Click to replay. Wykeham's Heretic. A play by Karen MacLeod.
Wykeham's Heretic, a play about Thomas Jolyff, by Karen MacLeod. Set in 1548.
Synopsis Cast Author's Note
Act 1 Scene 3 Act 2 Scene 5 Act 2 Scene 6

SETTING - Based on a true story. Winchester College during the Reformation.

LENGTH - One hour and thirty minutes.

FORM - Two acts.

Winchester College.


This story has fascinated me for years. I began research on it in 1986. Every one of the characters in the play is historical. Warden John White had a later career as Bishop of Lincoln and then of Winchester. Did he recall Thomas Jolyff, his first heretic, while sending Protestants to the stake during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor? Where did the sympathies of John Phillips really lie? Who did try to kill William Forde while he was Hostiarius at Winchester College? There is so much I will never know, but it hasn't stopped me writing this play, which I have tried to keep as even-handed as possible without compromising the inherent drama and conflict in the story.

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Winchester Cathedral Cloisters.


August 1548. King Edward VI of England and his minority Council are Protestant. Winchester College remains Catholic and its Warden, John White, is fighting for the survival of the old religion and for the survival of College itself. In this political and religious climate, White has been forced to employ as Hostiarius or Second Master a Protestant named William Forde, but is aware that Forde is waiting his chance to begin spreading his religion, which White regards as heresy.

One of the college's Scholars, Stephen Born, is dying of tuberculosis. One of Born's two closest friends is Thomas Jolyff, the most independently minded of the Scholars. Forde uses Born's illness as a means of influencing Jolyff, telling him that his friend will be damned if he dies in the Catholic faith.

On discovering that Forde has lent Jolyff books, Warden White searches for a way to dismiss the Hostiarius without giving the King's Council the grounds it seeks to dissolve College. White is helped by two very different Fellows, the traditionalist Mathew Cole, who believes that College should stand up for the Catholic faith regardless of the consequences, and the pragmatic Machiavellian, John Phillips, whom Cole suspects of heresy.

Phillips uncovers evidence of Forde's immorality outwith College which can be used against him, but Forde is determined to take his case to the King's Council in London. The boy Thomas Jolyff, meanwhile, becomes no more than a pawn in spite of White's genuine concern for his soul.


William Forde (27) - Devious, and self seeking, prepared to use the new religion to advance himself in spite of the cost to others, but not without black humour.

Thomas Jolyff (15) - A boy of intelligence and integrity who undergoes a religious crisis. Given the demands of the part and the relative maturity of boys in the Tudor age, he should be played by an actor (or actress) older than his historical age.

Morgan Grymston (15) - Scholar and friend of Jolyff. A foil for Jolyff, he is more conformist and less affected by the religious turmoil of the age he lives in. May also be played by an actress.

John White (38) - A future bishop in the reign of Queen Mary, well intentioned and devoutly Catholic. Determined to uphold what he believes to be true dogma but worried for the political future of College, he is caught in the middle of the antagonism between his two Fellows.

Mathew Cole (33) - Fellow of Winchester College. A harsh, repressive and fanatical Catholic, both suspicious and jealous of John Phillips.

John Phillips (34) - Fellow of Winchester College. A clever operator, regarded by both Forde and Cole as a secret Protestant. His religious and political ambiguities form part of the plot and are never resolved.

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All photographs © Karen MacLeod 2003.