Edward Wightman was executed in the Market Square, Lichfield, on 11 April 1612 ... a contemporary woodcut of the last burning at the stake for heresy in England
Edward Wightman, who died in the Market Square Lichfield on 11 April 1612, was the last person in England to be burnt at the stake for heresy. The Diocese of Lichfield is marking the 400th anniversary of his death with thanksgiving that it was the last execution of its kind, and Dr Ian Atherton’s lecture a few weeks ago, ‘Edward Wightman and the religious intolerance of the Early Stuarts,’ was the first in a series of five Lenten lectures in Lichfield Cathedral this year reflecting on Church-State relations.
We know little about Edward Wightman (1566-1612), for little of his own words and none of his writings survive. What we do know paints a sorry story of religious conflict and intolerance.
A plaque on the north wall of Saint Mary’s Church recalls the events in the Market Square 400 years ago this month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
An early Puritan
The self-proclaimed prophet was born on 20 December 1566 in Wykin Hall at Burbage, near Hinckley in Leicestershire, and was baptised in the local parish church. His parents later moved to nearby Burton-upon-Trent, in Staffordshire, where they rented a house in the High Street. His father was probably master of Burton Grammar School and from 1557 he was the first headmaster of Repton Grammar School in Derbyshire.
Edward attended Burton-upon-Trent Grammar School before entering the clothiers’ business run by his mother’s family. He was apprenticed to John Barnes, a woollen draper in Shrewsbury, and in 1590 was admitted as a master of the Shrewsbury Drapers’ Company. On returning to Burton, he set up as a draper in what was then Burton’s staple industry, and he married Frances Darbye of Hinckley in Burton in September 1593.
Earlier martyrs of the Reformation era recalled on a plaque in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
By the mid-1590s, he was an important figure in Puritan circles in Burton, and played a leading role in some remarkable events in the town in 1596, when Thomas Darling, a 13-year-old schoolboy, alleged that he been possessed by a devil sent by a witch, Alice Goodridge. In his fits of possession, Darling had episodes of vomiting and paralysis, d visions of green angels and a green cat, and claimed to be both diabolically possessed and divinely inspired.
During the investigation, Wightman was one of the five men who questioned Alice Goodridge, while Wightman’s wife Frances spent a day in prayer and fasting over the boy in preparation for his deliverance.
Darling’s devil was finally exorcised, it was said, and Wightman’s involvement in the case became a turning point in his life. In 1600, he was described as a clothier, but in 1604 he was licensed as an alehouse keeper. In a report to the Bishop of London, the churchwardens of Burton explained the change, saying Wightman was “much impoverished, and deeply indebted.” He may have been a victim of a severe crisis in the 1590s when bad harvests undermined the economy in general and the cloth trade in particular. Wightman was more successful selling ale than selling cloth, and it was alleged too that he was an inveterate gambler. Soon his journey into heresy was unstoppable.
After the death of Sir Humphrey Ferrers of Tamworth Castle in 1608, Wightman was heard in his own home expressing the “damnable heresy” that “the soul of man dies with the body and does not participate in either of the joys of Heaven or the pains of Hell, until the general day of Judgment, but rests with the body until then.”
The churchwardens suggested this error opened up the floodgates to further blasphemies. Local Puritan leaders tried to convince him of the error of his ways. But he began publishing books, stopped attending his local parish church as he become more radical and more heretical. By early 1611, he was preaching deeply unorthodox ideas and had become increasingly confrontational.
Lichfield Cathedral ... the case against Edward Wightman was initiated by the Bishop of Lichfield, Richard Neile (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
During a visitation to Burton by the Bishop of Lichfield, Richard Neile, in February 1611, Wightman was presented by the vicar and churchwardens. A warrant for his arrest was quickly issued, with an order to bring him before the bishop for questioning. Wightman was brought before the bishop at the house of the Chancellor of Lichfield, Dr Zachary Babington, in Curborough, outside Lichfield.
Within days he was taken to Westminster. There, in preparation for his trial, Wightman wrote a compendium of his theology, sending copies to the clergy to garner support. Wightman condemned the baptism of infants, rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, and claimed Christ was only a man “and a mere Creature and not both God and man in one person.”
Wightman also sent a copy to James I, but the king did not take kindly to this uninvited gift, and he soon found himself a prisoner. He was brought before the High Commission four times before being discharged in mid-June.
Trial in cathedral
Lichfield Cathedral ... the trail of Edward Wightman opened in the Consistory Court (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
On 4 September, however, Neile again summoned Wightman and his trial began in the Consistory Court in Lichfield Cathedral on 19 November. On the second day of the trial, 26 November, the crowd was so big – perhaps as many as 500– that the trial was moved to the larger space in the Lady Chapel.
The south side of the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral ... the trial was moved here because the crowd was so big (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Bishop Neile’s Chaplain, who assisted in prosecuting Wightman, was William Laud, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, who was later executed in 1645.
