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Susan Royal, Lollards in the English Reformation: History, Radicalism, and John Foxe
by Megan L. Hickerson

Susan Royal, Lollards in the English Reformation: History, Radicalism, and John Foxe. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020. 256 pp. ISBN: 9781526128805. £80.00 hardback.


Susan Royal’s purpose, in Lollards in the English Reformation: History, Radicalism, and John Foxe, is to demonstrate the extent to which John Foxe’s preservation of late-medieval, radical Lollard voices in his Acts and Monuments of the Christian Church (popularly known as the Book of Martyrs) informed discourses both supporting and opposing radical Protestantism in late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. Royal covers a great deal of ground, exploring both Foxe’s editing of Lollard testimonies and the later appropriation of the same texts, especially (but not exclusively) by seventeenth-century Quakers. In the process, she challenges what she identifies as traditional historiographical interpretations of Foxe as a conservative, magisterial figure, whose tendency was to omit, from his transmission of his primary sources – the voices of his martyrs – particularly radical sentiments that could challenge the Elizabethan religious settlement, or aspects therein. On the contrary, she argues, Foxe’s editing of testimony, at least of his Lollards, was based in most cases more on the need to conserve paper than on an agenda to censor radical expression (marginal comments guiding interpretation notwithstanding); in addition, as she demonstrates, radical sentiments omitted from one story of Lollard testimony might be included in another. Such radical expression travelled, in Foxe’s book, from the mid-sixteenth century through the seventeenth, where it provided evidence for various groups of their legitimacy as members of the true church. Ultimately, as Royal argues, Acts and Monuments provided a ‘connective tissue’ linking seventeenth-century Protestants – whether radical, separatist, or conformist – to their Lollard forebears. To some, like the Quakers, this supported their rejections of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, oath-taking, and some sacramental ritual, for example; for others, like conformist Anglicans, the Lollard legacy could be extrapolated into evidence that the Church of England was now sufficiently reformed (211).

As Royal considers Acts and Monuments’ legacy, chapter to chapter, she first offers close analysis of Foxe’s use of his sources for the testimony or writing of his Lollards on any given topic (e.g., sacraments, tithing, preaching), and then carefully discusses later engagement with the same by Protestants arguing over what constitutes the true church of Christ. Critical to her exploration of the Lollard legacy is her discussion of Foxe’s efforts in its rehabilitation. Where there had been a tendency to associate Lollards with sedition, Foxe, building on the work of earlier commentators – including William Tyndale and John Bale – transformed Lollards from traitors into martyrs. His method of doing this informs some of Royal’s most compelling discussion: Foxe’s re-definition of martyrdom, when it comes to his Lollards – most of whom were not executed – comprised almost any experience of cruelty, including forced abjuration, with abjuration itself reclassified as a form of suffering (and thus, martyrdom). Similarly, being forced to take oaths or pay tithes could qualify as martyrdom under Foxe’s pen, these latter examples proving particularly useful to Quakers and other nonconformists seeking to legitimize themselves as heirs of these earlier non-conformists, while also avoiding execution.

Foxe’s history, argues Royal, embraces Lollards as ‘evidence of the true church amidst a time of spiritual darkness’ (146). While early Protestants were intent on tying their identities to the primitive church, Foxe also sought to shine a light on the true church as it existed during the age of Wycliff, as his mentor, John Bale, had done before him, with Lollards and other godly members suffering due to the activities of Antichrist (according to Foxe in the second, 1570 edition of Acts and Monuments, now loosed following the end of Satan’s 1000 years of bondage). This historiographical project also allowed Foxe to allow points of imperfection into the testimony of his Lollards, as he established the emergence of the true church in his day as part of a long story of acceleration (Royal uses the Annales term, longue durée, to describe his approach); for example, Foxe could reveal and excuse their ‘myriad determinations’ on the Eucharist, because of their ‘historical place at the very dawn of the process Foxe considered to be the Reformation’ (133). Thus, while the Lollards were still operating in darkness, they managed to shine a light into that darkness, moving the re-emergence of the true church forward and, at the same time, providing themselves as its members for future emulation: they ‘had appeared providentially to initiate the Reformation – not to represent examples of its completion’ (29). In this they became touchstones for later Protestant groups in their own debates about both true Christian history and their own legitimacy.

