God is about a great worke, yea to make a great change in the world.
—JOHN PRESTON, SERMON ON ISAIAH 64, 16271
On the last Sunday in October 1627, in the Chapel Royal at Whitehall, the congregation saw a gaunt, brown-haired, bearded man climb into the pulpit to preach before King Charles. Exhausted by fasting and long hours of study, the preacher had turned forty only a few days before. He was already frail and sick, with less than nine months to live. His doctor recommended tobacco, but it brought him no relief. A complicated fellow, the preacher suffered periods of listless melancholy, while at other times his eyes shone with enthusiasm.
Fragile though he was, that day he gave perhaps the most provocative sermon ever delivered within the precincts of the palace. An eyewitness said that he spoke “like one that was familiar with God Almighty.” As the war with France approached a moment of catastrophe, he denounced an impious kingdom and its erring ruler, calling on them to repent or to face the wrath of heaven. In doing so, he gave the Puritans of his generation a compelling language in which to describe their mission to North America.
The preacher went by the name of John Preston, but in London that autumn onlookers called him “Micaiah,” after an Old Testament prophet. The Micaiah of the Bible “seldome prophesied good,” and he foretold the grisly fate of the tyrant Ahab, whose blood was licked up by the dogs in the street. John Preston accepted the comparison, and like the sermons preached by ancient holy men to Hebrew kings, his own address caused a sensation. It became all the more notorious when he was banned from preaching a sequel. Soon afterward, a political crisis began. As events unwound over the next two years, they telegraphed their consequences across the Atlantic, adding the last elements needed to complete the preconditions for colonies that would endure.2
With their expeditions up the Kennebec, the Pilgrims opened the western arc of a new circuit of trade, making it feasible at last to achieve the settlement of New England by well-equipped settlers in their thousands. But before the process could reach its fruition, with the Great Migration of the 1630s, a new and more intense climate of feeling needed to exist, widely diffused among supporters of the project.
New England would not expand and prosper if it remained the eccentric errand of Separatism, headquartered in Holland and commanding only a few adherents. Exile needed to become an enthusiastic, emotional vocation, widely felt by dynamic members of the aristocracy, by men of business, and by a core of energetic and enterprising gentlemen and yeoman farmers. This was where John Preston left his mark, and this was why his timing was so relevant. By preaching as he did, and by way of his network of contacts, he did more than any other single minister to convince men and women that the Lord was calling them across the sea.
One preacher from the period remains famous, John Donne at St. Paul’s Cathedral, but in his own day Preston vied with Donne for admiration as an evangelist. When Miles Standish died in Massachusetts, the sermons of John Preston accompanied The Iliad and Julius Caesar on his bookshelves.3 Since he was also an educator, holding the post of master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where the Althams studied, Preston spread his influence widely as his pupils entered public life. Because of his talent, and his following, he could not be ignored, and so for many years he enjoyed a degree of royal favor. He was a useful man on those occasions when the Crown wished to open a dialogue with Puritans or their political allies.
John Preston greatly amused King James by using the logic of Aristotle to prove that the king’s hounds were capable of thinking like philosophers when they tracked deer by their smell. Thanks to his wit and intellect, Preston became a chaplain to Prince Charles, a post that made him eligible to preach from time to time in front of the royal family.
Gradually, however, in the middle of the 1620s, Preston fell from grace, as the king and the Duke of Buckingham ceased to bother to placate those of a Puritan disposition, while new clerics from the opposing party rose in their estimation. Preston apparently pondered the idea of exile himself, to some Calvinist place of refuge in Europe. In the end he decided to remain, and so, in the autumn of 1627, he came to take his stand at Whitehall.
To appreciate the occasion, we must begin with the venue. An amalgam of old and new, the Chapel Royal served as an emblem of the new regime that Buckingham and King Charles wished to create amid the clutter of the past. Like the monarchy and the Church of England, the chapel had a Tudor core, but a Stuart facade. By the late 1620s the new surfaces had come to matter most. They symbolized a disquieting process of change that Charles set in train, as the young monarch tried to refashion church and state to embody his ideals of deference, decorum, and good order.
