Islam, the Turks and the Making of the English Reformation

The History of the Ottoman Empire in John Foxe’s «Acts and Monuments»

by Christopher Toenjes (Author)
©2016 Thesis 447 Pages


John Foxe wrote the first English history of the Ottoman Empire in his magnum opus, The Acts and Monuments. He exceeds contemporary representations in his extremely negative image of Islam and the «Turks,» who are identified as Antichrist and the epitome of wickedness. By juxtaposing Foxe’s work with that of his sources, fascinating conclusions can be drawn. The author analyzes the factors prompting Foxe to insert a lengthy digression on a topic that does not directly concern the main theme of his ecclesiastical history, shedding new light on the established notions of his historiographic methodology and his perception of Catholicism as the greatest enemy of «true religion».

Table Of Contents

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Index of Figures

Figure 1: Portrait of John Foxe

Figure 2: Vienna

Figure 3: Siege of Vienna

Figure 4: Title page of The Actes and Monumentes, 1570 edition

Figure 5: “Tamburlaine, the great”

Figure 6: Title page of first first printed Latin edition of the Qur’an

Figure 7: Ottoman Turks

Figure 8: Murder of “Achmat” by Selim I’s henchmen

Figure 9: “The Martyrdome of a Christian Jewe in Constantinople”

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Index of Tables

Table 1: Cryptic figures contained in Revelation

Table 2: Calculation of the Millennium

Table 3: Parallels between the Seleucid rulers of Syria and the Ottomans

Table 4: The Seleucid Rulers of Syria

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Without the assistance and support of friends and colleagues, the making of this book, which is a revised version of my dissertation thesis, would have been all the more arduous. I owe a special debt to Ronald Asch for guiding and encouraging me with this study and all those from the Albert-Ludwigs Universität (Freiburg), the University of Basel, the University of Sheffield, and other academic institutions who provided me with useful advice and assisted me in researching and writing this study, including Birgit Studt, Marc Greengrass, Matt Phillpott, Thomas Freeman, Elizabeth Evenden, Thomas Betteridge, Maurus Reinkowski, Stephan Schmuck, and John Wade. I would do wrong to ignore the encouragement and aid from my colleagues, friends, and relatives as well. Above all I would like to thank my dear wife, who so patiently endured the pressure and other discomforts resulting from my years of study.

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The original orthography for all of my source texts has been preserved, except for long s. Although The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online (TAMO) was frequently consulted, on account of the discrepancies between the paging of the online version and that of the original prints coupled with the fact that much of the research for this present project had been carried out using the original prints prior to the launching of TAMO, footnote references will refer the reader to the former. Where page indications are absent, I refer the reader to the page signature (sig.) when available, whereby I have simplified the numbers of the signatures by replacing Roman numerals with Arabic ones. The same applies to Roman numerals used in folio pagination.

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John Foxe’s The historye and tyrannye of the Turkes is the first English history of the Ottoman Empire. Written immediately following the publication of the first edition of The Acts and Monuments (1563), it was inserted into the second, greatly augmented two-volume edition of his magnum opus, wherein a Protestant version of ecclesiastical history is sketched out and the persecution of the godly since the foundation of the Church, above all during the Reformation era in England, is described. It was an attempt on Foxe’s part to prove the existence of the true and hidden Church throughout the Middle Ages and thus establish a connection between the apostolic church and Protestantism. What was the relation of a lengthy digression on the Ottoman Turks to a struggle predominantly between Protestants and Roman Catholics? The author’s intentions for doing so are multifaceted and often ambiguous, yet this study identifies motivations that can help us see the elizabethan martyrologist and church historian in a new light. One of the most obvious reasons Foxe told the story of the latest Christian-Muslim conflict was to throw the blame for everything that went wrong on the Romish Church under the leadership of the Pope. To effectively do this, it was necessary to modify history. By means of a thorough examination of his historiographic methodology, this study provides compelling evidence for his modification of the facts as he found them in his sources in order to create a Protestant version of history and a Protestant solution to the conundrum of Turkish success.

