O master, if you did but hear the pedlar at the door … He hath ribbons of all the colours i’ th’ rainbow; points more than all the lawyers in Bohemia can learnedly handle, though they come to him by th’ gross; inkles, caddisses, cambrics, lawns: why, he sings ’em over as they were gods or goddesses; you would think a smock were a she-angel.
—SHAKESPEARE, THE WINTER’S TALE (1611)
We have Prince Maurice to thank for the Plymouth Colony. If the Pilgrims had sailed as Dutchmen, they might have created a settlement in Brooklyn, or camped out upriver trading furs, but this would not have been New England. Eccentrics already, in the eyes of their countrymen, the Brownists of Leiden would have become traitors too. These were years when Dutch and English seamen were fighting each other not only for whaling but also for the spice trade in the Moluccas. The general in The Hague saved them from becoming soldiers in a trade war, but in doing so he left them with only one option. It turned out to contain perils of its own.
He drove the Pilgrims into the unreliable arms of a trader from the City of London. This was Thomas Weston, aged thirty-five, and he led a company of investors, numbering about seventy. The figure comes from Captain John Smith, who says that they were a mixed party of gentlemen, merchants, and tradesmen. They financed the Pilgrims with what the contract called an “adventure.” French in origin, the term referred not to the voyage but to the risk taken by the investors, who ventured their capital to support the colony. At La Rochelle, Frenchmen who invested in Canada looked for a return on their capital of about 30 percent. Weston must have hoped for something similar. A decade later investors in New England still wished to make profits on that scale, because risks were high and they needed a reward to match.1
Until 1628, the colony at New Plymouth ran up heavy losses, and by the time it broke even, most of the investors had long since died, withdrawn, or sold out. By 1626, the seventy had already dwindled down to six, who stuck with the project until it began to prosper. Two of them bought country property at Clapham, on the south side of the Thames, and made themselves landed gentlemen with the help of the profits they eventually made. To begin with, however, Thomas Weston was one of the first of many Britons who promised far more in America than they could deliver.*
From the outset, the colony was a commercial project, as well as a mission inspired by religious ideals. Weston wished to make money, as the contract put it, from “trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing” on the American coast. Far from being a commune, the Mayflower was a common stock: the very words employed in the contract. All the land in the Plymouth Colony, its houses, its tools, and its trading profits (if they appeared) were to belong to a joint-stock company owned by the shareholders as a whole.
When the final value of the assets was determined, after seven years, the investors and the colonists would divide them up: that was the plan. All of the participants, those who stayed in England and those who had come to America, would receive a dividend in proportion to the number of shares they owned. Those who had no capital, but simply came on the boat, were deemed to have a single share. If any investor injected more cash, he or she would receive extra shares accordingly. It was not the same thing as a modern corporation, but a likeness existed, and not least in the dubious character of the man who acted as chairman of the board.
By birth, Weston ranked as a gentleman, but his wealth was scanty. His behavior was even worse. Somebody he crossed said that Weston was “soe subtile & unconscionable soe that he might accomplish his owne ends he cared not what bonds he or anie for him entered into for he would keepe none.”2 Bradford rather more gently labels Weston a man “embittered in spirit,” but either way history’s verdict has been hostile. Because he first sabotaged and then abandoned the Pilgrims after they reached the New World, Weston ranks next to King James as the villain of the piece.
Even if he was, Thomas Weston had some extenuating circumstances. Only in the 1970s did a British genealogist find Weston’s date and place of birth, in 1584 at Rugeley in Staffordshire.* Without that information, his background and his career could not be reconstructed. For this reason, pretty much everything written about the early days of the Plymouth Colony is incomplete, and much of it is misleading or inaccurate. Weston definitely failed in commerce in the early 1620s, he was certainly a smuggler, and he may have been a felon, a gunrunner. Nobody would freely choose him as a business partner. But if we put Weston and his colleagues back in their correct setting, they lead us to the heart of Jacobean England as it was.3
What sort of place was it? To find an artistic mirror, again we might turn to Shakespeare, and The Winter’s Tale. The play has many meanings of a subtle kind, but it also contains documentary elements, assembled from the mundane realities of the day. Among its characters we find the peddler Autolycus, described in the lines quoted at the head of this chapter. In Autolycus, Shakespeare gives us the beginnings of a consumer culture, by way of a growing market for cheap household items—pins, needles, thimbles, ribbons, and the like—carried up and down the land on the backs of men such as him. The investors who financed the Mayflower included merchants who fed the likes of Autolycus with the wares they carried.
They also bought and sold woolen cloth. That too we find in The Winter’s Tale, where the drama unfolds amid the bleating of sheep. Jacobean England had ten million of the animals, numbering twice as many as its human population. “Divide our native commodities into ten parts,” said the greatest lawyer of the age, Sir Edward Coke, in Parliament in 1621, “and nine arise from the sheep’s back.” Coke did not exaggerate by much. Three-quarters of English exports did indeed consist of woven cloth, and Thomas Weston depended on it, as did most of the men who financed the voyage of the Mayflower. When their world seemed to be collapsing, they turned to America. Since some of them, but not Weston, were Puritans with their own evangelical ties, their commercial motives went hand in hand with piety of a very distinctive Jacobean kind, both militant and patriotic.
