… after the example of the Apostles, beeing shut out of Churches by the magistrate, we have gathered together the faithful into houses, and we have builded the true Jerusalem … it is lawfull in favour of the Trueth to make assemblies against the laws: no lesse then for good Citizens to assemble themselves against a tyrant usurping the commonwealth
—PHILIPPE DUPLESSIS-MORNAY, A TREATISE OF THE CHURCH (1579), a book owned by William Brewster in New Plymouth
Travel up the Idle valley from Scrooby, and eventually, if you cling to the river, you will find by the water’s edge the mossy rubble of an ancient chapel. Its ruins lie in what was once a deer park, spanning both banks, with an Elizabethan mansion at its center. The house vanished long ago, and a little way downstream an abandoned coal mine has left its heap of detritus at a place called Haughton Lound, where the Idle bends between boggy fields dotted with cinders and clumps of reed. Long before the colliery, it belonged to a family named Ellwes, or Helwys, as they also called themselves.
Their estate was small. When William Ellwes died in 1557, in his will he described himself as a farmer, staking no claim to be a gentleman. All the same, the Lound was good for farming, and Ellwes built a portfolio of tenancies, from Scrooby southward, mostly rented from the archbishop of York. William had four sons, and three of them rose with such speed that for once the word “meteoric” is fair.
People mocked the family as upstarts, but they attracted scorn only because they did exceptionally well. The eldest son, John, attached himself as a bailiff or a steward to the family who owned the chapel and the mansion. By trading in the soaring land market, he made himself a gentleman, with a manor house near Sturton. The youngest boy found his way to the capital and made a fortune, ending his days in 1616 as Alderman Jeffrey Ellwes, sheriff of London. The second son, Edmund, married an heiress and became a local official for the Exchequer. He acquired not only a coat of arms, but also Calvinism of a fervent kind.
Edmund probably wrote an intense anti-Catholic tract, published soon after the defeat of the Armada. It forecast the end of the world, with Queen Elizabeth leading the forces of the godly. And when Edmund Helwys died in 1590, he left behind a remarkable will, animated by the same religious zeal. Most wills began with a brief preamble, expressing faith in God and hope of resurrection. In his case, it covered nearly a page of manuscript, filled with quotations from Saint Paul and Saint Augustine. As Calvinists did, Edmund called himself a wretched sinner, and the world “a dirty stie, a grave of thorns … nothinge but feare, shame, tears, labour, sicknesse … and death.” On page two, he gave instructions for preserving his social status after his passing. He owned a pew at the front of the parish church. He wished to be buried beside it, with his arms engraved in brass on the slab.1
Edmund left his estate to his son Thomas, and Thomas Helwys became a Separatist. Born in about 1570, he died in London in about 1614, almost certainly in prison, accused of sedition. William Bradford never mentions him, but Bradford left out a great deal, and especially the names of those, such as Helwys, who later developed more extreme forms of Brownism in exile. Despite this, Robinson acknowledged Thomas Helwys as the man who led the flight of the Pilgrims to Holland in 1608. According to Robinson, Helwys “above all other guides, or others, furthered this passage into strange countries; and if any brought oars, he brought sails.”2 This was literally true, since he hired the boat and planned the escape.
We do not know how and why Helwys became a Puritan, but in 1593 he entered Gray’s Inn in London, where young men went to train as lawyers. Not everybody at Gray’s Inn was a Puritan, but many were. Most famous was Nicholas Fuller, one of the “benchers” who ran the inn’s affairs. In the 1590s, Fuller led the legal campaign to free Cartwright and the forward preachers from imprisonment. In Parliament, he fought against the new statute, passed in the year when Helwys entered the inn, which made Separatism a crime. Later still, we shall find Nick Fuller playing his part in the events that led to the flight of the Pilgrims. For the moment, the relevant point is that ties existed between lawyers and Puritans of the most radical kind.
Instead of practicing as a lawyer, however, Thomas Helwys came home, to live forty miles from Scrooby at Broxtowe Hall, close to the town of Nottingham. Despite his father’s rank, they did not own their lands, but rented them on a long lease, and so Helwys was less wealthy than his uncles. He ran a small herd of only four hundred sheep. As for his private life, tongues wagged: it was said that Thomas had not lawfully married Joan Ashmore, the woman with whom he lived. Before their irregular wedding, Joan was his housekeeper, and in 1598 they were accused of fornication. This was an offense that might lead to a humiliating penance in the parish church. But no action was taken, and Helwys remained a protected member of the gentry. Six years later, a laborer took a dislike to Thomas Helwys and assaulted him. The JPs gave the man twelve months in jail.3
Helwys belonged to a web of Puritan-leaning landowners and lawyers spun across three counties. They must have been the people Bradford had in mind when he spoke of the “Godly and Religious” gentlemen who viewed Brewster with such respect. Their center of gravity lay around Sturton and Gainsborough, and by the early seventeenth century the most prominent was Thomas’s cousin Sir Gervase Helwys, son of John, a JP and a man with ambition. He lived at Saundby, between the two places, though his chain of property extended to the Humber estuary. As Puritans did, he acquired the right to appoint the ministers at Saundby and at Babworth, where Brewster’s friend Richard Clifton was the incumbent clergyman. When Clifton was dismissed, Sir Gervase replaced him with another Puritan with a history of infringing the rules that regulated worship.
At Gainsborough, his counterpart was another ambitious man, Richard Williamson, son of a local draper. Born in about 1560, he also entered Gray’s Inn, where he rose fast, to rank alongside Fuller among its most senior lawyers. He picked up Puritan sentiments, and he married his daughter into a famous family of Puritan clergy. Under King James, he became Sir Richard Williamson, living between the capital, his hometown, and York, where he joined the Council of the North. He belonged to the same network as Sir Gervase. Williamson protected local Puritan ministers, and he wielded authority as a JP for Nottinghamshire.4
It would be possible to add more names and to follow this network indefinitely, to and fro and down to London, but it would be tedious and unnecessary. All that matters is that by 1605, when the purge of Puritans began, Brewster and Helwys had a circle of kinsmen and friends entrenched in positions of power and influence, men who, like them, had only recently joined the ranks of the gentry. They were not, however, quite powerful enough.