The insertion of the history of the Ottoman Empire was also tightly linked to his exegesis of biblical prophecy. The Acts and Monuments is entirely based on the Book of Revelation. Foxe discovered in this Islamic power cogent explanations for a number of apocalyptic and eschatological mysteries, including the sixth trumpet blast (Rev. 9:13–19) and the sixth vial (Rev. 16:12), apocalyptic images which foretold some of the most destructive events prior to the end times. Above all, he identified the Ottoman Empire with the loosing of Satan at the close of the Millennium (Rev. 20:7–9), an event which he associated with the most violent and bloody persecution the church will ever undergo. Similarly, he identified the “Turk” with Antichrist, leaving the reader uncertain about whether he considered the Islamic enemy or the Pope as the greatest enemy of true Christianity. Despite this indecision on Foxe’s part, he is unmistakably clear in his savage vilification of the “Turk” as the apex of brutality, cruelty, barbarity, duplicity, and debauchery, far exceeding any description of Catholics found in The Acts ← xv | xvi → and Monuments. With the Ottomans, he was able to create the perfect image to match everything associated with the loosing of Satan. The juxtaposition of his own narration with that of his sources is instructive in this regard. Foxe’s picking and choosing and the insertions of his own frequent commentaries expose his intention to create an image of the Ottomans which was often radically different from the notions found in these sources or even in the writings of his contemporaries in England. In his quest for a fitting portrayal of the devil’s power and wickedness in this world, he exceeds his contemporaries in his demonization of Islam. Furthermore, the threat the followers of Muhammad posed to the entirety of Western Christendom produced a unique moment in Foxe’s own relation with Catholicism, whereby the latter is seen together with “true Christianity” as the remnant, whose shared existence was seriously imperiled by the inroads of the common enemy.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding its significance to both Foxean studies and the image of the Turk in early modern English literature, scholars have not given The Turkes storye adequate attention. With the exploration of Foxe’s motivation in this present study, it has been demonstrated that his notion of the Turk is far more complex than hitherto assumed, and that his motives for adding a history about the Ottomans went beyond the more immediately visible objectives. A fresh focus on this neglected work will satisfy the desideratum in Foxean studies and contribute to the latest attempts at reassessing Foxe as a historian.

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In an era when Protestantism was struggling to maintain its foothold in England immediately following the ascension of Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) to the throne, it would seem that polemicists defending the cause of a reformed or Protestant Church would be chiefly, if not wholly, obsessed with the Roman Catholicism. It is not readily evident that an enemy from without, which was distant and did not represent a direct threat to the survival of the fledgeling church, would warrant anything more than fleeting consideration. But, oddly enough, the mighty Ottoman Empire, stretching from modern day Iraq to Algiers and from the Hejaz to Hungary, occupied a prominent position among publications of late Tudor England. This book will look closely at one such publication by the martyrologist and church historian John Foxe (1516/17–1587). His magnum opus, The Acts and Monuments (A&M), included a history of the Ottoman Empire, The historye and tyrannye of the Turkes1 (The Turkes storye). One of the earliest works in English on the Ottoman Empire, it is also among the most neglected. This study seeks to understand the purpose of a history of this Muslim empire within the context of A&M and how and to what purpose Foxe used the image of the Turk.2