DICK WHITTINGTON AND THE MAYFLOWER
Let us imagine that one summer evening Shakespeare left his home in Stratford and walked down to the Avon. Fourteen stone arches carried a highway across the river, and on the bridge he would see a chain of horses, steaming with sweat. Traveling twenty miles each day, the horses came from the Shropshire market town of Shrewsbury, near the Welsh border. On their backs they carried bundles of fabric known as Welsh cotton, though in fact it was made of coarse wool, with a fluffed surface.
Hill farmers raised the sheep whose fleeces made the stuff. In their shacks in winter they spun and wove the wool before selling it to the drapers of Shrewsbury who finished it and dressed it and packed it. Early every Wednesday morning, from August to October, off went the horses on the eight-day trek to the capital. On Thursdays and Fridays, merchants in London bought Welsh cottons at Blackwell Hall, the City’s bourse for cloth, and they shipped a third of it to France: mainly to Rouen.
It was shoddy material, often attracting complaints, but the customers were poor. Rouen served Normandy and the Île-de-France, and like the rural workers in England the forgotten peasants of this region were losing ground as each year went by, their grim standard of living growing ever more intolerable. Welsh cotton sold well to the laboring masses because it was cheap and it was warm. Since France had four times as many inhabitants as England, and Welsh cotton also sold through Amsterdam, the trade was substantial. Hundreds of thousands of yards of cloth left English harbors each year. This was how Thomas Weston made his living, as an exporter of the same rough textiles, sourced from Shrewsbury.4
Only forty miles separated the town from Weston’s birthplace at Rugeley, and the two places had close ties. One of Weston’s brothers served his time as an apprentice in Shrewsbury, qualifying there as Simon Weston, draper, in 1617. Perhaps the saddest of all the stories from the terrible early months in America had its origins in this same connection. On board the Mayflower traveled four infants, Ellen, Jasper, Richard, and Mary More, the unwanted offspring of a failed marriage in a Shropshire village, sixteen miles from the town where Simon Weston lived.
Among the boys and girls, the oldest was eight and the youngest was four. Their great-grandfather was another draper in Shrewsbury. In the summer of 1620, their parents were divorced, on grounds of adultery, and the children were declared bastards. A family retainer took them to London and handed them over to Philemon Powell, Weston’s servant and factotum. Weston received a hundred pounds to cover their passage and to finance the purchase of shares in the colony. The first child to die was Jasper More, in Provincetown Harbor, and only one of the children survived the first American winter.5
Thomas Weston also dealt with a Shrewsbury cloth merchant named John Vaughan. Thanks to Weston, in 1622 Vaughan incurred heavy losses. Litigation followed, and the affair and its consequences left behind a mass of legal documents, filled with evidence of the loosest of commercial morals. They show that Weston ran a precarious business, dealing in Welsh cottons bought on credit and then shipped to Europe, along with assorted haberdashery. Sometimes he handled exotic cargoes, whale fins, or tropical wood used to make dyes, but he had a handicap, and one that was common. He had far too little capital. This was his undoing, and very nearly that of the Plymouth Colony. Thomas Weston started off as yet another younger son from a marginal family with few connections.6
By the time of King James, the Westons had lived at Rugeley for at least two hundred years, as the lords of Hagley Manor. Behind a motel, at the drab edge of modern Rugeley, a little park encloses a pond, with an island in the middle: all that remains of the Weston residence, and its medieval moat. But from the surviving features of the landscape, and because a stream still feeds the pond, we can imagine the life the Westons led on the edge of the dense woodlands of Cannock Chase. Beside the brook, and above the house, stood the manor’s water mill, while the town’s livestock market lay a few yards away, across a street still called Sheep Fair today. Thomas grew up surrounded by cattle, sheep, and horses.7
But mention Rugeley to a Jacobean, and if a word came to mind, it would not be “sheep” but “papist.” Staffordshire was, and has remained, an area with more than the average English complement of Catholicism, partly thanks to local noblemen who clung to the old religion. It would be ironic, to say the least, if we found that the man who backed the Mayflower’s voyage was raised in that same faith. So he probably was. While his private beliefs may forever remain unknown, the following facts can be established.
In 1648, officials seized the estates belonging to his eldest brother, Sir Richard Weston, after naming him as a Catholic. Thomas Weston’s mother came from a part of Lancashire that also held out as a Roman Catholic enclave, while his aunt married into the Wolseleys, who were Catholic gentry. The two families remained close, doing land deals together. Rugeley had a hard core of awkward Romanists, and in 1616 the authorities prosecuted six Catholics in the town for refusing to go to church, and another twenty at Cannock. None of this proves that Thomas Weston remained a Roman Catholic, since he also had early Puritan ties: as a youth, he worked for a leading Puritan iron merchant in the capital. But, at the very least, he came from a suspicious background.8
Nor were the Westons particularly wealthy. Their land ran to little more than two hundred acres, and they did not serve as JPs, one of the defining marks of a solid gentleman. Their hopes centered on Richard, who went to Oxford. Excelling in the law, he became a judge with a knighthood under Charles I, grew the estate, and built a new manor house. For the younger sons a less exalted future lay in store: there were six children, and that was too many.
In England in the seventeenth century, the average member of the landed gentry fathered two male children from each of his two marriages, but the professions were much smaller than they later became, and no standing army existed to absorb surplus youths. Each year, genteel occupations such as the law, the Church, the government, and the navy recruited between them no more than five hundred new entrants. In time, demographic facts such as these encouraged men and women toward America, but for the Westons there was only one available option.
