I went to the city of Lichfield, in Staffordshire, the other day and quite by chance found myself in the Market Square when an outdoor service was being held to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of Edward Wightman, the last man in England to be burnt at the stake for heresy; an execution which took place on that very spot in 1612. The local vicar read funeral prayers, since none were said for Wightman at the time. I was not sure how far this was appropriate: Whightman was a convinced Arian, denying the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, and was also something of a fanatic, always drawing attention to himself and getting into trouble by his very public pronouncements on the subject. His burning was a very messy business, since he recanted his beliefs whilst actually on the bonfire and was rescued, but then unrecanted and was sentenced anew. Once again he tried to recant amidst the flames, but this time no-one believed him, perhaps not surprisingly, and he was duly burnt.
I'm not certain exactly why there were no more burnings in England following this. Various speakers after the service talked about the right to free speech, but this was surely anachronistic: such ideas were essentially products of the 18th century, when those in authority in England no longer took religion seriously enough to sentence anyone to death, or even to lock them up. Lichfield was Doctor Johnson’s home city, and an appropriately heavy statue of the great man looked down on the scene. I wondered what he would have made of the proceedings, since he was always a strong supporter of religious orthodoxy and would never have tolerated heterodox pronouncements concerning the Holy Trinity.
Another anniversary falling at the same time was the sinking of the “Titanic”. The park opposite Lichfield Cathedral contains a life-size statue of Edward Smith, the captain who sailed the “Titanic” to its doom. Nobody seems to know why the statue is there: Smith was a Staffordshire man, but actually came from Stoke-on-Trent and had no connection with Lichfield at all. One strange detail is that the statue was the work of the sister of Captain Scott of Antarctic fame. That’s two disasters together!
Postscript: A friend has suggested that burnings were discontinued because they were redolent of such legendary Catholic atrocities as the Inqisition, the auto da fe in Spain and the martyrdom of Archbishop Cranmer under Mary Tudor, and therefore caused uneasiness to Protestant Englishmen. But burnings for heresy and witchcraft continued for some time in Scotland, where the laws and the traditions were rather different.