William Hacket, King of Europe? Heresy in Northamptonshire

Posted 11th January 2024

Over the years, Northamptonshire has produced many radicals keen to change the world. Four hundred years ago it was no different, writes Laura Malpas. The county was a hotbed of religious conspiracies involving both the extreme Roman Catholics at one end of the spectrum, and radical Puritan Protestants at the other, reflecting the alternating preferences of the Tudor monarchs. The Gunpowder Plot originating in Northamptonshire is well known, but less so is the story of an Oundle man who plotted to remove Queen Elizabeth I from the throne and declare himself the new Messiah.

Not much is known about the early years of William Hacket. He was born in the mid sixteenth century to a poor family in Oundle and received no formal education, remaining illiterate all his life. He was a Roman Catholic by birth and worked as a serving man in the homes of Northamptonshire gentry, including Sir Thomas Tresham. He seems to have been a lively young man, and was known for his wild and riotous behaviour, although it did not stop him from finding a relatively wealthy wife.

William’s wife was Anna Moreton, the widow of a comfortably well-off local farmer, and with her money he was able to establish himself as a maltster. Malt was integral to the production of beer and there is no doubt that William enjoyed sampling the end results of his labour. He had a violent temper and in one alehouse brawl arguing with a schoolmaster, he bit off his opponent’s nose, and ‘did in a most spiteful and divelish outrage eat it up’.

It is not known who converted him to Puritan Protestantism, but it did not diminish his devilish behaviour. As a Puritan he now did not approve of the wearing of priestly vestments, and on one occasion he was censured for hiding the parish priest’s surplice (a loose white robe) by sitting on it. His religious fervour grew, and so did his desire to share and preach to others by converting them to his beliefs.

William then acquired a disciple. Giles Wiggington, another Oundle man, was well educated. He first studied at Oundle school and then at Trinity College, Cambridge. Giles was a priest based in Yorkshire and made a connection with William on a visit back home to Oundle and partnered with him in the malting trade. He was also a Puritan activist, who wrote and preached about religious matters which regularly offended the Archbishops of both York and Canterbury. Giles was impressed with William and encouraged him to travel to spread his words and new beliefs.

William Hacket took this advice to heart. He travelled around the North of England and the Midlands, preaching, prophesying, performing exorcisms, and taking sexual advantage of women that he subsequently claimed had been deliberately placed in his way to ensnare him. On a visit to York, he claimed that he had been sent by God to prepare the way for the return of the Messiah. He was whipped and turned out of the city by the authorities. The same happened in Leicester, so he returned home to Northamptonshire. Here William began to preach against the Queen. This was highly seditious and therefore dangerous behaviour which earned him imprisonment in Northampton Gaol. Here it was rumoured that the guard had seen bright light coming from his cell as if he were being visited by an angel.
In 1591, after his release from gaol on a bond, William took the advice of Giles Wiggington and travelled to London to try his luck there.

Giles introduced William to two London gentlemen, Edmund Coppinger and Henry Arthington, both of whom were impressed with William’s beliefs and vigorous unscripted prayers, ‘as it were speaking to God face to face’. William’s boasts of remaining unscathed while wrestling with the lions in the Tower of London convinced them of his inviolability.

Coppinger himself had a position in the Queen’s household and believed that God had called him to warn Elizabeth that she should reform both her personal life and that of the Church and government. Coppinger and Arthington quicky came to believe that William Hacket had come from heaven and had been appointed by the Holy Ghost to depose the Queen, overthrow the bishops, and cast out all the non-preaching ministers from the church. Along with other Officers of State, to be removed was Christopher Hatton the Lord Chancellor, whose Northamptonshire connections would have been well known to William. They were to be replaced with puritan sympathisers, then William would take the throne and become King of Europe.

The three decided that Coppinger was the last prophet of mercy, Arthington was the last prophet of judgement, and that William Hacket was the Messiah.

On 18th July 1591 Coppinger then produced and distributed hundreds of leaflets throughout London promising that something tremendous was imminent. That night in his lodgings, William defaced the Queen’s Arms, and pierced an image of her with a bodkin. Both were treasonous acts.

The following day William stayed in bed whilst Coppinger and Arthington proclaimed him King and Messiah to a crowd gathered outside the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside. They announced that they were prophets sent by God, and that those who believed and repented would be saved, but those who did not were promised eternal punishment. Coppinger and Arthington then spoke against the Queen and her ministers. This was not well received by the crowd, who protested and rioted.

All three were arrested that same day.

William Hacket was convicted of treason a week later. Despite pleading insanity, he was sentenced to the worst death reserved for traitors, to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Coppinger fasted and prayed for forgiveness but starved himself to death. And Arthington claimed he was a victim of witchcraft, repented and recanted his beliefs, then remained in prison for life.

Hacket was led to a gibbet on 28th July 1591 whilst shouting blasphemies and railing against the Queen. He shouted one last prayer that was more of a threat to his God. ‘O God of heaven, mightie Jehovah… send some miracle out of a cloude to convert these Infidels and deliver me from these mine enemies: If not, I will fire the heavens, and teare thee from thy throne with my handes.’ Then the noose was slipped around his neck and he was pushed off the ladder.

This episode shook both the leaders of the establishment and the Puritan reform movement. It took nearly forty years before the Puritans regained their confidence, which eventually resulted in the English Civil Wars and the rise of Oliver Cromwell to replace the monarchy.

Walk around Oundle today, and one would never know that it was the centre of such a dramatic part of our history. Much of the market town remains unchanged from the days when Hacket and his co-conspirators were plotting their heresy. One can only imagine the conversations that are going on there today! Why not go for a wander and see what you can learn?

The Northamptonshire Heritage Forum has something for everyone interested in learning more about our county’s history. If you would like more information, or are interested in joining the Forum and supporting its work, please visit www.northamptonshireheritageforum.co.uk