The title-page illustration from a book about the comet of 1618, published the following year by the Dutch poet Jacob Cats and called Remarks on the Current Shooting Star. The text beneath, from the book of Isaiah, warns of God’s anger against the sinful and promises salvation to the godly. (Boerhaave Museum, Leiden)
Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky.
—SHAKESPEARE, KING HENRY VI PART ONE (1589–92)
An hour before dawn on November 28, 1618, a physician looked up from his house on the northern edge of London and gazed over the city between the steeples and the chimneys. Above them, in the darkness to the southeast, he saw a blazing star. It was colored a shade between green and blue, with a long white triangular tail. The comet gleamed with what he later called “a bright resplendence.”
Medicine gave John Bainbridge a livelihood, but astronomy and mathematics excited him far more. An ambitious man of thirty-six, he believed in the ideas of Copernicus, and he read what Johannes Kepler wrote about the orbit of planets around the sun. In the comet he saw a chance to defend their findings. In the frost of early winter, Bainbridge tracked the apparition for four weeks, with the help of his “telescopion, or trunkespectacle,” one of the first in England. Peering through its lenses, he plotted the position of the star with a wooden cross-staff, collecting the data he needed to calculate its speed, altitude, and distance from the earth. Day by day, he watched its colors fade and the comet diminish as it soared toward the northwest. He followed it past Scorpius and the Great Bear, until it veered away into oblivion beyond the Pole Star.
Swiftly the doctor completed a book about his observations. In the manner of its time it combined algebra, verse, and abject flattery of King James. Bainbridge pointed out that the gleaming star followed a course between New Guinea and the Arctic, and this could only mean one thing. As it traveled across the sky, the doctor said, the comet promised that God would reveal to the English the shining secret of another northwest passage, the icy route that led around the top of Canada, to reach the East Indies by way of the Pacific. In the star they beheld God’s gift of wealth. From the Lord, the people of Great Britain would soon receive “healthfull spices, precious Jewels, and Orientall riches,” as Bainbridge put it in his most exalted prose.
Millions of others watched the comet too. From the Alps to Korea and from Iran to the Philippines we have vivid accounts of the blazing star, the brightest since the passing of Halley’s comet eleven years before. A teenage student at Cambridge University looked out of a window during morning prayers, saw the comet, and thought its tail resembled a fox’s brush. In China, observers called it a shining broom that swept across the heavens, while in Paris a journalist compared its round head to a burning coal, and its tail to a long sheaf of wheat. In Isfahan, the Spanish ambassador likened its green flame and its appearance each morning to the planet Venus. That year observers saw three comets, but everyone agreed that the emerald star was by far the most remarkable.1
From his home in Austria, Kepler first saw it break through the clouds twenty-four hours after Bainbridge, and he carefully noted its features. In Rome the Jesuits had a professor of mathematics by the name of Orazio Grassi. He spoke of the crowds that gathered on hilltops to watch the visitation from the heavens, “with no thought of sleep and no fear of the cold wind.” In Florence, bedridden by gout, or arthritis, or kidney stones, his rival the great Galileo received a long line of visitors, eager to exchange their impressions of the comet for his opinion, that it might be no more than vapor exhaled from the surface of the earth.2 Meanwhile a royal invalid, Anne of Denmark, the queen of England, lay sick with tuberculosis and dropsy. In the star the people of London saw a luminous warning of her end. Three months later, the queen was dead, and the Banqueting House of Whitehall Palace had burned to the ground.3
Far to the west, another group of men and women stared at the blazing star with rapt attention. Astronomy fascinated the native people of America every bit as much as it enthralled the admirers of Galileo. Describing the natives he met in Connecticut in the 1630s, the English radical Roger Williams found that “by occasion of their frequent lying in the fields or woods, they much observe the stars; and their very children can give names to many of them.”4 By the rising and the setting of the Pleiades, they constructed their calendar, fixing the best time to sow seed for corn, to plant beans, or to begin a hunting party. In their legends they gave events in the heavens a central role.