The birthplace of Elias Ashmole in Lichfield ... his papers provide a contemporary account of the trial (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
A record of the trial survives in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, among the papers of the Lichfield-born antiquary, Elias Ashmole. Throughout the trial, it seems, Wightman made no attempt to defend himself. On 5 December, he was brought before the court for the last time, and was condemned for holding “the wicked heresies of the Ebionites, Cerinthians, Valentinians, Arrians, Macedonians, of Simon Magus, of Manes, Manichees, of Photinus, and Anabaptists, and of other heretical, execrable, and unheard opinions, by the instinct of Satan.”
The charges brought against him included 11 distinct heresies. Part of the charge was that he believed “that the baptising of infants was an abominable custom; that the doctrine was a total fabrication and that Christ was only a mere man and not the son of God; that the Lord’s Supper and Baptism were not to be celebrated; and that Christianity was not wholly professed and preached in the Church of England, but only in part.” Other charges included several equally radical and incompatible opinions.
Preparing for a 17th century pageant in the Market Square, on the very spot where Edward Wightman was burned at the stake (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
On 20 March 1612, he was brought to the Market Square in Lichfield to be burned at the stake. But as the fires were lit, his courage failed him. He quickly cried out that he would recant. By then he was “well scorched,” and the crowd ran forward to put out the flames, some of them suffering burns in the process.
A form of recantation was hastily prepared, which he read before he was unchained and brought back to gaol. He was brought before the consistory court a few weeks later to repeat his recantation. But, no longer fearing the searing flames, he refused and “blasphemed more audaciously than before.”
On hearing the news, James I quickly ordered his final execution. Bartholomew Legate went to the stake on 18 March 1612, but before that no-one had been executed for heresy in England since 1589, when Francis Kett went to the stake in Norwich.
On 11 April 1612, Wightman was led to the stake once again. This time, he was not given a second chance. A contemporary account says he “was carried again to the stake where feeling the heat of the fire again would have recanted, but for all his crying the sheriff told him he should cost him no more and commanded faggots to be set to him where roaring, he was burned to ashes.”
Victim or deranged?
Saint Mary’s Church and the Market Square in Lichfield today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
For some, Wightman symbolises the cruelty of a past age. Others have seen him as an early martyr for the English Baptists or Unitarians. But most historians dismiss him as being mentally unstable or a mad enthusiast, or deranged. Christopher Hill sees him as part of a plebeian underground of radical religious dissent, but most modern scholars dismiss him as either a spectacular curiosity or a deranged fantasist.
Looking down at the Market Square in Lichfield from the house where Samuel Johnson was born (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
However, in their recent study of Wightman, Ian Atherton of Keele University and David Como of Stanford University argue that Wightman’s story shows the Puritan movement included a large group of people with radical social, religious and political views.
Wightman was the victim of a complex series of events. His trial took place against the backdrop of the “Vorstius Affair,” involving the intense opposition of James I to an appointment in the University of Leiden of Conrad Vorstius, who was accused of atheism, Arianism and heretical opinions about the Holy Spirit.
The death of Archbishop Bancroft in 1610 led to intense infighting within the Church of England. When Neile’s predecessor in Lichfield, George Abbot, became Archbishop of Canterbury in April 1611, he began undermining a circle that included William Laud, Lancelot Andrewes, John Buckeridge and Richard Neile, whose own sacramental piety and anti-Calvinist views threatened Abbot.
Wightman’s trial posed a threat to Abbot because of his links with the Midland Puritans, of whom Wightman was a product. The eight clerics who preached in Lichfield Cathedral against Wightman on the final day of the trial included Neile’s chaplain, William Laud, who would succeed Abbot at Canterbury in 1633 – and was executed in 1645.
Changing the laws
“Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield” ... a painting by Robert Spence (1871-1964) depicts George Fox, bare-footed and ragged, denouncing the city of Lichfield in the Market Square in 1651 (Lichfield Heritage Centre)
The execution may have inspired the Quaker founder, George Fox, in 1651, when he stood barefoot in the Market Square and denounced the city: “Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield.” In the 1550s, during the reign of Queen Mary, Thomas Hayward, John Goreway and Joyce Lewis were burnt at the stake in the same square
Frances Wightman moved with her children to London, and their descendants emigrated to Rhode Island. In 1648, a new law condemned to death those who denied “the triune God, the resurrection, the last judgment, and that the Bible is the Word of God.” But the law was never enforced, and after the restoration of Charles II an act was passed in 1677 “forbidding the burning of heretics.”
A monument to Charles II outside Lichfield Cathedral … burning heretics at the stake was abolished after the restoration of the monarchy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The death penalty for heresy remained in Scotland, where the last person executed for blasphemy or heresy was Thomas Aikenhead, hanged in Edinburgh in January 1697 for denying the Trinity. Burning at the stake remained on the statute books in England until 1790 as the punishment for a woman who murdered her husband, and it was occasionally used in the 18th century.
The witchcraft and murder trial in London last month had resonances of the Thomas Darling’s case, while the story of Edward Wightman challenges us to ask who we marginalise in the Church and in society today, who we do this to them and how we punish them.
Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in April 2012 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).