Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Stoned, Slain, Sawn Asunder: Violence, Consolation and the Meanings of Martyrdom in Early Modern England

Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen


[1] The Book of Martyrs (1563), compiled by John Foxe, was one of the most important books published in early modern England, second in significance only to the English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer for the religious culture of the period – although it was also four times as long as the Bible (King 2006: 1).[1] It was widely read – or rather, read from – in public places such as schools, libraries, cathedrals and parish churches. Frequently reprinted during the late sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth century, the Book of Martyrs offered a hugely influential narrative of collective, Protestant English identity as having been forged in the experience of persecution and martyrdom during the reign of Mary I (1553­-1558) and as grounded ultimately in the sufferings of the early Christians.[2] Its readers were invited to see themselves, and their communal history, in the tales and images of the gruesome violence visited on the Marian martyrs of the 1550s – to feel that these tales and images told them who they were.

[2] The Book of Martyrs is obviously centred around the extreme physical violence inflicted on martyrs, represented both textually and in a large number of vivid woodcuts (see figures 1 and 2, below). Well known examples are the graphic accounts of the executions of William Gardiner and John Hooper, bishop of Gloucester and Worcester, both martyred in 1555. As one of the torments endured by Gardiner, his torturers forced a linen ball with an attached string ‘unto the bottome of his stomacke,’ which they then pulled up, ‘pluckyng it to and fro through the meate pipe’ (Foxe 1570: 1543). When Gardiner is finally executed, he is tortured in a similar manner, being lowered into the fire and pulled up again: ‘Then was ther a great pile of woode set on fire underneath him, into the which hee was by little and little let downe, not with the whole body, but so that his feete onely felt the fire. Then was he hoysted up, and so let downe agayne into the fyre, and thus oftentymes pulled uppe and downe’ (Foxe 1570: 1544). The account of John Hooper’s execution culminates in the following description of his dying moments: ‘he knocked hys brest with hys handes untill one of his armes fell of, and then knocked still with the other, what tyme the fat, water, and bloud dropped out at his fingers endes, untill by renewyng of the fire, his strength was gone, and his hand did cleave fast in knockyng, to the yron upon his brest’ (Foxe 1570: 1684).[3]

Figure 1. The torture of Cuthbert Simpson. John Foxe, Actes and monuments of these latter and perillous dayes touching matters of the Church (London, 1576), p. 1952 [1925]. Leiden University Library, 1368 C4–5.

Figure 2. Bishop Bonner scourging a prisoner. Actes and monuments (1576), p. 1963 [1936]. Leiden University Library, 1368 C4–5.

[3] In its preoccupation with martyrdom, then, early modern England placed the experience of violence at the heart of Protestant identity, with the representation of that experience occupying a central place in its textual and visual culture. As Cynthia Marshall has observed,

the Acts and Monuments can be understood as itself a monument to […] a moment when developments in technology, literacy, and religious politics made it possible for a massive textual detailing of physical suffering to occupy the imaginative screen of English readers. (Marshall 2002: 90)

Yet martyrdom in early modern English culture was also a remarkably elastic concept, that referred not only to martyrdom of blood – being persecuted and physically tortured, and eventually dying for one’s faith – but that was also applied to various forms of affliction and suffering. This becomes especially clear if we examine the confluence between discourses of martyrdom on the one hand and discourses of consolation on the other. One important feature of early modern, and especially seventeenth-century English Protestant culture was the emergence of a substantial and widely read body of consolation literature, in which members of the Protestant clergy instructed their flock in the art of suffering, offering them a set of narratives for attaching meaning to and dealing with affliction.[4] Protestant consolation writers took a capacious approach to affliction, addressing a wide gamut of suffering that ran from persecution to physical illness, financial setbacks and spiritual doubt. This last form of affliction presents an especially dominant topic in consolation discourses, with consolation writers casting their readers as burdened by a sense of sinfulness and as suffering from profound doubts about their own salvation, and as therefore in need of pastoral consolation.

[4] This preoccupation with consolation can be traced back to the very beginnings of Protestantism.[5] Martin Luther saw late medieval theology as failing to console Christians in their sense of sinfulness – and therefore as falling short of its pastoral responsibilities – in that it burdened them with the impossible task of contributing to their own salvation. The doctrine of salvation by faith alone, he wrote in On the Freedom of a Christian (1520), offers a form of consolation superior to that offered by Roman Catholic theology: ‘whose heart hearing these things will not melt for very joy, and waxe ravished in love of Christ, having received so great a consolation? to the which love hee can never possibly attaine by any lawes or workes at all’ (Luther 1579: 37). Luther, in other words, defined Christians as sufferers in need of consolation. This consolation revolved around a relinquishing of soteriological agency: those burdened by an awareness of sin can take consolation from the idea that their salvation is effected solely by Christ.

