Henry VIII executed both Protestants and Catholics who challenged his Reformation. This included prominent figures such as his Chancellor Thomas More and the radical scholar William Tyndale, as well as ordinary men and women who spoke out about their beliefs. However, the greatest religious persecution in England was under Henry’s Catholic daughter, Mary, who burned nearly 300 Protestants during her five-year reign. After Elizabeth came to the throne, John Foxe published Actes and Monuments of these latter and perilous dayes touching matters of the Church to memorialise those who had lost their lives in the troubled times. It became more commonly known as the Book of Martyrs.
The Book of Martyrs went through five editions during Elizabeth’s reign and another four in the 17th century. The church authorities ordered that copies be provided in cathedral and parish churches ensuring that it reached a wide audience even for such a large and expensive book. It was influential in shaping a peculiarly English Protestant identity in opposition to the foreign (mostly Catholic) ‘other’, and gained a status equivalent to the Authorised English Bible, first published in 1611. You can find a full online edition, along with commentaries and essays at https://www.johnfoxe.org/.
The Library holds a number of copies of 16th- and 17th-century editions of the Book of Martyrs. This was a key item to be included in our Reformation exhibition. Although it was not published until after the period which is the main focus of the exhibition (1517-1547), Foxe was able to make use of eyewitness accounts – even if not entirely reliable. However, most of our copies showed signs of being well used by successive generations of readers and many were not in a state to be displayed. The copy we have chosen has an intriguing history – some of which has been uncovered but much of it is still a mystery.
The most striking feature of this copy will not be visible for the exhibition. The binding is red velvet with silver mounts and clasps along with a portrait in silver on each cover. On the front is William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury executed on the orders of parliament in 1645. On the back is John Davenant, who was Bishop of Salisbury from 1621 to 1641. However, all is not as it seems – despite the claim made by London bookseller F S Ellis in a letter to Samuel Rigby who bought the book in 1864 that ‘the silver mountings are the finest I have ever seen upon any old English book’. Not so, according to experts at the V&A: the silver work must date from the 19th century and definitely not the 17th century. One clue is on the portrait of Laud which is dated 1628 – five years before he became Archbishop of Canterbury. So, an attempt by unscrupulous booksellers to deceive? It wouldn’t be the first time we have discovered such activities, though we don’t believe it was done by Ellis so was he duped too?
Once you get beyond the binding there is more to discover, which might shed some light on how or where the silver work was done, perhaps … On one blank page in the middle of the book is a list of births and deaths, much as you might find in a family Bible. These are the children of Isaac and Mary Cosins – sadly, only two make it into adulthood, Isaac (born 1746) and Nathanael (born 1754). Their father Isaac was a silversmith in Sheffield and many of his wife Mary’s family (Barlow) were cutlers. It would have been nice to imagine Isaac owning this book with its silver decoration but it seems much more likely that the work was done later and perhaps by one of his relatives who might have inherited the book? There is no further evidence of its ownership until Samuel Rigby buys it from F S Ellis in 1864.
Samuel Rigby lived at Bruche Hall, near Warrington. He was a partner in the cotton manufacturer Armitage & Rigby. After his death in 1890 the book was then owned by Jesse Haworth, another cotton magnate, better known to us for his support of the Manchester Museum. He donated it to the Library in 1913. A note by Haworth inserted in the volume points to another intriguing event in the book’s history. It says ‘the register of the Cosins family is betwixt the first & second vols of Fox’s “Book of Martyrs”. The late Alderman King, Father of the Manchester City Council, was descended from the Cosins family’. And indeed, after much digging on a well-known genealogical site we can confirm it. Nathanael Cosins, son of Mary and Isaac, died in 1837 with no surviving children. In his will he generously names three of his wife’s maternal cousin’s children (King), along with one of his own paternal cousins (Cosins) and two of his maternal cousins (Barlow) and their children (Scantlebury). John King, cotton manufacturer, alderman and so-called ‘Father’ of the Manchester City Council was the son of one of those cousins. A remarkable coincidence!
This intriguing volume, and other important items, will be on display in our autumn exhibition: The Reformation which opens in September. Over the next few months, we will be telling more stories of some of these fascinating items on this blog.
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