Above them ranked the two greatest aristocrats of the region, men divided by religion and by old antagonisms: Gilbert Talbot, seventh Earl of Shrewsbury, and Edmund, Lord Sheffield. Both had motives for wanting to end the period of toleration that Puritans had long enjoyed.
Half a day’s walk from Scrooby stood another Elizabethan mansion long since destroyed. Worksop Manor was very tall, and it was very new, completed only in 1586. Ninety feet above the ground a great chamber looked out across the landscape, with a view so fine that Burghley’s son Robert Cecil called it the fairest gallery in England. Richard Torre of Scrooby supervised the workmen who built it, because it belonged to his master.5 He was George Talbot, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, unhappily married to his countess Elizabeth, known to posterity as Bess of Hardwick.
The sixth earl died in 1590, survived by the countess, who lived on until 1608. His son Gilbert inherited not only the title but also his father’s difficulties with the queen. Under the Tudors, by way of loyal service against rebels and the Scots, the Talbots became the greatest family in the north, but in the 1580s they dwindled in authority and prestige. Queen Elizabeth gave George Talbot the task of taking care of Mary, Queen of Scots, but the two became a little too friendly. Elizabeth grew suspicious. When Gilbert became the seventh earl, he found himself exiled from court and denied the highest offices in the region.
In the eyes of Elizabeth, he suffered from two flaws: Roman Catholic sympathies and a vile temper. Gilbert Talbot married an ardent Catholic, who imported holy relics, and he quarreled with medieval ferocity. In 1598, during a duel with swords in Worksop Park, a local gentleman skewered the bowels of a Talbot family friend, and so the seventh earl assembled a hundred armed men to pursue him. The incident came close to causing a neighborhood civil war when the duelist gathered his own allies in the county. They were led by Talbot’s great rival Edmund, Lord Sheffield, the most powerful magnate in the region to the east, between Lincoln and York. He raised his own band of sixty men, and more bloodshed was only narrowly averted.6
Despite this, and much more acrimony, when James became king Gilbert Talbot began to regain royal favor. Both James and his queen stayed at Worksop, on their way south from Scotland, and the king knew that the Talbots had treated his mother well. Talbot was close to Robert Cecil, the king’s most trusted statesman. And so, very soon, James began to give Gilbert Talbot the offices he wanted and the power that went with them, making him a privy councillor.
Around Austerfield and Scrooby, the seventh earl was an awkward and intruding presence. He levied river tolls on the Idle, and in the Bawtry and Austerfield survey of 1608, high above the name of Robert Bradford, we find that of Gilbert Talbot. The seventh Earl of Shrewsbury owned Bawtry Hall, five cottages and twenty acres of land nearby, and he commanded a following among the gentry. He counted among his supporters not only the violent Lassells family but also the Mortons, the local Catholic renegades. More remarkable still was the hold that his stepmother, Bess, exerted over the economics of religion in the area. An inventory of her assets, made at Hardwick in 1609, shows that she claimed ownership of the rectories and the tithes of five parishes nearby, including Scrooby and the next-door parish of Everton. She had also purchased the right to nominate the minister in each one. Most likely, she bought all these properties from the Crown in the 1590s, as the queen scavenged for money to pay for the war in Ireland.7
These were real estate transactions. It seems unlikely that Gilbert Talbot and Bess of Hardwick hatched a great scheme to dominate belief and worship in the Pilgrim Quadrilateral. Even so, for a local Puritan the revival of the Talbots could only cause unease. Gilbert’s dislike of their kind made itself very clear in 1604, in an exchange of unpleasantness with Lady Isabel Bowes, an heiress and perhaps the most eminent Puritan gentlewoman in the north. They wrote to each other about the Hampton Court conference, but their letters swiftly descended into personal abuse. Talbot insulted Lady Isabel in crude terms and warned her not to meddle with sedition. Besides his loathing for Puritans, Gilbert Talbot also had a rival in Lord Sheffield; and soon he found an opportunity for combining the two animosities. It arose from a mixture of religion and local jealousy.8
Aged thirty-eight in the year when James became king, Sheffield was the son of a great beauty, Lady Douglas Sheffield, adulterous mistress of the Earl of Leicester. He became the most powerful man in the north of England during the critical period when Separatism began to take root in the region. Even so, he spent much of his adult life struggling with debt. Much of it was incurred to support the ladies of his family: his embarrassing mother—he had to mortgage four manors to pay her an annuity—and his six daughters, who needed dowries. His troubles deepened after he built his own country house, at Normanby, towering above the Trent near Scunthorpe. From here, he claimed as his sphere of influence all the country between York and Lincoln, and especially the cattle land to the north and east of Austerfield. But his financial position grew steadily worse. When James became king, Sheffield pestered him with requests for posts that might give him an income, until at last the king made Sheffield president of the Council of the North in September 1603. Unfortunately, the Sheffields had their own awkward religious profile. This too had its consequences.9
Lord Sheffield had married another ardent Catholic, with Catholic rites, and so he came under suspicion himself. As a means to clear his name, he renewed the campaign against those of his wife’s religion: as many as nine hundred were indicted at York in 1604. However, Sheffield had strayed too far in his eagerness to prove himself a good Protestant. As Bancroft removed the Puritan clergy in the south, it emerged that Sheffield had once employed just such a man as a tutor to his children. The preacher in question, called Bywater, later reappeared as a Separatist in Amsterdam, but before doing so, he gravely offended King James. In January or February 1605, Bywater sent the king an insulting book, advocating Puritan reform.