[5] Early modern English culture saw an enmeshing between the concepts of consolation and martyrdom. First, consolation became central to notions of martyrdom, with martyrs being defined by the consolation which they find in God and in each other. While divine and interpersonal consolation are also touched upon in the Book of Martyrs itself, it is especially prominent, as I will show below, in an important spin-off of Foxe, Clement Cotton’s Mirror of Martyrs (1613). Second, consolation writers urged readers to construe their own various afflictions in martyrological terms — with an acute sense of sin, for example, presented as a kind of mini-martyrdom. Such a correspondence between martyrdom and doubts about one’s salvation was facilitated by the fact that in Cotton, martyrs themselves are presented as suffering from spiritual anxiety, finding divine consolation only at the very last – often when they have been tied to the stake already, the fire that will kill them already lit. In this way, different notions of Christian suffering – centred on the experience of persecution and violence or, for example, on the sense of sin – converged into a single narrative in which the most private, inward and the most public forms of affliction became intertwined, and in which consolation served as a pivotal term. For Cotton, what unites his readers with the Marian martyrs whose suffering he recounts is that both suffer spiritually and that both ultimately find consolation in God.

[6] On the one hand, this led to a downplaying of the importance of physical violence in definitions of Protestant identity, and to a less prominent representational role – both visually and textually – for violence. As we will see, physical violence plays only a limited role in Cotton’s Mirror of Martyrs, in which martyrdom revolves more centrally around the experience of spiritual anxiety and consolation. At the same time, however, consolation writers – including Cotton – drew on the language of martyrological violence in their meditations on other forms of affliction, such as illness or spiritual despair. The intertwined discourses of martyrdom and consolation, therefore, present an intriguing form of imagineering violence, evoking physical violence in relation to a wide gamut of Christian suffering. In this way, the violence inflicted on martyrs came to serve as a template for understanding Christian suffering more widely. Consolation literature suggests that to read about the violence inflicted on martyrs, and to gaze at images of that violence, was simultaneously to read about and to gaze at one’s own inner turmoil, or one’s own physical ailments, as well as to find consolation amid that turmoil and amid those ailments. The spectacle of religious violence was translated, in other words, to the most inward spiritual experiences, turning the inner life itself into a scene of violence and persecution. While the violence of literal, physical martyrdom diminished in representational prominence, therefore, the language of violence continued to play a crucial role in early modern understandings of what it meant to be a Protestant.

[7] This, I argue, also helps us understand why the idea of martyrdom possessed such cultural longevity in early modern English culture. In an important sense, what Alfred Rush terms ‘martyrdom unto blood’ had already ceased to be a reality for Protestants by the time it came to occupy a central place in concepts of national Protestant identity. With Elizabeth I’s succession, Protestantism had become the state religion, and it now fell to the Elizabethan regime to persecute religious others – most notably Catholic clergy (see Knott 1993: 88-126, and Jenkins 1986: 52, 56). As Protestantism became the majority faith in the early seventeenth century, Protestant martyrdom became increasingly remote. Yet martyrdom’s expiration date could be deferred indefinitely by turning martyrdom into a flexible, adaptable concept – by reimagining the violence inflicted on martyrs as present in all forms of Christian affliction.

[8] Such a reimagining of the meaning of martyrdom was not an early modern Protestant invention. As Alfred Rush explains, ‘actual martyrdom’ or ‘martyrdom unto blood’ diminished in importance when the age of persecution came to an end, with monks, for example, coming to be seen as the spiritual counterparts of the early Christian martyrs (1962: 574; see also Malone 1950). St Augustine insisted that martyrdom consisted not in the first instance around the undergoing of physical violence, but in bearing witness to Christian truth, stating, in a well known dictum, that ‘martyrem non facit poena sed causa’ [‘it is not the suffering but the cause that makes a martyr’] (Rush 1962: 574). In a sermon on martyrdom, he defines martyrdom in strongly spiritual terms similar to what we find in Cotton:

Sed nemo dicat: Non possum martyr esse quia non est modo persecutio. Non cessant temptationes. Pugna et corona parata est. […] [T]entatur anima christiana et propitio Deo vincit et facit magnam victoriam, nemine vidente, in corpore inclusa; pugnat corde, coronatur in corde sed ab illo qui videt in corde.