Beside Lake Huron, the Ojibwa still spoke in the 1980s of a long-tailed climbing star, which nearly ended life on earth long ago and one day will return to finish the task. In Maine, folklore collected among the Penobscot includes stories about a meteor that had warned of the outbreak of the American Civil War. We can be sure that the comet of 1618 caused just as much alarm in southern New England.5 Nearly forty years later, in a history of the colonies, Edward Johnson of Woburn, Massachusetts, described the way the people he called Indians followed the flaming star across the night sky. Like Bainbridge, they watched it each night for four weeks until it disappeared. “They expected some strange things to follow,” Johnson said.6
His laconic phrase conceals a world of meaning. The native people of New England split their cosmos into three realms: the sky, the earth, and a watery underworld. The boundaries between them could be crossed or penetrated by the souls of the dead, by a shaman in a trance, or by supernatural beings from above or below. Perhaps they thought of the comet as an eruption of divine power for good or ill from one cosmic zone into another. For men and women who prized the pattern of the heavens, an intervention of such a startling kind would foreshadow some great and unexpected event. Like the English expecting the death of their queen, most likely they made the comet an omen of destruction; and if they did, they were entirely correct.
According to Johnson, the comet prophesied not only the arrival of the Mayflower, bringing the light of salvation to the new continent, but also God’s intervention to clear a space for his emissaries. “A little before the removeall of that Church of Christ from Holland to Plimoth in New England, as the ancient Indians report,” Johnson wrote, “there befell a great mortality.” By this, he meant a wave of epidemics, of smallpox, influenza, or hepatitis, carried on visiting ships, which began in 1616 and lasted for about three years, carving a demographic crater in the land of Mawooshen.
Before the pestilence, about ten thousand native people may have lived in the southern half of Maine. Although these numbers are conjecture, as many as 90 percent may have perished in the next two decades from sickness and in small wars. As for southern New England, before the epidemics the population may have numbered about ninety thousand. Again, maybe 90 percent of them lost their lives. Perhaps disease explains why so many beaver bones came to lie beside the Kennebec at Naragooc. The survivors among the Abenaki had to gather somewhere, and the hunting, the rich soil, and the salmon made it a fine place to do so.
Wherever it was seen, from the rivers of Maine to Manila and Beijing, the comet supplied the great sensation of the years before the Mayflower sailed. Connecting so many observers, from so many different cultures, with so many meanings latent in its path, the star was a social and political event, as well as a prodigy of nature. Every diplomat worth his expenses and every preacher worthy of a congregation found something to say about it. In the variety of their responses, and they were very diverse indeed, we see taking shape the complicated world from which the Pilgrims came.
On both sides of the Atlantic we have come to look upon the Mayflower, its voyage, and what followed as an entirely American story. We think of it simply in the light of what happened later, in the vast space between Quebec and California, making it solely a matter of American concern. This is an illusion: not a very damaging illusion, as illusions go, but an illusion nonetheless. The truth is that after the Pilgrims landed in America, on or near the boulder called Plymouth Rock, events on the western side of the Atlantic unfolded in intricate counterpoint with those taking place on the old side of the same ocean.
If we allow this dual narrative to run its course, before and after the Mayflower, then suddenly the picture changes. In high relief, we see the contours of a new map of the origins of Puritan America. As for the Pilgrims themselves, we discover that they were not quite the people we thought they were. “America” did not exist in 1620, and the Pilgrims were never Americans, but neither were they “English” in any simple, modern definition of the word.
Of course, they were born within the physical location known as England. The core group of Pilgrims, those who led the Plymouth Colony, came from a district as English as can be, two hundred miles north of London, at a place where three counties converge, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, and the West Riding of Yorkshire. But when we peer into their beliefs and circumstances, we find that they were not narrowly English at all. Because they were Calvinists, they followed an international creed, French, German, Scottish, and Dutch as well as Anglo-Saxon, at a time when fear spilled across borders like the luster of the comet.
