Nothing would bee done for a Plantation until some hundred of your Brownists of England, Amsterdam and Leyden went to New Plimouth.
—CAPTAIN JOHN SMITH, TRUE TRAVELS, ADVENTURES, AND OBSERVATIONS (1630)1
Easter week in 1580 was hot, unseasonably so. On Wednesday, April 6, at six o’clock the working day was finished, and the English were eating, drinking, or at play: or, if they were devout, they might be listening to a midweek sermon, as they were in a church opposite Newgate Prison. Later, it was claimed that boatmen felt a strange unquietness in the waters of the Thames. If so, it was the only sign that anything was wrong.
Suddenly, on the south coast, people heard a detonation like the firing of cannon at sea. For weeks, the locals had been readying defenses against the danger of a Spanish invasion. Perhaps, for an instant, they feared that this was the first salvo of a bombardment. Before the noise died away, the ground began to move under the impact of the most severe earthquake to strike England for more than a century.
It began when a fault slipped twenty miles beneath the Strait of Dover, sending shock waves south to Normandy and as far north as York. As it ended, Londoners heard ragged chimes from a hundred parish churches, as the tremor caused the bells to ring a disorderly peal. Some panicked, like lawyers dining in the Inns of Court, who ran out into the street with their knives still in their hands. Others blamed their quivering wainscots on rats or weasels. The earthquake lasted less time than it took to say the Lord’s Prayer.
Only two people died. One was a shoemaker’s boy, killed by a falling stone as he sat beneath the minister at Christ Church, Newgate. A serving girl beside him succumbed to her injuries later. Apart from that, damage was modest: a church tower in Kent cracked from top to bottom, flooding on the French coast, and a fallen wall at Dover Castle. But although it ranked low on the Richter scale, in the Elizabethan mind the tremor became another dreadful warning of punishment for sin.2
Separatism took shape during this period, the early 1580s, when its protagonist, Robert Browne, achieved notoriety. Some of those who traveled on the Mayflower were at school, at university, or starting apprenticeships: at least seven of her passengers were already aged between eight and eighteen. Exposed to new ideas taught by young schoolmasters, by equally youthful academics, or by preachers from the pulpit, they were also far more likely to be literate than earlier generations.
Two-thirds of yeomen and tradesmen in eastern England could read, twice as many as two decades previously, and this was the social group and region from which most of the Pilgrims came. The content of what they read made its mark as they responded to something that felt like a crisis. In the reactions to events such as the earthquake, we find a Mayflower mentality developing, a state of mind in which some men and women might feel compelled to seek radical alternatives to the status quo.3
THE WRATH OF GOD
Within twenty-four hours, a printer of sheet music rushed out a godly ballad, “moving us to repent by ye example of ye earthquake.” Fifteen earthquake pamphlets appeared, with the same dire message at their heart, and the queen’s bishops composed an earthquake prayer for obligatory recital.4 Was England an especially wicked place? The shaken kingdom had many reasons to feel precarious.
England was Protestant, but its religious independence dated back only fifty years, since Henry VIII broke from Rome. When Elizabeth became queen, after the death of her Catholic sister, Mary, she restored the Protestant faith, but even so the Reformation remained incomplete and unsafe. Menaced from within by covert Roman Catholics, by vagabonds, and by the idle poor, England was threatened from outside by Philip of Spain, by the Jesuits, and by their truculent henchmen, the Irish. Or so it seemed to the Privy Council.
In February, they ordered ships back to their ports, to be ready against a Spanish assault. A few weeks before the earthquake, they told every county in England to draw up muster rolls of available armed men. When a Catholic earl began an insurrection in Ireland, word reached London that Spanish warships were gathering, heading perhaps for Bantry Bay, to join the rebel in kicking down England’s back door.
Fears about the succession added another twist of alarm. Mary, Queen of Scots lived in restless captivity in the north of England, waiting if Elizabeth died to assert her own solid claim to the Crown. Unmarried, Elizabeth had no uncontested heir of the Protestant persuasion. Worse still, she was considering a marriage with a Catholic, the Duke of Anjou, brother of the king of France. Until it was abandoned in 1582, this project came and went for four years of fitful negotiation, causing all sorts of trouble. As we shall see, it helped engender new ideas about politics, ideas that flowed into Separatism and came to influence the Pilgrims.
Why did the Anjou proposal anger the Protestant gentry? Because it put at grave risk the informal constitution by which they, and England, had come to be governed. This rested on a few simple assumptions. Gentlemen would be loyal to the queen, defend the realm, pay modest taxes, and enforce the law, serving as justices of the peace, the local representatives of the Crown. In return, the JPs would run their localities as they saw fit, free from interference by cardinals, monks, and foreigners. They would also keep, of course, the Church property that they had acquired since King Henry dissolved England’s monasteries.
At the apex of the system sat the queen, supreme but not omnipotent, obliged to listen to advice, ignore it though she often did. To make laws, and raise taxes, she had Parliament to help her, but more relevant were her privy councillors, and they were led by two evangelical Protestants, Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham. Burghley was the queen’s lord treasurer, and Walsingham served as secretary of state.
A royal marriage with a papist threatened to break the unwritten rules of the kingdom. A French consort might bring with him toleration of Catholics, and new competitors for royal favor and the rewards of public office. That, perhaps, was why, in the months before the earthquake, the Privy Council read seething letters from Protestant squires, such as one who warned of the “serpentine subtlety” of the French and the “inevitable danger … of bondage, agreed upon by that holy father, the Pope.”5 In private, Walsingham said much the same, while Burghley bided his time.
Walsingham remembered that Anjou’s mother had ordered the murder of the French Protestants, on the feast day of Saint Bartholomew, eight years before. Might such an atrocity occur in England too? What if Elizabeth died in childbirth, and Anjou seized power as a regent, raising the child in the Roman faith? Fears of a second massacre of Saint Bartholomew lingered all the more strongly, since refugee Huguenots had fled from France and settled in England. They made friends with Walsingham, and his Puritan allies, they told stories about persecution, and they wrote books expounding their ideas.