[Let no one say: I cannot be a martyr, because there is now no persecution. Trials are never lacking. The battle and the crown is prepared. […] The Christian soul is tried and, with the help of God, it conquers and wins a great victory; this it does enclosed in the body, with no one as its witness. It fights in its heart, it is crowned in its heart, but by Him who sees into the heart.][6]

[9] Yet even if seventeenth-century English Protestants were not the first to re-imagine martyrdom in spiritual terms, their idea of spiritual martyrdom acquired a new urgency and resonance for them as a fledgling religious majority whose historical connection to martyrdom of blood became ever more tenuous. Indeed, the Book of Martyrs itself evinces an awareness of its own belatedness, while at the same time offering a solution to this problem. Foxe realizes that physical martyrdom is no longer available to his readers, yet encourages them to understand martyrdom in more capacious terms: ‘if we can not willingly put of this lyfe, yet let us not bee slow to amend and correct this same: and though we can not dye with them in lyke martyrdome, yet let us mortify the worldly and prophane affections of the flesh which strive against the spirit’ (Foxe 1570: 1542). Approximately a century later, Richard Allestree found himself facing a similar problem. In a sermon on James 4.7 (‘Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you’), preached on 17 November 1667 before Charles II, he contrasts the ‘Persecutions […] of the primitive times of Christianity’ with his own martyrdom-free, late seventeenth-century present: ”tis not death to be a Christian now’ (Allestree 1684: 172). He even fears that the Christians of his own time would not stand the test of martyrdom ‘if God should raise a Dioclesian, come to tempt us with the fiery trial’. Only a degraded form of martyrdom is open to them, in which they fall victim not to prosecution but to their own sinful inclinations: they are ‘Martyrs […] to nothing but [their] Passions and [their] lusts‘ (1684: 172), or, as he puts it in his highly popular devotional work The whole duty of man (1657), ‘the Devil’s Martyrs’ (1657: 153). Yet in the same sermon, he also redefines the ‘fiery trial’ of martyrdom in broader terms, reading the ‘fiery darts of the wicked’ of which St Paul speaks in Ephesians 6:16 not only as ‘Persecutions‘, but as referring to ‘Calamities of any kind’ (1684: 171). In a 1665 sermon on Luke 2:34, he characterises the early Christians as ‘Apprentises of Martyrdom’ who were ‘call’d for sufferings’ in a broad sense that incorporates not only persecution but also ‘Poverty and Scorn’, as well as a renouncing of the ‘Pomps and Vanities of the World’ (1669: 203, 205, 203).

[10] In what follows, I will examine how such a broadening of martyrdom was made possible in part by linking martyrdom to the idea of consolation. In addition to Cotton’s Mirror of Martyrs, I will draw on the following works of religious consolation: the popular The sick mans salve by Thomas Becon (1511-1567), first published in 1560 and reprinted eleven times, in various editions, before 1600; the much obscurer The oyle of gladnesse (1631) by the Sussex rector Robert Allwyn; Sips of Sweetness (1649) by the Independent minister John Durant (1620-1689), an example of Durant’s broader consolatory oeuvre that went through three editions during the mid-seventeenth century (Burns 2004); and Balm of Gilead by Joseph Hall (1574-1656), first published in 1646 and reprinted four times between 1650 and 1660. Naturally, these form only a small selection from the large body of consolation literature published in the period, but they do shed light on an important strand in early modern English conceptions of martyrdom, suffering and consolation that can be discerned throughout the first half of the seventeenth century, and across a broad spectrum of Protestant writers, from conformist to Independent.


Martyrdom and Consolation in the Mirror of Martyrs

[11] We find a useful starting point for understanding the malleable meanings of martyrdom in early modern England in one of the most important spin-offs of Foxe: Clement Cotton’s Mirror of Martyrs, a drastically reduced, affordable pocket edition – ‘Reader’s Digest style’, in Patrick Collinson’s words – of the Book of Martyrs, first published in 1613 and reprinted eight times throughout the seventeenth century (Collinson 2002: 384). It does without woodcuts, and offers condensed martyrs’ narratives that largely omit, for example, the interrogations recounted in Foxe, focusing instead on the martyrs’ last moments. Thus, while Foxe offers a lengthy and vivid account of the various stages of John Hooper’s martyrdom, Cotton’s abridged version – the very first tale in the Mirror – opens with Hooper ‘being brought unto the place where he should suffer’ and moves on swiftly to ‘the day before his Martyrdome’ (Cotton 1615: 1-2).

