The Maitland Controversy
by David Loades

Maitland was an eccentric. The son of Alexander Maitland, a Scottish merchant based in London, his religious background was in English terms nonconformist. His early schooling appears to have been haphazard, but in 1807 at the age of fifteen, he was placed under the tuition of the Rev. Launcelot Sharpe, a man both cultured and scholarly from whom his later love of learning appears to have derived.[1] Two years later he was entered simultaneously at St John's College, Cambridge and the Inner Temple, having at that stage an intention to read for the bar. The following year he migrated to Trinity College, and paying little attention to what he was supposed to be doing, began to study Hebrew and Arabic. In 1811 he quitted the university in order to avoid having to sign the Thirty Nine Articles. According to his later testimony this had little to do with any objection to their content, but he did not wish to identify himself as an Anglican.

From 1812 to 1815 he stayed at home, reading voraciously and cataloguing the library of one of his father's deceased friends; both of which occupations increased his already large stock of esoteric knowledge, but prepared him for no particular career. In 1816 he returned to St Johns, and re-entered the Temple in the following year. In both places he studied hard, but in his own idiosyncratic fashion. He duly kept terms, but took no degree, and although called to the bar in 1817, was unsuccessful in practice and had moved to Taunton by the end of the year. He had also married in 1816, but the need to earn a living never seems to have troubled him. He had presumably received from his father, either by grant or bequest, sufficient for his needs.[2] He never sought profitable employment, and there are no suggestions that he was in straightened circumstances. This being so, he remained free throughout his life to follow his own tastes in what he did.

By 1821 his religious views had changed, and he received deacon's orders in Norwich, serving for about two years as a curate in that city. In 1823 he took priest's orders at Gloucester, and received the perpetual curacy of Christ Church there. It does not, however, appear to have been his intention to settle into a conventional clerical career, and in 1827 he left Gloucester to spend about eighteen months travelling in Europe. His intellectual curiosity was insatiable, and he seems to have absorbed all kinds of learning both conventional and unconventional. By this time he was highly proficient in Hebrew, Latin, Greek and Arabic, and a keen amateur orientalist. He had also begun to write. His first foray was into the millenarian controversy then raging in the Church of England. There were a number of different positions in this quarrel, but the main division was between those who saw the millennium as an historical event, in the past, and those who still looked forward to it.[3] Maitland deployed his huge erudition in support of the latter cause, and from the first began to display a caustic, not to say arrogant, tone with those who took a different view. Having no patron to mollify, or connection to appease, he could afford to please himself.[4] In 1832 he changed his scholarly focus from theology to history and published a History of the Waldensians. It was at this point that his engagement with Foxe began.[5]

Foxe's knowledge of the Poor Men of Lyons was limited - he more than once confused them with the Albigenses - and he had an agenda.[6] Because they were persecuted by the papacy, to Foxe the Waldenses were members of the True Church - early protestants. Maitland was outraged by what he regarded as the martyrologist's crass ignorance and grotesque partisanship. He had probably already acquired a contempt for Foxe because the latter had taken a different view of prophetic history, and his inadequate treatment of the Waldenses merely confirmed that view. Maitland became obsessed with what he regarded as the fraudulence of the Acts and Monuments, a work which had, in his view, poisoned the whole development of the church in England since the sixteenth century.[7] Unfortunately, at much the same time as Maitland was beginning to express these views, William Eusebius Andrews was saying much the same thing in an intemperate two volume denunciation of the martyrologist which came out in 1824 and 1826.[8] Andrews' agenda was explicitly catholic. To him Foxe was a liar on a monumental scale, who had swept up the criminal detritus of ecclesiastical history and tried to pass them off as martyrs.

This was much the same view that Robert Persons had taken in The Three Conversions of England, and was no juster in 1826 than it had been in 1600.[9] However, Andrews was writing in the context of the fierce controversies stirred up by the movement for catholic emancipation and the evangelical revival. His assault on Foxe was understood (rightly) by evangelicals to be a fundamental attack upon the integrity of the protestant Church of England, and the project for a new edition of the Acts and Monuments arose directly out of that perception.[10] For a generation after 1825 open war was waged between the Anglo-Catholics of the Tractarian movement and their evangelical opponents, and Foxe was at the heart of that conflict.