Such were the obsessions of the time. “God hath spoken unto us these many yeares, so many wayes, by the troubles of his Church, by the Slaughter of his Saints,” wrote one author. “By monstrous births, by strange shapes … by foreign warres abroad, by tumults at home, and now of late by an Earthquake … there remaineth nothing now but the day of our Visitation. The Lord will come in his wrath, to iudge and punish us.”6 For some, however, the earthquake might also be a call for action, a commandment to complete the work of Reformation, in a land where it remained at risk. That was what being a Puritan meant.
For five centuries or so, since the Norman Conquest or before, England had lived a double life. Unified from the center by the Crown, and later by Parliament too, out in the provinces the kingdom divided itself into enclaves. The Church, the state, and the economy took a honeycombed, cellular form. They consisted of overlapping units, layered one over the other: the diocese, the county, the archdeaconry, the hundred, the borough, and the town with a weekly market. At the base of this system lay the most fundamental cell, the parish, with usually a single village as its nucleus.
England had nine thousand parishes, each with a church and a minister, known as a rector or a vicar. If he were lucky, the minister lived on tithes, paid by his parishioners, equal to a tenth of the gross produce of the land: grain, pulses, livestock, and everything else. If he were less fortunate, the tithes belonged to a local landowner or perhaps a college at Oxford or Cambridge, and the minister received only what they chose to give him. Money matters of this sort caused frequent quarrels, and so did another feature of the system: the fact that, in many parishes, the landowner or some other lay outsider also owned the right to nominate the minister. A parish and its tithes became property to be bought, sold, rented out, or mortgaged, by people motivated by ambition or greed as much as by religion.
In theory, beneath the queen the Church was uniform and regimented, with every parish worshipping identically. The Book of Common Prayer set out in detail the order of service. Ministers had to wear caps and white linen surplices, make the sign of the cross at baptism, and marry couples with a wedding ring. Worshippers knelt to receive Holy Communion. These old Catholic habits aroused the most frequent Puritan opposition. In practice, however, the Church was far less unified than it might seem, and rules were often bent or ignored.
In some parishes in London, in the universities, in seaports, and in market towns in the eastern counties, Protestant reform had advanced the furthest. There, where the landlord studied Saint Paul and Calvin, or hired a man who did, religion meant the preaching of the Word. In such a place worship centered on the sermon, not the Eucharist. To give sermons a sharper bite, reformers borrowed from Switzerland a new practice, called “prophesying.” It referred to a meeting where clergy, and very occasionally laypeople, assembled to discuss the sermon’s meaning, to fast, to study the Bible, and to pray aloud.
This was Puritanism. The word entered the dictionary as an insult, coined by a Catholic to make fun of hot Protestants who wished to do away with every last trace of Romanism. Puritans preferred to give themselves other labels: “professors of the Gospel,” “professors of sincerity,” or simply “the godly.” They did not necessarily have special beliefs about God: Puritans were Calvinists, but so too was everyone else, at least in theory. Double predestination formed part of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, drawn up in 1562 with the queen’s reluctant endorsement. Instead, people recognized Puritans by the way they acted, by the tone of their voices, and most of all in their demands for a new constitution for the Church. Puritans did not simply read Calvin. They wished to create a Calvinist society, with religious assemblies based on the Swiss and French Reformed churches that he inspired.
Of course not everyone wanted to be a Puritan: they were a distinct minority. Roman Catholics fought a rearguard action from sandbagged foxholes in remote locations. Even non-Catholics could blunt the edge of Reformation by choosing to cling to old ways or by ridiculing the godly. Many parishes lacked piety of any kind. In the middle of the century, recruitment of ministers had collapsed. Henry VIII had stripped the Church of assets, inflation shrank the value of clerical incomes, and religious strife made the priesthood a dangerous calling. In the 1570s, 80 percent of congregations never heard a sermon, for lack of competent men. This situation was changing, as the universities became factories for cloning clergymen, their principal function until the reign of Queen Victoria. By the early seventeenth century, preachers had been found for more than half the parishes in England; but the process was slow, many doubted the need for reform, the Church was divided, and Elizabeth could not force her subjects to cohere.
Her revenues were small, and so the queen ruled by bluff and propaganda. She did so by way of favors granted and gifts received, by manipulation, and by sometimes reluctant consent, but also by way of occasional acts of extreme violence. These were sometimes effective, but often caused more problems than they solved. Faction and feud helped to determine the course of events as bishops and courtiers rose and fell in her favor. Like a pendulum, the queen’s authority in matters of religion often swung well clear of the ground. Sometimes the local bishop or archdeacon had Puritan leanings, or was simply idle or easily bullied by a local landowning elite. With patrons such as these, a professor of sincerity might hope to flout the rules of worship. But, like a pendulum, sometimes the queen’s demands for due order came hurtling back.
Most famously, in 1576 she ordered a ban on prophesying, because it might be subversive. She suspended Edmund Grindal, the archbishop of Canterbury, who had dared to defend it. With Grindal in disgrace, she began to promote conservative bishops who made Puritans toe the line.
One such man was Edmund Freke, the bishop of Norwich. In the spring of 1581, he heard about a young evangelist called Robert Browne, who had begun to preach illegally in the countryside in West Suffolk. Freke had him arrested, and reported the affair to Burghley. Browne was spreading “corrupt and contentious discours,” said Freke, at gatherings of “the vulgar sorte of the people … to the number of an hundred at a tym in privat howses & conventicles.”7 This was Separatism. In Robert Browne we see it take incendiary form, as a creed in which politics and faith reacted chemically with each other.
Robert Browne was born in about 1550. He ended his days in prison in 1633, after the old man landed a punch on a parish constable who came to collect a local tax. In the words of an opponent, Browne was a “pestilent schismatic” who mixed with his social inferiors, inciting disobedience. It was also said, though proof was lacking, that Browne was “a common beater of his poor old wife … an open profaner of the Sabbath.”8 He quarreled bitterly with his own followers, and he aroused distrust, because he changed sides more than once.
Browne was a “slipperie shifter,” said the hostile writer who called him a schismatic, and, worse still, he was a “wavering weathercock.”9 Much later William Bradford disowned Robert Browne, denying that he inspired the Plymouth Colony, but this was not because Bradford disagreed with what Browne had said. It was because Browne faltered, and made his peace with the authorities, and because of what Bradford called his backslidings. The Pilgrims never condemned Browne’s original teachings, and in Leiden in 1618 they reprinted a radical Brownist book, written as far back as 1581 by his closest collaborator. When Captain John Smith hung the name of Brownists around the neck of the Pilgrims, he did so with fairness. Until the 1640s, as a matter of routine the English gave the epithet to any Puritan who left the Church of England entirely.