Before Thomas Weston’s father, Ralph, died in 1605, he decided that Thomas and three of his brothers should become apprentices. This was the only way to maintain their status as gentlemen. To avoid working with their hands, they had to build a career in commerce, as an apprentice draper, haberdasher, or the like.9 The Westons sent Thomas to London to train under another Shrewsbury man, Rowland Heylin, a godly donor to good causes and a leading figure in the Company of Ironmongers.
Jacobean London swarmed with apprentices, thirty thousand or so, and at the time of Ralph’s death they found their dramatic incarnation in Dick Whittington. It seems that the year 1605 was also the date of the earliest performance of The Legend of Whittington, telling the folk story of the provincial youth who walks to London with his loyal black cat. Dick becomes an apprentice, overcomes hardship, survives ill-treatment, and makes a fortune with the cat’s clever help in the West African trade. He marries the boss’s daughter and ends up as lord mayor three times over. Soon Dick was a household name, with a ballad version of the story set to music. Clearly the play spoke directly to the predicament of many young men, including Thomas Weston.
It was becoming much harder to find a place as an apprentice, and still more difficult to make a success of what came later. Competition between gentry families bid up the “premium,” a fee paid up front to the master to whom the boy was apprenticed. It might come to as much as one hundred pounds, the price of twenty acres of land. Once accepted, an apprentice often lived a menial life, little better than an unpaid kitchen porter, with no guarantee of ultimate entry to his chosen trade. Less than half of London’s apprentices finished their training. This was the case with the Pilgrim Edward Winslow. Another boy from a minor gentry family in the West Midlands—the Winslows lived only forty miles from Rugeley—he was apprenticed at eighteen to a London printer. He quit after only five years of the customary seven and took off for Leiden, where the Pilgrims had work for a young man with his skills.
Besides death, the most common reason for dropping out was brutally obvious: a lack of capital with which to start a business of one’s own. In his will, Ralph Weston stipulated that when his sons completed their apprenticeships, they should each receive one hundred pounds “for a stocke to set up with.” Far too small a sum, this would barely fund a shopkeeper in London. A Shrewsbury draper needed four times as much, and an overseas trader to Whittington’s Africa might require two thousand pounds. As for ironmongery, the business involved far more than selling odds and ends of hardware: Heylin and his like ran iron foundries, supplying shipyards and construction sites, but this was far beyond the capacity of Thomas Weston.10
He finished his apprenticeship at the age of twenty-five, but it seems that he never bought or sold an iron rod for his own account: if he did, no evidence has been found for it. Instead, Weston took advantage of the so-called custom of London, which allowed a freeman of one company to do business in the trade of any other: this is why, for example, we find merchant taylors dealing in wine, and salters importing goatskins while skinners exported woolens. By 1612, Weston was doing the same, selling textiles to the French and the Dutch. For capital he had to rely on the flimsiest resources.
London had nothing that remotely resembled even a Victorian bank, let alone a modern example. So men like Weston paid their way with private bills of exchange—postdated checks, or IOUs—which circulated like an unofficial currency, bought, sold, and swapped between merchants often hundreds of miles apart. If chains of packhorses linked Welsh hill farms to London, they had their counterpart in these loops of credit that wound back and forth from one city and town to another. Weston paid for Welsh cottons with a bill dated many months in the future. He hoped to redeem it when he sold the cloth in France or the Netherlands, either by shipping home goods that an English merchant wanted or by obtaining a bill from a Dutchman or a French trader, an IOU that Weston in turn could sell in London.
This sounds complicated, and it was. If the economy grew, and everybody’s sales expanded, the multiplication of credit could carry on indefinitely. But if the economy faltered, even for a moment, and ready buyers failed to appear for English cloth or French wine or Dutch copper kettles, then credit would begin to vanish like sand down the throat of an hourglass. Since men gave personal guarantees for each other’s bills, the system might disintegrate if a few large merchants failed to meet their obligations. At that point, the hourglass would empty entirely; and, as we shall see, exactly this occurred in the early 1620s.11
Thomas Weston managed to survive in this fashion for seven years or so. The few surviving customs books from London refer to him often. Between the spring of 1616 and the autumn of 1617, we find him sending twelve cargoes from the Thames to Rouen, Amsterdam, and Hamburg. Half of his consignments were cottons like those from Shrewsbury, but he also dealt in hundreds of sheepskins, and he shipped out six gross of garters and fourteen dozen pairs of plain leather gloves, on a vessel aptly named the Sheep. Occasionally, Weston dealt in quite high grades of cloth, but mostly he traded at the bottom end of the market. This was not the way to make one’s fortune.12
By far the largest profits flowed from luxury imports, spices, silks, and wine, sold at high margins to the wealthy. Again, this required capital and connections, and in practice a small elite controlled the richest trades, men such as Sir John Wolstenholme. In theory a small merchant might accumulate capital from trading profits, earned by hard years of graft. But in practice an array of monopolies, cartels, and legalized forms of racketeering occupied the commanding heights of the economy.
For Weston, the most relevant monopoly was the one operated by the Fellowship of Merchant Adventurers of England. Eager to encourage weaving at home, Tudor monarchs had given the fellowship an exclusive right to send undyed, unfinished white woolens to the Netherlands: a very big business indeed, which reached its peak in 1614, when their sales to the Dutch exceeded the entire tax revenues of King James.
