“Well, it is so often the way, sir, too late one thinks of what one should have said. Sir Thomas More, for instance — burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism — must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, ‘I recant my Catholicism.'”
-Edmund Blackadder, Ink and Incapability
On this date in 1612, Edward Wightman became the last person burnt for heresy in England.*
The clothier’s religious dissension had macerated in Puritanism — which was bad enough — and decanted into a heady potion of “the wicked heresies of Ebion, Cerinthus, Valentinian, Arius, Macedonius, Simon Magus, Manichees, Photinus, and of the Anabaptists and other arch heretics, and moreover, of other cursed opinions belched by the instinct of Satan.” Sort of a cafeteria heretic.
All this made a delectable smorgasbord when Wightman went on spectacular public trial late in 1611. Yet even this was not so much the direct outcome of a strict anti-heretic policy as of political rearrangements of the moment: essentially the Calvinist Archbishop of Canterbury George Abbott vs. anti-Calvinists like the future Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud. Laud was involved in Wightman’s prosecution.
As these worthies maneuvered for influence, our irrepressible preacher
was batted back and forth like a shuttlecock between the spring and autumn of 1611 … In the first ten weeks of his imprisonment, Wightman was brought before the High Commission four times before being discharged uncondemned in mid-June 1611; after an initial burst of energy and concern, the court appears to have decided to take no immediate action against the accused heretic who remained imprisoned at the king’s pleasure.**
There had not been a person put to death for heresy since 1589. Elizabeth I — she who eschewed “windows into men’s souls” — rarely hunted citizens for doctrinal difference alone. (Catholicism was constructed, rightly or wrongly, as treason: a crime of the state, rather than of the conscience.)
Wightman made himself a target by publicly flaunting his strange beliefs,† and by late in 161
21 the anti-Calvinists had control of the process and a perceived opportunity to score political points by prosecuting him. The trial was a cinch, since Wightman made no bones about his dissension.
One is almost so inured to the hagiographic style of the day, martyr unflinchingly thrusting flesh into flame, that one might well forget how very unpleasant burning alive must be.
Wightman, as the heat of the pyre warmed under him on March 9, shrieked out an agonized recantation, or maybe just something of animal pain that the crowd misinterpreted. Infernus interruptus ensued and the stake was actually doused, with the singed near-executee removed to convalesce and formalize his timely abjuration.
But reprieve recovered the recusant’s recalcitrance, and he soon resumed his error, “every day more blasphemous.” So on this date, Wightman
was caried agayne to the stake where feeling the heat of the fier again would have recanted, but for all his crieinge the sheriff tould hyme he showld cosen him no more and comanded faggottes to be sett to him whear roringe he was burned to ashes.
It was not until 1677 that England abolished the death penalty for all religious offenses.
There’s an alleged family connection from Wightman’s descendants to most of the Wightmans and Whitmans in North America. That would include the 19th century U.S. missionary Marcus Whitman, who pioneered the Oregon trail, triggered a notorious Native American massacre against his homestead, and is the namesake of Walla Walla’s Whitman College.
* Not to be confused with the last-ever burnt, which wasn’t until 1789.
** Ian Atherton and David Como, “The Burning of Edward Wightman: Puritanism, Prelacy and the Politics of Heresy in Early Modern England,” English Historical Review, Dec. 2005. Recommended reading for anyone interested in really unpacking Wightman’s world and outlook.
† According to interrogators, Wightman “affirmed my selfe to be that prophet promised in the 18 of Deuteronomie. And that Elyas in the 4th of Malachie promised to be sent before the great and fearfull day of the Lord. And that comfortor in the 16th of John which should convince the world of sinne of righteousnes and of Judgment.”