“To play the man”: Characterising the Protestant Martyr in John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments

Then brought they a fagot kindled with fire, and laid the
same down at Doctor Ridley’s feet. To whom Master
Latimer spoke in this manner: “Be of good comfort
master Ridley, and play the man: we shall this day light
such a candle by God’s grace in England, as (I trust) shall
never be put out.”

John Foxe, Acts and Monuments (London, 1583), p. 1794

The story of English Reformation history is rarely told without reference to John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (more often called Foxe’s Book of Martyrs). Although researchers have made great strides in distancing themselves from Foxe’s biases and presentation of Tudor history the execution of Protestants under Queen Mary continues to evoke popular attention. Comparison, for example, of the description that Foxe gave for the execution of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley to the opening scenes of the 1998 film, Elizabeth, aptly demonstrates a connection to Foxe’s story.

Although Michael Hirst (writer) and Skekhar Kapur (director) refrain from inserting into Latimer’s mouth, Foxe’s famous refrain to ‘play the man’, the scene invokes the slow burn of the fire that elitists a call ‘I burn too slowly’, or in Foxe’s terms ‘I cannot burne’ (1583, p. 1794). That the burning of Latimer and Ridley should become an archetype of sorts for Marian martyrdom is no surprise. They were amongst the best-known of the Edwardian Protestants who chose to remain in England when Queen Mary came to the throne.

There is, however, more to the story than this. When Latimer tells Ridley to ‘play the man’, Foxe expects his well-educated readers to recognise the reference. He expects a comparison to be made between the archetypes of Marian martyrdom and an archetype of ancient Roman martyrdom. To the modern reader, this is, perhaps, little more than an interesting oddity. To the readers of Foxe, however, it is an indication that the evocative tales of burning Protestants had more meaning than a contemporary memorial. They were a link in a chain. A number in a sequence. They were both individual witnesses to the true faith and a member of a community that displayed the same characteristics and enacted similar troupes across time and space.

Woodcut depicting the burning of Ridley and Latimer from John Foxe, Acts and Monuments
Image: Woodcut depicting the burning of Ridley and Latimer from John Foxe, Acts and Monuments (1570), p. 1977. (TAMO)

Turn the pages of the 1583 edition of Acts and Monuments from the tales of Marian burnings. Pass through those sections focused on Henrician martyrs such as Anne Askew and Henry’s passing of the anti-Protestant Act of Six Articles. Pass further back to stories revealing the Pope as Antichrist and King John, not as a tyrant but as a proto-protestant defender of the true church. Pass beyond the stories of Norman Conquest and Anglo-Saxon kingship. Turn back to the near-beginning of Foxe’s massive volume and you will find there a series of stories that summarise the first 300 years of Christianity and envisage it as an era of ten major persecutions. Nestled within that account is the story of Polycarp and the words ‘be of good cheer Polycarp and play the man’. 

Foxe has not created these words for Polycarp out of no-where. It is a direct translation from the fourth-century ecclesiastical history written by Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339). Latimer’s words, then, are a copy and a play on Polycarp connecting the sixteenth-century martyr to a second-century martyr through a fourth-century source. The comparison was an obvious one. Both Latimer and Polycarp were bishops and then martyrs. They were both old men. Eusebius tells us that Polycarp was over 80 years old. Latimer was well into his 70s. Their method of defence also contained parallels; both men argued that they had lived a long life and never once crossed the line into sedition and treason. In both cases, the establishment disagreed.

Does this indicate that Latimer never said those words on the pyre or does it suggest that Latimer, himself, copied Polycarp? Is this a literary invention or well-planned rhetoric by a man who knew he was going to die in front of a crowd? Scholars generally agree that Foxe went to strenuous efforts to get to the truth of eye-witness accounts of the Marian burnings. The stories were framed as hagiography. They depicted recurring themes of martyrdom. Yet, they were based on written and oral testimony. The style was literary. The content based on evidence. Foxe did not want his memorials revealed as fraudulent.

Nonetheless, there is a reason to believe it a literary invention. Foxe gets his material for Latimer and Ridley from two eye-witnesses. The first, George Shipside was a former servant of Ridley. He claimed that Latimer had said ‘Be of good heart brother, for God will assure the fury of the flame, or else straight us to abide it’. Shipside more-or-less claimed Polycarp’s words for Latimer. The second witness, Augustine Bernher, had been Latimer’s assistant. He claimed different words had been said, but he did also provide Foxe with testimony for another martyr, Robert Glover. We are told that Glover fell to despair once his execution had been set. Bernher claims to have comforted him:

Seeing his cause was just and true…exhorted him
constantly to stick to the same, and play the man,
nothing misdoubting but the Lord in his good time would
visit him, and satisfy his desire with plenty of consolation

(A&M, 1583, 1737).

Whilst we cannot say for certain that Latimer never spoke the words of Polycarp, the evidence from Shipside and Bernher would suggest literary invention, sparked, perhaps by something that Latimer did say or, at least, something that they thought he should have said. In the end, it is unimportant. What these words did was connect the classical martyr Polycarp to Latimer and, by association, to Glover. Examples such as this, demonstrate that Foxe’s Book of Martyrs must be treated cautiously. It is one part historical record, but another part a literary creation and a religious statement. Foxe’s book tells us more about the creation and curation of popular cultural knowledge by the Elizabethan printing press than it does about actual history.

Dr Matt Phillpott is a member of the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London. The Reformation, on which he has published widely, is among his research interests, and one of his former activities was as a researcher for the digital John Foxe Project.

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