On one of the stone buttresses on the outside of St Mary’s Church, Lichfield, overlooking Market Place, there is a plaque. This tells onlookers that on or near that spot on 11 April 1612, Edward Wightman, a former draper, tavern keeper and the self-proclaimed prophet of Burton-Upon-Trent, was burnt at the stake. Though gruesome, such a public and spectacular death was not uncommon for that time and Wightman’s demise would have probably gone largely unnoticed by history and unmentioned in the town, were it not for the fact that he was the last man in England to die in such a manner, by act of law, on a charge of heresy. 
Being the last to suffer this gruesome fate for his religious beliefs, Wightman, as well as gaining himself an unenviable place in the history books, has since then attracted the attention of numerous authors and commentators who have mulled over his demise in more detail. Some have seen him as an unfortunate martyr to the religious ferment of the time and a fitting symbol of radical dissent. Others, though, have been more pragmatic, dismissing him as a madman, whose head had been turned by a culture of religious fanaticism and whose outspoken views put him on a collision course with the established church.
Though he spent most of his life and met his death in Staffordshire, Edward Wightman was born at Burbage, Leicestershire, possibly at Wykin Hall, on 20 December 1566. He was the fourth of eight children born to schoolteacher John Wightman and his wife Modwen nee Caldwell of Burton-Upon-Trent, who worked as a cloth trader or draper.  The Wightmans and Caldwells were old respectable families and both of his parents were members of the established Church of England with no apparent radical or puritan interests, and Edward like their other children was baptised into their faith. After a time the family moved to his mother's home town and young Wightman grew up – at least during his later childhood – in Burton-Upon-Trent. Here he attended Burton Grammar School and was reasonably well educated. When he started work it was in his mother’s line of business, the cloth trade and in the 1580s he was apprenticed to John Barnes, a wool cloth trader in Shrewsbury.
When Edward Wightman arrived in Shrewsbury, he would have found a very different religious community to the one he had known. In Burton, the leading local peer, Lord Paget, was a Catholic who sought to promote his church locally. The overspill of this was that Burton’s religious scene was very much one of high church Protestantism. Shrewsbury, though, was then home of a thriving and growing Puritan community headed by one John Tomkys, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that the radicalisation of Edward Wightman began at this early stage in his life. If it did, the change in no way interfered with his apprenticeship and in 1590 he was admitted as a master to the Shrewsbury Draper’s Company. Shortly after this he quit Shrewsbury, returned to Burton and was soon set up in the local clothing trade. On 11 September 1593, Edward married Frances Darbye of Hinkley at St Modwen’s Church, Burton-Upon-Trent and seemed set for a quiet respectable life as a local tradesman.
However, during Edward’s absence, there had occurred something of a sea change in Burton’s religious make-up. Gone was Lord Paget, whose fingers had been badly burned in a political plot involving Mary Queen of Scots. In 1583, he fled the country, leaving a power vacuum that was quickly filled by a new local lord, Henry Hastings. Hastings was a confirmed Protestant and under his wing Protestantism and Puritanism flourished across the county. In Burton, a Puritan evangelist Philip Stubbes gained much favour with the populace, while curate Peter Eccleshall, after being indicted in 1588 for not using the Book of Common Prayer, went on to even more Puritanical practice and by 1596 had established a new ‘common exercise’. This was at best a mild form of radicalism, but in this fertile ground Edward Wightman’s change to Puritanism came to fruition. By this time Henry Hastings had died and William Paget, the son of the previous lord had regained his lands. Like his father he was a Papist, but he had little involvement with Burton and the Protestant cause there continued to grow. Edward Wightman’s status in the local movement also increased and he soon found himself involved in numerous activities and investigations on behalf of the Puritan church.
The most notable of these was the case of Thomas Darling , the 13 year old ‘Boy of Burton’ as he became known at the time, whose antics or indisposition in February 1596, led to 60 year old Alice Goodridge of Stapenhill, Derbyshire (the settlement just across the river from Burton) being accused a witch, it being claimed that she had sent a devil to possess him.
