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Monday, 23 January 2012

The Struggle for Religious Freedom 2. – the Unitarian Martyrs of 1612

In 1912 the British and Foreign Unitarian Association published a four page pamphlet entitled “Tercentenary of the Unitarian Martyrs” which I recently found stuck in another book from around the same period. Who where these Unitarian martyrs? Where people really burned at the stake for Unitarian views? Surely we should mark there 400th anniversary of these deaths.

Last year we celebrated the birth of Servetus, the Unitarian thinker tried and burned in Calvinist Geneva. Servetus is an important figure as the reaction to his death led to the first serious challenge to the belief that the State should combat religious “heresy” by judicial murder.

Sadly, this ideal took some time to spread. In 1612 we find the last burnings for heresy in England, of Bartholomew Legate at Smithfield, London on 18 March and Edward Wightman at Lichfield on 11 April. Both suffered for denying the Trinitarian doctrine in an appalling repetition of the days of religious conflict in the previous century with the Protestant-Roman Catholic wars.

Bartholomew Legate, according to Fuller’s Church History of Britain, appears to have been a man of fine personal appearance, of high character, scholarly attainments and a very conversant with the Bible. He was a native of Essex, aged about forty. Fuller states in a vile phrase:

“His conversation, for aught I can learn to the contrary, very unblameable; and the poison of heretical doctrine is never more dangerous than when served up in clean cups and washed dishes”

Legate openly expressed his Unitarian views opposing the Athanasian and Nicene creeds. He was cast into Newgate Prison but later released. He resumed preaching and was summoned to appear before the Ecclesiastical Court presided over by the Bishop of London. Convicted of heresy he was handed over to the secular judges.

King James (I of England and VI of Scotland) apparently had many interviews with him to persuade him to recant but failed. On one occasion he ended up kicking Legate when he learned that he did not pray to Jesus Christ. On 18 March 1612 he was fastened to the stake at Smithfield and burned to death surrounded by a huge number of spectators. He was the last that died at Smithfield for religious truth. These events are described in a fictional account of Legate’s life by the author Florence Cregg in 1886 which is in the General Assembly’s online document library.
Edward Wightman died less than a month later in Lichfield in the Midlands. He appears to have been “a visionary person whose eccentric opinions would be best met by patience and friendly counsel”. He unfortunately petitioned King James who remitted his case to Bishop Neile of Lichfield. He was tried and condemned and taken to the stake twice; he recanted on the first occasion, then refused to do so in Court and was burned on 11 April 1612. on Easter Saturday.

Fuller interestingly concludes that public execution had the effect of increasing public sympathy for those burned amongst the common people and that King James decided that “heretics thereafter, though condemned, should silently and privately waste away in the prison”. Many years later in September 1662 we find John Biddle, the founder of Unitarian worship in London, dying in prison after suffering six terms of imprisonment. (see the forthcoming “The Struggle For Religious Freedom 3. blog entry)

Ironically then, these deaths had the effect of rendering public execution for religious belief unpalatable in England. The were the last burnings for heresy in England.

This article is based on “Tercentenary of the Unitarian Martyrs” (B&FUA 1912) and  Robert Spears (ed) “Record of Unitarian Worthies” (1870)





  1. It is very sad that this happened, and I think it is really important to remember them.

    People also tend to forget Katharine Weigel, burned in Krakow for expressing Unitarian views.

  2. I think you mean Rev Robert Spears not Edward Spears