It was a complex fate to be a Calvinist in 1618, and faith did not bring tranquillity. The Pilgrims lived amid anxiety, phobia, and apocalyptic fantasy.They had obsessions entirely unlike our own, obsessions that the comet came to symbolize. We might prefer to think about the people of the time as men and women in our image, but if we do so, we run the risk of misunderstanding everything about them.
Of course, in their age we can find a long list of forerunners of modernity: not only the telescope, but also the invention or discovery of logarithms, newspapers, and the circulation of blood. Scientific navigation came into being, while the Dutch created a new system of global trade, linking China to Amsterdam by way of Brazil. And, as it happens, each of these innovations will find its place in the chapters ahead, because all of them played their part in the origins of New England. And yet, if we wish to see things as they were, we have to recognize that an abyss of difference divides us from the Jacobean mind.
People did not believe that they stood on the cusp of something called the modern world. In Protestant Europe they were mostly frightened, alarmed, and insecure, but for reasons bearing little likeness to our own nightmares. In the case of the Pilgrims, profound alarm gave birth to the project of migration, urging them to flee westward and to shun iniquity and defeat. As the comet appeared, Europe was approaching the great disaster called the Thirty Years’ War: a war that the other side, the Roman Catholics, seemed all too likely to win.
MOTHER COURAGE AND THE MAYFLOWER
When the comet first flew over London, the Pilgrims were trying to find the capital they needed for their plantation. Ten months earlier, they had obtained consent in principle from King James to settle within territory claimed by England in what were called “the northern parts of Virginia,” meaning modern New Jersey or New York State. From their base in Holland, the Pilgrims still had to find investors willing to fund their new colony until it became self-sufficient. As they tried each avenue, speculation about the comet surrounded them. At any time, a star so brilliant would arouse intense interest, but in 1618 the conditions guaranteed that it would call forth a multitude of interpretations. The year in question opened a dangerous phase in history.
The stargazing Bainbridge had no doubt that this was so. He was one of northern Europe’s rare optimists, but his optimism took a somber form.7 Schooled by Puritans, he was another ardent follower of John Calvin, he hated the Roman Catholic Church and the pope, and he longed to see them defeated. His reaction to the comet took two forms. One was a matter of physics, as Bainbridge tried to use the comet to prove that Copernicus and Kepler were correct about the solar system, but the other concerned theology. Bainbridge made the star a prophecy of doom for most men and women, and salvation for a few.
Bainbridge listed a spate of comets in the previous century, closely coinciding with the arrival of Martin Luther, and with other significant moments in the history of the Protestant Reformation that followed. For Bainbridge, the latest comet was an emblem of Providence in action, an omen of upheaval, a sign that God was working out some vast plan of destruction or redemption for mankind. It might even be a warning of the Second Coming of the Son of Man.