Joining the fellowship was difficult and expensive, and far beyond the means of Thomas Weston. This left him with only two options. Either he stuck to selling Welsh cottons, where profits were mediocre, or he could engage in “interloping.” By virtue of a statute from the fifteenth century, any merchant could legally sell woolens to the Low Countries, provided he paid a fee to the fellowship and complied with their regulations. It was not a crime to interlope, and the interlopers, including Weston, traded openly and paid their taxes.
However, if circumstances changed and times became harder, the fellowship might try to enforce their monopoly more strictly. If they did so, they would push men like Weston to the wall: and that was what occurred, propelling him across the North Atlantic. It happened in the following way.
As soon as Robert Cecil became lord treasurer, he began to devise schemes for strengthening the royal finances, but the Crown and Parliament could not agree on measures to close the budget deficits that the king habitually ran up. Cecil died, taking with him to the grave the ashes of fiscal rectitude. In 1614, James made a last attempt at reform, by way of the so-called Addled Parliament, but he and its members soon fell out with each other, and so he dissolved the assembly. Forward stepped Alderman William Cokayne with a plan to strengthen the economy, to outwit the Dutch, and to replenish the Exchequer, all at the same time. It came to be known as the Cokayne Project.
Cokayne persuaded the king and the Privy Council to terminate the monopoly enjoyed by the Fellowship of Merchant Adventurers. In its place, Cokayne would create a new monopoly, to finish and dye white woolens before exporting them across the North Sea. This would create English jobs for English workers, while King James would receive a royalty for each roll of the stuff, yielding a sum uncannily close to his wardrobe bills and those of his son combined. Everybody would be happy, including the interlopers and members of the old fellowship, since they would all be invited to join, pledging their capital to the new venture. In June the Addled Parliament ended, a few weeks later the Cokayne Project began, and soon it proved to be disastrous.13
Hearing of the scheme, the Dutch bought all the raw cloth they could find and banned imports of Cokayne’s new product. The members of the old fellowship went on strike, refusing to buy woolens from England’s weavers. Cokayne’s investors failed to supply new capital, and unsold cloth piled up in workshops and warehouses. Soon acute observers suspected that the project was a fraud, simply aimed at elbowing aside the fellowship and transferring their business to Cokayne, with no finishing and dyeing done at all, no investment, and no new employment. In 1616, as Shakespeare fell ill and died, in the weaving districts business faltered, and came to a stop.
Thousands of workers lay idle, and the king concluded that Cokayne had cheated him. His project was, James told the Privy Council, “playne Cosonage.” The word “cosonage” meant “theft,” and James told them to put a stop to it. For another year, the crisis continued as the Crown negotiated a solution. At the opening of 1618, the old merchant adventurers struck a new deal with the king, agreeing to pay him fifty thousand pounds in return for their old monopoly. At the same time, as part of the deal they insisted that the Crown halt trading by the interlopers, including Thomas Weston.
At first, the interlopers stood their ground, even when sent to jail. In The Hague, Sir Dudley Carleton heard stories of the affair, about defiant interlopers who “claime and challenge free trafficke by the lawes of the realme and theyre birth-right, and divers of them are committed to the Marshalsee for refusing to enter into bond to desist.” Weston’s name appears on a list of six offenders reported to the authorities in June. No record seems to survive of official sanctions against him, but it looks as if his business collapsed. The fragmentary customs records that survive show no trace of exports by Weston in 1619.
As we have seen, William Bradford often forgot to give chronology, and so we do not know exactly when Weston first made contact with the Pilgrims. But we do know that a link between them existed, by way of a haberdasher named Edward Pickering, who kept shops in London and Amsterdam, and acted as Weston’s agent in Holland. A Separatist himself, and involved with Weston since about 1612, Pickering became a strong supporter of the Pilgrims, leaving money in his will to help them. The introduction must have been his. Weston needed a new source of income to replace what he had lost when interloping ended, and Pickering had friends in Leiden who needed help. Between them, it seems, they recruited the rest of the Mayflower consortium.14
PEDDLERS AND PILGRIMS
We have the names of forty-six investors in the Plymouth Colony, chiefly from a list of forty-one men and one woman compiled in 1626 and contained in a letter transcribed by William Bradford. From information elsewhere, we can establish the origins or occupations of eighteen. Tentatively, we can identify the backgrounds of another five whose names, like John White, are too common to prevent uncertainty.
A handful, perhaps no more than three or four, were religious radicals like the Separatists. Most of the rest were either mainstream Puritans or men with no pious enthusiasm either way. When it came to North America, it seems that none possessed prior experience of any kind. In 1620, the Virginia Company made a list of its own shareholders, and no overlap exists with the names of those who backed the Pilgrims. Captain John Smith implied that they were small traders and minor members of the gentry, and this seems to be correct, but not entirely. In the City of London, two of the young men who financed the Mayflower, John Pocock and John Beauchamp, both in their late twenties, were rising stars. Like the mariners in Plymouth Sound, they left a mass of evidence in their wake. By way of their careers, the Mayflower finds her place in the wider history of England at the time.15
Both men stand out from their colleagues because, in 1626, they were among the very few investors still prepared to commit more capital to the Pilgrims after years of losses. We start with John Beauchamp, aged about twenty-eight in the year of the voyage. His name appears nearly thirty times in Bradford’s History, and he worked closely with Weston. Though he never went to America, the Pilgrims granted him land at Scituate, between Plymouth and Boston. His brother-in-law helped to found the Cape Cod town of Sandwich.