Though commonly referred to as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, A&M is more than a martyrology, aiming at nothing less than a Protestant ecclesiastical history. Foxe’s work is modeled on Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ekklesiastices Historias, wherein the ← 1 | 2 → founding, growth, and persecution of the primitive church are recounted.3 The author was determined to remedy what he understood to be a gap in the collective memory of Christendom, which had been created and exploited by the medieval church. It was necessary, he explained, that “the descent of the right Church … be described from the Apostles time” in order to detect the appearance and growth of the false church. Just as Eusebius had undertaken to establish continuity between the Old and New Testaments, Foxe was preoccupied with establishing continuity between the primitive church and Protestantism. The link between the old and new was discovered in the heterodox and anti-papal individuals and movements of the medieval era, whose common denominator was disagreement with and opposition to Rome. These martyrs of the Church of Rome’s persecution played the role of confirming or proving the existence of the hidden but true church from the early Middle Ages to the persecutions under Mary Tudor, while the Roman Catholic Church, which was visible and possessing greater worldly power, had gone astray from the teachings of Christ.4 As far as Foxe and his fellow Protestants were concerned, this provided an adequate response to the nettlesome challenge made by Catholics of proving the whereabouts of their newly founded church prior to the Reformation.5 These Christians were considered heretics by the medieval church and were persecuted accordingly. This was a crucial factor, for the true church was to be one that suffered; ← 2 | 3 → persecuted at the hands of the enemies of God.6 While Foxe’s martyrs were the focal point of his ecclesiastical history, his ultimate aim was a depiction, based on St. Augustine of Hippo’s (354–430) idea of the civitas dei and the civitas terrenae, of the struggle between the “Church of Christ” and the “Synagoge of the world”.7

Foxe was among the earliest English converts to the evangelical movement, and it was likely some time during the early 1540s as fellow of Magdalen College that this transition occurred. He soon became an ardent promoter of Reformation ideas both through his preaching and writing. Forced to flee to the Continent during the reign of Mary Tudor (r. 1553–1558), he spent the majority of his exile years with a number of fellow Englishmen in the German-speaking Swiss city of Basel.8 It was while in exile that his first two Latin martyrologies were published, Commentarii rerum in ecclesia gestarum (Strasbourg, 1554) and Rerum in ecclesia gestarum (Basel, 1559). These publications formed the bases for A&M, the first edition of which he immediately set about having printed upon his return to London following Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne. Published in 1563, the work was a success, ensuring Foxe a prominent role among “the leading champions and expositors of the Church of England.”9 Three more editions appeared during his lifetime in the years 1570, 1576, and 1583. ← 3 | 4 →

Figure 1: Portrait of John Foxe. Reproduced by kind permission of the President and Fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford

It would be difficult to overstate the immense influence A&M had on Elizabethan England, enjoying the status of the second most popular book following the Bible.10 Especially following the intensification of hostilities between England and Rome, the book was actively backed by the most powerful state officials for propagandistic purposes. Foxe’s Protestant contemporaries were willing to place an almost unlimited amount of confidence in his work, and at least the more adamant of his admirers apparently raised A&M “to a rank scarcely inferior to ← 4 | 5 → that of the Acts of the Apostles.”11 Due to its expense, direct ownership of Foxe’s book could not have been widespread,12 yet it was accessible to the public in a number of churches, and would have been read aloud, making it available even to the illiterate.13 Controversy has long shrouded the issue of whether or not an order had been issued during the reign of Elizabeth I to have a copy of A&M in every parish church. Mid-twentieth-century research debunked the belief that such an order had ever existed on the basis that no records of such legislation exist and that it would have been impossible to supply each parish church with so many copies – there were 8071 parish churches in England at that time, whereby each edition of A&M would have provided at most 1200 copies and perhaps as few as 900, as Evenden and Freeman point out. Until recently, the only known written records were from the convocation responsible for southern England ordering a copy of A&M to be installed in every cathedral church and that high church dignitaries be in possession of a copy to be made available to visitors, as well as an order by the mayor of London that all companies place a copy of Foxe’s book in their halls.14 Only recently has a copy of a letter from the Privy Council been discovered in which the author – most likely William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1521–1598) – ordered that a copy of A&M be placed “in all churches, halles or or [sic] otherwise as to your wisdomes shall seme metest”.15