Royal’s monograph adds to our understanding of the influence of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments in the century or so following the martyrologist’s death, including its use as a legitimizing work by the variety of English Protestants emerging during that period. The Lollard legacy provides a provocative case. While Lollard attacks on tithing and the episcopacy, for example, offered comfort to later radicals who rejected the same, Anglican conformists, who also saw Foxe as a legitimising text, could find the legacy of his Lollards a tricky thing to navigate; while some argued that Foxe had incorrectly situated the Lollards in the historical story leading to Luther (169), others argued that since they led through Hus to Luther (and subsequently the Church of England) they could not have led to the Quakers (35). Still others chose to re-interpret Lollard testimony without reference to Foxe at all, avoiding engagement with his authoritative text. The Lollard example, therefore, in its legacy, provides evidence, Royal argues, to challenge interpretations of Acts and Monuments (e.g., Patrick Collinson’s) as achieving a ‘high degree of “interpretive coherence”’ (176). Rather, Royal argues, what was likely Foxe’s desire for a ‘collective understanding’ of his text would have been disappointed. While Acts and Monuments was a critical legitimising text for most of them, different groups of Protestants in the century after his death read him differently from one another.

Royal’s historiographical contextualisation of her study is remarkably thorough – at times even more exhaustive than her subject demands (e.g., on points of contact between Lollards and early evangelicals, ch. 1). However, while early in the work she takes note of recent historiographical discussion around the question of Foxe’s relative radicalism (37-9) – and the second edition of Acts and Monuments (in particular) as critical of the pace of Elizabethan religious reform – she nevertheless repeatedly poses her work as a challenge to older historiography positioning Acts and Monuments as reflecting a conservative, magisterial agenda on Foxe’s part, one wedded to the Elizabethan status quo. In demonstrating her case when it comes to Foxe’s willingness to let Lollard radicalism shine to the benefit of post-Elizabethan radicals, she also downplays (or overlooks) the fact that on at least some of the issues at stake – such as lay, unlicensed preaching and conventicling – he does the same for some of his Marian dissenters and martyrs, who surely provided inspiration, in their domestic, privy churches, for Elizabethan and later non-conformists. In short, while Royal suggests that Foxe’s ‘acceptance of lollard condemnation of preaching licenses might surprise those who consider Foxe to be a “magisterial reformer”’, it is difficult to imagine surprise among those familiar with his stories about the Marian martyrs; thus, her study’s impact is lessened by assertions towards its end, such as that because ‘Foxe allowed radical material on preaching into the “Book of Martyrs” … scholars of Foxe should rethink their conception of Foxe’s theological perspective’ (204), and, ‘perhaps because scholars have proved that Foxe whitewashed the radicalism of the Marian martyrs, they assume he did the same with the lollards’ (213). (Which scholars? What exactly does ‘whitewash’ mean, and to what forms of ‘radicalism’ does it apply?). Having said that, Royal’s argument, that Foxe framed his Lollards as lights in the darkness – imperfect witnesses to what would eventually become Christ’s perfect true church – is compelling, as is her discussion of his redefinition of martyrdom for their benefit, and her close study of both Foxe’s editing and the later appropriation of his Lollard stories are of great interest. While perhaps Royal’s argument regarding Foxe’s agenda is, therefore, better contextualised in work exploring the question of his positive relationship with warmer Protestant sensibilities – than repeatedly posed against an historiographical view of his Elizabethan, magisterial conservatism less widespread than her readers might come to believe – Lollards in the English Reformation is a valuable contribution to scholarship on both Foxe’s great book and later religious controversy in England.


Megan L. Hickerson

Henderson State University




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Cite as:

Megan L. Hickerson, "Susan Royal, Lollards in the English Reformation: History, Radicalism, and John Foxe," Spenser Review 51.2.7 (Spring-Summer 2021). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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