No human soul could say what horrors might precede the end, but in the thirteenth chapter of his Gospel, Saint Mark supplied a clue. Before Christ returned to judge mankind, his message must first be preached in all nations, the evangelist had said. Bainbridge reminded his readers that a blazing star appeared in 1606, the year before the Jamestown colony began, and this was a promise from God that he would shine the lamp of Protestant Christianity on the heathen people of the Americas. That accomplished, the way would lie open for retribution to fall on the wicked. The comet, said Bainbridge, spoke of the imminent destruction of the Roman Church, and then all men would face the Lord.8
True, a few observers viewed the comet calmly, or doused forecasts such as this with cool skepticism. Grassi the scientific Jesuit disagreed with Galileo, arguing that the star was genuine and came from beyond the moon, but he also poured scorn on the Calvinists. He insisted that the star carried no theological lesson. Far away in London, James I agreed with him, dismissing the prophecies as nonsense. “Concerning the blazing star,” wrote a contemporary, “His Majesty … swears it is nothing else but Venus with a firebrand in her arse.”9 Between royal functions, the king composed some verses, making the same point with his customary blend of learning and obscenity.10
Elsewhere the prevailing mood was very different, and especially in Protestant Germany. There ministers preached scores of comet sermons. Many were published, and a few have survived, their brittle pages carrying pictures of the star soaring over rivers, towns, and the sea. The words between the images conveyed a gloomy message, even darker than Bainbridge’s. In the city of Magdeburg, a preacher spoke of the “grosser und erschrecklicher Comet,” the great and frightful comet, and he warned that God’s sword of judgment might fall at any moment.11 At Ulm in Bavaria, a pastor told his congregation that the blazing star spoke of famine, plague, war, or earthquake, but as to which one it might be: “That lies hidden with Dear God.”12
In the Netherlands, writers ventured specific prophecies, and they were grim too, dwelling again on the death of princes. Few believed that the gleaming object in the heavens warned of anything but bad news. Among the Dutch, the English ambassador was an industrious, clever man called Sir Dudley Carleton, who provided in his dispatches a detailed picture of the politics of his day. Even an envoy as shrewd as Carleton had little doubt that the comet conveyed a message in code from another dimension. For Carleton, it foretold the outbreak of a great European conflict. “We shall have … warres,” he wrote home, and he was right. As the comet appeared, the opening campaigns of the Thirty Years’ War began between the Danube and the Elbe. On one side were Catholic Spain and Austria; on the other, the Protestant states of Bohemia and Germany.
We need not trace in detail the sequence of events; as for their horror, the playwright Bertolt Brecht portrayed the three decades of hostilities as amply as anyone could wish in Mother Courage and Her Children. But in parts of central Europe, the percentage dead from violence, disease, or famine equaled the mortality rate from disease among the natives of New England. At Magdeburg, where the comet sermon had warned of a calamity, four-fifths of the population failed to survive a long siege.
Violence gathered momentum in the summer before the star appeared. In May 1618, in the episode known as the Defenestration of Prague, the Bohemians rejected Hapsburg claims to sovereignty over their country. At Prague Castle, nationalists hurled through a window the only local Catholics rash enough to defend the Austrian position. When the Bohemians raised a militia to repel an Austrian offensive, and began to threaten Vienna itself, the Austrians turned to their friends in Bavaria and Spain.
In August, Spanish troops seized the Valtelline Pass. The main road over the Alps, it gave them a safe supply line into the theater of conflict. In October, a palace revolution in Madrid brought to power a new faction eager to intervene against Bohemia. On February 3, 1619, Philip III of Spain committed his armies from the Low Countries and from Milan to the support of his allies. With that, a local squabble became a continental war between Roman Catholics and the Reformed, while Protestant England and its own Dutch Calvinist allies watched uneasily from the sidelines. A long truce between Spain and the Dutch Republic had only two years left to run, and in all likelihood the two old enemies would soon be at each other’s throats again.
The fighting seemed certain to encompass all corners of the known world. Soon after the comet vanished, Carleton reported Dutch warnings that the Spanish navy was on the move. From Madrid, another English diplomat sent word that the ships were bound for North Africa to put a stop to the Arab pirates of Algiers. Perhaps the fleet was heading for the Adriatic to seize Venetian bases, or to Genoa to land troops to be sent over the Valtelline. Or perhaps the Spanish intended to attack the Jamestown settlement.
Spain relied on her annual treasure fleet, bringing silver from Peru, and this might prompt her, Carleton warned, to make a preemptive strike against colonies that might be used as a base for Atlantic privateers. “Our poore men in Virginia and the Barmudos” might be the target, said Carleton; but if his fears were justified, England could do little to fight back.13
In 1618 she was an impotent country, beset by dangers of many kinds. There could be no better year for the Pilgrims to seek the king’s permission for their own American colony. They found allies within the highest circle of the government at home, among men who recognized the need for patriotic volunteers.