If the 1563 edition appears to have been intended for an elite, educated readership, the 1570 and later editions were obviously meant for the general public, written in a more accessible style and containing fewer Latin texts.16 It is next to ← 5 | 6 → impossible to establish precise data concerning the scale of literacy in Elizabethan England, but estimates suggest that less than one-third of the male population could read, and of these, the literate were predominately from the clergy, aristocracy, and other privileged members of society.17 Of course these figures do not tell us whether those who could read actually did read or whether they read a particular book, but A&M’s prominence in Elizabethan England combined with the Protestant emphasis on the virtues of devotional reading18 make it likely that Foxe’s book was a priority for English Protestants of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, though discontinuous reading cannot be precluded, there is evidence that A&M was studied systematically from cover to cover,19 which means that The Turkes storye was, of course, also read.

The impact of Foxe’s monumental work on the early Reformation in England can be seen in its use as a reference guide for a number of prominent historians and antiquarians, including Raphael Holinshed (c. 1525–1580?), Richard Hakluyt (c. 1552–1616), Sir Walter Raleigh (1554–1618), John Speed (1551/2–1629), and Anthony Munday (bap. 1560–1633).20 The Jesuit Robert Persons (1546–1610), who attacked A&M in A Treatise of Three Conversions of England, complained about the “many hundred … deceyued by” Foxe and his book, which was “composed wholy to deceyue, and by iudgemēt of many men, hath done more hurt alone to ← 6 | 7 → simple soules in our countrey … then many other the most pestilent bookes togeather.” Moreover, the great size of the book and its availability “in very many parish Churches, and other publike places, haue byn causes of infinite spiritual hurt to many thousand soules of our countrey”.21 A Spanish official who had been held captive by Sir Francis Drake testified before the inquisition that Drake had read from A&M to his men as a spiritual exercise. As Freeman points out, this is merely one example of numerous attestations to the immense and lasting influence A&M had on Foxe’s own contemporaries and future generations.22

The Ottoman Empire and Sixteenth Century England

Having briefly discussed the content of A&M and the extent of its popularity and influence in Elizabethan England, the connection between Foxe’s ecclesiastical history and the Ottoman Empire remains to be seen. The answer can be found at least partially in the anxiety the empire had been causing in Western Europe in particular since the conquest of Constantinople a little more than a century before he began writing The Turkes storye. The Ottoman Turks seemed invincible, expanding from what had been an insignificant tribe in western Anatolia to one of the mightiest powers of its age within the space of just two centuries. Around the beginning of the fourteenth century, they rose from the ashes of the Muslim Seljuk Empire, which had installed itself in Anatolia a couple centuries earlier.23 Their power rapidly increased first on the eastern side of the Bosporus (Bursa, 1326; Nicaea, 1331; ← 7 | 8 → Nikomedeia, 1337), then on the western side (Gallipoli, 1354; Adrianopel, 1362; Sofia, 1382). At the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, Serbia was reduced to the status of a vassal state. Despite a serious setback at the hands of Timur, alias Tamerlane (1336–1405) at the Battle of Ankara in 1402, the Ottomans soon swallowed up the entire Byzantine Empire, finally capturing the capital city, Constantinople, in 1453, sending shockwaves throughout Europe. When the Ottomans attempted to take Belgrade several years later, however, they were stopped by the Hungarian leader John Hunyadi (c. 1407–1456) together with the Franciscan friar St. John Capistrano (1386–1456), who had gathered a crusading force made up almost entirely of peasants. An assault on Rhodes (1480) was unsuccessful and the conquest of Otranto (1580–81) short-lived and inconsequential, but the first half of the sixteenth century was witness to renewed Ottoman expansion. The Mamluk Empire, which included Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and the holy cities of Islam, Medina, and Mecca, was conquered in 1516–17, and soon afterwards, under Süleyman I (r. 1520–1566), Europe again was singled out for further conquests (Belgrade, 1521; Rhodes, 1522). In 1526, the Hungarian forces were annihilated at the Battle of Mohács, and Vienna itself, the seat of the Habsburg monarchs, was besieged in 1529 and was on the brink of being conquered by the Turks. In 1565, Süleyman unsuccessfully attempted to dislodge the Knights Hospitaller from their new base on the Island of Malta. He died of natural causes one year later while campaigning in Hungary.24 It was during these last two years of Süleyman’s reign that Foxe wrote The Turkes storye.

