Early Modern Religious Texts


Until fairly recently, my primary topic of research had been the dissemination of printed literature in England; primarily, texts of religious devotion and confessional conflict in England. My timeframe was from the arrival of the printing press in England, through to the systematic dismantling and restructuring of the printing monopolies in the mid 1580s. Now my research not only extends my timeframe but also my regional scope, by including Portugal and Spain.

One of the aims of my research project is to consider English texts that explore the relationship between England and Portugal. I am also interested in how these texts explore both England and Portugal’s relationship with Spain. Of particular interest to me is how Portugal is used as a lens by which to view Spain. During the union of Portugal and Spain (1580-1640), Portugal offers English authors an opportunity to explore the results and ramifications of Spanish dominance, allowing them to judge the Spanish rule of their long-term ally. Many of the English authors presented here use Portugal as a means to attack Spain after the Union. By doing so, they present Portugal as a warning to England.

I shall open with a text produced some years before the Union, one that, for me at least, presents a more familiar territory: John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments. I begin with Foxe, partly because it is Foxe who got me interested in English perceptions of Portugal and Spain during the sixteenth century but also because its wide, public dissemination provides something of an insight into the type of accounts being spread among the parishes (long before the Union of Portugal and Spain).[1] I am interested in what Foxe does say but also what he does not say in his giant martyrology. For a book more than twice the length of the Bible, it is hard to imagine that Foxe could leave anything out of his discussion of key topics. Yet he does.

John Foxe’s ‘The Acts and Monuments’: an English Protestant in Portugal

Compared to his accounts of Spain and the Spanish, Foxe has relatively little to tell his readers about Portugal. The primary account of the Portuguese occurs amongst Foxe’s wider narrative of the reign of Edward VI: the tale of William Gardiner, a 26-year old English merchant who was residing in Lisbon in 1552. In December that year, Gardiner (for some unknown reason) was present at the marriage of Infante João to Juana, a daughter of Charles V.[2] He did not like what he saw. He was deeply offended when he observed the congregation kneeling before the Host, and praying fervently. He had not been in Lisbon long: he had arrived on a merchant ship but remained in the city after the rest of his crew returned to sea, apparently because he wanted to learn Portuguese. His inner faith did not correspond with the religious practices he witnessed, and this soon spilled over into a fervent desire to take direct action against, in his eyes, such outrageous idolatry. The following week, after much prayer, Gardiner joined the congregation at the same chapel and, when the priest elevated the Host, he sprang forward, snatching the Host from the priest, crushing it under his foot. He overturned the chalice and promptly landed a few punches on the poor cleric in the process.

Members of the congregation immediately lynched Gardiner. One of them succeeding in stabbing him in the arm, and the young merchant barely escaped with his life. The king was present and was said to wade into the affray, in order to question Gardiner as to why he had undertaken such an act of sacrilege. Depositions made after the event suggest that Gardiner was close to bleeding to death from the wound he received, so it is doubtful he had much time to say anything.[3] But no bother; Foxe invented a speech for him:

And after the tumult was ceased, he was brought unto the kynge: by whome he was demaunded what country manne hee was, and howe he durste be so bolde to worke such a contumely againste his Maiestye, and the Sacramentes of the Churche. He aunswered, most noble kinge, I am not ashamed of my Countrey, whiche am an Englishe manne both by byrthe and religion and am come hyther onely for traffique of Merchaundyse. And when I saw in this famous assembly so great idolatrye committed, my conseyence neyther oughte, neyther coulde any longer suffer, but that I muste needs dooe that, which you have seene me presently commytte, whyche thing (most noble prynce) was neyther done, nor thought of me to any contumely or reproche of your presence, but onely for this purpose (as before God I dooe clerely confesse) to see the onely salvation of thys people.[4]

Gardiner’s motivation – as presented by Foxe – is clear: he singlehandedly felt compelled to stop an act of idolatry. Yet he had no desire to offend or disparage the king, rather, he wished to ensure the salvation of the Portuguese king and his people. Throughout the event and its aftermath, Foxe presents Portugal as a nation misguided by its corrupt Church.

Actually, the event initially had consequences far beyond those inflicted on Gardiner himself, who was promptly examined, tortured and then put to death as a heretic. Records survive to indicate the mass arrest of English subjects in Lisbon by authorities fearful of further sacrilege.[5] Yet Foxe appears to know nothing of this. Foxe was relying on witness testimony that told him of Gardiner’s actions and state of mind, and about the trial only. Foxe had first included this story in his Latin martyrology, the Rerum in ecclesia gestarum… Commentarii, revealing something of the impressive abilities of Foxe and his informants in acquiring and sending transcripts of unofficial witness testimonies across great distances.[6] The account was considered important enough to add to the first edition of the Acts and Monuments and to be reprinted in the 1570 edition, along with some minor corrections and the name of Foxe’s source for the account.[7]

Figure 1: The image of Gardiner being hauled over the fire, his hands having been chopped off prior to his execution. (Foxe, A&M [1570], p.1545).[8]

Woodcut depicting William Gardiner’s execution (www.johnfoxe.org)