THE PRINCIPAL ADVANCER
In the autumn of 1617, from their Dutch place of refuge, the Pilgrims began to send probing messages back across the North Sea as they planned a new life in the New World. The two leading Pilgrims in Leiden were William Brewster, aged about fifty-one, and John Robinson, in his early forties. Both were strict Calvinists, from Nottinghamshire. Ten years before they had taken the radical step of setting up their own independent congregations, in separation from the established Church of England. Because that was unlawful, they fled to Holland. They took with them about one hundred fellow Separatists from the same English region, including the young William Bradford. However, neither Robinson nor Brewster was a fanatic, and neither man posed an immediate threat to the Crown. Both men could expect more than a rude rebuff from the authorities.
They were not heretics. They worshipped and chose their ministers in a free, autonomous way, but their theology aligned them with the Calvinists of France, the Huguenots, people with whom King James had friendly ties. In 1617, the leaders of the French Reformed Church were working on a plan to bring together the Protestant churches of Europe, including the Church of England, in an ecumenical union, based on a shared core of Calvinist ideas. A peacemaker by choice, James supported the scheme. It might even embrace radicals like the Pilgrims, who had the highest respect for their French counterparts. In the letters they sent to the Virginia Company, the Pilgrims played up their likeness to the Huguenots, and played down the points of divergence. This was a sensible tactic, and it yielded results.14
Brewster and Robinson had a friend in London called Sabine Staresmore, who acted as their agent.15 Aged thirty-five, the illegitimate younger son of another clergyman, Staresmore belonged to a semisecret congregation based in Southwark, south of the Thames, a twilight place where people did unofficial things. The congregation recruited tradesmen, apprentices, and many women, flirted with Separatism, and tried to avoid prosecution. Staresmore himself went to prison after the authorities raided an illegal gathering. But Jacobean London was a subtle and a complicated city. Despite his views, Staresmore obtained a meeting in February 1618 with one of the most senior men in the Virginia Company, a financier in his mid-fifties called Sir John Wolstenholme.*Staresmore asked Wolstenholme to help the Pilgrims apply for the consents they needed, from the company and from the Crown, to settle in Virginia, and to do so with a measure of religious freedom. Wolstenholme swiftly agreed to help.
A description of his meeting with Staresmore survives in the great history of the Plymouth Colony written by William Bradford. Understandably, Bradford’s narrative has always provided the backbone for books about the Mayflower Pilgrims. Later writers have often relied on it as pretty much their only source. But for all his qualities, Bradford left an incomplete account of events. We have to use the evidence from British archives to check, confirm, and amplify what he wrote; if not, incidents such as the intervention by Wolstenholme simply lose their meaning.16
Sir John was more than an average businessman, and the records that remain show that he had all manner of reasons to be cooperative. Although no evidence survives to suggest that he was a Puritan, Wolstenholme took his own Christianity very seriously. Near his country home at Stanmore, north of London, he built and endowed a new parish church. When he died, he left two hundred pounds for the repair of St. Paul’s Cathedral, ten times the annual wages of a highly skilled craftsman. Far from distrusting the Pilgrims, Sir John recommended them for a Virginia Company grant to pay for a school for Native American children.
Besides his piety, Sir John was a practical man—his few surviving papers contain a mass of detail about the prices of pepper, silk, and indigo—and this would also make him listen sympathetically.17 Virginia badly needed new migrants, because fever had culled the number of settlers to about four hundred. Since Wolstenholme belonged to an inner clique of investors who made a monopoly profit by selling supplies to the colonists, he had an obvious incentive to encourage the Pilgrims to head westward. He was also something of a visionary, and a patriot, worried by the fragile state of English commerce.