Close to the private apartments of the king, the chapel lay among a labyrinth of brick buildings erected a century earlier in the reign of Henry VIII. Coming upstream along the Thames from the City of London, visitors landed at a jetty where boatmen unloaded supplies for the nearby privy kitchen. They climbed up a narrow passageway that led to the pantry and the great hall, until forty feet from the riverbank they came to the chapel, also built of brick. It was entered by way of a winding corridor that kept the king warm and dry as he came to worship. None of this had altered since the time of Elizabeth.
But while the exterior remained unchanged, the space within had not. It let fall upon the visitor something very new, and very different, a vision of color, a miniature foretaste of the ceiling of the Banqueting House, a few hundred yards to the north, where the Flemish master Rubens began to decorate the ceiling two years later.4 Inside the Chapel Royal, the walls were speckled with leaf green paint, suggesting foliage. The organ case was blue. So was the ceiling, and from it hung gold pendants. Today no relic of this remains at Whitehall, where the last traces of the building vanished under concrete many years ago, but a private equivalent survives at Rycote Chapel in Oxfordshire. It gives us some idea of the appearance of the Chapel Royal.
At Rycote, we find an elaborate oak pew, apparently built to honor a visit by King Charles in 1625. Above it stands a great wooden canopy, also colored a deep azure, studded with gilded stars made by applying playing cards. Doubtless at Whitehall the decoration far exceeded this in splendor. In the Chapel Royal, in the 1620s, the king’s painter cleaned and restored the furnishings and the pictures. He refreshed in gold and brown the figures decorating the walls. He added shadows, and subtle effects of light and shade. An image of Joseph looked down on the congregation, with nearby the king’s coat of arms, carefully retouched.
What did all this mean? Had King James and his son begun to flirt with the Catholic faith, with its images, its candles, and its bells? No, they had not: neither Charles nor his father had the slightest intention of abandoning his supremacy over the Church of England. Nor did their bishops. If the Chapel Royal symbolized anything, it was not a return to popery but an increase in the authority of the monarch.
By restoring the chapel, the early Stuart kings created an orderly space where visual grandeur signified the miracle of salvation, under the governing hand of God, bishop, and king. This was the way King Charles wished England to be. He wished to rule a peaceful kingdom where men and women knelt in their proper places, receiving in return the benefits of royal justice.
Mirage this might have been, but it was not the worst mirage we can imagine. Charles had an absurdly hierarchical vision of the world, but again it makes no sense to take sides in the controversies of four hundred years ago. Without those conflicts, the Puritan settlement of New England would not have occurred, but their quarrels are not ours. The tragedy lay in the collision of the deeply felt faith of Charles I and, on the other hand, the equally earnest convictions of those who opposed him, men such as Bradford. To them, the values symbolized by the Chapel Royal were at best mere affectation. At worst, they were a form of sacrilege, tainted by Catholicism, as wicked as those the Earl of Tyrone saw in Rome.
So, when John Preston rose to speak that Sunday morning, he did so in a setting rich with symbolism. There he was, the wheezing Puritan, wearing no doubt a black gown beneath the white surplice required in the chapel, preaching among the grand insignia of royal religion. The theater of the moment cast him as an Old Testament prophet, like Azariah, telling unwelcome truths to King Asa about the need for sacrifice, repentance, and the renewal of vows.
One issue overshadowed all others: the fate of Buckingham’s expedition to France. Since July, his army had clung by their fingertips to trenches and encampments on the fortified Île de Ré, astride the approaches to La Rochelle. The duke had made little progress in subduing the French garrisons on the island, and still less in securing a beachhead on the mainland. The names of his ships, Hope, Victory, and Triumph, had turned out to be filled with irony.
