Wednesday, 1 October 2014


Tonight's tale of doom and death is a little different. The victim was a Wisbech man, but he actually died in full view of the public on Ely's picturesque Cathedral Green - and there wasn't an American or Japanese tourist anywhere in sight. For this was October 1555, and the whole country was suffering the righteous anger of a woman who came to be known as Bloody Mary. And, before anyone asks, she didn't invent the rather delicious cocktail made from vodka, tomato juice, celery salt and Worcester Sauce. 

So, who was Bloody Mary? Well, we may have to have a quick history lesson. As you know, Henry VIII was not known for his success as a husband. He went through wives like most of us go through socks, except that few of his ladies lived long enough to wear out. After giving birth to a son, Jane Seymour died from postnatal complications. 

That son went on to rule as Edward VI, but he was a sickly little fellow, and died of a lung disease. He had a big sister Mary, or rather half-sister, who was the daughter of Henry VIII and Catharine of Aragon. She seized the throne, and she was an extremely ardent Roman Catholic,  so she set about restoring England 's religion to what it had been before her father started defying The Pope. This meant a fair amount of trade for firewood dealers, as her favourite penalty for heretics was to set fire to them.

And this is where we come back to Wisbech, and a rather unfortune gentleman called Robert Pygot. Pygot and another man from Upwell were arrested for not attending church, and they were sent to appear before a religious court in Ely.  The story continues in the words of a contemporary account.

Queen Mary

In court, the judge, Sir Clement Higham, asked him: “How chance ye came not to the church?”  
Pygot, who believed Jesus was always present in a believer’s heart, replied: “I am not out of church, I trust in God.”  
“This is no church,” said the Judge. “This is a hall.”
“I know very well it is a hall,” answered Pygot. “But he that is in the true faith of Jesus Christ, is never absent, but present in the Church of God.”  

On 9th October  1555, Wolsey and Pygot were brought before a Commission which included John Fuller and the Dean of Norwich, John Christopherson, who tried them both for heresy.
By now, Fuller had already dismissed Wolsey as “an obstinate fellow” but he believed that Pygot could be persuaded to recant.  So Christopherson called for a pen and paper and Pygot was asked to sign a document saying he believed the catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

When questioned about the sacrament of the altar (the Mass), the two Wisbech Martyrs, Wolsey and Pygot, made the following answer: “The sacrament of the altar is an idol and the natural body and blood of Christ are not present in the said sacrament.” He refused, and the two men were sentenced to death.  
They refused to recant their denial of the sacrament, believing this was not heresy, but the truth, and were condemned to death.

A week later, on 16 October, they were executed by burning on the Cathedral Green at Ely, the same day that Bishops Latimer and Ridley were martyred at Oxford. The sentence of condemnation was read and a sermon preached, and then they were led out to the stake. With them were burnt copies of the Bible in English, and Wolsey and Pygot seized copies of these, reciting Psalm 116, and imploring all present to say, ‘Amen’. And so, records Foxe, in his Book Of English Martys, they ‘received the fire most thankfully.’