Timothy Bright, John Foxe, and Apocalyptic Annotations

The Senate House Library copy of An Abridgement of the Book of Acts and Monuments of the Church (1589) and its Apocalyptic Reader.

An Abridgement of the Book of Acts and Monuments of the Church
John Foxe; abridged by Timothy Bright
London: J. Windet for T. Bright, 1589
[D.-L.L.] C4.2 [Fox].

The English Reformation prompted a renewed interest in Christian apocalyptic writing, as John King and Katharine Firth have shown. The first substantial commentary on the New Testament book of Revelation printed in English, John Bale’s Image of Both Churches (c.1545), builds upon the identification of Antichrist with the Roman Catholic papacy made by the twelfth-century theologian Joachim de Fiore. Bale lodges a Joachimist argument concerning the opening of the seven seals and blowing of the seven trumpets (Rev. 5-11), whereby each seal and trumpet corresponds to a separate epoch of ecclesiastical history. Bale believed that he resided during the sixth age, and that the impending seventh age would result in the fall of Babylon, which Bale equated with the Church of Rome. Bale’s apocalyptic ideas were influential in shaping the view of history adopted by his protégé John Foxe, whose celebrated Acts and Monuments (first published 1563, and known from the beginning as the Book of Martyrs) disseminated these ideas widely.

The Senate House Library copy of the first printed abridgement of Foxe’s book, Timothy Bright’s Abridgement of the Book of Acts and Monuments of the Church (1589), contains interesting apocalyptic commentary preserved in the form of hand-written marginal glosses. The handwriting matches the style of a late seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century secretary script, a form of cursive, and reveals a reader applying imagery from Revelation to Foxe’s account of church history. Early in the volume, beside Foxe’s discussion of the seventh-century pope Boniface III and the Byzantine Emperor Phocas, this reader has written: ‘Phocas began ye 1st Beast, wth power over all Kin: Rev. 13. this will continue in ye 2d Beast, wth ye two Horns of power, 1260 Yeares’ (Part 1, p. 75). In Revelation, the first beast emerges from the Sea and terrorizes elect Christians for forty-two months; he is followed by a second beast, who comes of the Earth. The annotator cultivates apocalyptic speculation by identifying this time span with Old Testament prophecy concerning the ‘time, times, and a half’ (Dan. 7:25) and replacing ‘day’ (Rev. 11:3) with ‘year’, such that forty-two months equals 3.5 years, and 1,260 days equals 1,260 years. His view also follows that of Bale, who had identified the early seventh-century papacy of Boniface as the advent of apostasy within the Roman church. In accounting for Byzantine-papal rivalry that spanned the sixth through eighth centuries, the annotator supplies further information on these ‘Horns of power’ by equating the Exarchate of Ravenna, a center of Byzantine power in Italy, with the horns which adorn these beasts: ‘By obtaining ye Exarchate ye pope became ye 2d Beast, having ye 2. Swords - ye 1st Beast was during ye Exarchate, wch was one of ye 10 crowned Horns of ye 1st Beast, wch was Rome divested of Power.’ (SHL, Abridgement, Part 1, p. 89).

This reader understands unwarranted papal assumption of secular power as an iconography of two swords, symbolizing (respectively) authority over church and state: concerns which are shared by other writers of the time, including the English bible translator William Tyndale and his Practyse of Prelates. The annotator corrects Bright’s citation of Foxe’s use of Joachim, who had taken the 1,260 years as describing the period between the birth of Christ and the year 1260 AD. As this reader observes, however, ‘[t]he 666. years in ye Apocalypse [Rev. 13:18] is ye Date of ye Commencement of ye 1st Beast, or ye Roman Empire, prior to ye 2d Beast or ye Pope with temporal power AD. 606. to continue 1260 yeares, or to A.D.1866----’ (SHL, Abridgement, Part 1, p. 263). In this formulation, the 666 years begin circa the reign of Julius Caesar, and the papacy of Boniface dates the beginning of Antichrist’s power that will endure until the nineteenth-century. A second gloss in this location corrects this misapplication of Joachim even more directly: ‘a mistake of ye 1260 years in ye Apocalyps.’ (SHL, Abridgement, Part 1, p. 263 and repeated on p. 264). Beside a passage concerning the conclusion of the Avignon papacy, during the fourteenth-century, this reader identifies the Babylonian exile of the Hebrews and the destruction of the Temple during the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 AD) with the resumption of papal power in Italy and the looked-for nineteenth-century conclusion of Antichrist’s power: ‘N[ote]. The Distance between ye Babylonian Captivity & Temple’s fall will equal that between ys [i.e. this] period, & Rome’s fall.’ (SHL, Abridgement, Part 1, p. 266).

The anonymous reader of this Foxe abridgement adopts and adapts an apocalyptic view of history that had been laid down and revised by Foxe, Bale, Joachim, and others. Foxe’s importance is unquestioned today, but Bale’s has been reduced by later commentators, such as Thomas Fuller, whose History of the Worthies of England (1662) calls him ‘bilious’. Joachim is unknown outside of specialist circles. Despite this neglect, books such as the Senate House copy of this Foxe abridgement provide important evidence for how their writings shaped later thought.

Mark Rankin is Associate Professor of English, James Madison University.

Blog post details

  • 14 Aug 2017