On the day before Preston entered the pulpit, Buckingham suffered a bloody defeat. He had decided to cut his losses and evacuate. First he ordered his army to retreat to an adjoining island separated from the Île de Ré by tidal marshes. Intended to allow his men to board their ships from a sheltered beach, the maneuver was disastrous. To cross the marshes, the army had to file along a narrow, fragile, and defenseless pontoon bridge. The English soldiers fell like late-summer hay before a determined French attack. Fewer than half of Buckingham’s men reached England alive, and those who did were wounded, sick, or half-starved.
Preston and his audience knew nothing yet about the calamity, but his sermon probed uncannily close to the truth. Published in 1630, under the title “A Sensible Demonstration of the Deitie,” in a collection edited by a man close to John Pocock, it consists of nine thousand words of mesmeric, rhythmical prose. A dense fabric of biblical motifs and metaphors from nature, trade, and science, the sermon seeks to envelop the listener in the all-embracing might of Calvin’s God. Nobody has reprinted it since the seventeenth century, but any modern American who read it would find its vocabulary strangely familiar.
Preston hammered out some of the earliest links in a chain of oratory that stretched far into the twentieth century. When the migrating Winthrop gave his own sermon, calling New England “a city upon a Hill,” his language strikingly resembled Preston’s. Both men drew on a repertoire of imagery that Puritans had developed since the time of Elizabeth. But John Preston gave his diction and his rhetoric new urgency, setting out issues with unprecedented clarity. Preston created a language so definitive that other men had no choice but to employ it as well.
Preston begins ominously. He takes the verses from the sixty-fourth chapter of the Book of Isaiah, words that represent a prayer for help uttered by the stricken people of Israel. Like England, at war with two much larger, richer nations, the Israelites were “oppressed with enemies, more potent and mighty than themselves.” They were oppressed, but also sinful, and Preston has no comfort to offer. If the Israelites and England lie beneath the hammer, then they do so because they have departed from the ways of God, a fearful deity of thunder, “a God that doth terrible things that we looke not for.”
For Preston, a covenant exists between man and God, the covenant of Abraham and Moses, a covenant that demands faith and obedience. If that covenant is broken, then the “God that doth terrible things” will exact dread retribution. Spanish victories against the Dutch, England’s defeat at Cádiz, the French advance on La Rochelle: all these, for Preston, made manifest an awful truth.
“Are not our Allies wasted? Are not many branches of the Church cut off already, and more in hazzard? In a word, have not our enterprises been blasted, and withered under our hands? … God is about a great worke, yea, to make a great change in the world,” he writes. “While the evill is yet in the clouds, before the storme come, while things are preparing, while the sword is whetting, before the stroake be given, before the decree be come forth, let us search our selves and meet him, to prevent it.” England, says Preston, has breached the covenant of the godly, and the only means to repair it is by earnest repentance: “Wisdome stands upon a hill and descryes the danger, and the evills that are a far off, before they approach … evill is intended against us and will come upon us, except something be done.”5
Of course this was deeply offensive to the Crown, and to Buckingham. It implied that they were even more sinful than they were incompetent. Worse was to come. Three days later, news arrived of the retreat from the Île de Ré, at first with little indication of the severity of the English losses. By the end of the week, an unofficial dispatch from the fleet was circulating in London, and it revealed the scale of the defeat. Preston’s sermon swiftly acquired notoriety, and so he earned the name of Micaiah. In the words of his biographer, “The totall routing of our army in the Isle of Rhees … was such a ratification of his prediction but the Sabbath day before, as made many beleeve he was a Prophet.”
