Edward Wightman (1566-1612)

Edward Wightman


Edward Wightman was baptized on December 20, 1566 in Burbage, Leicestershire, England1,2, and died April 11, 1612 in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England1. He was the son of John Wightman and Modwen Caldwall. He married Frances Darbye September 11, 1593 in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England1. She was born 1569 in Hinckley, Leicestershire, England, and died Aft. 1612 probably in London, England.

Edward was a religious radical. He was executed for heresy against the Church of England by burning at the stake in 1612; the last person to die in this way for this reason in England by act of law. Edward's radical brand of Protestantism included a rejection of the trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ (and therefore still would be considered non-traditional to most modern Protestants and Catholics), a rejection of the creeds that serve as a foundation of both Catholicism and Protestantism, and a complete rejection of the institutionalized Church of England. While personal and economic struggles may have helped to advance Edward's radicalism, his theology can also be seen as a very radical outcome of early puritan theologies that grew out of Elizabethan era debate surrounding the historical and theological descent from the early Roman church.

According to some sources, Edward was a minister of the Six-Principle Baptist Church or celebrated as a proto-Unitarian, but these assertions have not been supported by the work of historians. Certainly his religious views included central tenants of Baptist and Unitarian traditions as they were practiced later, but Edward's theology was much more radical, even by today's standards. Furthermore, while Edward's religious development was contemporary with, but not necessarily dependent on,  the early English Baptist church, it quite obviously preceded the development of the organized American Unitarian movement, which was an 18th century creation. Both adult baptism and a rejection of the trinity were ideas that had found favor with a few Protestant dissenters, particularly on the continent, during the late 16th century. Edward's theology borrowed from these ideas, but in several important ways pushed them further than most others.

Leonard Williams Levy, in his 1995 book entitled "Blasphemy" argues that Edward was a member of the Church of England until about 1609 or 1610, at which time he experienced a revolutionary conversion to a radical and distinctive theology. However, other scholarly sources have pointed to evidence that show that Edward was active in puritanism and separatism as early as the 1590's. It does appear that he may have retained a relationship with his local parish, despite his separatist views.

The religious environment in which Edward grew up was probably unremarkable. According to documents from the 1612 era, his parents were members of the traditional Church of England, and had no reported separatist or puritan leanings. The religious environment in Burton in the 1570's was dominated by Thomas, Lord Paget, the leading local noble. Lord Paget was a papist, who sought to promote Roman Catholicism in Burton. Most locals, apparently including the Wightman family, were fairly committed to the Church of England; evangelism and puritanism did not have a major presence.

Edward was born at Burbage, Leicestershire, the son of a schoolteacher and a cloth trader (draper). He grew up, at least during his later childhood, in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire. He probably attended grammar school there, and was reasonably well-educated. Edward initially entered his mother's business, the cloth trade. In the 1580's, he was apprenticed to John Barnes, a wool cloth trader, in Shrewsbury, Salop Co., west of Staffordshire (and near the Welsh border). When Edward arrived in Shrewsbury in the 1580's for his apprenticeship, he found a thriving and growing puritan movement headed by John Tomkys. It would not be unreasonable to suppose that he began to develop his radical brand of Protestantism during his time there. In 1590, he was admitted as a master into the Shrewsbury Drapers' Company, but within a few years, he returned to Burton-on-Trent, where married Frances Darbye in 1593 (there is some confusion as to whether their marriage was on September 2 or September 11) and entered the Burton clothing business.

When Edward returned to Burton, the religious environment had changed quite dramatically from his childhood. In 1583, Lord Paget fled England after ending up on the losing side of some political plotting involving Mary, Queen of Scots. Henry Hastings emerged as the new local noble and political leader, and he was a committed Protestant. Under his leadership, a new evangelical puritanism emerged in Burton. Peter Eccleshall, the Burton curate, was indicted in 1588 for not using the Book of Common Prayer. A puritan evangelist, Philip Stubbes, lived in Burton for a time during the early 1590's. By 1596, curate Eccleshall established a new "common exercise." Thus a modest form of puritanism quickly became well-established in Burton. The clothiers and various influential business people in Burton were very much involved in the religious transformation, thus Edward's turn to puritanism was part of a town-wide trend. In 1595, Lord Hastings died, and William Paget, son of the previous noble, was reinstated in the lands of Burton. Despite Paget's establishment as Baron in 1604, he spent little time in the Burton area, and did not reverse the course of evangelical puritanism in Burton.