The so-called ‘evidence’ against Alice Goodridge seems shockingly flimsy if not ridiculous to modern minds, but in those superstitious times such accusations were treated with the utmost seriousness. The case against the unfortunate woman was that the devil had come to her in the form of a small dog named Minnie and for a perceived insult (Darling admitted that had accidently farted as he passed her one day) she had then sent the devil-dog to possess the boy. Thomas then exhibited numerous symptoms of his supposed possession including vomiting, hallucinations and bodily paralysis. He claimed to those who came to examine him, that he was possessed by the devil one moment and the Holy Spirit the next as if a holy struggle was taking place for his soul. As a result the local divines took an immediate interest in the case. The new Puritan minister of Burton, Reverend Arthur Hildersham was one of these and he came to pray with Darling, but failed to exorcise him. Meantime, since 15 April, poor Anne Goodridge had been imprisoned in Derby. She was brought to Burton Town Hall in May 1596, where she was interrogated by five men, one of whom was Edward Wightman. This shows that despite his relative youth, that Edward was now a well-respected public figure and a local religious authority. It seems that his peers in the investigation were like-minded puritanical fanatics and under the intense unrelenting questioning they inflicted upon her, Goodridge confessed.  Edward and his wife also helped to document the possession of Thomas Darling and appear to have joined in the feverish round of group prayers to rescue the boy’s soul. These were led by another minister Reverend John Darrell of Ashby-de-la-Zouch, whose efforts seemed finally to have freed Darling from his possession.
To the puritans the Darling case was a great success, but the town’s mainstream Anglican community were not convinced that Darling’s possession was anything more than the mania of an attention-seeking adolescent or outright fraud on the part of Reverend Darrell. They were appalled that the Puritans had pursued the matter so aggressively and as a result in the wake of the Darling case there was a severe moral backlash against them. Reverend John Darrell, who had supposedly exorcised Thomas Darling’s devil was eventually convicted of fraud over this and other matters and was forced to go into hiding. It also seems that the practice of group exorcism may have been heavily suppressed at this time and as a result died out soon after. The other local Puritans, meanwhile, including Edward and Frances Wightman, seem to have kept a very low profile.
As well as any social stigma that may have resulted from his involvement in the Darling case, Wightman’s fortunes received a further blow shortly after. In the 1590s, England suffered a serious economic downturn. There were several failed harvests and the attendant problems this caused had a knock-on effect on other trades. The clothing industry for one was badly hit and all of Wightman’s business ventures failed. Certainly in 1604 and possibly as early as 1600, Wightman had purchased a tavern and been reduced to being an inn-keeper. Also, from November 1600 to January 1601, he was embroiled in a court case over a dispute with his former apprentice Samuel Rule. For whatever reason, Wightman did not appear before the court in 1601 and this may have cost him a £40 bond. The justice who oversaw this case was Sir Humphrey Ferrers and the evidence suggests that Wightman held the nobleman responsible for his fall from grace. For if Wightman had not already been in reduced circumstances, such a hefty financial blow (over £4,000 in today’s money) would have probably finished off his already failing drapery business. In 1604, he was described as being ‘much impoverished’ and heavily in debt. To one who had risen to such dizzy social heights so quickly in the 1590s, to find himself at the opposite end of the scale a decade later must have come as a very severe shock.
Yet, though financially ruined, there is no indication that that his fall had in any way unhinged him and turned him into the lunatic many later thought him to be. Wightman also still retained a respected position in Burton’s Puritan society and for several years he still associated with many of the local religious leaders who were content to count him amongst their number. Evidence of his increasingly radical outlook, though, was now beginning to show. The first recorded instance came in early January 1607/08.  Sir Humphrey Ferrers had died recently and Wightman was entertaining guests in his home when the discussion turned to the peer’s demise. As already noted, Wightman appears to have harboured a grudge against Ferrers for his judgement in the case in 1601, and touching on the subject raised his ire. He now stated – to the apparent astonishment of the assembled guests – that contrary to what the church claimed he believed that the soul did not automatically go to heaven or hell after death, but remained with the body until Judgement Day.
Wightman became increasingly forthright in his opinion on the soul and from this point on began to argue on the matter with the local clergy, which caused some acrimony. Burton’s curate Henry Aberley for one spoke out against Wightman’s heretical stance, denouncing him from the pulpit, which led to some private and possibly some public spats between them. The upshot was that Wightman stopped attending Burton parish church and began worshipping elsewhere.
Rather than ostracising Wightman after this row, the Puritan community actually rallied together in an effort to bring this lost sheep back into the fold. The Reverend Arthur Hildersham and the Reverend Simon Presse of Eggington, Derbyshire, met with Wightman and urged him to change, or at least to tone-down his view. Edward, though, stubbornly refused to listen and like curate Aberley before him, Hildersham responded by denouncing Wightman’s heretical views from his own pulpit. Hildersham, though, did not give up entirely on his hopes of moderating Wightman’s beliefs and kept up a correspondence with him for a time; however, he gradually wearied of Edward’s bull-headedness and eventually stopped writing. Wightman took this as a victory on his part, becoming all the more convinced of the righteousness of his beliefs.
