A new play on the life and times of Margery Kempe will be staged in Lynn this summer.
And as well as documenting the famous medieval pilgrim and visionary, who was born in Lynn in 1373, it will also reflect the grisly demise of a local priest.
“To die for” has a different meaning today than for William Sawtrey, who was parish priest of Lynn’s St Margaret’s in 1399.
Sawtrey was burned in 1401 (at Smithfield) for the ‘Lollard’ heresy, the first heretic burned in England for his beliefs.
In Mr Calway’s play, the part of Sawtrey has not yet been taken and auditions are now being held.
He says: “We are looking for an actor with proven stage experience to take this role.”
If you think you could be the person, the contact details for Mr Calway are at the end of this article ... and here he explains what happened to Sawtrey:
King’s Lynn in the late 14th Century was at the hub of the Hanseatic League, which made William Sawtrey’s martyrdom highly visible.
It was the dawn of nationalism and Lollardy, based on the Oxford teachings of John Wycliffe, is the only mediaeval English heresy. A key demand, centuries ahead of the Reformation, was for an English Bible.
‘Lollard’ means ‘lullabying’. But it wasn’t his ‘singing-low’ they burned Sawtrey for.
He was one of many laymen and priests protesting that the church had placed a screen – real and metaphorical – between chancel and nave, priest and congregation. Lollards wanted Christianity made plain, in English rather than mystifying Latin - so that ordinary people could understand its message.
An uncomfortable message for bishops and rulers. Less than twenty years earlier ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?’ became the slogan of the Peasants’ Revolt.
Sawtrey was tortured at the episcopal palace at North Elmham. He recanted and moved to a new parish in London, but ‘relapsed’. The evidence of earlier fault given by the Bishop of Norwich meant that he was ‘deposed and degraded’.
Sawtrey declared that lazy clergy should earn the tithes supporting them; that corruption-riven pilgrimages from all over Christendom to Lynn to reach Walsingham wasted money better spent on the poor; that preaching was better than reciting prayers; that mortals were higher than angels and – most shocking of all - that the mass priest did not transform bread and wine into the to body and blood of Christ.
This first assertion of science over ‘magical’ religion would lead to the Reformation, just as the 14th Century emphasis on the humana natura of Christ revealed a widespread longing to find God in the everyday life of the Christian.
That may be why Sawtrey’s famous parishioner, the Lynn mystic Margery Kempe made the authorities so nervous when, unmediated by the all-powerful priests, she “wept and sobbed as plenteously as though she had seen Our Lord with her bodily eye when shown the place of His sufferings” in Jerusalem in 1413.
She was accused all her life of being a Lollard. Norfolk was notoriously rife with them. Three Norfolk priests - William White, Hugh Pie and William Waddon - were banned for Lollardy in 1428.
Oldcastle’s rebellion of 1413 gained Lollardy a seditious edge but lost it support among the wealthy and educated; 60 rebels were hanged in London on January 13, 1414. No Norfolk Lollard took part.
The senior clergy wanted Lollardy crushed by the State and in 1401 De haeretico comburendo was passed. This authorised the church to hand over unrepentant and relapsed heretics to the secular authorities for burning, starting with Sawtrey. Henry IV’s excessive zeal to please the church went against people, Parliament and the forward march of history.
Margery Kempe of Lynn, a new play written by Gareth Calway for Room at the Gin productions and Marriott’s Warehouse Trust comes to Lynn’s waterfront Aug 2-3. William Sawtrey is burned at the end of Act One!
Local actors who may be interested in taking the role of Sawtrey can contact Mr Calway on 01485 571828.