In February 1596, thirteen year-old Thomas Darling accused Alice Goodridge of Stapenhill, Derbyshire (the community immediately across the Trent River from Burton) of being a witch and having possessed the boy with a devil. According to the accusation leveled against Goodridge, the devil had appeared to her in the form of a little dog named "Minnie" and that she then directed the dog/devil to go and possess the boy. Darling had "Exorcist"-like experiences, including vomiting, paralysis, and hallucinations. The boy claimed that he was simultaneously divinely-inspired, and apparently presented the case in the context of a charismatic, hyper-spiritual puritanism. During his fits of possession, he would apparently be possessed by the devil one moment and then by the Holy Spirit the next. The new puritan minister in Burton, Rev. Arthur Hildersham, became interested in the case, and prayed with Darling, but was unable to exorcise the boy's demons. Another puritan minister, Rev. John Darrell, who came from nearby Ashby-de-la-Zouch (as did Hildersham), was finally able to drive off Darling's possessor. Goodridge was jailed in Derby and interrogated at Burton town hall in May 1596. Under pressure, she confessed. Many who knew of the Darling case were not convinced of the truth of the boy's possession. It soon became a symbol in the growing political struggle between the puritan and Anglican communities. The Burton puritans sought to document and prosecute the case aggressively.

The record shows that Edward took a leading roll in the Darling case. When Goodridge was interrogated in Burton, Edward was one of five men who "examined" her. He and his wife, Frances, were actively involved in documenting the boy's possession, and it appears that both were involved in the ecstatic prayers associated with the boy's ultimate exorcism. The testimonials on the truth of the boy's claim included the signatures of Edward, Rev. Eccleshall, most of the Burton clothier community, and many established and well-connected individuals. From this historical work, it would seem that two important things about Edward become clear. First, he was committed to a highly emotional and spiritual brand of puritanism by this time. Second, he was in a position of leadership, despite his relative youth, in the Burton puritan community. Thus by the close of the 16th century, Edward's religious passion was already well-developed, but he was not considered a "crackpot" by his peers.

In the wake of the Darling case, there was a significant backlash against the spiritual/charismatic puritans. Rev. Darrell, the minister who had finally succeeded in exorcising the boy, was convicted of fraud and went into hiding. The practice of group exorcisms seems to have been suppressed or died out. The cost for Edward is unclear, but it could easily have been a force that propelled him toward a more radical separatism.

A second problem now arose for Edward at this time. During the 1590's, England underwent a severe economic downturn. There was a series of very bad harvests, and many other components of the economy were badly disrupted. The cloth trade was particularly badly hit, and Edward's business pursuits failed. By 1604, but probably as early as 1600 or 1601, Edward had purchased an alehouse and was now a simple tavern keeper. In 1604, he was described as "much impoverished" and deeply in debt. Other written records point to significant economic turmoil for Edward as early as 1600. Therefore, Edward's financial life took a disastrous turn and it would be quite reasonable to imagine that he felt ruined. One gets a sense that Edward experienced a meteoric rise to prominence in Burton society during the early to mid- 1590's, followed by a precipitous loss of prestige and wealth over very few years in the late 1590's. This factor may very well have propelled him further toward religious extremism.

To make matters worse, Edward was involved in a court case over a dispute between him and his former apprentice, Samuel Royle, from November 1600 through January 1601. For whatever reason, Edward apparently failed to appear before the court in January 1601, which may have cost him a 40 pound bond. The loss of that sizeable sum might have finished Edward off in the clothing business. The justice who handled the Royle-Wightman dispute was Sir Humphrey Ferrers, and later events suggest that Edward harbored antipathy toward the noble.

However, despite Edward's legal and financial woes, it is apparent that he retained some degree of significant stature among the new puritanical elite in Burton. Records from 1604 and 1610, the latter just a short time before his 1612 execution, show that he was still closely associated with key figures in Burton's religious society. They apparently thought well of him and perhaps still looked to him for religious leadership. He was not (yet) a "raving lunatic" operating on the fringes of religious society.

The first documented evidence of Edward's descent into extremism came in early January 1607/8. Sir Humphrey Ferrers had recently died and Edward was entertaining company in his own home. The conversation turned to Ferrers' death and Edward's grudge against him from the 1600 case that may have helped precipitate Edward's ruin. Edward stated to the assembled company that he believed that the soul does not leave the body upon death, but rather stays with the body until Judgment Day, at which point it either ascends to heaven or descends to hell. While this view might not seem terribly far out of mainstream theology today, it was quite heretical at the time. Since the event was recounted later, it seems likely that at least some of his guests were aghast at the suggestion.

Edward became more vocal and obstinate about his view of the nature of the soul and death. He continued to argue the point with local clergy. Curate Henry Aberley of Burton opted to use his own pulpit to argue against such heretical ideas, but this apparently led to bitter, and perhaps public, arguments with Edward. As a result, Edward stopped attended the Burton parish church and began worshipping elsewhere.

Despite Edward's theological split with the established religious community, he was not abandoned by the religious elite. This is consistent with the behavior of other puritanical communities in response to other heresies; instead of prosecuting or excommunicating the errant individual they would try to reform his views. Chief among those who engaged Edward was Burton puritan minister Rev. Arthur Hildersham, who had probably played a major role in Edward's ascendance in the religious community a decade earlier. Hildersham, and Rev. Simon Presse of Egginton, Derbyshire, met with Edward privately and attempted to convince him to change or moderate his view. The obstinate Edward refused and Hildersham ultimately responded by preaching against Edward's heretical views from his Burton pulpit on March 15, 1608/9. Hildersham continued to correspond with Edward for a time, but eventually tired of Edward's stubbornness and cut off the debate. Edward apparently interpreted this as a victory and became all the more convinced of the righteousness of his heterodoxy.

From 1609 to 1611, the process of engaging and attempting to "correct" Edward's view continued, but Edward became increasingly radicalized and spent his energies writing manuscripts outlining his views. During this period, the prominent London puritan Anthony Wotton agreed to read one of Edward's books, although what became of the conversation is not known. Edward became even more committed and bold. He was described as never leaving his home without a number of his books in his possession and reading and preaching to anyone who would listen. He rejected the Christian creeds (Nicene, Apostles', etc.) to which many Christians still subscribe. His views developed from a rejection of issues of the nature of the soul to a rejection of the entire foundation of Christianity. In this, Edward rejected not only the Anglican view, but also the puritan view, which sought only to correct the impurities in Anglican theology. He even surpassed most of the separatists, who sought a complete split from the Church of England, but did not reject the basis of European Christianity.

The available written record suggests that Edward was a "lay leader" in the religious community. There is no evidence that he ever held a ministerial position or that he ever had any significant following. It is possible that he did have disciples, at least for a time, but when things went badly in 1611, he was generally described as a loner.

While all this was going on in Burton, huge changes in English politics were occurring. England had become a relatively tolerant nation under Elizabeth's leadership, but the religious and political situation changed when James I took the throne in 1603. Although King James was tolerant toward Catholics and helped liberalize the Church of England (indeed the famous English translation of the bible bears his name), he saw Protestant dissenters, such as Puritans, Baptists, and Quakers, as a major problem and challenge. Among James' great religious interests was support of catholic orthodoxy, which includes adherence to the major creeds. Thus Edward's views were very much opposed to the King's view.

In February 1610/11, Edward interrupted Lent worship services in Burton with loud outbursts. It took significant effort to get him to quiet down. Finally, the Burton religious community had had enough. The Burton minister involved and others from Burton presented the case against Edward at the ecclesiastical visitation of Bishop Richard Neile of Westminster within a few weeks of Edward's February 1610/11 disruptions. Neile ordered Edward's arrest in early March 1610/11. Edward was initially brought before Neile in Curborough, near Lichfield, Staffordshire. Neile promptly returned to London, bringing Edward with him.

