Morality play sheds a light on forgotten Norfolk figure

Line drawing of William Sawtrey at the stake: Public domain

Line drawing of William Sawtrey at the stake: Public domain


His life – and horrific death – earned him a sombre place in history, as the first heretic to be burned in England under the Statute of Heresies Act of 1401.

But more than 600 years on, the figure of William Sawtrey, a priest in King’s Lynn, has largely fallen from public consciousness.

Now, a new play will shed fresh light on the forgotten figure, who has been described as the first Protestant martyr.

Probably born in Lynn, and a former priest at St Margaret’s church – now Lynn Minster – he was burned in 1401 for preaching Lollardy, considered a heresy that threatened Church and State with its then revolutionary interpretation of the Bible.

While he was by no means the last Lollard to die, his beliefs endured, and Lollardy is said to have played a role in the development of Protestantism.

A new play by Gareth Calway based on Sawtrey’s life and called A Nice Guy, the Burning of William Sawtrey will be performed in Lynn later this week, as part of the King’s Lynn Festival Fringe.

Mr Calway, who also plays the heretic in the play, said: “I’m interested in why they made an example of Sawtrey. Lynn was an important port in Europe in the Middle Ages, so he would have been a high profile
target. He fled to London to hide, as he would have been more exposed in Lynn.”

Mr Calway, who lives in Sedgeford, added: “I don’t know why more of a fuss has not been made of him. We don’t make enough of former residents of Lynn.”

The play will be performed by the Room at the Hanse theatre company, based at Marriott’s Warehouse on Lynn’s South Quay.

The setting will be the waterfront courtyard of England’s only surviving Hanseatic building, the Hanse House in Lynn.

The play is written in medieval style and will explored the psyche of the priest as he faces his fate. Characters called Flesh, Mind and Soul argue their cases around the bonfire with God, the World and the Devil.

The play, to be performed at 4pm on Friday, will follow historian Dr Paul Richards’s Margery Kempe Walk – Kempe was a Lynn-born Christian mystic and Sawtrey was her parish priest – which starts at Lynn Minster at 2pm and ends in the courtyard at 3pm.

King’s Lynn Festival runs until July 25. Visit or call the box-office on 01553 764864.

Which person from Norfolk’s past would you like to see back in the limelight? Email

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