Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wightman, Edward

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WIGHTMAN, EDWARD (d. 1612), fanatic, was the last person burned for heresy in England. He is said to have been of the same family as William Wightman, who purchased in 1544 the manor of Wykin, parish of Hinckley, Leicestershire (Burton, Description of Leicestershire, 1777, p. 287). In the warrant and writ for his execution he is described as ‘of the parish of Burton-upon-Trent,’ Staffordshire. In this and neighbouring parishes were held periodic meetings of puritan divines for lectures and conferences [see Bradshaw, William, 1571–1618]. Wightman presented himself on these occasions and ventilated anabaptist views; the puritans were for treating him tenderly, hoping to reduce his errors by argument. Wightman, however, rushed on destruction by presenting a petition to James I at Royston, apparently in March 1611. Finding that he was from the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield, James sent him to Westminster to Richard Neile [q. v.], then bishop of that see, ‘with command to commit him to the Gatehouse, and to take examinations of his several opinions under his own hand.’ Neile was one of the judges of Bartholomew Legate [q. v.], the last heretic burned in Smithfield. From the beginning of April to the middle of October, Neile, William Laud [q. v.], then his chaplain, and ‘other learned divines,’ held conferences with Wightman, who ‘became every day more and more obstinate in his blasphemous heresies.’ James then ordered Wightman's removal to Lichfield for trial. After ‘divers days' conference, but to no purpose,’ at Lichfield, Wightman was tried in the consistory court; the trial occupied ‘sundry days.’ Sentence was at length publicly pronounced in the cathedral (14 Dec.) by Neile, who ‘began the business with a sermon and confutation of his blasphemies against the Trinity’ (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1639–40, pp. 83–5). These details are found in an apologetic statement by Neile himself, furnished twenty-seven years after the execution. Neile lays stress on his antitrinitarianism, but the list of his opinions, as detailed in the commission, shows that in addition to holding anabaptist views he claimed to be himself the promised paraclete, and the person predicted in messianic prophecies. Theophilus Lindsey [q. v.] disputes the account of his ‘ten heresies,’ partly on the ground of their inconsistency (Apology, 1774, ii. 53; Historical View, 1783, p. 292), but the case is not without parallel. The nature of his personal claims shows that religious fanaticism had turned his head.

No date appears on the printed copies of the commission and warrant for his execution, but the date of the commission was 9 March 1611–12 (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1611–18, p. 123). Neile says that on the arrival of the writ directed to the sheriff of Lichfield, also dated 9 March 1611–12 (Cobbett), Wightman was brought to the stake. The fire ‘scorched him a little,’ and ‘he cried out that he would recant.’ Thereupon the crowd rescued him, themselves getting ‘scorched to save him.’ A form of recantation was presented to him ‘which he there read and professed, before he was unchained from the stake.’ He was remitted to prison, and ‘after a fortnight or three weeks’ was again brought before the consistory court to recant ‘in a legal way.’ This he declined to do, but ‘blasphemed more audaciously than before.’ The writ was renewed, ‘sent down and executed, and he died blaspheming’ (Calendar, ut supra, 1639–40, pp. 83–5). Fuller says he was burned ‘in the next month’ after the execution (18 March 1612) of Legate. Wallace supposes the date to have been 11 April 1612; this was the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter day. Neile affirms that Laud ‘was with me and assisted me in all the proceedings … from the beginning to the end.’

[The Narrative History of King James, 1651, pt. iv., gives the commission and warrant (reprinted in Greenshield's Brief Hist. of the Revival of the Arian Heresie, 1711); Fuller's Church History, 1655, bk. x. sect. 4 (reprinted, with the warrants, in Cobbett's State Trials, 1809, ii. 727); Wallace's Antitrinitarian Biogr. 1850, ii. 534, iii. 565 (with reprints of the warrants).]

A. G.