[12] The Mirror of Martyrs contains an appendix that consists of two consolatory letters by the martyr John Bradford (c. 1510-1555), prominently advertised on the title page as ‘full of sweet consolation for all such as are afflicted in conscience’. Rather than focusing on physical martyrdom per se, these letters address the ‘godly sorrow which the feeling and sense of sinne worketh in Gods children’ (Cotton 1615: 389). The second letter is advertised as ‘most comfortable for all to read that are afflicted or broken hearted for their sinnes’ (Cotton 1615: 409). Since Cotton, in his epistle to the reader, presents his entire ‘Mirrour’ of Foxe as offering ‘sound comfort’ (Cotton 1615: sig. A8v) to its readership, Bradford’s letters of consolation provide an important key to the reworking of martyrdom in the Mirror of Martyrs more broadly. In linking martyrdom — on its very title page and in its paratextual matter — to the suffering caused by contrition (the sorrow over one’s sins to which Cotton refers), the Mirror suggests that the meaning of martyrdom can extend beyond ‘dying for one’s faith’. Spiritual anxiety, too, can make one a martyr, potentially serving as an entry ticket into the community of the afflicted to which martyrs also belong.

[13] Indeed, this link between martyrdom and spiritual anxiety is one important reason why Cotton sees his martyrs’ tales as a source of consolation for those afflicted by spiritual doubts. As he writes in the Epistle Dedicatorie, it is

very behoofefull for the afflicted, carefully to observe, what distresses, the particuler members of [the Church], hath been brought to; thereby to know and discerne, that they suffer not alone, but that in their suffrings they have had, and have, many companions, suffring with them. (Cotton 1615: sig. A4v-A5r)

Cotton casts his readership as ‘afflicted’ in a generalized sense, without specifying the precise ways in which they are afflicted. In this way, he hails his readers as belonging to a broad, transhistorical and diverse community of sufferers, inviting them to map their own suffering on to the agonies undergone by Protestant martyrs, and to read whatever suffering they themselves are experiencing as part of the larger history of affliction which Cotton evokes. Indeed, Cotton admonishes his readers to see even St John the Baptist as their ‘Brother and Companion in tribulation’ (Cotton 1615: sig. A5r), eliding in this way any temporal distinction between the reader’s own present, the more or less recent Marian persecutions, and the very earliest Christian martyrdoms: all co-inhabit a perpetual present, defined by the ever-recurring experience of Christian suffering. It is also in this sense that the Mirror of Martyrs can be seen as a devotional work: it offers its readers an interpretative framework for experiencing spiritual anxiety in an appropriate manner – by construing it as a species of martyrdom, and therefore as a form of suffering in which God always offers comfort.

[14] The importance of consolation in the Mirror of Martyrs is underscored by the martyrs’ narratives themselves, many of which hinge on the idea of consolation. This consolation follows certain recurring patterns: martyrs console themselves through the sheer strength of their faith, but they also console each other, comfort other fellow-Christians, or write consolatory letters to their family. Alternatively, they are consoled in their suffering by the Holy Spirit. Shortly before his martyrdom, John Hooper consoles a blind boy, insisting that God ‘hath given thee another sight much more precious; for he hath endued thy soul with the eye of knowledge & faith’ (Cotton 1615: 2). The martyr Lawrence Saunders (d. 1555) is described as experiencing intense consolation, both spiritually and physically, during the ordeal of his first interrogation. Consolation comes to him as an intensely physical experience that involves his entire body, arguably counteracting the physical violence inflicted on him: ‘he was so wonderfully comforted, that not only in his spirit, but also in body he received a certaine tast of that holy communion of Saints; whilst a most plesant refreshing issued from every part & member of his body unto the seat of the heart, & from thence did eb and flow too and fro unto all the parts againe’ (Cotton 1615: 19-20).

[15] In many cases, the martyrs need consolation because, faced with an imminent, violent death, they are in spiritual despair, thinking themselves incapable of bearing their suffering, or fearing about their fate in the afterlife. This, indeed, is what they have in common with Cotton’s spiritually anxious reader. For example, Robert Glover (d. 1555) harbours intense doubts about his salvation and seeks comfort from his friend Augustine Bernher (d. 1565), a reformed preacher born in Switzerland who comforted many Marian martyrs in their final hours (Wabuda 2004). Glover is described as suffering from ‘dullnesse of Spirit’, a condition dreaded by many early modern Protestants:[7] he ‘felt his heart […] lumpish and heavy’, which rendered him ‘full of much discomfort to beare the bitter Crosse of Martyrdome’ and afraid that ‘the Lord had utterly withdrawen his wonted favour from him’ (Cotton 1615: 23). Bernher reassures him that ‘the Lord in due season would satisfie his desire with plentie of Consolation, whereof hee sayd hee was right certaine and sure’ (Cotton 1615: 24). Bernher’s words of consolation are initially ineffective, the comfort which Glover longs for postponed until the very last moment, ‘as we was going to the stake’. Yet the consolation which he eventually experiences is all the more spectacular: ‘sodainely hee was so mightily replenished with the comfort of Gods holy Spirit and heavenly joyes, that hee cryed out clapping his hands to Austen saying these wordes, hee is come Austen, he is come, hee is come’ (Cotton 1615: 25; ‘Austen’ is Augustine Bernher). Thomas Hudson undergoes a similar spiritual crisis when he is bound to the stake. His fellow-martyrs attempt to console him, but to no avail: ‘he was compassed […] with great dolour and griefe of mind, not for his death, but for lacke of feeling the comfort of the holy Ghost, the comforter’ (Cotton 1615: 84). After Hudson prays intensely, God ‘at length according to his mercies old sent comfort, and then rose hee with great joy, as a man new changed even from death to life’ (Cotton 1615: 84). In a narrative pattern also present in other tales in the Mirror, consolation is initially deferred but ultimately offered — spectacularly and exhilaratingly.