In prison in the Tower of London, Bywater mentioned his link to Lord Sheffield. Hurriedly, Sheffield sought to clear his name. He wrote to Cecil to protest that, yes, he had employed Bywater, but the man was dismissed when he denounced his master for wasting his time with falconry.10Meanwhile, as his rival Gilbert Talbot stood ready to supplant him, if Lord Sheffield fell from favor, suddenly the Puritans and their sympathizers in the north began to attract unwelcome attention from King James. The problem arose from an undiplomatic letter written by the archbishop of York.
His name was Matthew Hutton, and by this time he was an old man, close to death. Even so, at the end of 1604 Archbishop Hutton wrote to Cecil seeking leniency for Puritans, on the grounds that they were patriotic allies against the influence of Rome. Unwisely, in passing he criticized the king’s deer hunting, for damaging poor men’s crops. Worst of all, the letter must have circulated widely, because several copies survive, including one among the papers of Gilbert Talbot. It would appear that the Earl of Shrewsbury spread stories to the effect that Hutton and Lord Sheffield were conniving with Puritan ministers.
King James reacted as we might expect. That winter, as he roamed the countryside in search of animals to kill, he received one annoying petition after another from squires defending the Puritan clergy. Losing patience, with them and with his officials at York, on February 19 he issued a reprimand to Hutton and Sheffield, telling them to enforce the law against Catholic and Puritan alike: with “diligence and constancie,” he said, “against the disobedient both of the one sorte and of the other.” In their different ways, Sheffield and Hutton were both weak men, and especially Sheffield because of his debts and the threat posed by Gilbert Talbot. Inevitably, they felt obliged to placate the king. In doing so, they ended the years of official complacency concerning Brewster and his network.11
At York, when the archbishop dealt with a nonconforming clergyman, he used his Chancery Court. It generally met on a Friday, no more than once a month. Suddenly, in March 1605, the meetings became much more frequent, with eight in less than six weeks, beginning soon after the king’s reprimand arrived. Swiftly, the court called before it five Puritan ministers from Nottinghamshire to answer charges of nonconformity. Four of them refused to sign up to Bancroft’s test of loyalty: Richard Clifton of Babworth, Henry Gray of Bawtry, Robert Southworth of Headon, and Richard Bernard of Worksop. Each village lay within twelve miles of Scrooby. In April, the archbishop dismissed all four from their parishes, and the first three men on the list were excommunicated.12
At a stroke, national and local politics came together and swept away the local platoon of Puritan ministers supported by Brewster and his friends. No action was taken yet against laypeople, because Bancroft’s canons had not come into force. Indeed, if matters had ended there, the emigration to Holland and America might not have occurred, since nobody in the area had yet taken the radical step of leaving the Church of England entirely to become a Separatist. For that to happen, the locality needed its own compelling equivalent of Robert Browne.
Leadership of such a kind soon arrived in the shape of the preaching radicals Robinson and Smyth. Both had excelled at Cambridge, and in their late twenties they had every prospect of a lifetime of advancement in the Church. Then both men, and especially Smyth, became outcasts and pariahs, with wrecked careers. So, at the end of 1606, or thereabouts, they decided to take the path of illegality. Early the following year they led the act of separation. They took with them Brewster, Helwys, and the most radical Puritans in the Quadrilateral.
MR. ROBINSON AND MR. SMYTH
It would be hard to exaggerate their importance. Although he never crossed the Atlantic, John Robinson remained from afar the mentor of the Plymouth Colony. And if any single person can claim to have launched the Baptist faith in the English-speaking world, then John Smyth was the man.13 Born in about 1575, John Robinson definitely came from Sturton, and some evidence suggests that Smyth was born there too, though his name is too common to permit an exact fix of his ancestry. Smyth was the older man, by about six years, judging by the dates at which they entered the university. Smyth became a member of Christ’s College in 1586, and Robinson arrived at Corpus Christi in 1592.
Both men belonged to the lowest tier of Cambridge students. They were sizars, or promising boys with little family money, permitted to enter the university if they could pay their way by doing chores for richer young men. From the college records, it seems likely that Robinson owed his place at Corpus to another dynasty of aristocrats, the Manners family, Earls of Rutland. They had feudal rights over Sturton and treated the village as part of their sphere of influence. In 1590, Corpus began to attract the sons of noblemen, including Roger Manners, fifth Earl of Rutland, who joined the college in that year. In all probability somebody at Sturton recommended the young Robinson to serve as a sizar for the earl.
A college like Corpus might offer a clever sizar a swift route to success. If he displayed outstanding aptitude for Greek and Latin, he had every chance of obtaining a fellowship and then moving gracefully onward into a career in public service. At Corpus, this was all the more likely because of the prestige of its new master, John Jegon. A staunch Calvinist, marked out for greatness by Burghley, Jegon was the son of a weaver, but he rose to become the bishop of Norwich. His brother Thomas Jegon acted as Robinson’s tutor, the young man worked hard, and the Jegons rewarded him for it.
Within four years, Robinson achieved the rank of scholar, and in 1598 Corpus made him one of its eleven fellows. In rotation he served his turn as college lecturer in Greek and then as dean. Five minutes’ walk away at Christ’s, John Smyth had done just as well, becoming a fellow in the autumn of 1593 and remaining on the faculty for the next seven years.14
By itself, a fellowship did not count for much, since Christ’s and Corpus were far from rich, and each college suffered periods of financial difficulty. Fellows had their rooms, and food and drink, but their pay was small, and if they wished to marry, they had to resign. But while at the college, they had the leisure and the opportunity to make friends and allies, and to look for a job to become available elsewhere. Best of all, they might find a post as minister of a large and wealthy parish, or as a “lecturer,” a clergyman hired by a town or city government to preach sermons to its citizens.