Robert Browne was not the first Separatist—there were a few in London in the 1560s—but he gave the movement its title because he was articulate, he was energetic, and at the outset he was fearless. By his own reckoning, he went to jail thirty-two times. Far from being a social outcast, he came from among the affluent gentry of the English Midlands, men whose grandsons led the fight against King Charles in the English Civil War. His sister married into a landowning family called the Pickerings, from the Nene valley in Northamptonshire, eighty miles north of London. After Browne returned to the established Church, becoming minister of a parish next to their manor at Titchmarsh, the Pickerings helped him to sue his flock for the tithes they owed him. In due course the younger Pickerings served as enthusiastic soldiers alongside Oliver Cromwell, a man who was more or less a Brownist himself.
The Brownes were gentlemen too, a little farther north in the tiny county of Rutland. They lived in style at Tolethorpe Hall, where they practiced the social graces of the time: Robert Browne played the lute with skill. His father, Sir Anthony Browne, owned nine hundred acres at Tolethorpe, sixteen houses there and in the nearby town of Stamford, more farmland by the coast, and a London residence. During the 1570s and 1580s, landowners in sheep counties such as Rutland and Northampton did extremely well as prices and rents rose steeply. Because he was a second son, Robert Browne could not expect a large inheritance—when Sir Anthony died in 1590, he left Robert only one hundred pounds—but he was comfortable. He kept three servants, and in early manhood he did not need to work. When he became a schoolmaster, it was by choice.
Apart from a rare exception like Ainsworth, Separatism was never the creed of the penniless. Besides Browne, its most famous leader was Henry Barrow, hanged at Tyburn in the 1590s, another man remembered by the Pilgrims as a martyr. The Barrows were landowners too, with a little empire spanning four counties, and Barrow’s father was a stern JP with Puritan affiliations. Although he was another younger son, Henry Barrow had five hundred acres of his own, yielding rents worth five times the income of the average vicar.
Barrow and Browne certainly reached out down the social scale, especially in London, where we find shoemakers and domestic servants named among their followers. However, more often Brownists were skilled or self-employed men, including shipwrights, scriveners, and an apothecary. In the countryside, the typical Separatist came from the leading yeoman family in each village. He or she looked for leadership to an educated young gentleman-radical such as Browne, from a little higher up the social scale.10
Politics also surrounded Robert Browne from birth. In the fifteenth century, the Brownes had made their fortune exporting wool to Europe from Stamford. By the 1480s, they dominated its affairs, serving often as aldermen, equivalent to mayors. They left an indelible mark. Today Browne’s Hospital, which they founded, still accommodates the elderly of Stamford, in limestone Gothic splendor in the middle of the town. When Stamford slipped into decline, failing to become a center for weaving cloth, the Brownes became rural landlords and lawyers. Ten times they were sheriffs of Rutland, and three times members of Parliament. Sir Anthony Browne was a JP and served as county sheriff.11
In the sixteenth century, a new dynasty arose at Stamford, the Cecils, who became the greatest family of Tudor England. Wisely, the Brownes made friends with the upstarts, whose lands lay immediately next to theirs, and in due course the alliance may have saved the life of Robert the Separatist. The first Cecil to arrive was David Cecil, a Welshman who fought for Henry Tudor at Bosworth and then settled near Stamford in the entourage of Henry’s mother. He prospered, and also became an MP. Robert Browne’s great-uncle married David Cecil’s daughter: a good match, since the Cecils were amassing a great fortune. Her nephew was the most powerful of her kin, William Cecil, otherwise known as Lord Burghley.*
Besides its wool, Stamford had strategic value, straddling the Great North Road. It fell within territory that Burghley took care to control. Here and elsewhere he created a web of patronage, a network of clients who gave him his eyes and ears in the provinces. He gathered about him gentry families such as the Brownes and the Pickerings: loyal men, ready to keep the muster rolls, lead the militia, and round up Catholic renegades. So, in Northamptonshire, we find Browne’s close kinsman Gilbert Pickering serving as captain of horse during the Armada crisis. In 1586, the name Robert Browne appeared beside those of the Pickerings on a list of local worthies responsible for lighting beacons to warn of a Spanish attack. This may have been our man.12
On the face of it, to fulfill his ideals, Browne had no need to venture out of the mainstream of Elizabethan gentility. His father owned the right to appoint the minister of the parish church of Little Casterton, three hundred yards from their front gate at Tolethorpe. If they wished to make the church Puritan, the Brownes could do so, and certainly somebody stripped every vestige of Catholicism from the interior, since the plastered white walls are now as bare as can be. Indeed, by the late 1570s, the Stamford area as a whole had become a haven for the godly, where the JPs organized communal prayer and prophesying, even after the royal ban. So why did Robert Browne become a dissident? Other factors had to operate, to force him along a path of outright nonconformity.
First, by way of education, Browne became exposed to the most avantgarde species of Puritan thinking. Then, at the time of the earthquake, during the debates about Anjou, he became convinced that those ideas needed to be made still more radical, and applied immediately, without waiting for Parliament to enact reform. Finally, and like any revolutionary, he needed an inflammable situation, awaiting a spark. It existed in Suffolk, in and around Bury St. Edmunds, where, whether they meant to or not, the local Puritan squires assembled the fuel he needed.