[16] The martyrological tales in the Mirror of Martyrs offer exemplary tales of suffering and consolation. Cotton’s pocket martyrology defines Protestants both by their suffering and by the consolation which they seek and find, both in God and in each other. In consoling each other, moreover, Cotton’s martyrs serve as figures of the Mirror itself, geared as it is towards consoling its readers. Just as the martyrs figuring in the Mirror of Martyrs need and receive consolation in their torment, the reader is consoled in her spiritual trials. Protestant identity is not located exclusively in the experience of physical martyrdom per se but rather in the spiritual torments and soteriological doubts felt by Cotton’s readers.

[17] In Cotton, this broadening of the meaning of martyrdom, and the related centrality of spiritual consolation, produces a diminished emphasis on physical violence. Visual representations of violence are altogether absent from the Mirror, while verbal descriptions of violence are generally terse and generic, and shorn of details. Alice Binden’s death at the stake is summarized as follows: ‘she was bereaved of life by the terrible fier’ (Cotton 1615: 117). The account of John Lambart’s violent death is slightly more elaborate but nevertheless concise and restrained compared to what we find in Foxe: ‘John Lambart having his nether parts consumed with fire, lifting uppe such hands as hee had, and his fingers ends flaming with fire, cryed to the people, None but Christ, None but Christ’ (Cotton 1615: 26). Cotton’s focus is more strongly on the spiritual trajectory which his martyrs go through: the spiritual anxiety which they feel eventually lifted by a consolation that enables them to die joyfully. The death of James Baynam is a case in point:

as hee stood at the stake in the midst of the flaming fire, which fire had halfe consumed his armes and his legges, he was heard to speaker these words, O ye Papists. Behold ye looke for Miracles, and heere ye may see a Miracle, for in this fire I feele no more paine then if I were in a bed of down; but it is to me as sweet as a bed of Roses. (Cotton 1615: 31-32)

As we have seen, ‘sweet’ is a term strongly associated in Cotton (but also in numerous other devotional works of the period) with the effects of consolation: God’s spiritual comfort renders even the most extreme physical torment pleasurable.

[18] Yet while the language of physical violence is far from dominant in Cotton’s martyrology, it is not, of course, entirely absent, and in fact insinuates itself into unexpected and revealing contexts. For example, in the second of his two consolation letters appended to the Mirror of Martyrs, John Bradford informs the ‘faithfull woman in her heavines and troble of mind’ (Cotton 1615: 409) to whom he is writing that she is ‘of Gods corne’ and that she should therefore not ‘feare […] the flayle, the fanne, millstone, nor oven. You are one of Christs Lambs: looke therefore to be fleeced, halled at, and even slaine’ (Cotton 1615: 418). Bradford’s initial metaphor of grain-winnowing and bread-baking, in which violence is implied, morphs into an explicit vocabulary of physical violence in ‘halled at, and even slaine’. The primary meaning of ‘to hall’ [i.e. ‘haul’ or ‘hale’] listed by the OED is ‘to pull or draw with force or violence; to drag, tug’ (OED, s.v. ‘haul, v.’, 1a.), and the term was frequently evoked in relation to the Passion of Christ (as it is in Cotton), as well as persecution and martyrdom more broadly. A 1614 translation of Bernard of Clairvaux’s De interiori domo seu de conscientia aedificanda describes Christ as ‘haled to the slaughter’, while in a 1610 translation of St Augustine’s City of God, Christian bishops are ‘haled unto martyrdome’ (Clairvaux 1614: 149; Augustine 1610: 16). Robert Barclay’s An apology for the true Christian divinity (1678) describes Quakers as being ‘beaten, whipped, bruised, haled, and imprisoned’ (Barclay 1678: 363). As we have seen, Cotton’s martyrology evinces only limited interest in the physical torments inflicted on martyrs, foregrounding instead their spiritual pain and subsequent consolation. Yet this moment suggests something subtly different: Bradford here invites his addressee to read the spiritual pain from which she suffers as synonymous with the physical violence of martyrdom. What Bradford understands to be Satan’s spiritual assaults – ‘Let Satan rage against you’ (Cotton 1615: 419) – come to be understood in physical terms. Martyrdom, on such a reading, is no longer an experience one reads about or gazes at (for example, by reading and gazing at the narratives and woodcuts in Foxe), but which takes place inside the turmoil of one’s own inner, spiritual life.


