Shannon - Rites of Personage in Foxe's Book of Martyrs
Shakespeare Studies, 2000

"His Apparel Was Done Upon Him": Rites of Personage in Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

Laurie Shannon

KING LEAR NOTORIOUSLY MAKES the case that to be naked, unadorned, or "unaccommodated" is, literally, to not-be; like the unreal number zero, such a person is "an O without a figure."(1) Though this logic arguably covers anybody, Lear's own case in the matter of investiture is special: as king he is "invested" with an "office" or "dignity," the period's idiom for what we might call an official capacity. This essay will consider the material relations (cloth rites as well as social interactions) involved in adorning a person into--or out of--being.(2) In particular, it will assess early modern formulations of what we still term "public figures."(3) The "public person" (often the sense of the term "the great") maintains a juridical status apart from private persons. So instead of primarily viewing a public/private split as occurring "within" a single self, early modern English culture seems largely to understand it as separating categorically different forms of personage. Aemilia Lanyer, for example, construed "the great" as those who "are placed in ... Orbes of State," apart from others who might wish to be near them; Francis Bacon devoted an essay entitled "Of Great Place" to this status or class.(4)

Public personage enjoys, of course, a special relation to clothing and costuming. In Twelfth Night, when Malvolio believes in his own sudden, apparent access to "greatness" ("some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em"), he determines both to adopt the fashions of going yellow-stockinged and cross-gartered and to spout "arguments of state" and "read politic authors" (3.1. 138, 148). Greatness, like clothes, is "put on" in Malvolio's account. Ceremonies of investiture often establish an individual with the marks of "place." But it is not simply a matter of wearing "the robes of office"--we also see a fascination with the social interactions that transfer the robes and with their status as borrowed attire. Shakespearean examples abound and emphasize office-holding as the temporary possession of a loaned garment. Lear himself compounds his divestiture of royal estate with "Off, off, you lendings / Come, unbutton here" (3.4.103); the Duke in Measure for Measure, deputing powers to his substitute, has "lent him our terror [severity], dressed him with our love [mercy]" (1.1.19). Against our quotidian sense of dressing oneself, in one's own clothes, what does it mean to be formally dressed in or stripped of borrowed clothes--by someone else?

Instead of reviewing an instance of political divestiture, I propose to assess an episode in John Foxe's Book of Martyrs: the degrading of Nicolas Ridley and the executions of Ridley and Hugh Latimer on the same day in 1555 under the Marian prosecution of Protestants. Foxe's narration of these cases provides special interest for three reasons. Ridley's divestiture(5) reflects the originally ecclesiastical jurisprudence underlying "the king's two bodies" theory of the relation between a mortal person and perpetual office, a decretal known as Quoniam abbas.(6) But unlike this relatively esoteric legal rule, the incident was public and theatrical; its dissemination in Foxe's martyrology further established the story in, at once, both popular and national culture.(7) Perhaps most interestingly, though, we see the ceremony of divestiture juxtaposed with other strategies and semiotics of dress. Specifically, Foxe's text stages a powerful, though ultimately incomplete, contestation of the power of clothes either to confer or cancel personage. Against a doctrine of institutional and legal office materially effected by rites of dress, Foxe sets a Protestant semiotic of (only virtual) nakedness as a competing theory of the relation of clothes to persons. But either way, personage is specified through events that are physically interactive and that depend on cloth transactions. Foxe's prose, like George Cavendish's Life of Wolsey or Edward Hall's History of the Noble Houses of Lancaster and York, records an inventorying fabric sense that immediately notifies the modern reader of the poverty of his or her vocabularies for cloth.

What we might call a Protestant semiotic of dress emerges straightforwardly, and it derives from a familiar distinction between mere material (decorated, deceptive) externalities and an interior, "naked" or plain truth. In Foxe's account of Latimer's conversion, he describes how Latimer "forsook the School doctors and other such fopperies and became an earnest student of true divinity."(8) "Fopperies" is a key switching point; it casts orthodox doctrine as a grossly overlaid, worldly fashion; a disguising of "God's Word' in a showy, misleading, and affected costume. Against "fopperies," Foxe immediately sets Latimer's "Sermon on the Cards," which he describes as having "overthr[own] all external ceremonies not tending to the necessary furtherance of God's word" (294). The logic here suggests that embodiment and materiality, as such, threaten "the Word," which presides over the passage as an immaterial standard in danger of being falsely covered.