His career began at Cambridge in about 1570, when Browne became a student at Corpus Christi College. It was small, with fewer than seventy members, and they were very young indeed. At Corpus, even the senior men, the twelve teaching fellows, had an average age of only twenty-eight. Given the need to train clergymen, and to educate the gentry, Cambridge had expanded fast, and so the number of fellows of Cambridge colleges had risen by one-third in the previous decade. Besides being youthful, they were, said an official report, “more intractable than they were wont to be.”13
This was an understatement. In 1565, Burghley’s own college, St. John’s, witnessed the first of many feuds, when a young Puritan, aged twenty-seven, gave a sermon likening the unleavened bread used in the Eucharist to starch and paste. He condemned the wearing of a surplice, compulsory in the chapel. His supporters refused to wear the hated vestments, and they hissed those that did. They also spread rumors that a conservative opponent kept a girlfriend in a whorehouse.14
This was not an isolated case. During Browne’s time at Cambridge, the most serious fracas occurred, caused by lectures given by Thomas Cartwright, professor of divinity, a man in his mid-thirties, and a Puritan. Taking as his text the Acts of the Apostles, describing Christianity as Saint Peter knew it, Cartwright called for an end to the hierarchy of the Church of England. Archbishops, bishops, archdeacons, the courts that administered Church law: popery tainted them all, and the prayer book, “an unperfecte book, culled & picked out of that popish dunghill, the Masse,” in the tactful words of a Cartwright supporter.15 He demanded a new type of church, with elected pastors, assisted by presbyters or elders, and a network of synods, linked to the Calvinist churches of Europe. Dismissed, Cartwright went into exile, in Geneva and then the Netherlands.
Controversies like these were far more than academic tiffs. Later, Browne wrote a brief autobiography, sadly lacking in precise dates or locations, but speaking clearly of the depth of feeling that flowed into these debates. He recorded his despair at what he calls “the wofull and lamentable state of the church … and what abuses there were in the government then used.”16 This was not empty rhetoric: Browne was entirely genuine in his commitment to seeking out the truth, whatever his critics might say.
We can be certain about this, because Browne graduated in 1572 with a bachelor’s degree. To begin with, he must have intended to become a clergyman. Men rarely bothered to graduate, unless that was their career choice, and Browne could easily have obtained a living in the Church, thanks to his connections. Despite this, he refused to make the necessary compromises until the early 1590s: he even threw on the fire a preaching license that his brother had obtained for him. So the young Browne must have been sincere, and his internal crisis was very real: it was also the cause of deep anxiety, to himself and others.
Few have read his books closely, even among historians, and this is scarcely surprising. From Browne to Barrow, the early Separatists often wrote in a ranting, vitriolic style, laced with misogyny. Courageous and consistent though Henry Barrow was, in his writings the passages of eloquence and insight lie scattered amid long, wearisome tirades. They often come close to mania: he once demanded the demolition of England’s parish churches, because they dated from the age of popery. Indeed, their enemies said that the Separatists were madmen. Browne, for example, worked in partnership with Robert Harrison, a Cambridge friend, who also became a schoolmaster, until, like Browne, he was dismissed. Harrison had protested when the vicar baptized his godson with the sign of the cross, but he did so with such vehemence that the authorities wrote him off as a lunatic, “trobled with a frenesey, which sicknes … is thought incurable.”17
And yet bigotry and rage were only part of the story. Browne had a sharp, rigorous mind. He used charts and tables to set out his views with acute precision. Indeed it may have been this that troubled the authorities the most. Browne took the doctrines of Puritanism, and with relentless logic he pressed them as far as reason and the Bible would permit. He also immersed himself in the latest political thinking. It was expressed in the language of the Old Testament, but it was radical nonetheless. It molded his vision of Christianity, and then, most radically of all, Browne tried to put it into immediate practice.
THE COVENANT OF ASA
In the Second Book of Chronicles, the Bible speaks of a Hebrew king called Asa. He did what was good in the sight of the Lord. When his mother worshipped an idol, Asa cut it down and burned it beside the brook of Kidron. He destroyed the altars of the heathens, he built new cities, and with the Lord’s help he vanquished the Ethiopians. Then a prophet arose, called Azariah. He warned that despite Asa’s good deeds, the people of Israel had forsaken God. Because they had no priests, and because they disobeyed the Law of Moses, they were in danger of defeat by their enemies. Asa listened to the prophet and gathered his people at Jerusalem. Together they sacrificed oxen, and together they made, says the text, “a covenant to seek the Lord God of their fathers with all their heart and with all their soul.” In return, God gave them twenty years of peace and plenty.
In the 1570s, the most advanced Protestant thinkers seized on the books of Kings and Chronicles, finding a commentary about their own times in the stories of godly rulers of ancient Israel such as this. By far the most famous writer to do so was a Huguenot diplomat, who narrowly escaped murder in Paris on Saint Bartholomew’s Day. A contemporary of Browne’s, born in 1549, Philippe Duplessis-Mornay was one of the first French gentlemen to embrace the ideas of Calvin. Many decades later in New England, William Bradford spoke of Mornay with the highest respect. His fame rested mainly on a remarkable series of books he produced while in exile: books that made him an international figure. When the Pilgrim William Brewster died, he had two of Mornay’s volumes on his library shelves.18
In London, Mornay joined the circle of ardent Protestants who surrounded Walsingham, and he became a close friend of Walsingham’s son-in-law Sir Philip Sidney. Between 1575 and 1579, Mornay wrote four works, three of which were soon turned into English. In the clearest prose, Mornay redefined Christian faith as a creed based on reason, at one with the wisdom of the ancient philosophers whom he admired. For him, a church should resemble a Greek or Roman city-state, a community based on free consent, ready to defend itself by force, if need be. He likened the pope to the Gauls who captured Rome, or to the tyrants who usurped democracy in Athens in the age of Socrates.19
Tyranny was the subject of Mornay’s finest book, and there he called on the example of King Asa. Anonymously, it appeared in Switzerland in the year before the earthquake, under a Latin title that translates as The Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants.* Mornay pointed out that in the Bible, the Israelites chose their own kings, electing first Saul and then David. At the coronation, king and people alike entered into a dual covenant. The people and their monarch must both obey the Law of Moses and do the will of God, casting out idols and worshipping God as Moses ordained. Second—and this was far more controversial—the king was obliged to rule with justice and consent, just as Asa did, when he summoned his people to Jerusalem to ratify the covenant. If the sovereign failed to keep faith with his subjects, and with God, then the people were free to be rid of him.
If the covenants were broken, the people had to repair the breach with the Lord, even if that meant taking up arms against their king. To avoid any hint of mob rule, Mornay insisted that the people only do so under the leadership of “inferior magistrates,” the godly, right-thinking men who served below the monarch. Even so, this was daring stuff, and it appealed across frontiers. It fitted the needs of Calvinists, seeking grounds for resisting their lawful ruler, in France, the Netherlands, Scotland, and perhaps one day in England too.