So why emphasize a single event in Portugal in the Acts and Monuments, within the context of the latter part of Edward VI’s reign? Momentarily moving away from events in England, Foxe opens his account as follows:

we will somwhat steppe aside & borow a litle leaue, coastyng the Seas into Portyngale amongest the Popishe Merchauntes there, whether a certaine countreyman of ours doth call me, named William Gardiner, a man verely in my iudgement, not onely to be co[m]pared with the most principall and chief Martyrs of these our dayes,  but also such one, as the auncient Churches in the tyme of the first persecutions, can not shewe a more famous: whether we do behold the force of his fayth, his firme and stedfast constantnes, the inuincible strength of his spirite, or the cruell and horrible tormentes: the report onely and hearyng wherof, were enough to put any ma[n] in horror or feare.[9]

Foxe sets up Gardiner as a model martyr in much the same way as he would present John Rogers, the first martyr of the Marian regime: as a steadfast individual whose actions prove contiguous with those of all true martyrs.[10] Gardiner is presented as a man stirred by the Spirit to help a nation “cruelly oppressed” by a persecuting Church.[11] Foxe portrays him as a “messenger [sent] to prouoke the Portugales to the sincere knowledge of [God]”. Yet, Foxe laments, the Portuguese did not act on his warning. The Portuguese “ought the more to haue acknowledged the great loue and kyndnesof God offred vnto them, and also the more to bee myndefull of their owne duety and thankefulnes towardes hym. And if it be so great an offense to violate the ordinaunces of mans law, and to contemne the Ambassadours of Kynges and Princes, let the Portugalls and all other looke well vnto it, what it is so cruelly to handle the heauenly messenger of the hygh God.”[12]

King João III takes no specific blame for the spiritual health of his country in Foxe’s narrative. In reality, shortly after the event, João III wrote an account of Gardiner’s actions to his ambassador in Rome, ordering him to report the event to the Pope as proof of the continued need for the Inquisition in Portugal and the need for extended powers to prevent such heresy from spreading.[13] The king was an active proponent of the Inquisition yet Foxe refuses to attack the king outright or to make specific mention of the Inquisition.[14]

Foxe is, of course, perfectly happy having God doing the smiting. The account closes with the ‘consequences’ of the cruel handling of William Gardiner:

Neither was this their cruelty altogether vnreuenged by the mighty hand of God, when as not onely the very same night, amongest diuers of the Kynges shyppes which were in the nexte hauen ready to sayle, one was burned, beyng set on fire by a sparcle of Gardiners fire driuen thether with the wynde, but also the Kyngs sonne which was then maryed, dyed within halfe a yeare, and the next yeare after the Kyng hym selfe also dyed, and so both within one yeare after the tormentyng of this blessed Martyr.[15]

An event that was, in fact, a considerable threat to Anglo-Portuguese relations at the time is presented by Foxe as merely another example of how the just are persecuted and of how God’s wrath will come upon those who undertake that persecution or permit it to take place under their rule. Gardiner was Portugal’s warning, and they did not take heed.

What then does the martyrologist have to say of neighboring Spain? I will turn to Foxe’s discussion of Spain in a subsequent post.


[1] In 1570 the Privy Council decreed that the book should be set up in all cathedral churches and a number of public-access areas. See Elizabeth Evenden and Thomas S. Freeman, ‘Print, Profit and Propaganda: The Elizabethan Privy Council and the 1570 Edition of Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’ in English Historical Review, 119 (2004), pp.1288-1307.

[2] See Foxe, A&M [1563], pp.872-79 and A&M [1570], pp.1541-45.

[3] Many of the trial documents and depositions made by witnesses are reproduced in I. da Rosa Pereira, ‘O Desacato na Capela Real em 1552 e o processo do calvinista ingles perante o Ordinário de Lisboa’, Anais da Academia Portuguesa da Historia, xxix (1984), pp.597-623.

[4] See Foxe, A&M [1570], p.1543.

[5] Some of these are discussed by Thomas S. Freeman and Marcelo J. Borges in ‘“A grave and heinous incident against our holy Catholic Faith”: Two Accounts of William Gardiner’s Desecration of the Portuguese Royal Chapel in 1552’, Historical Research LXIX (1996), p.10.

[6] John Foxe, Rerum in ecclesia gestarum… Commentarii (Basel, 1559), p.203. See Freeman and Borges, ‘“A grave and heinous incident”’, pp.1-17.

[7] Foxe, A&M [1570], p.1545. Foxe dropped a number of accounts in the second edition, and merely providing readers with cross-references back the first edition. Gardiner’s story remained in all four editions of Foxe’s text produced in his lifetime. He was also considered important enough to receive a woodcut illustration of his grisly death. (Foxe, A&M [1570], p.1545.)

[8] On the extensive torture and mutilation of Gardiner in the days between his arrest and his execution see Foxe’s account (A&M [1570], pp.1541-45) and Freeman and Borges ‘“A grave and heinous incident”’, p.2.

[9] See Foxe, A&M [1570], p.1541.

[10] On Rogers see Foxe, A&M [1563], pp.1023-37, A&M [1570], pp.1656-64, A&M [1576], pp.1415-20, and A&M [1583], pp.1484-93. See also Vivienne Westbrook, ‘The Shape of Fear: John Rogers in Tears and Flames’ in Evenden and Westbrook, Catholic Renewal, forthcoming.

[11] Foxe, A&M [1570], p.1545.

[12] Foxe, A&M [1570], p.1545.

[13] See Freeman and Borges, ‘“A grave and heinous incident”’, p.10.

[14] On João and the Inquisition see Freeman and Borges, ‘“A grave and heinous incident”’, p.10 and A.H. de Oliveira Marques, History of Portugal, 2 vols. (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1972), I, pp.206-07.

[15] Foxe, A&M [1570], p.1545.

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