In business, the English lagged far behind the Dutch. Allies they might be, but the Dutch were also fierce competitors. They made better cloth than the English, they controlled the herring fisheries of the North Sea, and they fought bloody skirmishes with English whalers in the Arctic. Perhaps five times the size of England’s, their merchant marine consisted of bigger but cheaper vessels, manned lightly and hired by Amsterdam traders with far more capital than their counterparts in London. And in July 1617, word reached Whitehall Palace that the Dutch had found a new South American route to the East Indies by way of a channel avoiding Cape Horn. That autumn and winter, English diplomats sent home a stream of dispatches warning that England was falling behind its opponents everywhere.
From Paris, the English ambassador reported that the French intended to create “a greate stocke and fleete for the undertakinge of remote trades, and particulerly to the West Indies.” A few weeks later, he heard that the merchants of Rouen and Dieppe were planning a whaling voyage to Greenland, flouting English claims to control the area. In Holland, Carleton used his network of agents to obtain the secret Dutch log of their discoveries in Patagonia, and he sent it back to Whitehall, only to learn that the king of Denmark was also fitting out ships for a voyage to the Spice Islands. With the French and Dutch doing business there too, said Carleton, “the well will be drawne drie with so many buckets.”18
In the opening months of 1618, the race for control of oceanic trade extended across the North Atlantic. In Paris, Champlain lobbied hard for royal support for his colony at Quebec. He asked Louis XIII for money and soldiers to help him find “un chemin raccourcy pour aller à la Chine,” a quick way to China, via the Great Lakes, and to ward off his English and Dutch rivals.19 As things turned out, the French Crown never threw its full weight behind him, but no one in London could be sure of that yet.
So, when Staresmore came to see him, Wolstenholme was busy with his own scheme to outflank Champlain and the Dutch. When a London author published the first English book on the ratios of trigonometry, vital for navigation, he dedicated it to Sir John, describing Wolstenholme as one “of the principall advancers of the Northwest discoverie,” and indeed he was.20 As a director of the East India Company, Sir John sponsored voyages to the Canadian Arctic, and when Staresmore made his approach, the quest was more urgent than ever. Wolstenholme knew about the Dutch discovery in South America, and his response was to press ahead with yet another effort to find a shortcut to the Indies.
On January 20, Sir John urged the East India Company to send a new expedition to Hudson Bay, offering to put up the bulk of the money. Meanwhile, he worked closely with a mathematician named Henry Briggs, another Cambridge man, a contemporary of John Robinson. Briggs had another theory, one that made it all the more important to secure the future of Virginia.
A Calvinist and a Puritan, Henry Briggs, like Robinson, had resigned his college fellowship during the purge of Puritans after King James first came to the throne. Briggs found a welcome in London from men of business, thanks to his own scientific expertise. He took the new tool called logarithms, first available in 1614, and showed mariners how to use them, combined with trigonometry, to calculate their course at sea. Like Bainbridge, to whom he was close, Briggs dreamed of making England the mistress of the Indies. He believed that while a route to the Pacific must exist through Canada, they could also reach the same ocean from Virginia by way of a portage across the Appalachians.21
Hence arose the need to plant more Englishmen in this essential region. By approaching Sir John, the Pilgrims had chosen the right man, and he did not disappoint them. Bradford mentions another revealing detail, easily missed but rich with significance. After seeing Staresmore, Wolstenholme hurried off to find a member of the king’s Privy Council, the executive government of Jacobean England, to seek his support for the Pilgrim project. The statesman in question was Fulke Greville, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
It would be hard to imagine a more willing advocate for their cause. Under Queen Elizabeth, Greville had served as treasurer of the navy, but more to the point he was Sir Philip Sidney’s closest friend, the very same man who had composed Sidney’s biography and recorded his enthusiasm for America. A fine poet himself, and a Calvinist of high sophistication, Greville shared Sidney’s vision of godly English colonies on the same continent. By 1618 he had reached a peak of influence. He did so at a time when the political environment suddenly made the Pilgrims acceptable missionaries.