So it was with Smyth and Robinson. In 1600, Smyth left Cambridge to become city lecturer at Lincoln, with an annual salary of forty pounds, eight times his pay as a fellow at Cambridge, plus the rent for his house and the right to graze his cows on the communal heath. He married soon afterward, and children followed. As for Robinson, after his year as dean he held no further offices at his college, but instead, as he neared the age of thirty, he began to ask for long leaves of absence. He took three months off in the autumn of 1603, he resigned his fellowship in February 1604, and then a few days later he married Bridget White of Sturton. He found a post at Norwich as deputy to the minister of St. Andrew’s Church, a man called Thomas Newhouse. This was a distinguished parish, and it should have made a splendid base, in a city famous for clean streets and godliness.
It might seem that both Smyth and Robinson had found their niche. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. At Lincoln, John Smyth fell afoul of city politics. For many years, the city had been divided into factions: a small group of wealthy tradesmen, Puritan by inclination, squabbling with townspeople with no desire to belong to a godly republic. Drink apparently played its part. The leaders of the popular party included men who ran malt houses and spent their days in the tavern. It seems that behind the politics lay disputes about how many alehouses to allow in the city, how much beer could be brewed, and how much the city should spend on welfare payments for the unemployed.
Never a man to mince his words, Smyth gave sermons that aligned him with the Puritans. He spoke against “profanity, oppression of the pore, drunkenes, poprye, or any other sinne,” but it seems that he personally insulted one of the leaders of the opposition. His friends tried to make Smyth lecturer for life, but they lost control of the city council, voted out of office by a large majority. In 1602, the new mayor fired John Smyth and reported him to the bishop of Lincoln as a nonconforming Puritan.* Although he petitioned the king, and appealed to Lord Sheffield, the episode blighted his career forever.15
In 1603, the archbishop of Canterbury took away Smyth’s license to preach, and he lost his livelihood. By this time, he had buried one son and baptized at Lincoln an infant daughter. He called her Mara, the word that in the Hebrew Bible stands for “bitterness.” His health was poor. Again and again, Smyth had reported sick for weeks at a time while at Christ’s College. It seems that he suffered from some chronic disease, perhaps the tuberculosis that, according to Bradford, ended his life when Smyth was little more than forty.
Meanwhile, John Robinson fared little better. On the face of it, his position at Norwich should have been ideal, a first step toward evangelical fame in a place where the clergy and the city fathers were sympathetic. Thomas Newhouse had been a colleague of John Smyth’s at Christ’s College, and like him he preached enthusiastically, giving every Thursday a lecture steeped in Calvinism. By way of predestination, God had chosen the elect, and damned the rest, the reprobate, to hell, and this was justice, said Thomas Newhouse. John Robinson never wavered from the same creed, and so he should have fitted in at St. Andrew’s with little trouble.
This was all the more true since by now his old master John Jegon had come to Norwich as the bishop. And yet somehow Robinson offended his superiors. His period in Norwich remains mysterious, with few entirely reliable sources, but it seems that he fell victim to Bancroft’s purge. Early in 1605, Jegon began investigating his clergymen for traces of nonconformity. Soon afterward, Robinson paid a visit to Sturton, and gave a sermon at Retford. Somebody reported him to the authorities for doing so without a license; presumably, Jegon had already withdrawn it. By this time, both Robinson and Smyth had more or less reached the end of their careers as ministers within the established Church. Even so, Separatism remained a daring and dangerous step to take.16
Men and women did not become Separatists in a blinding moment of insight and conversion. All too often, historians have written about the Mayflower as though leaving the established Church were a move people often made in Jacobean England, simply because the Church was irksome, or unsatisfying, or because it lacked evangelical excitement. In fact, separation was exceedingly rare, and especially for career clergymen such as Smyth and Robinson. They abandoned the Church of England only after a long period of anxious meditation, and after trying every other option.
As far back as 1597, three of Smyth’s colleagues at Christ’s complained about him to the university for opposing the wearing of the surplice and the use of the sign of the cross in baptism.17 So, by that time, he was already a mainstream Puritan; but it took him another decade to make the leap into Separatism. Before he did so, he underwent an intense nine-month period of thought and discussion, beginning in the summer of 1606. By then, he had tried alternative careers, as a schoolmaster and a physician, until the authorities vetoed those as well. Robinson’s history is less clear, but he studied alongside the leading Puritans at Cambridge for nearly ten years. No record has been found of any nonconformity on his part during this period.
People became Separatists because they believed that it was essential for salvation; but salvation itself was a mystery. Nothing about it was simple. First, each Christian had to determine, by way of prayer and introspection, which group he or she belonged to, the elect or the damned. As Newhouse put it at St. Andrew’s: “Hearing this voyce dailie sounding in the Church, that there is a number of men in the counsell of God rejected, wee are to examine oure estates, and to make question: whether it be we or not?” Only those who had authentic faith could be sure that they were among the elect, and not the excluded multitude. But faith was not a tranquil state of mind: it was a dynamic process, unfolding over time, by way of a long adventure toward maturity. Smyth and Robinson became Separatists because, gradually, they lost confidence in the conventional English parish as a place where they could follow such a path.
Most likely by way of the work of an older fellow of Christ’s, William Perkins, it seems that both Smyth and Robinson came under the influence of a German Calvinist, Zacharias Ursinus. Another forgotten man, he was in his day the leading theologian at the great university at Heidelberg. Ursinus spoke of salvation as the product of a sequence of different kinds of faith. Each stage had an emotional tone of its own, assembled from alternations of hope and fear, shame and guilt, despair and longing. The effects of faith included both joy and deep anxiety. For Ursinus, and for Robinson and Smyth, true faith included uncertainty: one of its distinguishing marks, said Ursinus, was “the strife and conflict within us of … faith & doubtfulness.” The others included belief in the Holy Trinity and predestination, of course, but a human being must first display a sincere desire for salvation.
