Lynn Priest Makes National History

One-time Lynn priest at St Margaret’s, William Sawtry, was the first person in England to be officially burned alive for heresy. He was executed at Smithfield in London in March 1401. He was the first victim of a new law introduced specifically to suppress beliefs deemed a threat to the establishment.


In the early C15th the King (Henry IV) and the church leaders were nervous. The demands for social reform were growing following the Black Death, and this pressure had found some expression in the recent Peasants’ Revolt (which had been firmly suppressed).

In addition to appeals for social reform, there were also calls for theological reform (centred on the teaching of John Wycliffe). These two forces for change were both united in the beliefs of a new movement whose followers were known as the Lollards. William Sawtry started to preach and defend Lollard beliefs.

The Threat of Lollard Beliefs

Lollard beliefs were seen as a threat to the status quo in several ways, not least because Lollards believed:

  • Praying to images of saints and crosses and going on pilgrimages was a waste of time, and that all the effort and money involved could be redirected to more useful things such which as helping the poor.
  • During the Eucharist, the bread and wine did not physically change into the flesh and blood of Christ (challenging the key Roman Catholic Doctrine of Transubstantiation).
  • The social order of having certain men in elevated positions because of birth was unjust.
  • The Church’s wealth was a sin, and the money should be redistributed to help the poor.

The name ‘Lollards’ derived from the Dutch word ‘lollaert’ meaning ‘to mutter’. Their style of worship was based around reading Scripture.

In 1395, during Richard II’s reign, Parliament had been informally petitioned, with a copy of the Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards being pinned to the door of Westminster Hall. Some Knights of the Royal Household and Members of Parliament were known to have been Lollards.

The new king, Henry IV, could not tolerate the growing dissent to royal and 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.

It is not known when burning was first used in Britain, but there is a recorded burning for heresy in 1222, when a deacon of the church was burnt at Oxford for embracing the Jewish faith so he could marry a Jew. William Sawtry was the first victim of Henry’s new law.

The State Moves

“The burning of William Sautre” in “The Acts and Monuments of the Christian Church (aka “Book of Martyrs”) by John Foxe, c. 1559/1563.

On 30 April, 1399 Sawtry was examined by the Bishop of Norwich (Henry Le Despenser). After a short period in episcopal prison, he abjured his former beliefs, first privately before Despenser, and then in Lynn. He publicly recanted in the graveyard of the Chapel of St James in Lynn on 25 May 1399, and on the following day in the Chapel of St John.

Fox’s Book of Martyrs gives the location of Sawtry’s second recantation as the Chapel in St John’s Hospital which was on Dam Gate (now Norfolk Street). However, William Taylor has speculated that it may have been in the Chantry Chapel by St Margaret’s on the Saturday Market Place (also dedicated to St John). The Chantry Chapel was closer to the scene of the original “crimes”, and was a much more public place.

The precise details of Sawtry’s recantation are not known. Penances varied but usually involved performances with pointedly symbolic elements. Commonly the penitent took part in a public procession, clad in a linen shirt carrying a bundle of sticks that both represented the instrument and the end of the unrepentant (burning fire). Sometimes repentant Lollards were compelled to attend the execution of lapsed heretics. Others were required to wear a badge of burning sticks on their outer clothing at all times.

In 1401, Sawtry moved to London (perhaps in an attempt to get away from Despenser) and began working as a parish-priest at St Osyth’s. However, despite his previous recantations and promises made to Despenser, he continued to preach Lollard beliefs. 

Sawtry was summoned to appear before Archbishop Thomas Arundel on 12 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.” Sawtry stood behind those words and they were used against him by persecutors who considered it proper to bow before crucifixes.

He was convicted, ceremonially stripped of his priestly garments, and sentenced to death on 26 February, 1401. He was executed at Smithfield on 2nd March.


The severity of Sawtry’s punishment created a wave of Lollard supporters, though they were forced to discuss their beliefs in secret.

Henry IV actually visited Lynn a few years later in 1406. His daughter Philippa embarked at Lynn on her journey as child bride to the future King Eric of the Nordic Union. We can probably assume that William Sawtry wasn’t mentioned, or that if he was, he wasn’t discussed favourably.

See also Executions in King’s Lynn.

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  • Marshall, P. (2017) Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation, Yale University Press

© James Rye 2022


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