For that reason it has often been assumed that Maitland was a Tractarian, or at least a fellow traveller. In fact he was not. Both he and his friend and colleague J. H. Rose had a fitful relationship with Newman and Pusey.[11] There was no settled hostility, and their views (as over Foxe) sometimes coincided, but there was no settled alliance either. Both Maitland and Newman were equally disliked by the evangelicals, but their agendas were not the same. Maitland attacked Foxe because he considered him to be a bad historian and a worse scholar, a man who had abused his sources in pursuit of a contemporary agenda. It was very much the same motivation which led Geoffrey Elton to attack the Marxist scholarship of the 1960s.[12]

In 1835 Maitland began to write for The British Magazine, edited by Rose, and in 1837 appeared the first volume of the Seeley and Burnside subscription edition of the Acts and Monuments, edited by S. R. Cattley and George Townsend. This was actually volume 2 of the projected work, and covered a period of medieval history where the author (or compiler) was particularly vulnerable. Maitland was apoplectic with rage. Foxe as an incompetent and dishonest historian was bad enough, but this edition made things a great deal worse. Not only had Cattley reproduced, and apparently endorsed, the errors of the original work, he had even introduced 'corrections' distorting and perverting the few things which Foxe had got right![13] The language of his criticism was extreme, and insulting. The editor was at best a fool and out of his depth, at worst a rogue peddling deliberate lies.

Maitland kept up this barrage through the pages of the British Magazinefor the next four years, while the succeeding volumes appeared, stimulating responses from both the editors which were equally passionate, although a good deal more dignified than the assault.[14] In spite of this fracas, the edition was well received by its subscribers and sympathisers. It was revised twice, in 1843 and 1877, and became a standard work of reference. Nevertheless, much of Maitland's mud stuck. Although Foxe continued to be revered, particularly in evangelical circles, as a founding father of the Church of England, he was no longer taken seriously as an historian. It was not until J. F. Mozley published John Foxe and His Book in 1940 that the task of rehabilitation began, and the subject is still controversial.[15]

Maitland himself became Lambeth Librarian in 1838, in the midst of this controversy. His friend Rose was chaplain to Archbishop Howley, in addition to being Principal of King's College, and his good offices may be understood. It was not a remunerative position, the stipend being £40 a year, but it gave its holder some status, and its duties were not sufficiently onerous as to interfere with his other occupations. At some point Howley conferred the degree of D.D. upon his librarian, and he became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1839. He took over the editorship of the British Magazine after Rose's untimely death; but in 1848 Howley also died, and the unsympathetic Sumner dismissed him from his post at Lambeth. In 1849 the British Magazine also came to an end, and at the age of 57 Maitland retired to Gloucester, where he spent the last fifteen years of his life in the scholarship and controversy upon which he obviously throve. By the end of his life he was equally disliked by the Evangelicals and the Tractarians, but that seems to have troubled him not at all.

How justified were his strictures? Maitland was right up to a point in criticising the editors of the Seeley and Burnside edition, although not always for the reasons which he alleged. They had an evangelical agenda, as is clear from George Townsend's defence of his work, and for that reason were insufficiently critical in their own approach.[16] Stephen Cattley also had a disconcerting habit of 'correcting' Foxe's citations by using texts which would not have been available to the martyrologist, and thereby sometimes distorting his meaning. Above all, they paid insufficient attention to the early editions of the Acts and Monuments, basing their work mainly on the 1583 text, and intermingled their own comments with the original marginalia in a most confusing way. They certainly did not measure up to modern critical standards, but they were not negligent, and were neither as incompetent nor as dishonest as Maitland claimed.[17]

The latter's obsession with accurate scholarship also needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Although he spoke of the historian 'creeping under the hedge and beside the ditch' to obtain authentic sources, and had undoubtedly a vast fund of knowledge, his 'passionate zeal' was not always applied in a manner which the modern observer would find satisfactory. He made, for instance, hardly any use of the extensive Foxe MSS, then recently deposited in the British Museum, and none at all of the equally relevant material at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, of which he seems to have remained completely unaware.[18] He did not even use the authentic early editions to which a little diligence would easily have procured him access. He worked, by his own testimony, mainly from the editions of 1596 and 1684, both produced after Foxe's death, and the latter so extensively amended as to provide little ground upon which to criticise the original author.[19] He did get his hands on a 1576 edition at one point, probably a Lambeth copy, but gives no impression of having worked on it systematically; and he got a friend to have a look at a 1570 copy, and send him a few notes.[20] It is hard to imagine such an approach satisfying the supervisor of a modern doctoral thesis!