Struggle and doubt were signs that the yearning for faith was unfeigned, while another might be found in perseverance in good deeds. Since a true Christian possessed “an earnest purpose of obeying God according to all his commandments,” as Ursinus put it, he or she had also to display charity and to practice self-denial.
It seems that Robinson had a special talent for taking subtle ideas such as these and expressing them forcefully, in plain language. William Hubbard, the first official historian of New England, referred to Robinson’s “polished wit, ingenious disposition and courteous behaviour.” So, when he came to write an essay on faith, Robinson summed up what Ursinus had said about his relationship with doubt. “We are not here to imagine an idea of Faith, free in this infirmitie of our flesh from doubting,” he wrote. “The tree may stand, and grow also, though shaken, and bended with the wind: so may Faith.”18 His essay appeared in a book that came to be one of the most widely owned at New Plymouth.
In themselves, none of these ideas were unorthodox, but John Smyth added an extra element that most definitely was. His first altercation with his bishop arose when he questioned the value of repeating the Lord’s Prayer, a central, compulsory part of the Anglican service book. Smyth worried about its misuse not only in the church but also in the countryside, where conjurers chanted it over sick cattle, as well as feeding it to rabid dogs. His qualms deepened into profound unease about any prayer read from an official liturgy.
For Smyth, prayer should be “conceived,” by which he meant deeply felt, rewritten, and re-created anew by each believer to express a faith deeply personal. Again, this followed logically if faith was seen as a dynamic oscillation within each human soul, but it was a dangerous thing to say. Many years before, Richard Bancroft had condemned “conceived prayer” as an unruly kind of worship that would lead to chaos. John Smyth openly advocated the practice, in a book published in 1605.19
Eventually, both Smyth and Robinson clambered over a last mental barrier. They began to read the work of Browne, Barrow, and Ainsworth. Like them, Robinson and Smyth came to focus sharply on the eighteenth chapter of Saint Matthew, and its message that a true church existed whenever two or three people gathered in the name of Christ. Like Browne, they came to believe that only when people assembled in such a way, and freely made a covenant with each other and with God, did they follow the path of Christianity. Once they reached that point, they became committed radicals. Bishops, Church laws and canons such as Bancroft’s, compulsory tithes, the parish system, ecclesiastical lands and property, the entire economic basis of the Church of England: all of them had to go, in pursuit of authentic worship and faith, the only assurance of election.
Neither man underwent this process of thought in academic seclusion. They were responding to what they saw around them. Self-evidently, or so it seemed to them, the parish church could not be a congregation of the elect if it allowed the ungodly, people perhaps like the Lassells family, to worship and to take the Eucharist alongside true Christians. And, especially in the case of John Smyth, both men were reacting to the unfairness with which they were treated.
By the spring of 1604, Smyth had settled firmly at Gainsborough, where he practiced medicine, and fathered two more daughters. He found friends among the local Puritans, gentry and tradesmen alike. In the absence of the usual vicar, who was sick, they persuaded Smyth to preach. Early in 1606, somebody told the bishop that Smyth had done so without a license. Local gentlemen rallied to his defense, including Williamson and Sir Gervase Helwys, who signed letters praising him. Regardless, the authorities called Smyth before an ecclesiastical court. He was convicted of being “contumacious.” In November they barred him from working as a physician without a license from the bishop.20
So John Smyth began his climactic period of reflection. He traveled ninety miles south to Coventry to consult a group of moderate Puritan clergy to hear their arguments for remaining in the Church. At about this time, possibly on the way home, he fell seriously ill and took shelter with Thomas Helwys at Broxtowe. There, in February 1607, he preached illegally in a parish church nearby; then Smyth vanished from the local archives, as he and Robinson turned their backs on authority.
In America, Bradford described the events that followed with tantalizing brevity. The act of separation occurred, he says, because of what he calls “the tiranny of the Bishopps against godly preachers and people in silenceing the one and persecuting the other.” This was an entirely accurate description of the treatment of John Smyth. If we had more documentation about Robinson, we could probably say the same about him. “The Lord’s free people,” Bradford wrote, “joyned themselves (by a Covenant of the Lord).” They formed two distinct churches of their own, entirely Separatist.
One led by Smyth met at Gainsborough, while the other was convened at Scrooby Manor by Clifton, Robinson, and Brewster. Two letters survive, one by Thomas Helwys, that give some idea of their style of worship. It was an all-day exercise, beginning at eight in the morning and ending at five or six in the evening, in two sessions divided by a two-hour break at noon. They sang psalms, but most of all they worshipped by “prophesying,” reading a biblical text, with each participant standing up to discuss it: a radicalized version of the Swiss practice invented many decades earlier and advocated by Browne.21
These were not tiny groups of farmers, plowmen, and their wives assembling in cottages in remote hamlets. Since Scrooby Manor was a station of the Royal Mail on the highway, it would have been hard to hide the gatherings, while Gainsborough had one of the busiest grain markets in the region. News of what was going on soon reached a wide public. As early as January 1608, an anti-Puritan published a book in London that alluded to the affair, and he mentioned the involvement of the local gentry.
“Hear you not of Teachers and people in the farthest parts of Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire etc. who are flatly separated?” the author wrote. He mentioned “a Gentlewoman of place, who is said to be absolutely gone from the Church,” and it is conceivable he was referring to Lady Isabel Bowes. She had ties with radical Puritanism and certainly knew John Smyth. When examined as a whole, the evidence suggests that this was a conspicuous movement, gathering momentum. A series of strong personalities converged and then collided, across a swath of land where tensions had reached the breaking point.