We know almost nothing about his character besides a comment by a fellow investor that Beauchamp “seemed somewhat harsh.” His will contains evidence of stern paternal piety: he urged his children not to marry without their mother’s approval, “as they expect a blessing from God the ffather of us all without whose blessing nothing can prosper.” He was also a Puritan, and in the 1650s the Cromwellians made Beauchamp a justice of the peace. But while his inner life remains obscure, his business career is quite another matter.
Beauchamp came from the same world as Autolycus. His family were the most prosperous yeoman farmers in a village called Cosgrove, fifty miles from London in Northamptonshire, a county where the low undulating hills supported sheep in immense numbers. When John Beauchamp’s uncle Christopher died in 1622, he left a ewe and a lamb each to a daughter and two granddaughters, and ten shillings to the poor of “Cowesgrave,” as he called his township.
A solid man and a churchwarden, Christopher Beauchamp left nearly three hundred pounds, not bad for a yeoman, and the Beauchamps ranked among those wealthy enough to pay taxes and vote. Although they were rural, they were far from isolated. Just as the Great North Road ran along the edge of Austerfield, the ancient highway of Watling Street passed close to the boundary of Cosgrove. Along it walked peddlers heading north toward Chester and Liverpool, while packhorses plodded past them on their way south to London.
John Beauchamp was a third and youngest son, and when his father died in 1614, he received a legacy worth only eighty pounds, even less than Weston’s. By that time he was already apprenticed as a salter, but with what must have seemed like only modest prospects of success. His eldest brother inherited the family’s land, but died young in 1625. A second brother, a London haberdasher, died the same year, probably from plague, and left only feeble legacies of a few shillings.16 John, however, did exceptionally well. Like Weston, he traded as an interloper, exporting cloth, but Beauchamp made his fortune in another way, as an entrepreneurial pioneer. Within less than a decade, Beauchamp rose to become by far the largest London importer of the sorts of goods carried by traveling salesmen such as Autolycus.
With his roots in the countryside, Beauchamp began by sending rural commodities to Amsterdam: fleeces, horsehair, and black rabbit skins. Using the same Dutch ships that carried woolens for Weston, he exported stockings, of the kind farming families knit by the fireside as a way to earn a little extra money. Then back from Holland he brought merchandise to feed the peddlers of the kingdom as they built their networks of consumption, selling lightweight articles to housewives and provincial shopkeepers. In 1621, we find Beauchamp importing from Holland an assortment of tennis balls, pins, needles for securing bundles on a horse’s back, and six thousand thimbles. By 1626, as he tried to keep the Plymouth Colony afloat, his business had grown from these modest beginnings to reach an unrivaled scale.
Ship after ship sailed into the Thames carrying items for John Beauchamp. Among them were hundreds of the “inkles” and “caddisses” found among the wares sold by Autolycus: an inkle was linen tape used by seamstresses, and a caddis was woolen tape for stocking garters. We find, for example, the Cornelius of Amsterdam unloading for Beauchamp a cargo of caddis ribbons, inkles, hairy goatskins, plates, sewing needles, nearly seventeen thousand thimbles, and more than 200,000 iron tacks. Alongside Beauchamp another Mayflower investor, James Sherley, plied the same trade, dealing in similar items. They apparently worked together, and their business volumes far outstripped those of other London importers of the same merchandise. Sherley and Beauchamp were the pair who bought a country place in Clapham with their profits from the fur trade.
If men like this supported the Mayflower, then a riddle can be solved. Among the twenty-one households that traveled on board the ship, five had no documented ties of any kind with the Leiden congregation, and several came from country locations a long way from London. How did they hear about the venture? If the backers were men such as Beauchamp and Sherley, whose peddling contacts roamed the country, then the mystery vanishes.
Take, for example, William Mullins, a shoemaker from Dorking in Surrey. Twenty-six miles from London, Dorking had a grain market, and a firm chalk road that led toward the capital. Mullins was a small businessman who carried with him to New England a stock of boots and shoes, together with his wife, son, and daughter. For buckles and laces, he would have turned to wholesalers like Beauchamp. This is how talk of the Mayflower project must have circulated, carried by tradesmen and peddlers on foot between the open fields along the highway.17
We can also see why the trade in beaver skins might appeal to Beauchamp. Haberdashery, goatskins, and hardware might sell well, but the margins were narrow, and anybody could enter the trade. Silk, spices, and luxury goods lay within the protected domain of the monopolies, mainly the East India Company. Tobacco was out of the question, its import controlled by another monopoly, and the economics made it a waste of time. In 1620, Spanish leaf was far cheaper than Virginia’s: tobacco sold retail in London for less than it cost to grow the plant in Jamestown, while the Crown came close to banning tobacco altogether.18
By contrast, the fur trade offered excellent prospects. Demand was strong. No bullion was necessary if the skins came from Native Americans, rather than difficult Russians. All they needed was a patent for settlement, from the Virginia Company or from Sir Ferdinando Gorges, both of whom were eager to help, since they needed settlers to colonize New England or to replace those who had died at Jamestown. The import duty was low, at sixpence per beaver skin, and the king smiled on the trade. Best of all was the wide gap between the cost of the skins at five shillings each and the market price of the hat, which fetched at least eight times as much. Within the tactile chain of manufacture lay a wide margin of profit. A North American venture offered an opportunity for Beauchamp to raise his commercial game, at the expense of the beaver king, Ralph Freeman.