Affliction and Martyrological Violence in Protestant Consolation Literature

[19] We also encounter this dynamic in other early modern devotional works, and especially in the large body of consolation literature of the period. Thomas Becon’s popular Sick man’s salve is a case in point. Written in dialogue form, it can be usefully seen as a Protestant reimagining of the medieval ars moriendi tradition, with a strong emphasis on the promise of redemption through Christ as a source of solace in the hour of our death (Baker House 2004). Becon sees the spiritual agonies from which his readers might suffer on their deathbed as a ‘trial of your faith’; a form of ‘agony’ from which God will ‘deliver’ them: ‘for the nature and property of God is to wound, before he healeth: to throw down before he lifteth up: to kil before he quickneth’ (Becon 1631: 242). The reader’s spiritual trials, as well as the physical ailments that precede death, are bracketed in this way with the more general suffering which all Christians must undergo. In an illuminating passage, Becon initially presents the reader’s affliction as a far cry from the pains of martyrdom, cataloguing the physical tortures visited on the early Christian martyrs as the gold standard of all human pain:

some were devoured with wilde beastes, some burnt with fire unto ashes, some broiled unto death upon hote coles, some slaine with the sword, some hanged upon gibbets, some pierced to death with arrows, some beaten to death with stones, some boiled, some rent in peeces with hot burning iron hookes, some racked, some drowned, som cruelly murthered in prison &c. Who is able to declar the moste bitter pains, and grievous torments which they gladly & willingly suffered on their bodies for the glory of God, and the fruition of his majesty? If yee consider of these thinges wel, you shall easly finde, that the paines which you now suffer, are nothing to be compared unto the most bitter and intolerable tormentes, which the men of god suffred. (Becon 1631: 208-209)

Yet Becon adds that ‘not withstanding if you abide these light paines joyfully, patiently & thankefully, you shall moste certainly enioy and possesse that heavenly kingdome, which they have already obtained’ (Becon 1631: 209). Paradoxically, therefore, the passage ends by drawing the reader’s suffering once again into the orbit of martyrdom: while the pains of illness and deathbed despair are much lighter than the pains of martyrdom, their soteriological efficacy is identical. Martyrdom is at once remote and within reach. Illness ultimately does function as a scaled-down form of martyrdom, the pains it brings echoing the greater violence inflicted on martyrs.

[20] A similar dynamic is at work in Robert Allwyn’s The oyle of gladnesse (1631), a collection of three sermons written to offer consolation to all those who are ‘swallowed up with over much heavinesse’ – that is to say, who suffer from the spiritual anxieties that form a recurrent concern in the consolation literature of the period (Allwyn 1631: 3). Allwyn urges his readers to ‘take pleasure […] in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in Persecutions, and anguish’ (Allwyn 1631: 33), and to trust in ‘the Spirit, who is most copious of his consolation in the fierie tryall’ (Allwyn 1631: 34). Allwyn’s readers, in other words, are to embrace suffering as an integral part of Christian identity, and Allwyn seems to make no hard-and-fast distinctions between persecution and other forms of affliction. The phrase ‘fierie tryall’, employed by Allwyn to encapsulate the meaning of affliction, has strongly martyrological overtones, as becomes clear from the Richard Allestree sermon discussed earlier in this article, and as is underscored by the title of the anonymous The fierie tryall of Gods saints (1611), a kind of pocket version of the Book of Martyrs similar to the Mirror of Martyrs. The link with martyrdom is further underlined when Allwyn writes, in a context that addresses affliction in general, that God ‘remembreth our soules in trouble, he compasseth us about with songs in the prison, hee administreth matter of joy’ (Allwyn 1631: 34, italics added). Again, martyrdom and religious persecution provide a template for understanding the nature of Christian affliction more broadly, including spiritual turmoil.