He also concentrated his fire almost exclusively upon the pre-reformation parts of the work, which is probably one reason why he did not bother with the 1563 edition. The strongest part of his argument against Foxe, as opposed to his editors, is directed to his use of medieval sources. These failings partly arose from the fact that Foxe used amanuenses to transcribe documents which he had not actually seen himself, partly from the fact that he frequently used digests rather than originals, and partly from his agenda. Foxe very seldom made statements which were demonstrably untrue, but he did ignore or suppress evidence which made against the case he was trying to set out.[21] He was sceptical about miracle stories, but apparently prepared to swallow any tale to the discredit of the papacy, however far fetched its content or questionable its origin.

Consequently Maitland was fully justified in challenging Foxe's objectivity, but then Foxe had never claimed to be objective, and would not have understood what the word meant. He claimed to be telling the truth, but for him the truth was embodied in the manner in which the will of God was unfolded. For that reason he was deeply suspicious of some of the sources which he was compelled to use, believing that 'monkish chroniclers' frequently misrepresented those whom they chose to regard as enemies of the church. In that he was probably right, but being forced to reconstruct the other side of the story exposed him to Maitland's strictures over the misuse of authorities. King John can only be made a hero by the elaborate demonisation of the papacy.[22]

Maitland treated Foxe in the same way that he treated his contemporary Joseph Milner, making not the slightest allowance for the circumstances of two hundred and fifty years earlier. Consequently although his specific criticisms are frequently justified, his general attitude of contemptuous disparagement is not. He can, I think, be acquitted of the charge of merely pursuing an Anglo-Catholic agenda, like Andrews. Towards the end of his life Rose may have become a Tractarian of a sort, but Maitland never was. What annoyed him particularly was the somewhat sanctimonious way in which Cattley and Townsend used their own dubious scholarship to confirm that Foxe was a reliable historian.

One of the difficulties in looking at the Victorian controversy now is that both sides treated the Acts and Monuments as though it was a unity, which manifestly it was not. When he reached the events of his own lifetime - roughly from 1530 onwards - Foxe became markedly more accurate in his use of sources, although no less tendentious in his commentary.[23] It is possible, by reading between the lines of his special pleading, to recover a remarkably accurate outline of events. This Maitland never for a moment admitted, and may not even have noticed. He was completely absorbed in the superiority of his own learning. Neither money nor preferment influenced him at all, and he can be absolved from all the baser motives which normally tempt scholars to do hatchet jobs on their rivals. His grandson, F. W. Maitland, relevantly observed 'If we try to make history the handmaid of dogma, it will soon cease to be history';[24] and similarly if we try to make it the handmaid of a career. Maitland was totally independent, and to that extent his motives are above suspicion. He gives the impression of having been a thoroughly disagreeable man, but that may be simply because he was as indifferent to the common courtesies of life as he was to his own material prospects.

Foxe's most damaging nineteenth century critic thus deserves to be treated with genuine, but limited, respect. His demolition of the martyrologist's history of the Waldenses, and of some of his other medieval reconstructions, was accurate up to a point, but he never addressed those parts of the Acts and Monuments where Foxe was at his strongest, and his general conclusion that the work was nothing but a tissue of fabrications and distortions is not supported by modern analysis. His assault upon Cattley and Townsend now reads like a personal vendetta, but was probably nothing of the kind. If it was, it did them little harm, and himself little good. Their pretensions to scholarship were not unfounded, and they were not the ignorant incompetents which he claimed, but their editorial strategy was fundamentally flawed, and they were much more guilty of a contemporary agenda than he was.

If Maitland did not measure up to twenty-first century standards of scholarship, he was certainly ahead of most of his contemporaries. What was lacking was any ability to understand the mind-set of Foxe, or the circumstances under which he was working.




The date of Alexander Maitland's death is uncertain, as are his financial circumstances, but Samuel never attempted to follow a profitable career, or compromised his views in the hope of reward.


For a discussion of this controversy as it affected Maitland's attitude to Foxe, see

Andrew Penny, 'John Foxe, the Acts and Monuments, and the Development of Prophetic Interpretation', in D. Loades, ed., John Foxe and the English Reformation (Aldershot, 1997), pp. 252-77.