Ridley's degrading from "the dignity of priesthood"(9) extends Latimer's logic, and Foxe's account stresses Ridley's critique of externalities and costume: "they put upon Ridley the surplice with all the trinkets appertaining to the mass. As they were putting on the same, Ridley did vehemently inveigh against the Romish bishop [the Pope] and all that foolish apparel, calling him Antichrist and the apparel foolish and abominable--yea, too fond for Vice in a play" (306). The reference to theater and the illusions of drama, of course, provides a foretaste of the antitheatricality that would develop later in the century. Here, though, the emphasis upon folly and abomination highlights a vision of a truth endangered by potential investments in materiality.

Foxe's narrative nevertheless deploys its own impeccable and spectacular sense of fabric. Both Latimer and Ridley enter perfectly attired for the roles they will perform in the mid-century theater of Protestantism. Brought before the Bishop of Lincoln to be examined "upon certain assertions," Latimer appears in what we can only consider the costume of Humilitas, a counterpart to the appareled "Vice in a play": "Latimer bowed his knee down to the ground, holding his hat in his hand, having a kerchief on his head and upon it a nightcap or two, and a great cap with two broad flaps to button under the chin, wearing a threadbare Bristow frieze gown girded with a penny leather girdle, at which hanged by a long string of leather his Testament, and his spectacles without case depending about his neck upon his breast" (302). Here we recognize Latimer's characteristic "displaying modesty." Foxe's detailing of the poverty of Latimer's attire ("threadbare," "frieze," "penny leather," "without case") invokes a powerful and loamy iconography. Shakespeare later will compress this linkage of moral fiber and homespun cloth in Love's Labour's Lost as "russet yeas and honest kersey noes" (5.2.414). Foxe's outfitting of Latimer here prepares a weighty theatrics of plainness for ensuing events, as we will see.

Meanwhile, Foxe recounts the rite of degradation, Ridley having been adjudged "to be degraduated from all ecclesiastical order" (306). What is most striking about the episode is the severe detachment of dressing and undressing from any trace of individual volition--almost all agency in this matter is given to those with custody of Ridley. In fact, we have already been presented with a life of Ridley in which his daily habits included a session of prayer "every morning, as soon as his apparel was done upon him" (292). Just as ecclesiastical garments are being "put upon" Ridley here, we see in the passive grammar that dressing was sometimes an event expressing social relations of one kind or another, even on a "normal" day. But in the appropriations of Ridley's body to strip him of his office and of both men's bodies in "secular" executions, this deindividuated practice of the relation of clothes to persons takes on spectacular effects; these are effects Foxe is concerned to critique in the name of a conscience that is "inviolable."(10)

During Ridley's degradation, the officiators first "put upon" Ridley "the trinkets of the mass" or "mass gear" and then they sequentially remove it again (306-7). As they manipulate his body, Ridley launches a fierce disputation of the very terms by which the divestiture proceeds, inveighing "vehemently ... against ... all that foolish apparel" (306). They hold Ridley's hands onto the chalice and wafer when he promises to drop them. When lastly they remove the surplice from his back, Foxe offers Ridley's last, deeply rhetorical question: "What power be you of, that you can take from a man that which he never had?" (306). This profound contestation of the social and institutional effectiveness of investiture in the first instance, while others are dressing and undressing Ridley, makes formidable Protestant theater--even as it casts church orthodoxies as mere (if violent) puppeteering.