Thoughts like these must have passed through the minds of the investors, but so too did evangelism. London also contained the young John Milton, raised the son of a scrivener in Bread Street, at the mercantile heart of the city. Around the corner from the future author of Paradise Lost lived another young merchant, John Pocock. A Puritan like the Miltons, and an investor in the Plymouth Colony, Pocock definitely did not see the Mayflower simply as a chance to make money.
Bradford did not care for Pocock, or so it seems, since his name surfaces rarely in the Pilgrim narratives. If so, the feeling was mutual. Pocock wished to remain inside the Church of England and reform it from within. During the first six years of the Plymouth Colony he and his friends viewed Bradford and the Leiden Brownists as unreliable extremists. Nevertheless, Pocock showed courage of his own, and Bradford was wrong not to acknowledge it.
A political activist, later arrested as a tax rebel against the Crown, John Pocock supplied the link between the Pilgrims and the much larger migration led by John Winthrop in 1630. He invested in both, he financed the Atlantic trade in beaver fur, and he embodied the Puritan culture of London, the environment that went to shape the poet Milton. It was most probably Pocock who recruited Captain Miles Standish, a veteran of service with the Dutch, to act as the colony’s military commander in America. In his leisure hours, John Pocock served as a part-time soldier himself.
THE PURITAN MILITIAMAN OF BREAD STREET
If you wished to enter the City of London from the north, you came by way of Bishopsgate. Close to it you would find a patch of open ground called the Artillery Garden. Here, beginning in 1611, the young businessmen of the City drilled each week with their weapons, as members of the Honourable Artillery Company, a volunteer fraternity with a fine reputation for discipline and skill with arms. If war broke out, and the Spaniards invaded, they would supply the cadre of officers commanding the trained bands, raised from London and the surrounding counties. It was a privilege to be enrolled in the artillery company. John Pocock was a member, and apparently John Milton entered the regiment, too, in 1635.
Pocock joined the artillerymen in 1619 and served alongside a young haberdasher called Owen Rowe, who was Edward Pickering’s apprentice and thirty years later signed the death warrant of Charles I. Their names appear together on the scroll that records the membership. Drawn up in 1635, it lists as soldiers in the company no fewer than nine investors in the Plymouth Colony, together with the printer who employed Edward Winslow, and another printer who published Mourt’s Relation. When the English Civil War began, the same company and the same kinds of men led the London militia for Parliament against the king.
Sponsored by the Lord Mayor, the Honourable Artillery Company had a paid commander in Captain John Bingham, a soldier who had served for many years in the Netherlands under Prince Maurice. It seems sensible to assume that Miles Standish came to the Mayflower project by way of a recommendation from Bingham to Pocock. Like the artillerymen, Standish saw no conflict between soldiering and godliness. In fact, the artillery company commissioned sermons on the connection between the two, such as one they heard in 1617. “We are all Souldiers, as wee are Christians,” said the preacher. “You beare both Spirituall Armes against the enemies of your Salvation, and Materiall Armes against the enemies of your Countrey.”19 Standish could not have asked for a better summary of his own philosophy, and we may assume that Pocock endorsed it too.
He lived within the core of the City, in an environment that combined commerce, learning, and religion, where all the elements that went to create the Plymouth Colony could be found in close proximity. Pocock spent his adult life in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral, at the London end of Watling Street, in Bread Street Ward. If Puritan London had a nucleus, you would find it here, at the crossroads where Watling Street and Bread Street met.
When news arrived from America, it came here first, because four doors away from the intersection was the Star Inn, used by carriers from the western ports of Barnstaple and Plymouth. If they were godly, visitors might pause for a Calvinist sermon at the church of All Hallows, Bread Street, where Milton was baptized in 1608. And if they had sons to educate, they need only turn the corner and walk to the end of Watling Street. There they would see St. Paul’s School, a charitable institution that charged no fees. At the school Milton read Homer and Virgil during the day, while in the evening he studied music with his father, an amateur composer who published settings of biblical texts for the voice and viol.20
Here a visitor would also find the center of the cloth trade. Watling Street housed “wealthy Drapers, retailors of woollen cloathes both broad and narrow,” said a contemporary. Among them at the King’s Arms lived a merchant taylor called John Harrison. Childless, John Harrison employed the young John Pocock. The boy came from a village called Chieveley in Berkshire, west of the capital, an area where under the Tudors local drapers had begun to grow rich from the mass production of textiles in workshops in the towns of Newbury and Reading. Among them, it seems, were the Pococks, who bought their own small estate in 1566. Comfortably off, the family found John his niche with Harrison, whose firm he joined in 1607 as an apprentice.21
From the King’s Arms, Harrison ran a network of “chapmen,” small retail dealers in provincial market towns, from Exeter in the south to Preston in Lancashire in the north. They distributed drapery made by Harrison’s cloth workers, and the business flourished. Pocock served his time as an apprentice alongside another boy called Ralph Longworth, and after Pocock finished his training in 1615, they went into business together, with a loan of two thousand pounds from Harrison as capital. When Harrison died in 1619, and Longworth in 1620, John Pocock took over the operation as a whole.