THE DREWS OF EVERTON
Along the Trent valley, between March and August 1607, episodes of public disobedience, anger, and agitation began to come to the attention of the authorities. On the Lincolnshire side of the river, at Torksey, a Puritan clergyman gave an angry sermon. He called his flock “sinfull Sodomites,” because they objected to another Puritan who had preached in the same pulpit before him. Not far away at Retford, a woman was cited before the archdeacon’s court for standing up one Sunday and haranguing the minister in front of the congregation. At Gainsborough, a tradesman found himself in trouble for failing to doff his hat in church.
When each one is looked at in isolation, after four hundred years, episodes like these seem tiny, trivial, or even comic. But within them lay a pattern.22 For the first time, the rigor of Bancroft had begun to bite hard on laypeople in the region, as well as on what remained of the Puritan clergy. The result was protest and dissent. It was this—the involvement of the laity, and the organization they established—that made the events which followed remarkable, with no obvious parallel at the time.
Nobody knows the precise date when the act of separation occurred, the moment when Brewster and the rest felt that they must quit the Church of England for good. However, it probably took place in March. At that time, the critical dates were those when men and women were obliged to receive the Eucharist, a ceremony that served as a test of obedience. It only took place five times a year, and between Christmas and Easter week in 1607 a long interval elapsed of more than three months without any Eucharist required.23 No record survives of trouble at Christmas, but several incidents of refusal occurred at Easter. The festival fell on April 5.
Two days later, in accordance with Bancroft’s new rules, the churchwardens of Everton tersely reported that four men and one woman had failed to take Holy Communion. At least one of the offenders was a member of Brewster’s dissident group at Scrooby. This incident displays far more clearly than any other the social origins, and perhaps the motives, of the men and women who formed the nucleus of these early Pilgrim congregations.
Two miles from Scrooby, Everton sat on the top of the North Clay, above the Idle wetlands. A smaller version of Sturton, it was another open field village with a rich mixture of grazing land, meadows, and cornfields, with woods on the higher ground. It was a place where rents were high too, but where the farmers could enjoy a standard of living much better than at Bradford’s Austerfield, forty minutes’ walk across the valley. Among them were a prosperous yeoman family called the Drews. They were men and women who grew wheat and rye, reared sheep, and held radical views.
The Drews lived a few hundred yards from the church, in a hamlet called Harwell. It occupies the crest of a sandy ridge between the cornfields and the meadows. At the family’s head was Richard Drew, a man of modest education who could not sign his name. Even so, he was pious and affluent enough when he died in 1616 to leave three pounds, fifteen weeks’ wages for a laborer, toward the schooling of poor children of the parish.
Feather beds, kitchen scales, mattresses, rugs, carpets, and red curtains figured among the possessions of the up-and-coming Drews. They were some of the first people in the region to have in their houses a room called a parlor. Among Richard’s sons in 1607 were three young men in their twenties who all became defiant Puritans. Robert and John were two of the five Evertonians who did not receive the Eucharist at Easter, and Roger was named in July for refusing to go to church at all. John Drew, aged twenty-three, seems to have been the most outspoken. Later the authorities locked him up in the cells at York Castle for being a Brownist. Banished by the Privy Council in 1609, he headed for the Netherlands to join Brewster and his comrades. And although his father, Richard, does not seem to have been an active rebel, he did what he could to shield his sons. He incurred a fine of two shillings.24
Why should such a family opt for refusal and resistance when the vast majority of their equivalents in England did not? Most likely, the personal influence of Brewster had a great deal to do with it. The Drews must have known him for many years, because the archbishop of York was lord of the manor at Everton, and Brewster’s father would have collected the rents. They must also have known Richard Clifton, because his brother John was another Evertonian yeoman. According to Cotton Mather, after his illness at the age of twelve, Bradford began to listen to Clifton “not far from his abode.” In all likelihood, he simply forded the Idle and walked up the wooded slope to the same village.
Why was Everton a haven for dissent? Another explanation was political, though the politics were very local. If the lord of the manor was an absentee, like the archbishop, then in practice the yeoman farmers could run their own affairs. This they did at Everton, where little authority existed but their own. All but one of the large tenants and landowners at Everton came from families known to be Puritan sympathizers. The Drews and their friends dominated the parish church, serving as churchwardens, while John Drew kept the parish funds. In 1609, long after the Pilgrims went into exile, the vicar of Everton was still complaining about the nonconformists, including John Clifton.
They were self-employed men, large tenant farmers, or tradesmen who had become used to independence, in matters of belief as well as in the running of their open fields. Something similar occurred in Gainsborough too, although there the politics were urban. In August 1607, a Gainsborough man called John Noble was reported to the authorities for failing to take Holy Communion for twelve months. He also refused to remove his hat during Sunday service, a gesture often made by Puritans.
John Noble was a man of substance, one of Gainsborough’s largest taxpayers. He was a draper with a shop in the middle of the town and business contacts in London. One of the founders of the town’s grammar school, he served as parish constable. Again, he valued independence from outsiders. In alliance with Sir Richard Williamson, and with another local attorney called Edward Aston, from 1605 onward John Noble fought a long and angry legal battle with the lord of the manor, one Sir William Hickman, a newcomer from London who charged exorbitant levies on market traders and tried to ban Noble from doing any business at all. It was Hickman who reported John Noble for nonconformity.25
All three men—Aston, Noble, and Williamson—belonged to the local Puritan network. Aston later stood bail for Joan Helwys, the Separatist, when she was arrested. We can fairly assume that John Noble was one of the tradesmen who worshipped with John Smyth. It seems that Gainsborough had not merely a few nonconformists but an active Puritan party, men tied together by business and common self-interest as well as religious friendship. Not all of these men became Brownists. But they had every reason to sympathize with separatism, if the movement had a godly, disciplined tone and served as a weapon against social evils.*
The Old Hall at Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, viewed from the north, showing the bay window of the great hall, built in about 1465. (Photography: Nick Bunker)
Most of the local gentry apparently agreed. In their role as JPs, they turned a blind eye to Brownism. Under ecclesiastical law as it stood, the judges who sat in the archdeacon’s court could impose only limited penalties, small fines or excommunication, and they had no power of imprisonment. However, if an offender persisted, the archdeacon could send him or her to the JPs to be dealt with more severely. Alternatively, the JPs could prosecute themselves, using the criminal law against Catholic recusants or Separatists. In Nottinghamshire, their sessions were fully minuted, and the minutes survive in their entirety. They show no trace of any action against Brewster or his friends.
Not, that is, until October 1607, when at last they began to call a few Separatists before them. By that time events had moved on. At a much higher level the authorities had become aware of the civil disobedience in the Quadrilateral. The lenient old archbishop of York had breathed his last. When a new man came to take his place, he tackled the problem with urgency.
In early July, the new archbishop left London for the north. When the decisive encounter came, in November, it involved a direct confrontation with a defiant Brownist. However, this was not a simple clash between dictatorship on the one hand and ardent faith on the other. It was a confrontation between two sets of equally evangelical Christians. It arose from a wider conflict about the basis of the authority of the Church, and about constitutional law.
Aged about sixty-three, the new archbishop, Toby Matthew, came from another family of tradesmen. In his teens he made his name as a scholar of precocious brilliance: men called it “half a miracle,” so swiftly did he take his master’s degree. As the young dean of an Oxford college, he made himself popular with his generosity, and for what one observer called his “cheerfull sharpnes of witt,” involving a taste for outrageous puns.
As he worked his way up through the hierarchy, mainly in the far north at Durham, Toby Matthew lost neither stamina nor enthusiasm. Although he often fell ill, with rheumatism, toothache, and catarrh, he keenly pursued his vocation as a preacher. In the space of forty years he delivered nearly two thousand sermons, preaching regularly even in his seventies, when he might have left the task to juniors.26
And yet the diligent Toby Matthew was never his own man, and the Gospel reached the ears of his congregation filtered through a sieve of politics. As bishop of Durham, Matthew had met King James the moment he came south across the border in 1603, he traveled with him to London, and he preached frequently at court. Most recently, he had risen from his sickbed in April 1607 to give a sermon to the young Prince Henry. His spell in the south the previous winter was the result of politics too, as he lent his support in Parliament to the king’s final, doomed attempt to legislate for the complete union of England and Scotland. So we can fairly assume that Toby Matthew saw himself as the king’s instrument, seeking loyally to impose the Crown’s authority.
As he traveled up the Great North Road, he passed through country troubled by unrest of another kind, causing alarm at Whitehall Palace at the very time when reports of Brownism were also beginning to arrive. In towns and villages less than a day’s ride west of the highway, the spring and summer of 1607 witnessed the most serious popular revolt of the reign of James I. It was known as the Midland Rising. It flared up in May, before being swiftly crushed in June, with Gilbert Talbot playing a leading part in its suppression. A spate of hangings followed. Behind the rebellion laymaterial realities at their cruelest and most basic, at a point when the fall in the real incomes of the laboring poor had very nearly reached its lowest point.
In 1607, with the price of grain rising sharply, landlords in parts of the Midlands were making matters worse, by raising rents and by enclosing open fields and turning them over to grazing land. Crowds of people numbering in thousands gathered to break down hedges and to fill in ditches. Economic protest though it was, suspicions were aroused that one or another group of religious dissenters, Catholic or Puritan, had fomented the unrest. In the autumn, as the price of bread soared again after another poor harvest, to reach its highest level since the 1590s, the Privy Council continued to worry. No evidence links the Pilgrims to protests against enclosure, but the Midland Rising created a climate of unease that may help to explain why the archbishop acted as he did.
For his part, Toby Matthew had a reputation as a man “industrious against Papists.” At York he found a weapon against them in the form of the Court of High Commission, a tribunal with wide powers against religious offenders. Thanks to new legislation, action could be taken far more effectively than in the past. Applying solely to Roman Catholics, the statute became law in 1606 as part of the Crown’s response to the Gunpowder Plot. It obliged them to take a new oath of allegiance, requiring them to disown the authority of the pope. Armed with this, Matthew stepped up the campaign against the old religion to new heights.
While only a handful of arrest warrants were issued against the Separatists, the lists of those relating to Catholics fill scores of pages in the archives of the High Commission. As many as sixty such cases, covering two hundred individuals, appear in the records relating to a single session of the court in June 1607 alone.27 More than a century ago, when a visiting American scholar examined the same minute book at York, he published only the few entries relating to the pursuit of the Pilgrims. He suppressed the evidence of much harsher treatment of those of a different persuasion.
Henry Martyn Dexter, the writer in question, passed over in silence the material that deals with the anti-Catholic purge. His motives for doing so were all too obvious. When Dexter’s book appeared in Boston in the early 1900s, its pages were strewn with barbed asides against the pope and the Catholic religion.28 Among the details he omitted were, for example, the relative numbers of prisoners in the cells. Only four Brownists were imprisoned, but they shared the jail at York with fourteen “recusants in the castle,” Catholics detained for “superstitious errors & disobedience,” and for refusing to take the oath of allegiance.29
Henry Martyn Dexter was a New England Protestant, at a time when in Boston and New Haven prejudice against Italians and Irish Catholic immigrants was commonplace. It serves no purpose today to chastise him for that. However, by detaching events from their context, Dexter misrepresented and misunderstood the material he studied, and because the archives at York have received little attention, his errors have never been corrected. By failing to reexamine the original records, later historians have left intact a vague, naive account of the affair.
The fact was that the Brownists did not go to jail simply for being radical in their religious views, or for creating a Separatist community at Scrooby. They did so because they attacked the legal authority of the Church, and in terms based on a defense of civil liberties that applied across a far wider domain than religion alone. When the final crisis came, it concerned politics and law, rather than faith or theological dissent.
