He lived during the English Reformation. It seems more than probable that
the services he rendered to the Reform Cause brought him into prominence
which he certainly earned, possibly at great risk. This religious movement
of the 16th Century led to the establishment of Protestantism and a
separation from the Roman Catholic Church. This was a time when there
seemed to be no possible way of having a secure honest opinion. The many
people who believed in the old religion were traitors when they gave their
obedience to the spiritual head of the church. Those who refused to give
their allegiance to the Pope were heretics. Punishments were severe and
inconsistent. The monks in the monasteries were among the first to be
disciplined. The disobedient abbots were hung. Lutheran reformers were
put on the rack and then burned.
It was a hazardous time to have a profession in the church, or be outspoken
about your beliefs, or even be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Each
king or queen often changed the religion from Catholic to Protestant or
from Protestant to Catholic. Just in six years from 1553 to 1558, during
Queen Mary's reign, over 300 Protestants were burned or hung until they died.
She had given her allegiance to the Catholics and the Pope. At one time in
1554, an observer says "eighty or one hundred bodies were dangling in St.
Paul's church yard, or London Bridge, in Fleet Street, and Charing Cross,
in Southwark and Westminster. At all crossways and in all thoroughfares,
the eye was met with the hideous spectacle of hanging men."
In those days there were no trap doors to drop through in order to snap the necks for a quick death. The hangman placed ropes around the necks of the poor fellows to be hanged and then drove them to the gallows where he fastened them to the cross piece. He then drove the cart off from under the gallows, which was not very high off the ground. The victims' friends, if they had any, would rush forward and draw them down by the feet so that they would die sooner.
The children of William and Etheldreda (Dering) Wightman: