Chapter Six


Late in the afternoon, we rode through Brewster … Who has not heard of Brewster? Who knows who he was?


To the west of Scrooby, the largest of its open fields stretched away over a ridge toward the town of Blyth. It was called the Bishop’s Field. Somewhere hereabouts a scandalous incident took place one day in the 1580s. Somebody saw a young woman take off her shoes and tights and place them in a bush. Barefoot and bare-legged, she crossed the field toward a balk, a strip of soil left unplowed between the corn to allow people and cattle to pass to and fro. Among the wildflowers she found an older man waiting. He was William Brewster, gentleman of Scrooby, the father of the Pilgrim, and the young woman was “Mr. Willm Brewster’s whore.”

Or so she was said to be. In about 1587, old William Brewster sued a local woman for libel, for repeating the gossip about his alleged fornication between the furrows. Among the undated court papers are four witness statements from women in Blyth who heard the tale. The girl was a maidservant who worked for a lady in Blyth called Jane Marshall. It seems that Mrs. Marshall spread the story around the neighborhood, saying that if her maid was pregnant, then Brewster must be the father.2

At the time, his son was about twenty-one. The future Pilgrim was living in London and serving on the staff of a member of the Privy Council, William Davison, the queen’s new secretary of state. If he heard about his father’s disgrace—if that is what it was—we will never know his reaction. The episode certainly never appeared in later histories of the Plymouth Colony. Whether the story was true or not, the incident casts a harsh light on the environment in which the Pilgrims came to maturity.

We cannot write a conventional biography of William Brewster. He left no private letters. No physical likeness survives, and we know very little about his inner life. But we can sift through the elements that went to make him what he was, including the circumstances of his father. In fact, such an undertaking is essential, because Brewster was indispensable, as a member of the core group of Separatists who supplied leadership in America. Without an understanding of the man, and the forces that created him, the reasons why the colony succeeded will remain elusive.*

His protégé William Bradford had no doubt that this was so. When Brewster died in New Plymouth in 1644, at the age of about seventy-seven, Bradford composed a eulogy that awarded him much of the credit for the settlement’s survival. Brewster, he says, was a man “seasoned with the seeds of Grace and vertue.” Tough and resilient, in mind and body, brave but also canny and resourceful, he was an inspiring teacher, modest and sociable, and discreet as well as devout. He also had an education: he possessed, said Bradford, “knowlidge of the lattine tongue and some Insight in the Greeke.” Once again, there is no reason to doubt the truth of what Bradford writes. The colony could not have maintained its morale, essential for survival, if it had lacked leadership of high caliber.3

How did William Brewster become the man he was? Or, to put it another way, what was he trying to achieve, first as a Separatist and then as an American, and why did he want to achieve it? The answer may run something like this: when the Pilgrims settled in the New World, they were looking for more than Christian liberty, however they might define it. They carried with them a blended ideology, an amalgam between religious beliefs and secular concepts of virtue, gentility, and heroism. These ideas were borrowed from ancient Greece and Rome and then refashioned to suit the needs of the Elizabethan era.

Brewster, as we shall see, became exposed in his teens and twenties to new thinking about what it meant to be civilized and courageous. Welded together with Calvinism, it gave him a powerful creed, a Puritan compound of Saint Paul and the stoic austerity of Roman heroes. Life in Nottinghamshire was unheroic, and unholy. For a man of William Brewster’s social rank it also contained barriers to advancement. Puritanism offered, perhaps, an alternative, the opportunity and the means to escape from what he thought of as moral squalor. It might also provide a new way to define “gentility” and “virtue,” words that resonated widely in the discourse of the period. To see what Brewster was trying to escape from, we return briefly to his father’s lechery.


This peccadillo in the long grass was not an isolated case. If old Brewster seduced a serving girl, he was only one of many gentlemen who did so. At Sturton, George Lassells had at least attempted the same thing, and others certainly accomplished it. In 1592, the archdeacon prosecuted Thomas Sturton, a member of the family that claimed the troublesome pew. He admitted fathering a child with a servant, “Dorothy Style, fornicatrix,” taking her into his bed night after night while Mrs. Sturton was away caring for a sick neighbor.4 In the Quadrilateral, the sexual exploitation of young women was casual and commonplace. The authorities recognized it as something that required firm action.

At the end of the century, in the face of conditions close to famine, the queen and Parliament enacted the first of a series of poor laws. They obliged each parish to look after paupers and to collect a parish tax for the purpose. As a result, in the Trent valley in the late 1590s we begin to find churchwardens taking a few pence a week from each taxpayer to be doled out to the needy. As the cost of welfare rose, it became all the more essential to find the fathers of illegitimate children. So the JPs started to name the culprits. A sordid company of local gentlefolk began to file through the courtroom. In the summer of 1607, just before the Pilgrims made their first attempt to leave the country, churchgoers at Blyth could enjoy the spectacle of a gentleman called Valentine Revell sitting in the stocks. The justices sentenced Revell to a stocking for fathering a bastard, and ordered him to pay the mother twenty pounds.5

When the pioneer Baptist John Smyth wrote about his reasons for becoming a Separatist, social evils such as this featured high among them. According to Smyth, the parishes along the valley of the Trent were filled with “infinite sorts of sinners … adulterers, Theeves, Murtherers, Witches, Conjurers, Usurers, Atheists, Swaggerers, Drunkards, Blasphemers.”6 He exaggerated a little (outright homicide seems to have been rare), but in a village such as Sturton he clearly had ample evidence of sin.

When John Smyth drew up his list of sinners of different kinds to support his condemnation of the Church of England, he did so as a way to support his argument that by permitting the wicked to worship alongside the godly, the Church betrayed the sanctity of the congregation. Actually, the authorities in the Quadrilateral tried hard to punish moral offenders, and with renewed vigor after the accession of King James. But the archives that they left behind serve only to show that Smyth was describing things he saw with his own eyes.

In the last three months of 1607, as the Separatists reached the peak of their activity in the area, the archdeacon’s court at Retford prosecuted forty-one people. Among them more than half were charged with fornication. When the Retford JPs met for their quarterly session on October 9, with Sir John Thornhagh in the chair, they dealt with another twenty-three offenses, with drink-related matters to the fore. Included among the defendants were seven people accused of brewing without a license. Five were charged with assault or fighting. As for conjurers and witches, a laborer’s wife came up before the justices, prosecuted for using charms.

Low-level sorcery often appears in the local records, with references to fortune-telling or the use of magic to cure sick cattle. Occasionally, women found themselves accused of malevolent witchcraft. Austerfield had a village witch, reported to the archdeacon in 1589 by William Bradford’s uncle; she was a widow who tried to inflict dysentery on her victims by burning pieces of their excrement. But while this sort of case was very rare, harmless white magic was an everyday occurrence. John Smyth took special offense at people who tried to put a stop to rabies by writing the Lord’s Prayer on a piece of cheese, and feeding it to mad dogs.7

So if old Brewster was a sinner, there were many like him, and Smyth drew his portrait from life. If immorality in Gainsborough helps explain why pious tradesmen turned to Smyth to lead them in worship and prayer, the same was doubtless true on the west bank of the Trent as well. However, many other people besides Puritans objected to sexual misconduct, drunkenness, and witchery without reaching his conclusions about the need for a new form of Christian community. Sin aroused just as much anger among the Anglican bishops. This was especially true of Browne’s old enemy Richard Bancroft, who embarked on determined campaigns against malefactors in London. So there must have been more to the motivation of Separatists such as Brewster and Smyth than simple moral outrage at the sin they saw around them, essential though such outrage was.

If we turn old William Brewster’s libel case on its side, so to speak, and think about what it meant to sue for defamation, then it will become easier to understand why Puritanism appealed to men and women in such places as the Quadrilateral. When Brewster the bailiff filed suit, he joined a long procession of people who used litigation as a way to defend their good names.

The Church courts dealt with cases of sexual defamation, and after 1560 the number of new lawsuits began to soar in the archdiocese of York. People called each other whoremongers or adulterers or accused each other of carrying venereal disease, and those whom they insulted fought back with a writ alleging slander. By the 1590s, plaintiffs in the region were filing at least two hundred lawsuits of this kind each year.8

Slandered men and women asked the court for help because they set enormous store by honor, status, and reputation. Families rose and fell, with their fortunes determined by access to land, by patronage, or by luck. They were exposed to random crises of a moral, an economic, or a pestilential kind. For this reason, it became all the more urgent to achieve rank, to cling to it, and to defeat those who tried to take it away.

Litigation became a way of defending status, but if that was too expensive, or the prospects were uncertain, ritualized violence offered another avenue of redress. Dueling was a craze as feverish as the resort to law, forcing James I to pass the first anti-dueling statute in 1609.9 Perhaps we might view Puritanism in the same light, as a strategy for protecting reputation. If a family chose to be godly, they gave themselves a discipline that reinforced respectability. Piety and a moral code might keep a household untainted by sin and dishonor; and Christian evangelism created its own form of prestige, an alternative hierarchy of esteem.

Issues such as these possessed a special urgency for people like the Brewsters. They inhabited the grayest of gray areas within the social hierarchy, the foggy mezzanine between the lower reaches of the gentry and the upper ranks of the yeomanry. One form of status mattered more than any other, and that was the right to call oneself a gentleman.

Everybody wanted to be a gentleman, or a gentleman’s wife or daughter. Local leadership belonged only to those who ranked among the gentry, or within the even more exclusive social tier made up of aristocrats: earls, marquesses, and dukes. In Elizabeth’s reign, there were only about sixty peers of the realm. Aristocrats and the gentry combined amounted at the most to less than one in twenty of the population. While the tiny size of the elite made membership all the more intrinsic to self-worth, it also caused all the more argument about the eligibility of those who aspired to it.

Although the gentry remained a tiny minority, it was a minority in motion. Some families climbed the social staircase, while others slid backward into the unwashed multitude. In Yorkshire, during the reign of Elizabeth one hundred new families claimed to have entered the gentry, but many of those who called themselves gentlemen had doubtful grounds to do so. A case in point to the south at Sturton was Charles White, brother of the Mayflower’s Katherine Carver. In 1614, heralds from the College of Arms carried out one of their occasional investigations of the Nottinghamshire elite. In the marketplace at Retford, they publicly reprimanded Charles White for falsely claiming to be a gentleman.10

If everybody had agreed on an economic test, based on the number of acres owned, then White might have escaped humiliation, but such a test did not exist. People disagreed profoundly about the definition of gentility. Was it a matter of blood, of education, or of wealth? If it was the third, how much land did a gentleman need? Should entry to the elite be a reward for meritorious service of some kind? Once a man was a gentleman, was his status guaranteed forever? Or could he forfeit his rank, thanks to debt or disgrace? Was there such a thing as a Christian gentleman? If so, how did he behave, and what did he believe? Did a lady simply take on her father’s or husband’s rank, whatever it might be? Or could she aspire to gentility of her own, a composite of beauty, charm, accomplishments, and cash?

At Scrooby, these questions had no easy answer. In the eulogy that Bradford wrote for Brewster, we find a typically intriguing sentence describing the dead Pilgrim’s life in the Quadrilateral. Brewster, he said, “lived in the Country in Good esteeme among his frinds and the Good Gentlmen of those parts especially the Godly and Religious.” What exactly did Bradford have in mind, when he used this string of loaded words: “esteem,” “good,” “gentle,” and “religious”? Who were the “good gentlemen” of whom he spoke, but whom he does not name? What did it mean to be a “gentleman” in a place where gentlemen went about fighting, whoring, smashing pews, stealing spaniels, and rustling cattle?

As for the Brewsters, people might very well question their right to be regarded as genteel at all. They never served as JPs. Their only real estate was apparently some property in Doncaster, belonging to the Pilgrim’s mother, but they had to go to court to prove their title even to that. Fifteen miles from Scrooby lived a lawyer called Sir John Ferne, legal counsel for the borough of Doncaster, and in 1586 he published a book, The Blazon of Gentrie, which summed up the most snobbish of attitudes toward families such as the Brewsters. According to Ferne, the gentry consisted of no fewer than twenty-three grades, ranked according to their lineage, occupation, and record of military service. Highest among them were those of perfect blood ancestry, with five generations of forebears each entitled to bear a coat of arms. At the very bottom, Ferne placed a suspect order of gentry, “gentlemen of paper and wax,” men who scarcely deserved the title at all. This was the place where we would find the Brewsters, clinging to the ladder’s lowliest rung.11

By way of occupation, old William Brewster had two jobs. Neither automatically qualified him for the status of a gentleman, and his grip on at least one of them was frail. As bailiff of the archbishop’s manor at Scrooby, he collected the rents and ran the manorial court, where his principal task would be to arbitrate in disputes between tenant farmers. This sort of thing carried little prestige, and William Brewster quarreled with his employer. In 1588, the archbishop of York died, his widow began to sort out his affairs, and she raised queries about Brewster’s expenses. He reacted by filing suit against her, and she responded by accusing him of “evill words” and false accounting. If he lost his post as bailiff, he still had another position—before his son, he served as the Crown’s postmaster—but this was not especially well paying. Nor did the post confer social rank on the man who held it. His daily stipend added up to little more than thirty pounds a year, about the same as a country vicar. If he supplemented his earnings by hiring out horses and guides, or by keeping an inn at the manor, then his genteel status would become even more questionable.*

For the young Brewster, the future Pilgrim, another set of opportunities existed, but they came by way of his mother’s relatives, not those of his father. In about 1564, William Brewster the bailiff married a widow called Mary Simkinson. In about 1566 she gave birth to young William. Before her first marriage, Mary Simkinson was called Mary Smythe, and she belonged to a successful family in the port of Hull. Her brother John Smythe, the Pilgrim’s uncle, was a merchant, trading wine and other cargoes between Poland, Norway, La Rochelle, and Spain, and he served three terms as mayor. Another of the boy’s uncles was Francis Smythe, a clergyman, minister of a wide parish on an island in the marshes between Scrooby and the Humber. He was also a Cambridge University graduate, from the argumentative college of St. John’s, and his sons studied there too.12

Through his mother, therefore, Brewster came from a civic echelon of literate local ministers and businessmen. From them, and from his schooling, he might acquire a richer and more adequate idea of what it meant to be a gentleman. As we shall see, it was probably with their help that the young man obtained his place at court with William Davison. In the town of Hull, we find a trail that eventually led all the way to the coast of New England. The route went by way of education and politics.


We know nothing about William Brewster’s childhood. The Pilgrim enters the archives for the first time on December 3, 1580. On that day, he became an undergraduate at Cambridge himself, at the college of Peterhouse. He did not take a degree, and he remained at the university for little more than a year. However, we know what ideas he encountered. At his death his library in America still contained books that were in vogue at Cambridge when he was a student.13

Among them were new books about courtesy, gentility, and civilized behavior, and especially a work written by an Italian humanist, Stefano Guazzo. Within its pages, Brewster would encounter an alternative definition of rank, depending on neither wealth nor heredity. First published in Italy in 1575, the book soon reached England, where it came out in translation in 1581 as The Civile Conversation. Its language and its message bear a striking similarity to the eulogy composed after Brewster’s death by William Bradford.

Guazzo was a lawyer, working for the Dukes of Mantua. His book celebrates gentlemen who acquire gentility by way of diligent public service to their city or to their nation. Far from slotting individuals into fixed places in a hierarchy, Guazzo says that the best men are those “who from verie lowe place with the ladder of their owne vertue climbe to most respected highness. As manie Popes, Emperours and Kings have done being the sonnes of verie meane men.” His ideal gentleman has the qualities that Bradford saw in Brewster—piety, learning, discretion, humility, and generosity—but also the specific kind of bravery that he displayed in New England.

Guazzo said that the finest gentlemen were those who shunned wealth and fame, and instead did battle with “povertie, ignominie, pain and death.” In a passage echoed by Bradford, he taught a lesson that spoke directly to the plight of Separatists. “Those poore Gentlemen are to be pittied,” says Guazzo, “who by some mischance & evill hap, not by their owne fault, are become poor and low.” Relevant to the Pilgrims, exiles who left home to follow a life of hard labor in foreign lands, this sentiment appears in the Brewster eulogy as well. According to Bradford, his mentor was “tender-harted and Compassionate of such as were in Missery but especially of such as had bin of Good estate and Ranke and were fallen into wante and povertie either for Goodnes and Religions sake or by … Injury and oppression.”14

These ideas could acquire an incisive edge if they were hammered together with evangelism, and with political philosophy, to form an ideology of valor and resistance, derived from ancient history. For any educated Elizabethan, the icons of courage were the Roman heroes whose stories they read in Latin at the grammar school. We find men of such a kind alluded to in William Bradford’s history of the colony, where he cites the inspiring example of noble Romans like Cato and Seneca, who died in defense of the Roman republic or in defiance of a tyrant. And in Brewster’s youth, there was another new book—again, he owned a copy of it in New England—that plainly advocated a more open society where rank and gentility were won by merit and hard work.

It was called De Republica Anglorum (Concerning the Republic of the English). A manual for politicians, it analyzed the workings of government in England from top to bottom. First published in 1583, it went through another eight editions in the next forty years. The book was written by Sir Thomas Smith, a lawyer and diplomat, and its most striking feature was its title, suggesting that England itself was a republic, albeit a republic presided over by a queen. Remarkably, too, Smith analyzed society in simple, economic terms. If England prospered, said Smith, it was because its social hierarchy was flexible and open. In England, men could climb up from one rank to another and alter their status, simply by making money.

Smith said bluntly that if somebody had an income of £1,000 a year, then he was a nobleman. To qualify as a knight, all he needed was £120. Gentlemen simply had to pass a very basic test. In order to live, did they have to do manual labor? If not, because they survived on the rental income from their land, or because they had a learned profession, or even a business in the City of London, then they ranked as members of the gentry. Gentlemen, said Smith, “be made good cheape in England.”

He even found an honored place for yeoman farmers in the social order. In Smith’s eyes, the yeomen had earned respect as the foot soldiers of medieval armies, and they continued to play a vital role in government, as jurors and constables and by choosing members of Parliament. For Smith, Parliament lay at the heart of the English republic, and among the yeomen he praises that stout class of patriots, the “forty-shilling freeholders,” farmers with enough land to allow them to vote in a county election. The leading Separatists in the Trent valley came from exactly this social grade. The village of Sturton had eight forty-shilling men. Among them was John Robinson, father of the Pilgrim pastor.15

So, in the books he read, and in the ideas that circulated around him, the young William Brewster encountered competing visions of what it meant to be virtuous and to be genteel. And, in the conditions of the Scrooby region, the endless squabbles, and the shabby conduct of the local gentry, he could see how far reality fell short of any moral principles at all. We can understand why he might turn to the radical, evangelical solution offered by Puritans. He might come to see Puritanism as a means to shape an alternative, richer ideal of what it meant to be a Christian gentleman. It would be based on effort, enterprise, public service, or honest commercial success, a hybrid of the values of Sir Thomas Smith and Guazzo.

However noble a set of ideas may be, they will not survive without an environment in which they can take effect. The events in the real world that shaped the young man took place in the realm of war and sectarian conflict. Two rebellions occurred, with consequences that cut across the social landscape of his youth. Their effects must have reinforced the motives that made the young Brewster a Puritan.

The first was the Northern Rising, a futile attempt by Catholic noblemen to depose Elizabeth and place Mary, Queen of Scots upon her throne. It was a debacle, and it led to a Protestant backlash, a backlash that created a local Puritan movement. The second rebellion was the revolt against Spain by the Netherlands. Here the critical year was 1572, when the Calvinist privateers known as the Sea Beggars began a guerrilla war on Spanish shipping. Eager to help them, the Protestant seaport of Hull readily entered the fray. In the year in question, the town’s mayor was John Smythe, the uncle of William Brewster.


In December 1569, eight thousand troops approached Scrooby from the south and from the west. They came under the command of Edward Clinton, Earl of Lincoln. From each stop along the route, including Scrooby, Clinton sent dispatches back to Whitehall Palace, because he was advancing up-country against six thousand Catholic rebels.

In November, the rebels tore up the Protestant service books in the cathedral at Durham. They did the same in nearly eighty churches across the North Parts. They restored the Mass, and received the pope’s forgiveness for their past obedience to the heretic Elizabeth. In the end, the Northern Rising failed chaotically, after the Privy Council moved the Queen of Scots out of reach. However, the episode left a deep mark, and not only on the families of seven hundred people hanged as traitors.

The rising had shown that the North Parts remained unconquered by Protestant reform. A new archbishop arrived at York, in the person of Edmund Grindal, a firm Calvinist who had taken refuge in Germany during the reign of Mary Tudor. Writing to Burghley, Grindal expressed his horror at the popery he found among the northerners, with their rosary beads and archaic funeral rites. They had three evil qualities: they were ignorant, they were stupid, and they were stubborn. They displayed, said Grindal, “great stiffness to retain their wonted errors.”16

Grindal began a campaign to convert the north, with new clergy, new schools, and discipline imposed on the disobedient. To help him, from 1572, he had the new lord president of the Council of the North, which acted as the right arm of the Privy Council in the region. The new president was the so-called Puritan earl, otherwise known as Henry Hastings, third Earl of Huntingdon. Another keen Calvinist, he sheltered Puritan writers, and he encouraged prophesying, those sessions of Bible reading, dialogue, and prayer so dear to the evangelical Protestants of the age.

For more than twenty years, Huntingdon waged a relentless war against what remained of the Roman Catholic faith. By the time he died in 1595, as many as thirty priests and eight laypeople had been sentenced to death by hanging at York. No record remains of any Protestant nonconformists meeting the same fate, although technically the laws applied to them too, if they published open attacks on the Church of England or on the queen’s supremacy.

For most of the reign of Elizabeth, therefore, men and women in this region could function as Puritans with little fear of interference. This was especially so around Scrooby, within the area policed by the archdeacon of Nottingham. It was very rare indeed for a Puritan to be prosecuted for the offenses of which they were usually accused. The archdeacon took little interest in rooting out nonconformity, unless Catholics were involved. In 1587, he carried out an inspection of the area, covering some fifty parishes. Nearly half replied with simply two words, “Omnia bene”: “All is well.” He probed no further, although some of these parishes had Puritan ministers known to have flouted the rules of worship.17

Things began to change a little in the 1590s, when rules against nonconformity became more strict. But even then, the penalties meted out were mild. In 1593, a new archbishop ordered an inquiry into the conduct of the parish clergy, and in the Quadrilateral his officials found three ministers with Puritan tendencies. Among them was William Bradford’s friend Richard Clifton, rector at Babworth, seven miles from Scrooby. A decade later Clifton became one of the core group of Separatists, revered by Bradford. When he arrived in Holland, says Bradford, Clifton was “a grave and fatherly old man … haveing a Great white beard and pitty it was that such a reverend old man should be forced to leave his country.”18 In the 1590s, he escaped with nothing more than a mild rebuke.

Clifton failed to wear the surplice, and during baptism he left out the sign of the cross. He admitted both offenses, but the judge simply dismissed him with a warning. His case was trivial compared with the opposite threat of popery. Nor did the authorities make anything more than a token effort to coerce or to chastise laypeople. Between 1596 and 1603, the court prosecuted in only sixteen cases where men and women had gone missing from their parish church. The bulk of these cases had nothing to do with belief. They concerned men caught in the alehouse or playing cards during evening prayer, or opening a shop or working in the fields on the Sabbath. Even if a person was convicted, the penalty for nonattendance was small: a fine of one shilling, and this was often waived.

William Brewster the Pilgrim benefited from the same lenient policy. Early in 1598, after three years of failed harvests, the archdeacon relayed to the churchwardens a questionnaire, circulated to every parish in England. Far from being some tyrannical tool of oppression, it was chiefly intended to ensure that parishes were doing their best to help the poor. In April, the Scrooby churchwardens turned up among wardens from more than twenty villages, on the day when responses were due to be given. They reported Brewster and several others for the offense of “sermon gadding,” the Puritan habit of forsaking the parish church to hear a better preacher elsewhere. They also accused Brewster of “publicly repeating” sermons, a practice frowned upon by conservative clergymen. The archdeacon’s court summoned Brewster to explain, then sent him away with a verbal warning. No further action was taken.19

This was typical. By far the dominant theme in the region was the official campaign against the Catholic faith. The Brewsters and their kin the Smythes of Hull were immersed in this process too, as active participants in the same campaign against the old religion. Just before Grindal left York, he gave old William Brewster the post of bailiff at Scrooby; it is most unlikely that he would have done so unless Brewster was seen as a safe pair of hands, with sound opinions. And later, when Brewster became postmaster, he must have received the full endorsement of the Puritan earl, for reasons of national security.

Apart from the military importance of the Great North Road, and the need to safeguard the royal mail, Scrooby needed a reliable man for another reason. Long after the Northern Rising, the Privy Council continued to worry about Catholic dissidents, men and women perhaps merely biding their time before another insurgency. Bawtry, between Austerfield and Scrooby, was regarded as “a dandgerous place,” so dangerous that in 1578 it became the subject of a special report to Burghley from an intelligence officer.

Bawtry contained, said the writer, two families of suspect Catholics, “a trybe of wicked people … Traitors, rebells, feugetyves, conspirators.” They were the Mortons and the Thurlands, and the officer listed their names and misdeeds. Their young men made covert trips to Rome, and traveled back and forth across the north of England: alarming behavior, since the Queen of Scots was only twenty miles from Bawtry, in captivity at Sheffield. Both families were neighbors of the Brewsters and the Bradfords: William Bradford’s uncle Robert rented land from the Mortons. In the local records, their names appear frequently as Catholic recusants, cited for failing to attend their parish church. Hence the need to have a trustworthy man to watch the mail at Scrooby.20

In such an atmosphere, the local Puritans could hope to do far more than simply live a quiet and pious life. In alliance with the authorities, they might even take the reins of power themselves. This was the case at Hull, where Brewster’s kinfolk did exactly that. In the town, the Smythes and their neighbors built a marine republic of their own, with the approval of Grindal and the Earl of Huntingdon. Godly, disciplined, and patriotic, it became another forerunner of the Plymouth Colony.

Merchants ran the town. Of the twelve aldermen, more than half were overseas traders, dealing with Russia in the north, and the Canaries in the west, and they sent whaling voyages to the Arctic. As mayor of Hull, Brewster’s uncle was a powerful figure, since Hull was the kingdom’s fourth-busiest port. Events at Hull mirrored those occurring at Bury, and in other godly republics where magistrates strove to create what Smythe and his colleagues called a well-ordered commonwealth. Burghley used a less pompous phrase, calling places like Hull “good towns,” but the message was identical. A good town punished drunkards, set the poor to work, and kept its streets clean. It employed a godly preacher who gave sermons three times a week, with the residents obliged to attend.

During Smythe’s first term, he put in place regulations allowing him to punish the lazy, the tipsy, or the lecherous. Soon, like Bury, Hull had more than fifty rules designed to keep its people within the confines of the straight and narrow. To assist them, Hull appointed a red-blooded Puritan as parish minister. He refused to wear the surplice, and he tried to end the Catholic practice of bell ringing. When some of his flock rang the bells on All Saints’ Night, the vicar and the mayor turned up to stop them. A scuffle followed, and the minister threw a punch at a passing sailor. If this was a little undignified, the jail provided another weapon against the enemy. In 1577 the prison at Hull held twenty-two Roman Catholics.21

If asked to justify their severity, Smythe and his colleagues would point across the sea to the Netherlands, where the revolt against Spain was at its height. During Smythe’s second term, Hull welcomed two warships operated by the Sea Beggars, allowing them to resupply. Every night the townsmen slung a chain across its harbor mouth in case of a Spanish attack. They could not allow renegade Catholics to form a fifth column: or so they would argue.

For the career of William Brewster, the politics of Hull may have been decisive in a very direct and personal way. In 1584, during Smythe’s last term as mayor, Hull chose as its high steward the most fiery Protestant member of the Privy Council. This was Walsingham, the queen’s secretary of state, a man who eagerly supported English intervention to help the Netherlands. The post of high steward made him Hull’s friend and patron at court. In return, Hull paid Walsingham a fee and accepted his influence over the town’s affairs. Within less than a year, the young Brewster joined the staff of William Davison, who was Walsingham’s closest subordinate. We can guess, though no documentary proof exists, that Walsingham did the mayor of Hull a favor, by finding a job for his nephew, in return for his appointment as high steward. The relationship between Davison and Brewster had profound consequences for the future.

Davison came from a modest background, and he owed his advancement to merit. He carried out difficult diplomatic missions, and he married well: his wife was a cousin of the Earl of Leicester, the queen’s favorite, and Leicester in turn was close to Walsingham. Both men, and Davison, had Puritan leanings. A man in his fifties, Davison counted among his personal friends Sir Robert Jermyn, the Puritan squire, and also John Stubbs, the man who lost his hand for insulting the queen.

Brewster became very close to William Davison, and late in the summer of 1585 he traveled to the Dutch Republic in his retinue. Bradford’s eulogy says that Davison treated the young man “rather as a son than a servant … and … Imployed him in matters of Greatest trust and Secrecye.” During the five months he spent with Davison in the Netherlands, the future Mayflower passenger encountered men and situations of a kind that could not have been more suitable for the training of a colonist. Among them he met not only the Earl of Leicester but also the gentleman whom many regarded as England’s paragon of virtue, the poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney. Sidney was Leicester’s nephew, and he married Walsingham’s daughter. Leicester, Walsingham, and Sidney formed a close network of kinship and political sympathy, with Davison affiliated too.

On the afternoon of September 3, 1585, William Davison disembarked at the port of Flushing, in the Dutch province of Zeeland. In the coming weeks, Brewster was at his side at every moment. Brewster took part in a Puritan crusade, a crusade that Davison did his best to advance, and a crusade that served as another forebear of the Mayflower project.22


Three times in the last five hundred years, British commanders have led their troops across the Dutch island of Walcheren. It has two sizable towns: Flushing, at its southwestern corner, and Middelburg, a little way inland. A glance at a map will soon tell you why this elongated patch of mud and sand has so often invited attack, and why the fighting has often been bloody. Extending for nearly forty miles, Walcheren and the smaller islands to its east form the northern bank of the estuary of the river Scheldt. They control the long approach to the port of Antwerp.

In the sixteenth century, Antwerp had the busiest docks in western Europe, forming an entrepôt between the Baltic and the Mediterranean. Thanks to its Calvinist zealots, Antwerp also served as the chief point of origin of the Dutch revolt. This made the Spanish all the more determined to recapture the city. After a long siege, the Spanish army under the Duke of Parma forced Antwerp to surrender in August 1585. The news reached London a few days before Davison left for his mission across the North Sea.

By the time he set foot in Flushing, elements of the Spanish army had advanced to within thirty-five miles of the town. Short of supplies, Parma was weaker than he appeared, but it was widely expected that he would soon press home his advantage. Either he would thrust north on land to isolate Walcheren, or he would make an amphibious assault across the Scheldt. In October, Davison sent home reports that Parma was assembling flat-bottomed boats to serve as landing craft, and bundles of timber to serve as bridges across canals.

Parma could count on the low morale of the people of Zeeland, exhausted by a long war, and on help from Catholics who remained behind the Dutch front line. The English sent over a military engineer to inspect the fortifications, and his dispatches were gloomy: he found “the common people without obedience, the soldier in miserie and disorder for want of pay, the Governors weary, & tired for lack of good assistance.” He described flawed and feeble defenses, while the Dutch commanders were divided.23

All of this tested Davison’s diplomatic skills to the utmost. The previous year, after long debate, the queen finally agreed that England must help the Dutch rebels, to prevent Spain from occupying the entire eastern side of the North Sea. She authorized an oceanic naval war, with Drake unleashed against the Spanish in the Caribbean. At the same time, an English expeditionary force of seven thousand men prepared to go to the relief of the Dutch Republic, with Leicester in command.

Grand strategy is one thing, and politics quite another. The Dutch did not trust the queen, suspecting that she was secretly making peace with Spain. Elizabeth did not trust the Dutch, believing that they intended to do the same. Wisely, too, the queen feared that the cost of war might bleed her dry, if the campaign descended into a quagmire of trench warfare. So Elizabeth agreed to help the Dutch only if they handed over two so-called cautionary towns, fortified places controlling the mouths of the nation’s great rivers. One of these was Flushing, with nearby the artillery fort of Rammekens, guarding the Scheldt. The other was Brill, thirty miles to the north, with its cannon sweeping the mouth of the Lower Rhine. With Brewster in attendance, first Davison had to ensure that the Dutch ratified the treaty, signed in August, which contained these terms. Then he had to take possession of Brill and Flushing and garrison them with English troops.

On arriving at Flushing, Davison hurried north to The Hague. He obtained the necessary Dutch agreement, and then he made his way to Brill. It was desperately short of armaments, with only seven cannon and two barrels of gunpowder. The English soldiers who arrived to man the walls were raw and poorly trained. Worse still, as Davison received the keys of the town, he found himself squabbling with his own general in the field.

English troops had been coming ashore for more than a month. As they marched inland, they came under the command of the queen’s finest soldier, Black Jack Norris, who bore that name because of his dark hair, his vicious temper, and his savagery in Ireland. Brave but arrogant, Norris wished to lead the army out against the Spanish, to secure the Rhine crossing at Arnhem. Davison disagreed: he preferred caution. He wished to concentrate the available soldiers at defensive strong points. He also wanted to displace Black Jack, in favor of his kinsmen Leicester and Sidney, when they arrived later that autumn.

Three private letters survive from Sidney to Davison, dated 1586. In Sidney’s handwriting, and signed “your loving cosin,” they were letters that the young Brewster must have seen. Between the lines lay a common ideology of militant Calvinism, in which both Davison and Sidney believed.24

A man quite as fiery as Black Jack, Sidney had two ambitions. Either he would sail with Drake against the Spanish, and plant his godly colony in America, or he would lead a Protestant alliance in Europe against the same papist enemy. The queen vetoed the first alternative, and he never sailed from Plymouth. Instead, with the avid support of Walsingham and Davison, he joined Leicester’s expedition, as military governor of Flushing. In doing so, Sir Philip carried across the North Sea the hopes of English Puritans, eager to put into practice the doctrine of sacred resistance to a tyrant by aiding the Calvinist Dutch against Philip of Spain.

At least two hundred English gentlemen followed Leicester to the Netherlands, bringing with them county detachments of infantry and cavalry. Among them was Sir Robert Jermyn, keen to redeem himself from his disgrace at Bury. He saw the expedition as a religious duty. As he wrote in a letter to Davison in August, listing the troops who were on their way from Suffolk: “all which and the rest which shallbe employd in that service, I praye God to blesse with his reward that thei may be valiant in the Lords cause, & fight his battailes with corage.” His Puritan friends, the preachers, had rallied to his side, preaching farewell sermons, in which they told the soldiers “how to use this calling & profession of a soldier in true Dutye to God & to their soveraigne.”25

Davison and Sidney shared these sentiments entirely. Both men were friends of Mornay, the French ideologue of rebellion. A briefing paper survives, apparently from Davison’s files, that uses Old Testament rhetoric like Mornay’s to describe the coming campaign. Again they drew inspiration from a Hebrew king, but this time Hezekiah, who destroyed the altars of the pagans and renewed the covenant with God. So too the Earl of Leicester would root out from the Netherlands the last vestiges of popery. Once on Dutch soil, both Leicester and Sidney hastened to put in place Protestant reforms of a kind far more radical than those permitted at home. To serve the garrison at Flushing, Sidney opted for a church along Huguenot lines, governed jointly by ministers and by lay elders. For the Dutch Republic as a whole, Leicester called a national synod, with the aim of making Calvinism compulsory and discipline rigid.26

As so often, circumstances hindered the work of godliness. Sidney did not reach Flushing until November 18, when bad weather blocked the harbor. He had to wade ashore at Rammekens and then walk three miles to the town. He found Davison at his wit’s end with worry. After occupying Brill, Davison had entered Flushing in October, with the help of five ragged companies of infantry. Riddled with disease and short of food, the troops were forced to sleep in churches because, filled with refugees, the town had no billets. Departing Dutch soldiers had left their barracks in a filthy state. On Davison’s first night in Flushing, when the gates were locked, the keys were given to William Brewster to keep beneath his pillow: a detail recalled by Bradford in America sixty years later. The people of Flushing were restive and possibly hostile, and the English garrison was three hundred men short of adequacy.

Davison had very little cash. So he ran up huge debts with local merchants, writing out IOUs that he hoped Burghley would honor. Meanwhile, the military engineer had sent back to England his pessimistic report: walls too long, ramparts easy to climb, cannon defective. That autumn, Black Jack captured by storm two Spanish forts near Arnhem, but at the cost of heavy losses. As winter approached, he withdrew toward Flushing to spend the winter seething with anger at his demotion. Another long delay followed, until Leicester finally arrived with the bulk of the expeditionary force, on December 11. By that time, Sidney had sunk into depression, demoralized by the lack of men, money, and supplies.