[21] We encounter such broadening of martyrdom throughout the first half of the seventeenth century. The consolatory treatise Sips of Sweetness (1649) by the Independent minister John Durant (1620-1689) is a pastoral work that aims to offer consolation to ‘weak Beleever[s]’ (Durant 1662: sig. A3) – that is to say, to those who are having trouble believing in the promise of salvation. For Durant, suffering and consolation are the pillars of Christian identity. He rapturously describes Christ as a ‘Sea of love to comfort all those that cordially obey the gospel’ (Durant 1662: 4), while also seeing the Christian life as marked by suffering, informing his readers that ‘Because you fear to sin, You are not of the world, and you are therefore hated by the world. Christ hath freed you from the evil of the worlds pollution, and therefore it follows you with the evil of its persecution‘ (Durant 1662: 146). As this quote suggests, Durant sees all Christian suffering, including the suffering caused by a weak faith, as somehow touched by persecution. As a result, he employs the language of martyrological violence to understand the meaning of Christian affliction in general:

Christ is the supervisor of all your sufferings; whether thy sufferings are, or shall bee cruel mockings, bonds, stoning, sawing asunder, &c. what kinde soever, Christ is to order it, not thy foes. And he will see what suffering will best suit thee, and thy strength. Some (saith the Martyrologie, Heb. 11) were stoned, others sawn asunder, some slain with the sword, others wandred, &c. Christ orders all your sufferings. Hee tels Peter by what death he should glorifie him, Joh. 20.19. And so for quantity Christ orders all; Thou tellst my wanderings, &c. Psal. 56.8. He means his wandrings while persecuted […] not a step more, than Christ would, did David wander. Beleevers, you shall not weep a tear, nor bleed a drop, nor bear a stripe more than Christ will number out. (Durant 1662: 165)

The passage contains various references to Hebrews 11:29–40 – referred to here as ‘the Martyrologie’ – which celebrates the power of faith and lists the torments which the faithful have suffered throughout history, and which, Durant suggests, they will continue to endure in the future: ‘They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented’ (Hebrews 11:37).[8] Even the problem of weak belief by which his readers are burdened, Durant maintains here, can be understood as a tailor-made form of violent martyrdom, adapted by Christ himself to their specific needs and abilities. The notion that Christ manages all human suffering in this way is a key ingredient of Durant’s consolatory message.

[22] The languages of consolation and martyrological violence also converge in Joseph Hall’s consolatory tract The balme of Gilead (1646). Like Clement Cotton, Hall sees martyrdom as revolving around the consolation which God offers martyrs even in the most extreme suffering. It is also this consolation which makes martyrs into role models for all suffering Christians:

How many with the blessed Martyr Theodorus, have upon racks and gibbets found their consolations stronger then their paines? Whiles therefore the goodnesse of thy God sustaines, and supplies thee with abundance of spirituall vigour and refreshment answerable to the worst of thine assaults, what cause hast thou to complaine of suffering? (Hall 1646: 108)

This passage occurs in a section on ‘Comfort against Temptations’ (101), and for Hall, temptation constitutes a spiritual assault readily understood in terms of physical violence. Indeed, like other Protestant consolation writers of the period, he captures the suffering that forms the hallmark of the Christian life in images of physical wounding and scarring:

A wound received doth but whet the edge of true fortitude: Many a one had never been victorious if hee had not seene himselfe bleed first; Look where thou wilt, upon all the Saints of God, mark if thou canst see any one of them without his scarres: Oh the fearfull gashes that we have seen in the noblest of Gods Champions upon earth […]! (Hall 1646: 115)



[23] I have attempted to demonstrate the conceptual inter-traffic between the lexicons of martyrological violence and consolation in early modern English Protestant culture. In Cotton’s Mirror of Martyrs, the experience of consolation – often deferred but ultimately offered in abundance – is the hallmark of the true martyr, while consolation writers drew on the language of martyrological violence as a template for understanding a broad range of Christian suffering, with spiritual anxiety playing an especially dominant role. On the one hand, this convergence of consolation and martyrdom meant that notions of martyrdom came to revolve less strongly around physical violence and its graphic representation, and more centrally around the experience of spiritual consolation. We have seen such a mechanism at work in the Mirror of Martyrs. On the other hand, consolation writers came to understand other forms of afflictions, such as spiritual anxiety, physical illness or the temptation to sin, in terms of the literal, physical violence of martyrdom. In this way, the Christian’s troubled inner life became a theatre of violence and persecution, with for example the ‘temptations’ of which Joseph Hall speaks in the Balm of Gilead figuring as ‘fearfull gashes’. According to consolation writers, what all Christians – literal martyrs or not – have in common is that they eventually find divine consolation in their pain.