Despite the continued attempts to correct his errant thinking, from 1609 to 1611, Edward Wightman’s views grew more and more estranged from mainstream Puritan thought. Denied the public position he once had through which to promote his heterodoxy, he now poured his energy into penning numerous tracts and manuscripts outlining his new creed. He seems to have attracted the attention of at least one very prominent London Puritan, Anthony Wotton, who read one of Wightman’s books, though what he made of it is unknown. From this point on, Wightman never left his house without a few of these manuscripts in his possession and he willingly preached his doctrine to anyone who would listen. Though only at best a lay preacher, never achieving ministerial status, like most religious fanatics through sheer passion alone he probably did attract a few followers for a while. If so, they were at best fair-weather friends and quickly deserted Wightman when he got himself into serious trouble in 1611, when he is always described as acting alone.
As the 17th century dawned, the political and religious situation was indeed becoming much more dangerous for extremists like Edward Wightman. Queen Elizabeth’s reign had been notable for a certain politic religious tolerance, but this all changed when James I came to the throne in 1603. At first the new monarch seemed cast in the same forgiving mould as his predecessor, tolerating Catholicism, liberalising the Church of England, and even lending his name to the famous translation of the Bible produced in his reign. However, his patience was stretched by Protestant dissenters such as Puritans, Quakers and Baptists, whom he regarded as problems if not direct threats to the status quo. Allied to this was James’ interest in Catholic orthodoxy, which included acceptance and adherence to the major tenets of Christian faith such as the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian creeds – the traditional understanding of the gospels, the belief in Christ’s divinity, and the sanctity of the Holy Trinity of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This was in direct opposition to one such as Wightman, who had by now utterly rejected the traditional beliefs of the church, most of which he believed to be a hollow sham.
Edward Wightman’s best policy at this time would have been to moderate his beliefs, or at least to lie low and keep them private. This, though, he was unwilling or unable to do and he seemed from early 1610/1611, to go out of his way to court controversy. In February that year, he interrupted the Lent services in Burton with several loud outbursts and it took some effort to calm him down. This was the last straw for Burton’s religious authorities. A few weeks after this incident the minister whose services Wightman had disturbed and several others from the town complained to Bishop Richard Neile of Westminster during an ecclesiastical visit he made to Burton. Suitably outraged, the bishop ordered Wightman’s arrest in early 1610/1611. Wightman was first brought before Bishop Neile at Curborough near Lichfield and when Neile returned to London shortly afterwards Wightman went with him, though it seems that he was released a few weeks later and returned home to Staffordshire.
Despite the increasingly serious allegations being levelled against him, Wightman remained utterly convinced of his righteousness and it was at about this time that he made the fatal decision that would ultimately send him to the stake. He decided to present to James I a manuscript (probably originally written for Anthony Wotton) detailing his religious beliefs. The tract was 18 pages long, most of which is now lost. A surviving portion of the manuscript, though, gives us a taste of Wightman’s impassioned but laboured invective.
‘A letter Written to a learned man to discover and confute the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes very mightily defended with all the learned of all sortes, and most of all hated and aborred of God himself, because the Wholl world is drowned therein: And seeing he hath promised to answere he knewe not vnto What, and least he should allsoe deal with me as the men of that faccion haue done already…’ The passage ends, ‘And say glorie be to God alone which dwelleth in the high heavens, whose good will is such towardes men that he will now at the last, plante peace on the earth, and let all people say, Amen. By me Edward Wightman.’
Fatefully, in March 1610/1611, Wightman did deliver the manuscript to King James, either when the king passed through the town of Royston, or when Wightman was in London with Bishop Neile. Whether he personally handed it to the king or sent it by another is unknown. What is known is that Wightman was fully aware of King James’ views on religious dissent and this has led many to wonder if Wightman was quiet sane when he made such a dangerous move.
Whatever the case, after reading the tract, in early April King James ordered the church authorities to arrest Edward Wightman. The church constables in Burton immediately took the man into custody and he was once again taken before Bishop Neile to be examined as to his religious views and how severely they deviated from the accepted practices and beliefs of the established Anglican church. Neile’s chaplain, who assisted in Wightman’s interrogation, was William Laud the future Archbishop of Canterbury under Charles I, who was himself later tried and executed for treason during the Civil War.