By the time of the tremor, these ideas had begun to circulate among England’s political elite. They found an audience with men such as Sidney, with Walsingham, and with the Puritans who operated close to them.* In 1579, a Puritan friend of Cartwright’s published a translation of Mornay’s book about Church government, and if men and women read it, they probably did so because of its politics rather than its theology. One question surpassed all others, and that was the danger posed by the possible marriage of Elizabeth with Anjou. Was a Protestant realm about to succumb to idolatry? Would priests celebrate the Mass in London? The debate about the French match reached its peak in the year before the earthquake, when the ideas of Mornay acquired fresh relevance.
In August, a Puritan called John Stubbs published a book attacking the Anjou marriage in the same stark Old Testament terms. Like Asa, he argued, the queen had a duty to uphold true religion, and to observe the dual covenant. If she did not, she would bring down on her nation the wrath of God, and if that occurred, she should be overthrown. Elizabeth took offense, and Stubbs had his right hand chopped off for sedition. In a letter to the queen, Sir Philip Sidney made the same case against the match, but he avoided mutilation by adding sycophancy, as one did. Elsewhere, however, his writings expressed the same readiness, if the worst came to the worst, to depose an erring monarch.
It was against this background that Browne and Harrison began to write. They filled their books with Old Testament kings, and they repeated the ideas of Stubbs and Mornay, echoing them by citing Asa as an ideal, godly ruler. They had little to lose, since both were marked men—Browne was in trouble for preaching at Cambridge after refusing his license—and neither could expect a flourishing career. As unemployed schoolteachers, lodging together in Norwich, England’s second city, where Harrison took a job as master of an almshouse, after the queen’s humiliation of Grindal they saw every sign that godliness was in retreat. Freke had arrived in 1576 and put a stop to prophesying. He suspended nine local Puritan ministers for skipping the Catholic elements within the prayer book. In the face of all this, Browne asked a new question, and came up with an answer that eventually led to Massachusetts.
If the queen refused to reform her Church, and if the magistrates did nothing, how should individual Christians respond? Mornay had urged them to form their own congregations, or even leave the country, like the Huguenots fleeing from France. “Everyone Is Bound to Separate Himself from the Communion of Antichrist,” ran a chapter heading in the English translation of Mornay’s book about an ideal church. Browne came to the same conclusion, and, once across that mental threshold, he entered an exciting new world.20
Separatism had two sides, embittered and creative, and the second of these Browne began to explore. In doing so, he probably followed the promptings of another French exile, a man called Jean Morély. A Parisian lawyer, Morély had also escaped the massacre of Saint Bartholomew and found his way to London. He turned to Walsingham for help, and Walsingham found him a home in Wales with a landowning friend and kinsman of the Sidney family. Another almost forgotten man, Morély ranked alongside Mornay as one of the period’s most audacious thinkers about politics and religion.*
In 1562, Morély published a book that reads like a blueprint for the Plymouth Colony. In any Christian assembly, he said, authority belonged to “le peuple tout entier”—the people as a whole—free to vote to hire and fire their ministers, without a hierarchy of bishops or a national code of religious laws.21 Like Mornay, he compared a true church to Athenian democracy, with each congregation free to believe and to worship as it chose. Morély rested his case on the eighteenth chapter of Saint Matthew. There, the Gospel writer quoted Christ saying that a church came into existence at any moment when two or three Christians gathered together in his name. In this one verse, short and deceptively simple, Separatism discovered its founding text.
Whether or not Browne ever met Morély, or Mornay, his ideas and those of the Mayflower Pilgrims were identical to those of the two Frenchmen. In all likelihood, Browne came across them during the 1570s, by way of the work of another Huguenot intellectual, Peter Ramus. He was a French professor of rhetoric and logic, killed on Saint Bartholomew’s Day in Paris. After leaving Cambridge, Browne retained his links with the university, where Ramus had come into fashion, and Browne clearly knew his writings well. From Ramus he learned his method of using charts and tables to express an argument visually. But Peter Ramus also stood shoulder to shoulder with Morély in heated French debates about the best way to run a Calvinist church. Ramus wrote his own treatise about religion, likening a congregation to a Greek or Roman republic, and in 1576 a batch of copies of the book arrived in England. They were shipped over by the ubiquitous Sir Philip Sidney.22
If we follow the Pilgrims back to their roots, we enter this ideological territory. Browne and his followers created in Norwich a church of exactly the sort that Morély advocated. Like Asa and the Israelites, they made a pact with God and with each other. As Browne later put it, “There was a day appointed, and an order taken … thei gave their consent, to ioine themselves to the Lord, in one covenant & fellowshippe.” They wiped their assembly free from every corrupting stain of the Church of England: bishops, ministers, parishes, and tithes.
In pursuit of authentic Christianity, based on the example of the apostles, Browne and Harrison also invented their own form of worship. It seems that it was loosely based on the prophesying that the Queen had vetoed, but it lacked a rigid format, and they had no presiding clergymen. Only by way of spontaneous prayer could they prove, to themselves and to others, that their faith was genuine. How else could they be certain that they belonged to the Calvinist elect, assured of eternal salvation?
Again, Browne gives no dates, but it seems that the covenant day took place soon after the earthquake. Norwich was just emerging from three years of plague, and perhaps this added another source of urgency. So did the political climate. At that moment, Puritans hoped to win concessions from the queen, because Parliament was due to reassemble in January 1581. This too may have influenced Browne’s timing. It was widely expected that members of the Commons would again call for reform of the Church, but the queen prohibited any debate on matters of religion. Soon afterward, we find an exasperated Robert Browne in Suffolk, beginning his campaign of reformation.
When Browne arrived, he found the neighborhood in ferment. The story begins with a strange incident on Christmas Eve in 1580, another episode that captures the electric atmosphere in which Separatism was born.
THE SUFFOLK PROPHET
Deep among unfenced fields of barley, eleven miles from Bury St. Edmunds, a narrow lane runs along the top of a low hill, above a village called Walsham le Willows. The farming has changed—the land is arable now, whereas then the people of Walsham reared sheep—but much else remains as it was. The pattern of roads survives, and the willow trees still grow. A footpath still follows the village’s processional way, which before the Reformation linked sacred wells among the hedgerows.