THE RIGGING OF SHIPS
For the king, 1618 had begun in typical Jacobean fashion, a mixture of high politics and farce, drenched in alcohol. In January, it was reported that James was indisposed, smitten with a sore toe, from which the pain spread to his knee. He had with him his favorite and lover, George Villiers, a young man of twenty-five, recently created Marquess of Buckingham. As he left the king’s bedchamber in the dark, Buckingham fell down the stairs. He sprained his foot, vomited massively, took to his own bed for fifteen hours, and then hobbled about for several days with a stick.22
Buckingham gave rise to scores of anecdotes, but people wrote them down for reasons that were entirely serious. At first he was merely an exquisite courtier, but during the course of 1618 he also became a forceful statesman. His every move and mishap attracted close attention. His rise to power occurred by way of a silent coup d’état at the start of the year, a changing of the guard that secured for Buckingham the ascendancy he maintained for the next decade. It also brought to the fore in London a circle of men, including Greville, who sympathized with the Pilgrims. Their motives were partly religious, but also a matter of grand strategy. They arose from economics, and from the urgent need to strengthen the Royal Navy.
For many years, James I had spent far more than the Crown received in revenue, staving off a crisis by selling assets. But by the end of 1617 the situation was becoming desperate. From the City of London, the king had borrowed the vast sum of £100,000, enough to build twenty of the largest English warships afloat. The money bled away, mostly to pay for a royal tour of Scotland, and the City refused to lend more. The episode wrecked the credit rating of the Crown.23 Only one option remained, a marriage between his son Prince Charles and a Spanish princess, the infanta, in return for a handsome dowry, but Spain knew that it held the upper hand. No swift agreement seemed likely. As the marriage negotiations floundered, the king at last accepted the need for financial reform.
James promoted a group of new, efficient men, allied with Buckingham, to cut expenditure and find new ways to raise money. Commissioners began to attack extravagance in the royal household, but if they were to make lasting improvements, they had to deal with the navy. Blighted by corruption, the fleet consumed far more cash than any other service, but it was ill equipped and poorly manned, barely capable of leaving harbor.
Change was required, and not only for fiscal reasons. Nearly a year before the comet, reports had already reached London of naval rearmament in Spain. Added to that was the new threat from the pirates of North Africa. They had begun to raid outward into the Atlantic, attacking English fishing vessels, taking their crews hostage, and demanding ransom. At Alicante, three English merchant ships found themselves fighting off a forty-strong Arab fleet, while more pirates were sighted only sixty miles from the coast of Cornwall.24
Sooner or later, England would have to mount a punitive foray against Algiers, but its ability to do so was doubtful. So, in 1618, Buckingham persuaded King James to make him lord admiral. Commissioners began to investigate the fleet, swiftly uncovering evidence of waste and embezzlement. Wolstenholme served on the naval commission, while Fulke Greville oversaw the process from his post at the Treasury. In the circumstances of the time, they had a further motive to encourage the Pilgrims, and again it was a matter of maritime concern.