Of course, the authorities intervened. Preston apparently invited the overthrow of Buckingham at a time when public hatred of the favorite was exploding into violent demonstrations in the streets. It was widely believed that Buckingham was a secret Spanish agent who had thrown the campaign as a means to deliver England to its enemies. Preston planned to make his sermon the first of two, with the second installment to be delivered at the Chapel Royal the following Sunday. On Friday afternoon, a royal messenger arrived to tell him that he was not required, but the damage had been done. In the words of his biographer, the aborted second sermon was “more talked about … than any sermon that he had preached before; for all men enquired what ye sermon was that Dr. Preston was not suffered to preach.”6
Among them were people who advocated the colonization of New England. For many years Preston had been intimately connected with them, and he had many friends among the preachers of Bread Street. He owed his own evangelical conversion in 1610 to a sermon given by the same John Cotton who later became the pastor of New Boston. John Preston’s first wealthy patron was Fulke Greville, the statesman who advocated royal consent for the Pilgrim voyage. Most important of all were his ties to an aristocratic circle that lent early support to the Mayflower colonists, and later to John Winthrop. Among Preston’s students at Cambridge was the future tax rebel Theophilus Clinton. So close were they that when Preston made his will, he bequeathed to young Theophilus some silver plate, alongside a legacy to Cotton.7
When Preston gave his last sermon, he crystallized ideas that pointed directly toward America. If a day of decision had dawned—and the military fiascoes of the war with France and Spain suggested as much—if the king continued to betray the ideals of the English Reformation, and if he sought to rule alone, levying taxes without Parliament and detaining men without trial, then only one path lay open. Old England could no longer claim the fidelity of the godly, but a new Canaan lay before them in New England.
At about the same time, the Mayflower investor James Sherley wrote a letter to William Bradford making the same point. “Our estate and condition is much worse than yours,” he said. “Wherefore if ye Lord send persecution or trouble heer (which is much to be feared) and so should put into our minds to flye for refuge, I know no place safer than to come to you, for all Europ is at variance, one with another.”8
This was no exaggeration. With the English beaten, the French forces began the siege of La Rochelle. In the closing days of November 1627, they started to build a fortified wooden barrage to seal the entrance to the port, completing a blockade that would starve the city into surrender. It was this, the long siege of La Rochelle, that led the following year to a decisive renewal of English maritime enterprise in the settlement of North America, led by the western ports of Somerset and Devon.
For the past twenty years, these western havens had made tentative efforts to explore and settle the coast of New England, but as a sideline, not as a preoccupation. Now they suddenly entered the field with determination, in partnership with financiers in London and the Mayflower Pilgrims. This occurred as a direct result of the war between Louis XIII and the Huguenots.
Equally important, but less visibly so, was something that occurred on the Lombard plain in Italy in December. The Duke of Mantua died without leaving an undisputed heir, and a succession crisis followed. Because Mantua controlled the valley of the Po, both France and Spain felt obliged to intervene on behalf of rival candidates. The Mantuan succession crisis opened a new phase in European history. Spain and France embarked on destructive conflict first in Italy and then more widely, when France entered the Thirty Years’ War in 1635.9
War between Spain and France gave England a decade of security, while its former enemies attacked each other elsewhere. Peace released English ships from warfare and privateering to take part in transatlantic trade and to carry emigrants. Like the recoil of a spring, England’s merchant navy leaped forward into a postwar boom that brought with it a surge of activity in North America. As we shall see, one of the first and most tangible and direct effects of the boom was the sailing of the Winthrop fleet to Massachusetts Bay.
All this happened at a moment when, for political reasons, the words of John Preston and his friends found an eager audience. Thanks to the catastrophe on the Île de Ré, King Charles in his quest for money had to summon a new Parliament in 1628. The parliamentary session ended the following year with an outcome so frustrating to Puritan opinion that at last exile to America became an inescapable option for settlers in far larger numbers.
Neither Preston nor Buckingham lived to see them go. On August 23, 1628, as he prepared at Portsmouth for another futile attempt at the relief of La Rochelle, the duke fell victim to an assassin’s knife. The murderer was an officer wounded during the previous year’s defeat, but still unpaid. Buckingham’s death fulfilled the prophecy of Micaiah, but Micaiah had also passed away. Four weeks before the death of Buckingham, John Preston succumbed to disease, his lungs choked with thick phlegm. He died “in a cold and clammy sweat” at five in the morning of July 20.10
As Buckingham breathed his last, a tiny ship called the Pleasure was preparing to leave America for the voyage back to the old country. She carried a cargo of beaver skins from the Pilgrims. From the moment she docked at her home port, on October 17, it was only a matter of time before a second wave of settlers left England to form new Puritan colonies in the west.