Elizabethan Walsham was a lively place. It had a population of eight hundred, dwelling in cottages newly built from timber, clay, and thatch. Many still stand, their plaster walls painted as they would have been then, in earthen shades of brown and yellow.23 Beside the lane along the hilltop lived a tenant farmer called Withers, and he had a son called William, aged eleven.
On December 24, young William Withers fell into a trance and remained unconscious for ten days, “to the great admiration of the beholders, and the greefe of his parentes.” For what happened next, we must rely on a pamphlet, printed a few weeks later by the most daring Puritan publisher of the age and dedicated to one of Sir Philip Sidney’s closest friends.24
William suddenly came round. He began to speak in a loud voice that made his bed shake. This cinematic performance he repeated once or twice a day for the next few weeks. Each time his message was the same: a warning that the earthquake foreshadowed “a farre greater Earthquake, which you shall feele a taste of shortly, unless you repent.” The boy condemned pride, idleness, and infidelity, the wearing of ruffs, and the wickedness of stage plays.
Soon young William became a celebrity. Visitors hurried to his bedside, and among them were Suffolk’s greatest Puritans, the county sheriff, Sir William Spring, and his brother-in-law Sir Robert Jermyn. According to the pamphlet, both were “men of greate zeale to God, lovers of religion and loyall subiectes to her Maiestie.” With them came a Jermyn protégé, the town preacher from Bury, and he certified that William was a godly child.
Why did this odd episode become a brief sensation? It may have had something to do with the parliamentary session, since Suffolk’s MPs were Puritan men keen to rally public opinion. Most likely, too, young William was playing his part in some local struggle for power. Far from being placid backwaters, villages like Walsham were combustible places where religious language might be used as a means to express, to incite, or perhaps to stifle conflicts of a social or an economic kind. In Elizabethan England, men and women made the Gospel serve all these purposes, and to do so they exploited the Bible’s ambiguities to the full.
We may never know exactly what was going on, but the manor belonged to Sir Nicholas Bacon, older brother of the great Sir Francis. He was far from popular. Bread prices were soaring, but so too was the cost of farmland, and the Bacons, not their tenants, were the beneficiaries. During this period, they doubled their income at Walsham by using the law and an expert surveyor to force rents up as high as they would go. It might be that the Bacons and the Jermyns, who were friends, hit upon William Withers as an ally to help keep the peasantry in their place, by telling them that protest was a sin; or perhaps this is too cynical a view. Whatever the truth, in Walsham and West Suffolk there were issues to which Robert Browne could speak. Soon after the Withers affair, he turned up in the neighborhood. His intensity suited the mood of an anxious time.
Within his sermons lay an element of social protest. Among the ungodly, Browne and Harrison included moneylenders, profiteers who drove up the price of food, and those like the Bacons who were “undoers of the poore men by the lawe.”25 Browne vilified clerics who lived off the fat of the land, he spoke of a coming day of judgment, and he told his listeners that no one could make them go to church. Of course, Browne lived in a world of ambiguity. He was himself a scion of the landed gentry, and his instincts were a mixture of the anarchic and the authoritarian. His words could convey many meanings, but this may have been why he made so great an impact: because they could appeal to many different interests. To a hard-pressed tenant farmer he might sound like an apostle of equality, while to a Puritan squire he spoke of the need for law and discipline.
So it was, perhaps, with the Springs and the Jermyns, who were both godly and rich. Tudor Bury ranked as England’s twelfth-wealthiest town, and they dominated local affairs, much as the Cecils and Brownes ran Stamford. Their riches they owed to the cloth trade, since the Springs were the greatest textile magnates of the early Tudor period. For their part, the Jermyns farmed sheep in four counties. Like the Barrows, the Brownes, and the Bacons they prospered from the rising value of their lands.
An active, enterprising man, Sir Robert Jermyn, when he died, left two thousand pounds to provide a dowry for even the youngest of his five daughters: the other Jermyn girls had all married well already. Four miles from Bury, he built Suffolk’s grandest manor house. For twenty-three years he served as the county’s deputy lieutenant, a trusted man, eager to repair coastal gun batteries and to maintain the queen’s peace. His Calvinism took exactly the form we might imagine, and one where an American future might be traced in outline.
A TOWN UPON A HILL
Forty years old in 1580, Sir Robert Jermyn was Suffolk’s uncrowned king Asa. His only surviving portrait gives us a bearded, thin-faced man, with a hint of nervous energy. Sir Robert admired John Calvin so much that he gave a set of his works to the people of Bury, helping to found one of England’s first public libraries. At Bury, he tried to build a Jerusalem as godly as Calvin’s Swiss republic.
Bury was not a city on a hill, but it was at least a town on a slope, above what was left of the Abbey of St. Edmund. The monastery had been one of England’s largest, built on gently rising ground above the river Lark, but now all that remained were the gatehouse, ruined walls, and an immense heap of rubble. The stone went to build new civic amenities, chief among them a covered corn market, largely paid for by the Jermyns. They had made a great deal of money by dealing in old monastic land.26
Jermyn and his fellow JPs based themselves at an inn, the Angel, still today Bury’s principal hotel, facing the gatehouse and the ruins. From it, they governed the town as moral policemen, locking up fornicators, the idle, and the feckless. In 1571, following a national trend, and one that Burghley urged all towns to adopt, they drew up a new code of rules to stamp out sin.
They banned artisans from “loytring” and they compelled the children of the poor to become domestic servants. Unmarried women were obliged to have a spinning wheel, while vagrants were rounded up and shipped back whence they came. In the first two weeks of the new rules, the magistrates used them seventy times. They served injunctions on unmarried mothers, on a man caught by his wife watching a play in a tavern, and on “Alys Hill, wydow verraie old.” Poor Alice was given a place in an almshouse, but ordered “to applye her work.”27 Meanwhile, the town issued winter clothing to the needy, ran a hospital, and gave weekly allowances to orphans. As the years went by, discipline became even tighter.28
The year before the earthquake, Jermyn sent Burghley a second set of rules, to show that Bury remained a well-ordered place. They laid down harsh penalties for blasphemy, swearing, witchcraft, being absent from a sermon, or making a noise in the pew. Lechers would be whipped until their blood flowed. Brawlers, scolds, and the argumentative were to be put in the stocks, but women offenders were punished most severely. They were to be carried on a stool around the marketplace before their flogging.29 In governing such a place, the authorities might find an obvious use for William Withers. Hoax or not, poor folk who had never heard of Calvin would understand the message of the Walsham prodigy: repent, obey, or face the wrath of God, or failing that the lash.