Greville belonged to the anti-Spanish party at court. They were men who hoped to revive English sea power and to repeat the victories of Sir Francis Drake. His closest colleague of all was Buckingham’s naval mentor, Sir John Coke, a man fascinated by warship design and logistics. Among the finest archives from the period are Coke’s papers, listing the navy’s requirements in intricate detail. A strong navy needed naval stores—“sea-arsenals,” said Greville in his life of Sidney, and dockyards filled with “ordnance, pitch, rosin, tar, masts, deal-boards, cordage”—and Coke itemized their quantities and cost in long memoranda. Hence the importance of establishing a new colony in the northern parts of Virginia, which contained these commodities in abundance. The same year Captain John Smith, the Jamestown man, shot off one of many letters, urging the Privy Council toward New England, as a source for “all things belonging to the building and rigging of Shippes.”25
Coke and Greville shared another colleague, a man whose name leaps from the pages of the Pilgrim narratives. Both Winslow and Bradford singled out for gratitude a politician, Sir Robert Naunton. It was Naunton, says Winslow, who convinced the king that the Pilgrims were harmless, however much they might want liberty of conscience. It would cost him nothing to let them go, since the Pilgrims would pay their own way by fishing, Naunton said. This gave the king a chance to be witty. “So God have my soul,” James replied. “’Tis an honest trade; ’twas the Apostles’ own calling.”26
We have no reason to doubt that this conversation occurred. It was exactly the kind of remark that James made, and in 1618 Naunton bathed in the glow of royal approval. Another loyal adherent of Buckingham, in January he became joint secretary of state, very nearly the highest rank within the government. Naunton saw all England’s diplomatic papers, he headed its secret service, he loathed the Spaniards, he feared Dutch rivalry, and he was a close friend of Greville and Coke. We need look no further for his motives for helping Pilgrims. Without bases in America, England could not challenge Spanish control of the western ocean. And without the supplies New England might provide, the Royal Navy could not put to sea. For Naunton, most likely it was all a matter of politics and naval doctrine, with Calvinism adding the impetus of zeal.27
Naunton and Greville were on the same side as the Pilgrims, but of course Brewster and his colleagues were not merely tools of the English state. Even if they had been, an insolvent monarchy could not help them with hard cash. As it was, thanks partly to feuds within the Virginia Company, but also to some indiscretion on the part of William Brewster, even after royal approval it took nearly two years and two attempts for the Pilgrims to obtain the definitive patent allowing them to settle in the company’s territory. For funds they had to rely on young, untried investors from London, with little capital between them. Other exiles reached America first. In August 1618, long before the Mayflower, another party of one hundred Separatists left for Virginia, and more Puritans followed. These ventures ended in failure, the bulk of the colonists killed by dysentery, but the principle had been established. Separatists could go to America, and the Crown would not stop them.28
During the years that followed the blazing star, while the Pilgrims struggled to find finance, events took an alarming course. Memories of the comet lingered, but its symbolism changed. At the time of the departure of the Mayflower, perhaps England’s most widely read new book was Vox Populi, a polemic that blamed every evil of the day on the machinations of the Spanish and the pope. For its author, Thomas Scott, memories of the comet now evoked only ambiguity and doubt.
Scott recalled the excitement it caused, its sudden appearance as the war began in Germany, and the hope that the comet seemed to offer of victory over the wickedness of Rome. And yet, by the time he wrote, the outcome had been entirely different. Spain and Austria won battle after battle, until by the late summer of 1620 a Catholic army stood at the gates of Prague.
When the city fell, the refugees included an English princess, Elizabeth, the daughter of King James. Her Calvinist husband, the Elector Frederick of the Rhineland, had accepted the throne of Bohemia, and led that kingdom against the Austrians. His defeat was the most alarming blow of all. Scott remembered that the green comet carried a long tail; he reminded his readers that it was “swift in the beginning, and slow in the ending.” It seemed to warn of a long, bloody, and uncertain conflict yet to come. Such was the atmosphere in which the Pilgrims set sail.29
In September 1620, as the Bohemian phase of the war neared its end, the Mayflower lay at her mooring in the finest natural harbor in England. She carried 102 men, women, and children as passengers. About half of them came from Separatist families resident in Leiden. It seems that forty-seven were adult males, with an average age of roughly thirty-eight. Her crew numbered at least seventeen, and probably more like thirty.
In Plymouth Sound, between the counties of Cornwall and Devon, the Mayflower prepared to leave for America under the command of her master, Christopher Jones. No record survives to show that Jones had crossed the Atlantic before; but for a while in Plymouth Sound he remained secure, among his fellow mariners in the companionship of the sea.
* How he pronounced his name is anyone’s guess, but “Worsen-ham” seems most likely.