The reign of Süleyman is often seen as the apogee of Ottoman power both by his contemporaries and modern historians.25 It was during this era that England – still ← 8 | 9 → many years away from being the mighty British Empire – began to encounter the Ottomans on a far grander scale than ever before. Following the Pope’s excommunication of Elizabeth in 1570, England was no longer obliged to adhere to the papal ban on trading with the infidels, which was promulgated on a yearly basis on Maundy Thursday in the papal bulls known as In Cœna Domini. Already beginning with Paul II (r. 1464–1471) in 1470, these bulls placed an interdiction on trade of materials that could be used for military purposes by the infidels: “We excommunicate and anathematize all those who supply or convey to Saracens, Turks, and other enemies and foes of the Christian name … horses, arms, iron, ironwire, tin, steel, and every other kind of metal, and war-engines, timber, hemp, ropes”.26 To be sure, small-scale trading was already being carried out by English merchants before Elizabeth’s ultimate break with Rome,27 but it was only in the years 1580/1 that trading relations were officially established with the founding of the Turkey Company.28 Within a century, of all European countries, England would enjoy “the most extensive trade with the Muslim Empire”.29 Throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, there were probably around two hundred Englishmen living in the Ottoman Empire and at times perhaps as much as twice that many at ← 9 | 10 → any given moment.30 However, although the Turkey or Levant Company, as it was to become known, allowed the Queen’s subjects to come into close contact with the Ottomans and other Muslims on a peaceful basis, it simultaneously drastically increased the possibility of hostilities, above all with regard to northern Africa, leading to capture, enslavement, and loss of life on a scale that greatly disturbed contemporaries.31

The Ottoman Empire encountered by Foxe via contemporary literature had not yet entered into diplomatic or trading relationships with England, nor was the captivity of Englishmen at the hands of the Ottomans a major issue. Any prevailing notions of the latter would have been strongly influenced from the Continent. Moreover, nearly all “learned books” were imported from the continent at this juncture in history,32 and it was also an era when the Continent itself was obsessed with all things concerning the Ottoman Empire. The more than three thousand five hundred publications dealing directly with the Ottomans and Islam attest to this.33 Paul Levin suggests that this obsession should not be taken for granted. Europe itself was experiencing its own myriads of problems, including religious upheavals and wars, which could make the modern reader wonder why and how an outside power was able to catch and hold the attention of ← 10 | 11 → Western Europeans to such a degree.34 It was above all the “Turkish scare,” Levin affirms, that caused for such consternation. European Christendom was aware of a mighty power that was not Christian and apparently intent on gobbling up more, if not all, Christian European territories.35 Notions of the Ottomans that were uncritically replicated and codified in sixteenth-century literature were for the contemporary observer verified by current events.36