All of this sounds like a parody, or a caricature, an appalling foretaste of the fictional Puritan New England of Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter. An old-fashioned Marxist might say that men like Jermyn adopted religion as a ploy to keep the workers in their place. There must be some truth in that, too, but Jermyn did not have everything his own way. The events that followed came to be known as “the Bury Stirs,” and the term was apt.30 Jermyn gave his support to radical preachers, and in doing so, he encouraged protest and controversy that ultimately spun out of control. Nearly thirty years later, as we shall see, a similar pattern of events led to the flight of the Pilgrims from England to Leiden.
Religion in Bury was messy and divided. Bury had two parish churches, a few hundred yards apart, each with a conformist vicar, paid a meager stipend by the Crown. However, the citizens also employed two town preachers, whose salaries they paid themselves. Both were ardent Puritans, and one of them, called Mr. Gayton, was the man who examined William Withers. Gayton was not a Brownist, but he came close to it, and in the summer of 1581 he began his own crusade.
The larger of the two churches was called St. Mary’s. With the backing of Sir Robert, Gayton climbed into the pulpit, and in Puritan style he rejected as superstitious nonsense the official regime of the Church, based on the authority of distant bishops. Again, he highlighted the democratic needs of the congregation: only the godly disciples of the parish had the right to choose the man who led them, Gayton said. Faced with this outrage, conservatives rallied to defend the vicar, and they called in the bishop’s deputy, the archdeacon of Sudbury. When he protested, Jermyn told the archdeacon to mind his own business and called the clergyman a tosspot.
While this affair convulsed the town of Bury, in the countryside Browne preached illegally. Freke arrested him in April, when two of the queen’s most senior judges were visiting the region. They packed Browne off to London, but the outcome was merely a reprimand. Burghley defended his young kinsman, writing to Freke to excuse his conduct: he was simply zealous, and not a troublemaker, he told the bishop. Browne promptly came back to Suffolk and started all over again. When the bishop complained once more, this time Jermyn stepped in to protect him. He warned Browne to be careful, but he did so in mild terms, apparently taking a liking to the young radical. Jermyn praised Browne as a promising fellow, a maverick, but “very fit to yield the church his profitable service.”31
In the England of Elizabeth, nothing was simple or straightforward. On this occasion and on others Separatists found an oddly indulgent hearing in high places. Old ties of loyalty between the Cecils and the Brownes might explain this, or perhaps it arose from dislike of the bishop. Freke was a famously pompous cleric, dominated by his imperious wife, and an embezzler, or so it was said. But outweighing these personal matters lay the national interest. If the Privy Council sided with Jermyn, it was doubtless because Suffolk was a coastal county with a surviving rump of suspect papists. For Burghley, patriotism and artillery outweighed the wounded pride of clergymen.
Even so, Browne and Jermyn had gone much too far. Sooner or later, the queen was bound to intervene, and all the more so when Harrison and Browne began writing books, printed in the Netherlands and then smuggled back home. This they could do with relative ease. Norfolk and Suffolk housed émigré communities of Walloons, Calvinist weavers from Flanders who had sought asylum but retained ties with their homeland. At last, in 1582, Browne and Harrison decided to go into exile themselves. With a few dozen followers, they set off for the freer climate of the Dutch port of Middelburg, recently liberated from Spanish control. As Browne put it, in words that foreshadowed the Mayflower, they “all agreed, & were fullie persuaded, that the Lord did call them out of England.”32 At home, meanwhile, the controversy continued.
For two years, letters and petitions bounced back and forth between Burghley, Freke, and Jermyn, while the Puritans at Bury continued to agitate in defense of their preachers. The Bury Stirs finally came to a head in the summer of 1583. At St. Mary’s, the queen became the direct target of an abusive attack that left her determined to end the Stirs once and for all. Her response took a form so cruel that six decades later in America William Bradford still remembered the events with horror.
In St. Mary’s Church, modern Bury possesses an unsurpassed museum of religious history. In the century before King Henry split from Rome, donors rebuilt and beautified the edifice. They created four chapels where masses were said for their souls. They restored the high altar, and they set up fourteen lesser altars, to Our Lady and the saints. During the Reformation, all this was torn down, the painted walls were whitewashed, and the candlesticks were sold. Even so, the Catholic past has left its evocative traces.
At the front of the church, a stone slab still protects the bones of Bury’s last abbot. Sixty feet above his grave, gilded angels look down on the modern congregation from a magnificent oak roof erected in the fifteenth century. In 1583, a visitor entering the western end of the church would also have seen beneath the angels an imposing emblem of the Crown and its supremacy, between the nave and the chancel.
Supported by a lion and a dragon, the queen’s arms dominated the interior. From a painting made in the eighteenth century, and preserved in the church, and from rare surviving examples elsewhere in Suffolk, we can guess the shape the arms would have taken. Painted in vivid colors on wooden boards ten feet high, they would have stood on a horizontal beam, twenty feet above the flagstones, with probably alongside them a passage from Saint Paul: “Let every soule submit hym selfe unto the auctorite of the hyer powers … The powers that be are ordeyred of God.” A favorite text of Martin Luther’s, it taught the lesson of obedience. To left and right there would have been vertical panels, displaying more biblical texts, painted in black letters.33
One day the worshippers arrived to find the panels daubed with a slogan from the book of Revelation: “I know thy works, and thy love, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and that they are more at the last than at the first.” What did this signify? The message took its meaning from what follows in the Bible: “Notwithstanding, I have a few things against thee, that thou sufferest the woman Jezebel, which maketh herself a prophetess, to teach and deceive my servants; to make them commit fornication, and to eat meat sacrificed unto idols.”34
Nothing more offensive could be said about the Virgin Queen. The words implied that Elizabeth was the whore of Babylon, a tyrant, a false prophet, and a pimp, whose resistance to Puritan reform threatened her subjects with damnation. Obscene and seditious, the insult remained on the walls for three months, until Bishop Freke sent to Bury a clerical detective called Richard Bancroft. He was thirty-eight years old, a former college wrestler, and the most determined enemy the Separatists would ever have.35
A man of the highest importance in Pilgrim history, Bancroft later became archbishop of Canterbury. He led the efforts under King James to enforce conformity. Although he was obsessive, even paranoid in his pursuit of Puritans, Bancroft was not merely the compliant tool of despotism. He was certainly never what Puritans called a “dumbe dogge,” a shallow cleric unable to preach. Bancroft amassed a library of six thousand books, he wrote and spoke well, and he worked hard. His hatred of Brownism arose from cogent argument, and not from blind prejudice or bigotry.