Though he himself might have claimed otherwise, the proceedings did not go well for the accused. Wightman continued to be obstinate and blasphemous and hearing of this King James ordered that he be tried before the Consistory Court at Lichfield. Wightman was held in jail for over six months before his trial commenced. This took place in November and December 1611. The court was convened in the Consistory of Lichfield Cathedral Church on 19 November 1611 and attracted a huge crowd. On the second day of the trial, 26 November, the crowd was so large (there are estimates of 500 people) that proceedings had to be moved to the more spacious Chapel of the Blessed Virgin to accommodate everyone. On 5 December, Edward Wightman was brought before the court one last time. On this occasion as before, he did not offer a robust defence of his position, but spent his time in court simply correcting and clarifying the court’s interpretation of his beliefs. Even now he still seems to have believed that he could convince and convert people to his way of thinking through the sheer thrust of his arguments, but it was all to no avail.
On 14 December, only six days short of his 45th birthday, Edward Wightman was brought in for sentencing. The court now accused him of eleven separate heresies, including a rejection of the Holy Trinity, denying the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Ghost, the importance of the Nicene Creed, infant baptism and the Lord’s Supper (communion). Furthermore, it was stated that Wightman believed himself to be the prophet known as ‘the Comforter’, mentioned in John 16; 7-8, and the Holy Ghost. As he had already rejected the divinity of the Holy Ghost it is clear that Wightman did not claim that he himself was divine, which would have constituted another heresy. That though was beside the point, as he already had a damning list of heresies ranged against him. As a result the court excommunicated Wightman and sentenced him to be burnt to death at the stake in a public space in Lichfield on the direct order of King James I. He was then handed over to the civil authorities and sent back to jail to await his punishment.
On Friday 20 March 1611/1612, Wightman was brought out to be burned. He had remained defiant to this point, but when the fires were set and he began to feel the heat, his courage failed him. He cried out that he would recant, even though he was already ‘well scorched’, at which the crowd surged forward and quickly put out the flames. A recantation was quickly written out and Wightman professed to it before being unchained from the stake and led back to jail.
Two or three weeks later, Wightman was once again brought before the Consistory Court to officially repeat his recantation, which would have eventually assured his release. However, he had forgotten his terror of the fire and now boldly reaffirmed his commitment to his beliefs and ‘blasphemed more audaciously than before.’ On hearing the news, King James ordered that the writ for Wightman’s execution be renewed and in 11 April he was once more led out into the Market Place in Lichfield and chained to the stake. This time there would be no escape. Some thirty years later, Bishop Neile would write that Wightman had died still blaspheming, but a contemporary writer gave a grimmer and probably more realistic picture of Wightman’s execution. By this account, as the flames crept higher, Wightman again cried out that he would recant, but the Sheriff told him that he would cost him no more money and ordered more faggots to be thrown onto the fire. These quickly kindled into a huge blaze and Edward Wightman was soon burnt to ashes.
In the months following Wightman’s demise a number of other religious fanatics nearly met the same fate, but King James stayed his hand. He seems to have had a loss of faith in his attempts to crush religious dissent in this manner. No matter how many went to the stake, heresy still survived and the public execution of heretics such as Wightman, if anything advertised their cause. Eager not to have these radicals glorified as martyrs, the King came to the conclusion that it was more politic to let those accused of heresy rot away unnoticed and unheard in prison, rather than dignify them and provide a spectacle for others with the solemnity of a public execution. Neither his son Charles I, the Puritan Commonwealth, nor his grandson Charles II, saw any differently, so in 1677 an act of Parliament finally forbade the burning of heretics. Thus, by default, Edward Wightman earned his place in the history books as the last heretic burnt to death in England.
Wightman’s wife and children were silent but doubtless horrified bystanders during all this drama and they remained equally shadowy figures after the event. The ultimate fate of Edward’s wife and children is largely unknown and it is not until a generation later that we hear of the family in any more definite way. In about 1655, Edward’s son John and two of his grandsons, George and Valentine, quit the country, emigrating to Rhode Island in the North American colonies. Four hundred years down the line, George Wightman, and through him Edward the heretic, can be claimed as the direct ancestors of most of the Wightman families living today in the United States of America.
 Wightman was the last heretic, not the last person in England to be sentenced to death by being burnt at the stake, as it remained a common form of execution for criminals for another century. The last to suffer this fate was counterfeiter Catherine Murphy who was executed on 18 March 1789, though as had become common by that time, she was strangled against the stake before the fire was lit.
 Thomas Darling was a fanatical Puritan, who managed to get himself into a great deal of trouble on more than this occasion. In 1600, he would be involved in the trial of John Darrell for fraudulently claiming to have dispossessed him. In February 1603, Darling was sentenced to lose his ears for having libelled the Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, John Howson, a vehement opponent of Puritanism.
 Anne Goodridge was sentenced to a year in Derby jail. She died in prison.
 Prior to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, the New Year started on 25 March.