London, 1838), p. IXr.

[f24]

'The Twenty-sixth Annual Report', Birmingham Protestant Association Magazine July, 1873 (Birmingham, 1873), p. 4.

[f25]

'The Twenty-sixth Annual Report', Birmingham Protestant Association Magazine July, 1873 (Birmingham, 1873), p. 101.

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