|The Reformation and the Great Wigborough Martyrs
At a time of a Europe-wide move to break away from the Roman Catholic Church, in 1534, Henry VIII, declared himself supreme head of the Church of England . This move, triggered by his wish to divorce Catherine of Aragon was also a means by which the King could get his hands on the vast wealth held by the church in this country and led to the dissolution of the monasteries. It started a period when the country, under each subsequent monarch, was to yo-yo between extreme Calvinist Protestantism (Edward VI), Catholicism (Mary I) and then Protestantism under Elizabeth I. The period was characterised by religious intolerance and many, (both Protestant and Catholic) were put to death for their beliefs.
As Henry and Edward dismissed Catholicism and its trappings during the 1530s and 40s, in churches, wall- paintings were whitewashed over and the Commandments written on the walls. Statues, images, windows, vestments and rood screens were removed, broken or defaced. Church valuables, many of which had been bequeathed or donated by parishioners, were sold off or taken. Together with church silver and jewels the proceeds were sent to London leaving churches only with linen, a chalice and the bells.
Many parishes, seeing how the wind was blowing, pre-empted the removal of their valuables by selling them up. In the neighbouring parish of Peldon, by 1548, all the church plate had been sold and most of the money used for the repairing of highways and bridges.
Inside St Stephens Church, an empty niche can be seen in the wall where, pre-reformation, a statue would have stood, probably of Saint Stephen, the church's patron saint. An immediate effect of the Reformation was to react against images of saints; Protestants believed in a direct relationship with God, rather than through the intermediary of saints.
The empty niche in St Stephen's where a statue of the saint would have stood pre-reformation
The stairs in the church's north wall that lead nowhere are another reminder of our medieval, pre-reformation past. These stairs once led up to a rood loft where a large crucifix, the rood, would have stood flanked by images of Mary and St John lit up by candles. Before the reformation this was the focal point standing high above the congregation.
Stairs that, pre-reformation, led to the rood loft
Below the loft would be a rood screen which often had painted images of saints and Old Testament Prophets.
During Edward VI's reign, the removal of all images, candlesticks, and shrines was called for and with the rood and figures gone the rood loft was no longer needed. Most fell into disrepair and were removed. We do not know when the rood loft was removed in St Stephen's.
The stained glass is all post-reformation which leads us to consider 'what was there before?'
By the time the Catholic, Queen Mary, came to the throne it was much too late to reverse the damage and many wall-paintings were not to be rediscovered beneath the whitewash until later church restorations during the Victorian period. Rarely were rood lofts and screens rebuilt.
THE WIGBOROUGH MARTYRS
It was Catholic 'Bloody Mary' and her 'henchman' Bishop Bonner who were responsible for two husbandmen (farmers) from Great Wigborough, John Simson and John Ardley, being condemned to death for their refusal to renounce Protestantism. At the time of their arrest they offered the Queen all their goods and lands, provided they could follow the Protestant faith undisturbed and unmolested, but this offer was ignored.
These men were two of over 300 people put to death during Mary's five years' reign, often referred to as the 'Marian Martyrs'.
Essex was a hotbed of religious non-conformism and Colchester had been described as a 'a harbourer of heretics' by Justice Brown who led a commission under Mary I to root out dissenting Protestants. It was ordered that every house in Colchester be searched for strangers and about 28 people were put to death there for their beliefs.
At Simson and Ardley's trial in St Paul's by the notorious Bishop Bonner, the two men, especially Simson, gave bold and emphatic answers when cross
examined, angering the bishop who called for them to be taken away.
According to The Rev T W Davids in his Annals of Evangelical Nonconformity in Essex
They were arraigned before Bonner at St Paul's on 22nd May  in the presence of so great a multitude of people that the Consistory, being too small to contain them, numbers were fain to stand in the church
The bishop was lucky to escape to his own residence as this crowd, angered by his dismissal of the men before the trial had concluded, started fighting and rioting.
On 10th June 1555, the two Wigborough husbandmen were burned to death, John Simpson at Rochford and John Ardley at Rayleigh. It was thought, since Rochford and Rayleigh were strongholds of Protestantism, these deaths would send a message to the public to conform. It also avoided any possible local protest in the men's home village.
There are two memorials to these Wigborough men. The plaque in Rochford Market Square (put up in 1956) quotes Revelations 11.10 'Faithful unto death'
To the glory of God
in thankful memory of
a native of Great Wigborough,
Essex, who was burnt at the stake
at or near this market place
on June 10th, 1555
An obelisk in Rayleigh High Street commemorates two martyrs including Wigborough's John Ardley.
Near this spot
suffered for the truth
Thomas Causton 26 March 1555,
John Ardley 10 June 1555,
who in reply to Bp. Bonner said
"If every hair of my head
were a man, I would suffer death
in the opinion and faith I now profess."
'The noble army of Martyrs praise Thee'
Sadly, two more men, supporters of the Wigborough Martyrs, were to be apprehended on their way back from the burnings of their fellow 'Gospellers' at Rochford and Rayleigh. Both men from Maidstone, John Newman and John Denley, were also tried and burned for their beliefs...
Dissent was to continue to be an important part of life in Great Wigborough, for in 1664 a dissenting congregation came together in Tiptree drawing members from the whole area bordering its heath and woodland. They met secretly outdoors, in woods, in cottages and barns. Their services were led by clergymen who had been removed from their incumbencies upon the Restoration of the King (Charles II) and were not allowed to preach within five miles of their former parishes.
In 1720, by which time the Toleration Act of 1689 had been passed permitting dissenters to worship openly, a chapel was opened just off the Maldon Road in Great Wigborough. Parliamentary returns for 1829 show congregations of 450.
This was the legacy of John Simson and John Ardley.