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William Wolsey of Upwell & Robert Pygot of Wisbech

Died 1555

A woodcut of the execution  of the Wisbech Martyrs
A woodcut of the execution
of the Wisbech Martyrs
Queen Mary I
Queen Mary I

Simon Kershaw tells the story of two martyrs from this region who were put to death for their defence of Protestantism during the bloody reign of Queen Mary I, a staunch catholic. William Wolsey and Robert Pygot were among nearly 300 people burnt at the stake for heresy during her short time on the throne.

The Church of England had been reformed during the reign of Edward VI along more protestant lines, but after his death at the age of 16 he was succeeded by his half-sister Mary. Her major goal was the re-establishment of Catholicism in England, a goal to which she was totally committed. Thus began one of the most painful chapters in English history.

Her first act was to repeal the Protestant legislation of her brother, hurling England into a phase of severe religious persecution. She restored the Roman Catholic faith and many who refused to reject the reformation were put to death.

One of these was William Wolsey, a Constable at Upwell, near Wisbech. He was deprived of his office when one of the Justices noticed that, although Wolsey was a regular worshipper at the parish church, he used to absent himself at the Mass.

Wolsey had obtained a smuggled New Testament in English and by reading it had become convinced that the Roman doctrine of the Mass was erroneous. In Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the author, John Foxe, records that Wolsey was told that as a layman he should not meddle in the scriptures. John Fuller, the Chancellor of the Bishop of Ely, lent him a book by Thomas Watson, Bishop of Lincoln. Wolsey took the book and read it, marking his disagreements in the text. Fuller asked him to ‘rule his tongue’ and he would see that he was let off. However, Wolsey declared that he must speak and be witness to the truth.

Robert Pygot was a painter from Wisbech who was summonsed for not attending church. He and Wolsey were sent to prison at Ely to face the commissioners who could try them for heresy.

On 9 October 1555 both Wolsey and Pygot appeared before a Commission comprising Dr Fuller, and the Dean of Norwich, John Christopherson. 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.” 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, they ‘received the fire most thankfully.’

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