An obsession with the Ottomans was also true to a lesser degree of the more distant British Isles. In A Dialogve of Cumfort, Sir Thomas More had his young protagonist, Vincent, explain in horror: “And now sith these tidings haue come hither so brim of ye great Turks enterprise into these partes here: we can almost neither talke, nor thinke of any other thing els, then al his might, and our mischief”.37 More was using the idea of the Ottoman invasion of Hungary as a metaphor for the current political and religious circumstances in England, but this could only work if his audience was both kept up to date with regard to their latest wars and perceived them as a threat to at least parts of Europe. It is very likely that the invasion of Hungary and other wars between the Ottomans and Christians were common topics for conversation. Not only were these exciting matters to talk about, but they also concerned the struggle between Christianity and Islam and meant the survival or destruction of Christian territories. In the introduction to Paolo Giovio’s (1483–1552) Commentario de le cose de’Turchi (1531),38 the translator, Peter Ashton (d. 1548), boldly claimed that “truly as the case standeth euen now, there is no history that ought (in my iudgment) rather to be loked in & knowen” than that of the Ottomans.39 By the time Foxe published his second edition of A&M in 1570, more than fifteen publications dealing directly with Islam and the Ottomans, not to mention the many more that dealt less intensively with the same topics, had been published in England. By the end ← 11 | 12 → of the sixteenth century, this figure rose dramatically.40 John Day (1521/2–1584), the publisher of A&M, also showed a keen interest in this subject, as several tracts published before and after the 1570 edition of A&M bear witness.41

The reasons for this preoccupation with the Ottoman Empire were, of course, varied and generalizations are risky. Yet, it is not evident that the inhabitants of an island at the other end of Europe could fear a military power, whose armies did not even come near the English Channel, not to mention the absence of an Ottoman fleet in the Atlantic that could pose the threat of an invasion. Furthermore, Ottoman military strength was not always considered in negative terms. One thinks here of Elizabeth’s overtures to the Sultan at a time when she was seeking allies against the far more dangerous neighbor Spain (see Part 1). Nonetheless, if general statements concerning the degree of early modern hatred and fear of the Ottomans run the risk of overlooking more ambiguous tendencies, so too must precaution be used when affirming the other extreme of over accentuating more positive moments of the encounter between Englishmen and Ottomans. In attempting to keep clear of the pitfall of exaggerating “the sense of western ‘anxiety’ or ‘panic’ regarding Islam or the Ottoman Empire,” McJannet uses the term “pragmatic ambivalence” to describe the attitude of the English, as opposed to “ideological consistency”. Thus, according to her, the Ottoman Empire was looked upon as an enemy but also as “a model to emulate”.42 However, especially in sixteenth-century England, few, if anyone, would have agreed with this statement, even in cases where individuals expressed admiration for aspects of Ottoman policies, culture, or devotional practices. Indeed, to claim that an infidel empire was viewed as a model is quite daring under any circumstances.

The goal of this book is to analyze the work of one extremely influential personage in Elizabethan England and juxtapose his image of the Turk with those of his sources and other contemporary authors. This book will contribute to the ← 12 | 13 → ongoing discourse concerning the sixteenth-century image of the Turk in England and western Europe by means of a case study of a unique history of the Ottoman Empire. It would be an error to maintain that the image Foxe created can be viewed as paradigmatic for Elizabethan notions of the Turks. His views, though probably shared by many, were not held in their entirety by all his contemporaries, nor did they become the norm for writers who came after him. Thus, this book does not pretend to provide a precise representation of all views held during this era but an in-depth analysis of a single work that had the potential of exercising immense influence on its contemporaries and generations to come. While the majority of current research on the image of the Turk in England focuses on travel narratives and drama, the principal source chosen for this study was neither written to be played on stage, nor was it the outcome of a traveler’s own impressions and experiences gathered from first-hand encounters. Instead, it is a historical account composed within the setting of religious apologetics and biblical exegeses. Furthermore, Foxe was writing prior to the flood of literature on the Ottomans following the opening of trade negations with the Ottoman Empire. In this respect, his work is among the last of its kind before the intensification of contact between Britons and Ottomans eventually changed many conventional notions.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (March)
Ottoman Threat Church of England Papism Apocalypse Eschatology
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XVI, 447 pp., 9 b/w fig., 4 tables

Biographical notes

Christopher Toenjes (Author)

Christopher Toenjes is a teaching assistant at the Department of Early Modern History, Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg (Germany).


Title: Islam, the Turks and the Making of the English Reformation