Looking back: Burned for a banned Bible

PUBLISHED: 13:00 26 January 2006 | UPDATED: 11:28 04 May 2010

BIBLE BURNING: An early engraving of the gruesome execution at Ely, by slow burning,  of William Wolsey and Robert Pygot, street preachers from Wisbech.

BIBLE BURNING: An early engraving of the gruesome execution at Ely, by slow burning, of William Wolsey and Robert Pygot, street preachers from Wisbech.

LAST week I talked about how the traveller Celia Fiennes found that Ely Cathedral was verging on the use of Catholic idolatry by having large candlesticks and other decorations on obvious display. This reference was not a throw-away comment, as the people

LAST week I talked about how the traveller Celia Fiennes found that Ely Cathedral was verging on the use of Catholic idolatry by having large candlesticks and other decorations on obvious display. This reference was not a throw-away comment, as the people living at the time were well aware. The juxtaposition between the two branches of Christianity caused much consternation and had done so from the time of the Reformation itself.

At the heart of the split was the difference in thinking about what happened to the bread and wine at Holy Communion. In essence Catholics believed that the bread and wine changed to the very body and blood of Christ, known as transubstantiation. Protestants saw the bread and wine being representative.

There were other doctrinal differences such as whether one could either pray directly to God or needed to call on the Saints to act as intermediaries.

These issues had a real impact on people's lives for many centuries. The Puritan rule of Oliver Crom-well had strict control over the form of worship.

And if we go back further than Cromwell and Fiennes and look at the impact of Henry VIII's break with Rome and the Dissolution of the Monasteries we find a story of two martyrs who were burnt at the stake outside Ely Cathedral.

Essentially Henry VIII wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Annoyed by the lengthy Papal process Henry had secretly married Anne Boleyn in 1533, Thomas Cranmer declared in an ecclesiastical court that Catherine and Henry's marriage was null and void and Henry was promptly excommunicated by the Pope in 1534, Henry declared himself as the Head of the Church of England.

In 1536, the Dissolution of the Monasteries began and by 1540 all the religious houses had surrendered. In Ely, the cathedral abbot had been Thomas Wells, after the dissolution he took back his family name and was known as Thomas Steward and became the first Dean of Ely.

Throughout his reign Henry had been passionately opposed to William Tyndale's Bible, an English translation. Anyone found with a copy faced death at the stake. Tyndale himself was eventually to suffer this fate in 1536, when he was declared a heretic and executed in Brussels.

Eventually, under Henry VIII, the rule for owning the Tyndale Bible was relaxed, but in 1554 his Catholic daughter Mary, often referred to in school text books as Bloody Mary, came to the throne.

William Wolsey and Robert Pygot were two street preachers from Wisbech and caught in possession of a Tyndale Bible, now once again forbidden. Despite being imprisoned at Ely and lectured and threatened to change their ways and become true Catholics, they refused.

The Dean of Ely and Bishop of Norwich played a hand in this prosecution. On October 9, Wolsey and Pygot were led to their place of execution outside the cathedral, condemned to slow burning at the stake. This particularly gruesome form of execution used green wood, hay and grass. It would smoulder for hours, resulting in a long and lingering death. The two refused to budge in their beliefs and after a few hours the executioners decided to speed up the process, using Tyndale Bibles to ignite the flames The doomed men took hold of a Bible each and sang Psalm 106 together before succumbing to the flames.

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