William Brewster was an eyewitness of all these events. He also saw at the closest of quarters the first of a sequence of disasters that led to the failure of the expedition, and left the Dutch even more dangerously exposed to a Spanish offensive. The catastrophe occurred when Leicester ignored the queen’s instructions and agreed to become governor-general of the Netherlands. It led to furious arguments. First Leicester quarreled with Elizabeth, and then he fell out with the Dutch, because of the highhanded manner in which he behaved.

At Flushing, Leicester slept in Davison’s house, where they began talks with the Dutch about the role that Leicester would play. Brewster was part of the English delegation as Leicester embarked on a triumphal procession across the Netherlands. Feted with banquets, pageants, and odes composed in his honor, Leicester arrived on January 3, 1586, at the city of Leiden.27 Again Brewster stood at the center of things, lodging with Davison in the home of Paulus Buys, the leading government official in the province of Holland. An ardent supporter of the Anglo-Dutch alliance, Buys wanted Leicester to take on the leadership of the Dutch Republic, and Sidney agreed enthusiastically. Fascinated by ancient history, Sidney argued that his uncle should become a dictator, like the men who saved Rome from the likes of Hannibal.28

On January 15, with Davison standing by, Leicester accepted the Dutch offer of the governorship. When the outraged Elizabeth ordered Leicester to resign, the earl promptly placed the blame on Davison. Recalled by the queen, he left Flushing for England a few weeks later. He was a sick man and in temporary disgrace, but Sidney and his Dutch friends kept him abreast of events with a stream of correspondence. Davison took home a gold chain, a gift from the Dutch, and he entrusted it to William Brewster, who wore it as they rode to Whitehall. In the autumn, as the pendulum swung again, Davison returned to royal favor, and the queen promoted him to sit alongside Walsingham as her second secretary of state. Brewster remained in his service.

Meanwhile, Leicester had achieved very little in the Netherlands. An English officer betrayed the frontier fortress of Deventer to the Spanish, while Leicester angered the Dutch by banning their merchants from trading with the enemy. He also waged a futile campaign against Parma in the river country north of Arnhem, and during it he lost Sir Philip Sidney. One September morning, as a screen of English cavalry led by Black Jack and Sir Philip patrolled the country around the town of Zutphen, the mist parted. It lifted to reveal a much larger force of Spanish musketeers and pikemen. In the skirmish that followed, a musket ball smashed Sidney’s left thigh, and twenty-five days later he died in agony from gangrene. The earliest report reached Davison in England in the first week of November 1586. It fell to him to console Sir Francis Walsingham.29

By this time, events were overtaking Davison himself. His tenure as secretary lasted only four months. It coincided with the trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. For this Queen Elizabeth made him the scapegoat. The chain of events was complex, and Davison’s role in the death of Mary remains open to varying interpretations. But we can be sure of one thing: Davison went on trial in March 1587, charged with issuing the death warrant without the authority of Elizabeth. Convicted, Davison spent eighteen months in the Tower of London, before the queen allowed him to retire to private life. Throughout this period, William Brewster stuck with him, “doeing him many offices of service in the time of his troubles,” as Bradford put it. In return, when old William Brewster died, Davison helped ensure that the younger William succeeded his father as postmaster at Scrooby. He took up the position in 1590.30

Debts, disease, and short rations, clashing egos, complicated politics, and impossible logistics: these were the realities of the Leicester expedition. As we shall see, they bore a close resemblance to the early history of New England. Even the science of military engineering had its relevance to the Plymouth Colony, with its fort and its artillery facing the forests of the interior. What better training could William Brewster have received for the challenges he would experience in America?

During his years with William Davison, Brewster also encountered the militant ideals of the international Calvinists of the 1580s in their most highly developed form. He entered the world of Mornay, Walsingham, and Jermyn, men for whom theology and patriotism were simply two sides of the same anti-Spanish coin. Far from being an abstraction, something purely theoretical, their ideology found its embodiment in the life and death of Sir Philip Sidney. On a Dutch battlefield, Sidney had displayed a belligerent kind of Christian fortitude: one that William Bradford would later celebrate in his account of Brewster’s own adventures.

So what became of the young Puritan? In the 1580s, Brewster could expect an excellent career, as a trusted servant of a great official. Barely two decades later, the same man was a refugee, in exile in Leiden, the city where he had been a member of Leicester’s entourage. Men such as Davison never had to be Separatists. Why did it become the fate of William Brewster? Why did he find Brownism unavoidable?

This question has an orthodox answer. After the death of Elizabeth, along came the coercive King James, the monarch who harried the Puritans out of the land. Or so the story goes. He certainly wanted them gone, and his arrival set in train the events that led to the settlement of New England. But this did not happen in some simple, mechanical way, and the explanation is far from straightforward. King James was a very complicated man. We begin at the end of his reign, when the corpse of the Anglo-Scottish king lay on an autopsy slab.

* The best attempt at a biography was made by another English clergyman, Harold Kirk-Smith, in his useful book William Brewster: “The Father of New England” (Boston, Lincolnshire: 1992).

* Historians have often said that as well as becoming postmaster, William Brewster the Pilgrim succeeded his father as bailiff at Scrooby Manor. Actually, no documentary evidence for this has been found. In view of his father’s quarrel with the archbishop’s widow it seems unlikely.

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