He also shared Harrison’s evangelical religion. “Puritan” is a word that must be used carefully to speak about Londoners in the 1620s, because times had changed, definitions had become less clear-cut, and men and women did not always tell the truth about their beliefs. Puritan or not, Harrison belonged to a group of merchants who clustered around evangelical Calvinists in city parishes. One such man was the spiritual leader of Bread Street Ward, Richard Stock, the rector of All Hallows who baptized the poet.
Richard Stock belonged to a network of ministers who inherited the name “forward preachers” from the old Elizabethan Presbyterians of the 1590s. A few of these survivors of the old Puritan movement were still alive, and they found shelter and support with men such as Stock. He had made his name as a verbose anti-Catholic, but he was also a diligent pastor and no respecter of persons—it was said that he would denounce sin “even to the faces of the greatest, both in publike and private”—and he built a loyal following.22
Among the merchants who listened to Stock was another draper, Nathaniel Wade, who lived around the corner at the sign of the Bear in Friday Street. At his death Wade left thirty pounds to his “loving friend” Richard Stock, and the bulk of his fortune, including the Bear, to his widow. In 1623, Mary Wade married John Pocock, the rising young merchant from only two hundred yards away. This must have cemented Pocock’s standing as one of the neighborhood’s most substantial citizens. An evangelical ally of Richard Stock’s, he worked with him on a project that closely resembled the Plymouth Colony, in motivation at least. It was aimed not at America but at Lancashire, in northwestern England, where Harrison’s family had originated.
When Harrison died, he made John Pocock an executor of his will, while Stock supervised Pocock’s work. With no children to provide for, Harrison bequeathed his fortune to charity. In 1620, therefore, Pocock carried out Harrison’s scheme to build a new Merchant Taylors’ School near Liverpool, with no fees for the boys beyond an initial shilling, supported by an endowment of rents from houses in Bread Street Ward.
Godly Puritans still saw the north as a backward wasteland of popery and ignorance, and Harrison’s school was one of many founded with the aim of putting this right. They compared this with the work of taking the Gospel to the New World. As a politician put it, “There were some places in England which were scarce in Christendom, where God was little better-known than among the Indians.”23 As the Mayflower crossed the Atlantic, and Pocock signed off the bills for the school, the Merchant Taylors commissioned verses in honor of Harrison, resonating with the sense of mission that we find in Bradford as well. Harrison’s bequest, the Latin says, was inspired by “love of Country, love of Virtue, love of Learning, and the love of Religion.”
This sort of thing was hardly subversive. Nobody could object to an educational charity. However, the motives that lay behind the Mayflower or the school might one day spill over into politics, if circumstances changed. If men like Pocock came to believe that the Crown and the Church of England were outright enemies of the work of godliness, rather than simply idle or inadequate, then a more radical maneuver might be needed. Stock, for example, helped to lead a group of London merchants and clergymen, the so-called Feoffees for Impropriations, who bought rectories around the country, and used the tithe revenues to pay the salaries of Puritan preachers, as a means to create an evangelical church within a church. One day this sort of thing might lead to a clash with the authorities, if the archbishop of Canterbury tried to forbid it.*
For the time being, events had not reached a moment of decision requiring outright civil disobedience, or exile, for mainstream Puritans such as John Pocock. For him, and for young Whittingtons like Beauchamp, the Mayflower’s voyage was an experiment, a shrewd gamble by means of the fur trade to thrust themselves into the front rank of commerce. At the same time, the new colony would fulfill evangelical goals by bringing the Sermon on the Mount to a land that had not heard it. Even so, New England was not yet a desperate necessity, since ways and means such as education could still be found to do the Lord’s work in abundance at home.
Within less than a decade of the Mayflower’s voyage, a crisis occurred in which New England suddenly became just such a necessary option. At that point, Pocock and his neighbors in Bread Street Ward would have to take their stand as political rebels. In 1620, however, that moment still lay very far in the future. Instead, informed men and women were mostly looking not west but east, across the North Sea toward a continent sliding into war and economic calamity.
THE KIPPER AND THE WIPPER
In January, King James issued the usual secret instructions to an English diplomat on his way to Madrid. “Informe yourselfe of all such Preparations as there be made, which wil be of three sorts: Mony, Men and Shipping,” wrote the king, in case another Spanish Armada was in preparation. Then he turned elsewhere, to a more urgent source of anxiety: the ambassador, he said, needed to monitor “the present affaires of Germany: wherof the Eye of the Christian world is like cheifely to be fixed.”24
And so it was. As the Thirty Years’ War began to escalate, the effects of the conflict in Germany rapidly spilled across frontiers. In the fourth week of July, as the Pilgrims left Delftshaven on the Speedwell, heading for Southampton to meet the Mayflower, the Spanish and Bavarian armies began to march toward Protestant Bohemia. Long before they reached Prague, the economic damage done by the hostilities had already begun to take its toll in England, despite the nation’s neutrality.