[24] The language of violence in Protestant consolation literature also possessed an additional resonance. Consolation discourses framed the sweetness of consolation as the prerogative of true Protestants, and cast religious others as marked by disconsolation – consolation being actively withheld from them by God. Consolation writers evoke, for example, ‘the ungodly’ who ‘pine away in their iniquitie’, while the ‘true of heart’ experience ‘joyful gladnesse’ ‘even in the most disconsolate time’ (Allwyn 1631: 25). Joseph Hall refers to ‘heathen soules’ (Hall 1646: 23) who are deprived of divine consolation. ‘What joy and comfort can there be in poperie?’, Thomas Stoughton wondered in 1598 (Stoughton 1598: 71). In 1603, George Downame, writing on the occasion of James I’s accession to the English throne, equated the ‘consolation of all true Christians’ with the ‘confusion [i.e. the overthrow and destruction] of Popery’ (Downame 1603: sig. A4r). ‘[I]ts no solid comfort, that the Catholik amuses himself with, in believing his Church that guides him to be infallible, if really she be not so: for if it proves in effect to be otherwise, he will come short of his imaginary comfort,’ wrote the anonymous author of The unerring and unerrable church in 1675 (I. S. 1675: 73).

[25] This also meant that consolation writers saw the suffering of religious others as pure, never-ending and unrelieved, a state of affairs evoked in vividly physical terms by the clergyman Nicholas Lockyer (1611–1685) in his description of the spiritual agonies felt by ‘ungodly men’:

Christ will not know thy soule in adversity, which art a disobeyer of him. As hee would not let Dives [the rich man in the parable of Lazarus; Luke 16:19-31] have a drop of water to coole his tongue, though in unutterable torments, where many Oceans would not in the least measure have quenched the flames; so neither will he afford thee the least drop of consolation in thy greatest extremity; though thou cry Lord, Lord, and cut thy flesh in the fervency of thy spirit like Baals Priests, to prevaile; yet shalt thou be sent empty away. Nay Christ will be so farre from being a Comforter to ungodly men when in misery; that Hee will adde to their outward misery, inward misery. When thy body is in distresse, Christ will awaken thy soule, that now lies asleep, and set thy conscience gnawing within thee, which will be greater torture then if thou wert rackt in every limbe. (Lockyer 1644: 30-31)

The torments and disconsolateness suffered by ungodly men are here equated with extreme and unremitting physical violence. This is not the violence of martyrdom but rather the violence rightfully visited on the wicked. If martyrs are tormented by other human beings but consoled by Christ, the wicked are tormented by Christ and therefore remain unconsoled. While consolation writers invited their readers to imagine martyrological violence as their own, and as taking place inside their own, non-martyred selves, they imagined the violence inflicted on abject religious others as taking place in an alien realm.

Leiden University



[1] For an authoritative recent study of Foxe’s martyrology, see Evenden & Freeman 2011. [back to text]

[2] For an influential analysis of the nationalist significance of the Book of Martyrs, see Haller 1963. In presenting martyrdom as a core ingredient of Protestant identity, the Book of Martyrs both took part in and helped to shape a much wider, European martyrological discourse (for an insightful overview, see Gregory 2001). Notable examples are the six-volume Historien der Heyligen Ausserwölten Gottes Zeugen, Bekennern und Martyrern (1555-1557), compiled by the Lutheran minister Ludwig Rabus (1523-1592), and Jean Crespin’s Livre des Martyrs, printed in Geneva in seven editions and under a variety of titles, between 1554 and 1570 (see also Tucker 2017). In the Low Countries, De historien der vromer Martelaren (1552) by the Dutch Reformed minister Adriaan van Haemstede (c. 1525-1562) became a canonical Protestant martyrology, reprinted numerous times until well into the eighteenth century.[back to text]

[3] Both accounts are discussed in Marshall 2002: 85-87 and 97.[back to text]

[4] For a number of the central tropes in early modern Protestant consolation discourses, see Dijkhuizen, van 2018.[back to text]

[5] For consolation as a defining aspect of early modern Protestantism, see also Rittgers 2017.[back to text]

[6] St Augustine, Sermo 328.9 (‘In natali martyrum’), discorso_468_testo.htm>. The translation is from Rush 1962: 575-76.[back to text]

[7] See for example Ryrie 2013, who sees early modern British Protestant culture as revolving around a quest for intense, deeply felt spiritual experiences and a related dread of spiritual apathy or indifference.[back to text]

[8] For a useful analysis of martyrdom in Hebrews 11, see Henten, van 2010: 359–377.[back to text]



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