Bancroft believed that Separatism was spiteful hypocrisy, nonsense that would lead either to anarchy or to dictatorship. If every congregation went its own way, the schism that followed would cause an endless process of division. Christianity would fracture into countless squabbling sects. Bancroft forecast, accurately, an English civil war between denominations. He also pointed out that England was an unequal place and independent local congregations would not remain for long.
The rich would manipulate each church for their own ends, with the queen powerless to intervene on the side of fairness. Pious men like Jermyn, Bancroft said, were also landowners who oppressed the poor. And if Separatists denied the queen’s supremacy, then one day they might also condone armed rebellion. He quoted from Browne and Mornay, comparing them to prove that this was so.36
Bancroft swiftly tracked down those responsible for the outrage at St. Mary’s. Then, whatever the strength or weakness of his case, he took part in an act of vicious repression that left long memories of injustice. On June 30, Elizabeth banned the books of Browne and Harrison, making their possession a felony. A few days later, the lord chief justice began a crackdown at Bury, convicting five Puritan ministers of nonconformity, while a grand jury laid charges against forty laypeople. They fired Jermyn from his post as a JP, a disgrace that it took years, and the crisis of the Armada, for Sir Robert to live down.37
The worst fate awaited a shoemaker called John Coppin and a tailor named Elias Thacker, accused of distributing the forbidden books. In all likelihood, they were merely scapegoats: it seems that Coppin had been in prison in Bury since 1578, when fellow inmates heard him slander Her Majesty. They were taken outside the town to a patch of boggy ground, where the judges hanged Thacker and Coppin and burned the books. They apparently saved only one from the flames. It survives in the library of today’s archbishop of Canterbury, where Bancroft’s stately handwriting records its origin.38
Sixty-five years later, William Bradford added an extra detail to the story. According to Bradford, Coppin and Thacker bravely defied their accusers, saying this to the judges: “My Lord, your face we fear not; and for your threats we care not.”39 It seems that no other source records these words, and this suggests that they came from an oral tradition, carried on board the Mayflower. And between the Plymouth Colony and Bury St. Edmunds there may exist a still more direct connection.
On May 9, 1568, a couple called John and Margaret Carver took an infant to be baptized at Rougham, a nearby village. The child’s name was John, and the Carvers were Jermyn family retainers. When Sir Robert’s father died, he left forty shillings to “Margerie Carver,” alongside a bequest to the man who kept his rabbits. It is possible, though not certain, that the John Carver born at Rougham was the same John Carver who sailed on the Mayflower and became the first governor of New Plymouth. At his own death in 1614, Sir Robert Jermyn remembered in his will “my servant John Carver.”40 To serve in the household of a man as rich as Sir Robert carried no stigma: the people who ran his estates would command respect in local society. The Pilgrim John Carver’s origins may always remain a mystery, but if the boy born at Rougham was our man, then at the time of the hangings he was an impressionable fifteen.
Robert Browne eventually came back to the British Isles. As Bancroft predicted, he split with his supporters, and then he upset the Scots; in Edinburgh even the Presbyterians found him impossible, and locked him up. Protected by Burghley, and then by the Pickerings, Browne withdrew to the English Midlands and became a reluctant conformist. For forty years he served as vicar of Thorpe Achurch, in the meadows by the Nene, occasionally lapsing back into dissent, until his last violent clash with the law.
Meanwhile, his books made a deep impression, read by Barrow and others.41 Browne left a network of converts and followers in London, in Norwich, and along the eastern coast, in the region where many of the Mayflower passengers originated. Bancroft, for his part, acquired a resolute loathing of everything for which Browne stood. In 1593, he assisted in the process that led to Barrow’s execution, and then a decade later he set in motion the sequence of events that led to the exile of the Pilgrims.42
In the Bury Stirs, we find a pattern that came to be repeated. In terms of theology, a Brownist did not really differ from a Puritan. Both groups of people wished to create a godly community where piety kept sin and disorder at bay. For this reason, and because of a shared hatred of Spain and the pope, a patriotic squire such as Jermyn might shelter or encourage a nonconformist such as Browne. From time to time, however, events acquired a momentum of their own, as religious dissent took an exceptional form that caused alarm at the highest level of church and state.
At that point, in a pocket or cell of the kingdom, a crisis might occur, when politics and local strife combined to cause an explosion, a sudden collision with authority. In such a situation, the local Puritan leaders, men like Sir Robert, would find themselves unable to prevent a drastic purge from above. In such a crisis, a committed group of zealous men and women might choose the path of outright Separatism, followed by emigration. This was very rare indeed, but it happened in the case of the Pilgrims as well as Robert Browne. The decisive events occurred in the valleys of two rivers in the north of England.
* An estate map from 1615 shows land owned by the Brownes immediately abutting the Cecil property at Wothorpe Manor, overlooking the town from the southeast. In effect, the two families encircled Stamford with their estates, as well as owning houses and inns within it.
* The Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, probably written jointly by Mornay and his friend Hubert Languet, another French Calvinist diplomat.
* Mornay also shared Sidney’s dream of founding Protestant colonies in the New World. After the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, Mornay considered leading Huguenot exiles to Canada or Peru.
* Until quite recently, it was impossible to argue that Morély exerted any influence in England. Only in 1993 did two French scholars publish the details of his period in exile, including his ties to Walsingham.