The war caused a chaos of hyperinflation, which came to be known in German as the Kipper und Wipperzeit, the “time of the Kipper and the Wipper.” Kipper meant “tilting” and Wipper meant “wagging,” and the words referred to deception, practiced by goldsmiths who played tricks with their scales, swapping sound coins for lightweight or counterfeit duds. Hundreds of mints debased their coinage as a way for local rulers to raise funds to pay for armies and weapons. At its worst, the process became a panic of competitive devaluation, as mints fought each other to attract bullion and then to coin it into as much currency as possible. As money lost its value, prices soared, increasing six-or sevenfold. Wages lagged far behind, and in southern Germany the real incomes of manual workers fell by two-thirds.25
When their truce with the Netherlands ended, in 1621, the Spanish Crown imposed an embargo on Dutch shipping; and since the Dutch were the principal carriers between the Baltic and the Mediterranean, this caused the depression to deepen still further. England had begun to feel its effects far earlier than that, in the spring of 1620, as a result of the inflationary crisis in Germany and Poland. London merchants who traded to Gdansk found that English cloth simply would not sell. The rising value of the pound killed their exports, and they were soon petitioning the Crown for help. This was why, six months before the Mayflower set sail, the Shrewsbury drapers were already in difficulties, as cloth piled up unsold at Blackwell Hall.26
The price of wool began to drop sharply. So did the price of grain, because of a series of excellent harvests. As the Mayflower gathered her supplies, a bushel of wheat fell to its cheapest price in fourteen years. Even this had its darker side, as tenant farmers found their incomes collapsing while their costs did not. As farm incomes fell, farm rents, which had been rising steeply in England for fifty years or so, at last began to stabilize, but not quickly enough to bring relief.
Against this background, between June and August, the Pilgrims made their final preparations and closed their deal with Thomas Weston. It is easy to see why the negotiations took place in a fraught, bad-tempered atmosphere. Along with the families recruited in England with no Leiden connections, Pocock and his colleagues insisted on sending with the colonists a Puritan merchant from Essex, Christopher Martin. A man with a record of minor clashes with the local church authorities, Martin apparently joined the expedition in order to reduce the influence of the Separatists. He also acted as supply officer, purchasing provisions but quarreling with John Carver about their cost and where to buy them.
Meanwhile, Weston was determined to strike the hardest bargain he could. He insisted that in the New World the colonists should work seven days a week for the joint-stock company, with even their houses treated as company assets for division after seven years. As for the Pilgrims, in the conditions of 1620 it was impossible for them to borrow in order to complete their purchase of supplies. In June, they had about £350 less than they needed, a very substantial shortfall, severely reducing their resources for the first winter in America: in the summer of that year, one pound sterling bought either forty pounds of butter, or sixty candles, or a dozen geese, or more than one hundred gallons of beer.27
When Bradford came to write about their final weeks in England, he said nothing about the economic collapse that was occurring around them. As we shall see, it nearly caused the destruction of the colony, because it wrecked the finances of Thomas Weston, which had always been fragile. But another Separatist who traveled to New Plymouth gave his own, less famous account of the motives that might lead an immigrant to America. He laid heavy stress on the hardships of the period.
The author was Robert Cushman. He did not sail on the Mayflower: instead, worried about the lack of supplies and the lateness of the season, Cushman was one of a group who turned back with the Speedwell when her skipper refused to proceed. He eventually went to New England in 1621, and preached a sermon at New Plymouth. Published in London the following year, his text was an appeal for new settlers to follow the Pilgrims. Cushman kept a grocer’s shop in England before combing wool in Leiden, and his sermon went straight to the economic point.
In England, he said, “the rent-taker lives on sweet morsels, but the rent-payer eats with a dry crust and often with watery eyes.” Unemployment rose and vagrant beggars multiplied in a fractious, divided country beset by “envy, contempt and reproach,” and by the malaise of litigation. He blamed all this on poverty and overcrowding. “The straitness of the place is such, as each man is fain to pluck his means, as it were, out of his neighbour’s throat,” he said. “There is such pressing and oppressing in town and country, about farms, trades, traffick etc; so as a man can hardly any where set up a trade, but he shall pull down two of his neighbours.”
This was language much harsher than Bradford’s. The two men fell out before the Mayflower left England, when Cushman mishandled negotiations with Weston, accepting his terms too readily. And yet in Cushman’s language perhaps we find a rare, authentic echo of the speech of Jacobean men and women in streets, in taverns, and in market squares during these years of destitution.
For Cushman, a refuge from sin and strife lay in what he called “a spacious land, the way to which is through the sea.” There we must follow the Mayflower, as she rounded the Provincetown Hook and entered the wide, calm haven behind the sand hills, where Christopher Jones let his anchor slip at last on the morning of November 11, 1620.
* From the limited data that survive, it is impossible to say exactly how much money the investors and the Pilgrims sank into the Plymouth Colony before it broke even. In 1624, Captain John Smith gave a figure of seven thousand pounds, which is probably not too wide of the mark. This was equivalent to the market price of more than fifteen hundred acres of English farmland.
* Peter Wilson Coldham, in an article in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.
* The Pococks became very close indeed to Richard Stock. When Stock made his will in April 1625, he left Mrs. Pocock thirteen shillings and four pence to buy a Bible, while John Pocock witnessed his signature. Since Stock was a central figure in the evangelical culture of his day, these details suggest that the Mayflower project was far more tightly linked to the mainstream of Puritan activity in London than historians have hitherto recognized.