Edward, now deluded in believing in his own righteousness and persuasiveness, decided to present King James with a treatise on his religious views (probably originally written for Anthony Wotton). This was a dubious move to say the least, since the King had recently ordered the execution of Bartholomew Legate for heresy. The manuscript itself has not been found, but it apparently consisted of "eighteen leaves" and the beginning and concluding text was recorded. Edward wrote, "A letter Written to a learned man to discover and confu[t]e the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes very mightely defended with all the learned of all sortes, and most of all hated and abhorred 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 deale with me as the men of that faccion haue done allready...'' The document concluded, ``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 lett all people say, Amen. By me Edward Wightman.'' In March of 1611, Edward presented this manuscript detailing his radical theology to King James either when the King was passing through the town of Royston, or while Edward was in London with Neile. It is unclear whether Edward presented the manuscript personally, or whether it was conveyed through an intermediary.

King James ordered that Bishop Neile jail Edward and examine his religious views for conformation to the established Anglican order. Neile's Chaplain, who assisted in prosecuting Wightman, was William Laud, the future Archbishop of the Church of England (who was later also executed). During the April 1611 proceedings, Edward became increasingly "obstinate" and "blasphemous," leading King James to order Edward's trial at the Consistory Court in Lichfield. The trial was held in November and December of 1611. The first day of the trial was held on November 19 in the Consistory of the Lichfield Cathedral Church. On the second day of the trial, November 26, the crowd was so large that the trial was moved to the larger space of the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin. On December 5, Edward himself was brought before the court for his final appearance. Throughout the trial, Edward did not attempt to "defend" himself. Instead, he would revise and clarify the court's conception of his heresies. It would appear that he still felt compelled to educate them as to the righteousness and intellectual rigor of his arguments.

On December 14, 1611, Edward was found guilty of eleven distinct heresies, including blasphemy of the trinity. In the decision the court noted that Edward rejected the trinity, the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Ghost, the Nicene Creed, infant baptism, and the importance of the Lord's Supper. He thought he was the prophet referred to in the Old Testament, the "comforter" referred to in John 16: 7-8, and the Holy Ghost. Of course, none of these claims suggested that Edward thought he was divine, since he rejected the divinity of the Holy Ghost. Edward was excommunicated and condemned to be burned at the stake on March 9, 1612 by direct order of King James.

When the execution day arrived, Friday March 20, 1611/1612, Edward was tied to a post on the square in Lichfield and the fire was lit under him. Edward immediately began babbling and screaming. Different accounts disagree as to whether he was deliberately attempting to recant or whether he was simply screaming in pain. Whatever the case, the assembled crowd believed he meant to recant and he was pulled down, despite already being badly burned. A written retraction was hastily prepared and Edward, in that moment of pain and weakness, agreed to the statement orally. Later, however, he refused to make a written retraction, and on April 11th, 1612 he was retied to the stake in Lichfield and burned to death. It is said that, "to his last breath he died blaspheming."

Very little is known about Frances' family or early life. She was certainly severely traumatized by the execution of her husband, and is believed to have relocated the family to London after Edward's death. There, the Wightman's were reportedly members of the church of Thomas Helwys, the first truly Baptist congregation in England, which was founded in 1611, although no written record substantiates this tradition. At least two of their children, John (George's ancestor) and Samuel would eventually immigrate to Rhode Island. The explicit descent from Edward, to his son John, to George Wightman of Quidnessett is recounted in Adams' "Middletown Upper Houses" of 1908 and several 19th century publications. However, as carefully noted by Mary Ross Whitman in 1939, nothing in the written record refutes or substantiates this tradition.

Children of Edward Wightman and Frances Darbye are:




1. Atherton, Ian and Como, David, "The Burning of Edward Wightman: Puritanism, Prelacy and the Politics of Heresy in Early Modern England," English Historical Review, 2005, vol. 70, pp 1215-1250..

2. Mary Ross Whitman, George Wightman of Quidnessett, RI and Descendants, (1939, Chicago: Edwards Brothers).

3. Adams, Charles Collard, Middletown Upper Houses, (1908, New York: Grafton).

4. "Legends at Rootsweb," electronic resource.

Burrage, Champlin, "The Early English Dissenters In the Light of Recent Research (1550--1641)," electronic resource.

Tringham, Nigel J., A History of the County of Staffordshire: Volume 9 Burton-upon-Trent, (2003, Victoria County History).

My account of Edward's early life and some of the background on his theology draws heavily from the excellent and thorough article by Atherton and Como.



I welcome inquiries, corrections, and additions. Please contact me by email.

2006, Bruce Wightman, all rights reserved.