In An Attempt to Elucidate the Prophecies concerning Antichrist (London, 1830), Maitland wrote 'I am most of all astonished that those who believe the doctrine of the Primitive Church respecting the Second Advent, and the personal reign of Christ on earth, should (as it seems to me in defiance of their own principles of interpretation, rest contented with the modern exposition of the prophecies concerning Antichrist'. (p. l9).


S. R. Maitland, Facts and Documents Illustrative of the History, Doctrine and Rites of the Ancient Albigenses and Waldenses (London, 1832).


Acts and Monuments (1583), p. 230.


See S. R. Maitland, A Review of Fox the Martyrologist's History of the Waldenses (London, 1837);

also Maitland, 'Essay VI, The Waldenses and Albigenses', in. Eight Essays on Various Subjects (London, 1852).


W. E. Andrews, A Critical and Historical Review of Fox's Book of Martyrs, Shewing the Inaccuracies, Falsehoods and Misrepresentations in that Work of Deception (London, 1824, 1826).


Ceri Sullivan, ''Oppressed by the Force of Truth'; Robert Persons edits John Foxe', in D. Loades, ed., John Foxe; An Historical Perspective (Aldershot, 1999), pp. 154-66.


On the establishment of the Seeley and Burnside project, and its aims, see

Andrew Penny,' John Foxe's Victorian Reception', Historical Journal, 40, 1997, p. 119.


Andrew Penny,' John Foxe's Victorian Reception', Historical Journal, 40, 1997.

According to Hurrell Froude (who should have known) Rose was not in the 'inner circle' of the Tractarians. He was, after all, a Cambridge man.


See his Presidential Address to the Royal Historical Society in 1976, 'The Historian's Social Function', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th Series, 27, 1977, pp. 197-211.


S .R. Maitland, Twelve Letters on Fox's Acts and Monuments, Originally Published in the British Magazine during the years 1837 and 1838 (London, 1841), esp. pp. viii-ix.


George Townsend, 'The Life of Foxe; and vindication of his Work' in The Acts and Monuments (London., 1843-49), Vol. 1, pt. ii, section 2, p. 169.

S.R. Maitland, Notes on the Contributions of the Rev. George Townsend ... to the New edition of Fox's Martyrology (London, 1842).

George Townsend, Remarks on the Errors of Mr. Maitland in his Notes ... (Durham 1842).

S. R. Cattley, 'The Defence of this Edition by the Editor', in Acts and Monuments (1837-41), Vol. 1, pt. ii, section 2, p.483.


J. F. Mozley, John Foxe and His Book (New York, 1940, rep. 1970), pp. 175-203.

For a more recent appraisal, see

Patrick Collinson, 'Truth, Lies and Fiction in Sixteenth Century Protestant Historiography', in D. R. Kelley and David Sacks, eds. Historical Imagination in Early Modem Britain: History, Rhetoric and Fiction, 1500-1800 (Washington, 1997), pp. 37-68.


In his Remarks on the Errors of Mr. Maitland, in his Notes ... (Durham 1842), George Townsend wrote,

'I am defending the cause of the church as our Reformers left it. I am defending a more perfect mode of worshipping God and Christ, than I elsewhere find. My duty, therefore, to my country and to the church demands of me that I persevere.' (p.23).


J. F. Mozley, John Foxe and His Book (New York, 1940, rep. 1970), pp. 175-203.

John King, 'Fiction and Fact in Foxe's Book of Martyrs', in D. Loades, ed., John Foxe and the English Reformation, (Aldershot, 1997), pp. 12-35.


Andrew Penny,' John Foxe's Victorian Reception', Historical Journal, 40, 1970.


The 1684 edition was based on those of 1632 and 1641, which contained significant additions to that of 1583, which was the last for which Foxe was personally responsible.


Andrew Penny,' John Foxe's Victorian Reception', Historical Journal, 40, 1970.


Acts and Monuments (1583), pp. 557-79

Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham; and his almost total suppression of the Free Will controversy which raged among the prisoners in King's Bench.


Acts and Monuments (1583), pp. 249-56.


He used not only Bishops' Registers, but also correspondence and eye witness reports. Most of the surviving documents in his collection date from the reign of Mary, which was the climactic period from his point of view.


Andrew Penny, 'John Foxe's Victorian Reception', Historical Journal, 40, 1970.

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