Distant Ideas In Lynn Part One: William Sawtry

Any therapist worth their salt will tell you that what we believe will largely influence what we do. If you want to understand actions, talk to people about what they think. People who engage in costly direct protest are usually motivated by a set of strong beliefs. Knowing why someone did what they did, rather than just what they did, would give us a more rounded picture of who they were.

There are at least two men in the history of King’s Lynn (William Sawtry and Thomas Thoresby) whose actions may seem tragic or misguided to someone with a twenty-first century perspective, but which may make more sense if you understand what they were thinking. I propose to explore Sawtry’s beliefs in this post and examine Thoresby’s in Part Two.

The Official First Human Candle

Sitting in the quiet Minster (St Margaret’s) in King’s Lynn today it is hard to imagine the inner turmoil that went on there with one of the priests. One might guess at the gasps of horror or the self-righteous nods of approval of the people in the town in 1401. They had learned that a priest they knew (arguably a good man) had voluntarily put himself in a position where he would allow others to inflict excruciating pain on him and burn him alive.

Historical Context

A lot had happened in the life-time before 1401. The first visitation of the plague had arrived in England in 1348, dramatically and suddenly wiping out between a third and half of the population. This had led some to appreciate the value of their labour and want higher wages and greater freedom of movement. The disparity between the rich church hierarchy and the “common man” was a growing cause of resentment, and the inability of the traditional church to stop the Black Death was evident.

Increasing taxation was also a problem. England had embarked on a long war with France (the Hundred Years War that was halfway through in 1401). The turmoil (the wrongly-called “Peasants’ Revolt”) caused by the three poll taxes introduced to pay for the war had been crushed in 1381, but the major uprising had been worrying for the authorities.

And to add to all this uncertainty, England had had three kings during this period (Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV), and Henry had just latterly seized the throne by force. It is true to say that in the second half of the fourteenth century change was trying to bubble beneath the surface and was occasionally breaking out.

The Lynn priest who got into serious trouble (William Sawtry) had been thinking a lot about traditional church beliefs and had dared to start preaching the results of his thinking. Sawtry wasn’t alone in his new thinking. His beliefs were shared by a group of people known as Lollards. Although controversial (see below), Lollards had been slowly growing in number. One of their intellectual thinkers, John Wyclif (1328 – 1384) a priest at Oxford University, had been publishing his theology. Although in 1410 Wyclif too would be posthumously declared a heretic, he had initially been supported for a number of years by Henry IV’s father, John of Gaunt, one of the most powerful nobles in the land.

Lollard Beliefs

The Lollards were not a formal group and did not have a formal set of doctrines, but two of their central beliefs can be summarised as follows:

  • They believed the church had too much money and should give it to the poor.
  • They did not believe that the bread and the wine mysteriously became the body and blood of Christ during the mass. They opposed the traditional doctrine of “The Real Presence” (sometimes known as the doctrine of “Transubstantiation”) – the teaching that although the properties of the bread and wine remain the same at consecration (they still look like bread and wine), their substance is fundamentally changed.

The first these beliefs about money would have echoed the views of the leaders of the Great Revolt twenty years earlier. The last belief about the mass was a seismic theological shift which would not be accepted in the breakaway English church for at least another one hundred and fifty years. It was revolutionary. It is understanding this latter idea that is a key to partially understanding Sawtry’s stand.

The Hooded Knights

Central to Sawtry’s new beliefs was the concept that symbols were symbols and not reality. A wooden cross was just a reminder of the death of Christ. It was not something inherently holy that you needed to bow to (genuflect to) out of respect. Since the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 the church had taught that during the mass the bread and wine were actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ and that they were not mere symbols. The prayers of the priest were apparently very powerful, enabling this transformation to take place. Hence practices were developed to ensure that no holy crumbs or droplets of the sacred body were lost on the floor.

In the late fourteenth century some men (especially high status men) wore head coverings in church. When the bread was lifted up by the priest in the mass so that the people could see it, it was common practice for men to remove their head coverings as a mark of respect to a greater lord (Christ physically present in the bread). Lollards refused to do this because they didn’t believe that Christ had become physically present. To show undue respect to a piece of bread was close to idolatry. Hence, Lollards became known as the “Hooded Knights”.

The Fire Is Lit

William Sawtry was arrested in Lynn, imprisoned, and forced to recant his beliefs. He then moves away from Lynn and starts to preach his old beliefs again in London. You can read about it – Lynn Priest Makes National History. The new king, Henry IV, was nervous and keen to suppress any rebellion bubbling against his own or against ecclesiastical authority. In 1401 he introduced an Act of Parliament (De heretico comburendo) against heresy. Those found guilty were to be burned at the stake. There were doubtless others who had been burned before 1401, but William Sawtry was the first victim of Henry’s new law.

Sawtry was summoned to appear before Archbishop Thomas Arundel in February 1401. Repeated attempts were made to get him to change his beliefs, but Sawtry refused to do so. He said, “Instead of adoring the cross on which Christ suffered, I adore Christ who suffered on it.” And he also clearly tells Arundel that the bread at the altar “remained true bread, and the same bread as before.” Central to these words are his adherence to Christ and his suffering and a refusal to show reverence to objects that were not the reality. Such a view not only threatened a core church doctrine, but also challenged the supposed mystical power of the priests. Sawtry’s conviction about going to a blissful eternal life (something also foreign to many modern readers) would also have helped him face a tortuous death. He was burned alive on 2 March.

© James Rye 2024

See also Lynn Priest Makes National History


  • Evans, G. R. (2005) John Wyclif: Myth and Reality, Lion Books
  • Marshall, P. (2017) Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation, Yale University Press
  • Orme, N. (2022) Going to Church in Medieval England, Yale University Press

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