The final passages conjoin both official and Protestant costumings with the extraordinary high-impact physicality of being publicly undressed, by others. The costumes of execution are tailored to the character and station of the two men. Ridley wore "a fair black gown, furred and faced with foins, such as he was wont to wear being bishop, and a tippet of velvet furred likewise about his neck, a velvet nightcap upon his head and a corner cap upon the same, going in a pair of slippers to the stake" (308). Latimer's attire, though, not only typifies his spiritual self-presentation in life--it also triggers the precise affective response in the audience that was traditionally attributed to rhetorical effectiveness: "After [Ridley] came Latimer in a poor Bristow frieze frock all worn, with his buttoned cap and kerchief on his head, all ready to the fire, a new long shroud hanging over his hose down to the feet; which at first sight stirred men's hearts to rue upon them" (308). Stirred by rhetoric, stirred by cloth: the detail implies Latimer's subsequent words to Ridley that together they will light a candle for Protestantism in England. Commanded to prepare themselves (undress), "they with all meekness obeyed" (309). Ridley removes his gown and tippet and gives them to his brother-in-law; "some other apparel that was little worth he gave away; other the bailiffs took ... some plucked the points off his hose; happy was he that could get any rag from him" (310). The ritual dissolution of Ridley's person is enacted socially in these commanded and coerced deliveries of his attire to bystanders of every kind. Deliberating whether he should die in his truss, his brother-in-law concluded it would only increase the pain when it might instead do a poor man some good; Ridley then "unlaced himself" and went "in his shirt" to the stake.

Latimer's disrobings are only more explosive. After Ridley's obedient self-stripping, "Latimer gave nothing, but very quietly suffered his keeper to pull off his hose and other array, which was very simple" (310). In Latimer's case, such an undressing effects a transfiguration, one driven by a reversed semiotic of weakness and strength: "Being stripped into his shroud, he seemed as comely a person to them that were present as one should li[ke]ly see; whereas in his clothes he appeared a withered and crooked, silly old man, he now stood bolt upright, as comely a father as one might behold" (310). Ridley, "being" "in his shirt," Latimer "stripped" "into his shroud"--the ambivalent grammars reflect both a state of undress and the purest forms of covering. The martyrs are alive and transfigured in the naked costumes of sleep and death. Foxe's text partly contests the institutional arrangements and orthodoxies behind the power of clothes to "make (or unmake) the man." But he is also a citizen of the cloth economy, the "worn world," Peter Stallybrass has described: the details of dress cannot be overlooked, cannot even be resisted; they are materially relevant to transactions in personage.


(1.) William Shakespeare, King Lear, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (New York: Viking Press, 1969), 3.4. 101; 1.4.183-84. All subsequent Shakespeare references are to this edition.

(2.) For a detailed analysis of this process, especially in its relation to the theater and theatricality, see Peter Stallybrass, "Worn worlds: clothes and identity on the Renaissance stage," in Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, eds. Margreta de Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 289-320.

(3.) U.S. Constitutional case law reflects this tradition of a differentiated nomenclature. See New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) and its subsequent elucidation in Curtis Publishing v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967) and Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1973). These cases establish the responsibilities of the press regarding defamation of, respectively, "public officials," "public figures," and "private persons."

(4.) Aemilia Lanyer, "A Description of Cooke-ham," in The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer, ed. Susanne Woods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), lines 105-12; Francis Bacon, "Of Great Place," in Francis Bacon: A Compilation of the Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 359-61.

(5.) No record of Latimer's degradation survives.

(6.) This reasoning underlies the "legal fiction" of corporate perpetuity: predecessor and successor are accorded identity, as "one person," since "a delegation made to the Dignity without expressing a proper name passes on to the successor"; quoted and discussed at length in Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 385-96.

(7.) For a discussion of this phenomenon, see Jesse Lander, "Foxe's Books of Martyrs: printing and popularizing the Acts and Monuments," in Religion and Culture in Renaissance England, eds. Claire McEachern and Debora Shuger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 69-92.

(8.) John Foxe, Foxe's Book of Martyrs, ed. G. A. Williamson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1965), 294. Subsequent references are to this edition and will appear in the text.

(9.) Ridley was degraded from the priesthood only; for somewhat hazy reasons, his prosecutors refused to recognize his episcopal orders. For an assessment, see David Loades, The Oxford Martyrs (Bangor, Wales: Headstart History, 1992), 215-16.

(10.) For a persuasive account of the production, rather than the dissolution, of Protestant selfhood in the flames of the Marian persecution, see Janel M. Mueller, "Pain, persecution, and the construction of selfhood in Foxe's Acts and Monuments," in McEachern and Shuger, eds., Religion and Culture in Renaissance England, 161-87.

LAURIE SHANNON is Assistant Professor of English at Duke University. She is currently completing a book entitled Sovereign Amity: Figures of Friendship in Shakespearean Contexts.