Toby Matthew presided over his first session of the High Commission on August 13. He went straight to work against Catholics, and then he headed north to the town of Ripon, one of their strongholds, where four days later he dealt with them again. A recess followed in September. In October he reconvened the court, and on the sixth of the month he handled fifty-six cases of Catholic nonconformity, covering some 170 individuals: in the margin, the word “fled” appears next to three names.
At first, the archbishop used mild measures against the Separatists. Rather than bullying his opponents, he tried to convert them. During the recess, he traveled south to Nottinghamshire. He gave four sermons, preaching at Bawtry against the Brownists on September 10. Then back he came to York, where he fell ill with his old ailment of catarrh. Then, in November, a Brownist came up before the High Commission, in the shape of a gentleman called Gervase Nevyle, the first to be imprisoned.
He was “a very daungerous schismaticall Separist Brownist & irreligious subiect,” said the court, but that was not why they sent him to jail. They locked him up because he refused to testify on oath. In this respect, the Nevyle case was evidently unusual, and sensitive. The clerk neatly wrote out a verbatim report, much longer than the brief notes that he normally made. Specifically, he referred to the fact that Nevyle offended the archbishop by refusing to be sworn, by making “contemptuous speches,” and by declining to answer questions. The clerk gave the substance of what Nevyle had said: he insulted the archbishop by “protesting … againste his authoritie (and as he tearmed it) his antichristian hierarchie.”30
Why did his case require careful handling? First, Nevyle was well connected. His contacts included the lawyers of Gray’s Inn. More than one Gervase Nevyle appears in the records, but our Separatist was almost certainly a young man of twenty-one, Gervase Nevyle of Grove. This was a village on the North Clay, where the Nevyles were lords of the manor: it appears that they also owned land at Everton. At Grove, they allowed a radical Puritan to serve as minister, one of the men dismissed by Archbishop Hutton in 1605. Even more to the point, the young Gervase was the nephew of the Gainsborough lawyer Sir Richard Williamson, who served on the very same court, the High Commission, that was about to hear his case.31
Second, it seems that Gervase Nevyle was remarkably well-informed about the law. By using the words he did, he made an uncomfortable connection between his case and a great legal controversy that was raging in London, fascinating advocates and irritating King James. Far from being a despotism, Jacobean England was intensely legalistic, and political debate often found its principal arena in the courts. When Nick Fuller represented Puritans in the 1590s, he defended them by arguing that the legal apparatus of the Church was unconstitutional. In 1607 the issue was revived when he defended a merchant from Norfolk who, like Nevyle, refused to give sworn testimony when charged with Separatism. In Parliament, and in a book printed unlawfully, most likely in Amsterdam, Fuller called for the outright abolition of the High Commission.
In language very similar to Nevyle’s, Fuller said that the court was unjust, arbitrary, and unlawful. The High Commission contravened Magna Carta because it did not allow trial by jury. It had no right to imprison defendants, he claimed, since Parliament had never voted freely to give it powers to do so. Worst of all, the court compelled the accused to give testimony on oath before they knew the charges against them: it forced them to incriminate themselves, flouting an ancient privilege of English defendants. According to Fuller, the High Commission had no right to try offenders of any kind, whether they were Catholics or Brownists, adulterers or bigamists, or publishers of unlicensed books.
Fuller’s campaign reached its climax in the summer and autumn of 1607, at the very moment when the authorities at York began to take action against Brewster and his comrades. In June, the House of Commons came close to voting to do away with the High Commission, and of course Toby Matthew knew this situation intimately: he was sitting in the House of Lords. In July, the authorities arrested Nick Fuller, and then in October the High Commission in London sent him to prison. His friends obtained a writ of habeas corpus, and the case went to the leading forum in the realm, the Court of King’s Bench. They decided against Fuller on November 24, but the controversy continued, when the following month his illegal book turned up in England. The authorities rearrested him in January 1608, and this time they charged Nick Fuller with sedition.32
King James took all this very seriously, because the High Commission operated with his direct authority. Attack the commission, and you attacked the royal prerogative. This explains why at York the commissioners treated Gervase Nevyle with such great care. By speaking as he did, the young man put them on notice that he intended to protest, like Fuller, against their right to exist, and to do so in constitutional terms. On Christmas Day, the commissioners met and gave special instructions concerning the minutes of proceedings against the “disobedient or contemptuous.” In future, they would be kept in a chest with three locks in the archbishop’s registry. Evidently, they expected a legal challenge. If it came, they needed to be sure that they could defend themselves, with a written record of the offending words uttered either by Nevyle or by any Roman Catholics who tried the same tactic.33
Freedom to worship as they wished was, without doubt, the goal that the Separatists were seeking, but civil liberties of different kinds depended on each other. If Fuller won his campaign, then the High Commission would lose all its jurisdiction over moral offenses, or tithes, or prohibited books, as well as its powers to coerce those who would not go to church. If he was victorious, then Parliament would gain in power and prestige, while the Crown would see its prerogative diminished.
William Bradford did not spell this out at length, but he recognized that the Separatists were doing more than simply trying to evade prosecution. When he condemned Bancroft’s canons and the Church courts for being anti-Christian, he also said that they were “unlawfull.” By employing that specific word, Bradford makes the same connection between Separatism, due process, the authority of Parliament, and the right to a jury trial.
Undetered, the High Commission continued to close in. In December, they went after Brewster and a second man at Scrooby, Richard Jackson. They issued warrants for their arrest, on charges of Brownism, but both men had vanished: Brewster had resigned his office as postmaster. In their absence the commission fined them twenty pounds, a substantial sum.34 It was the same penalty they imposed on Roman Catholics who failed to turn up to answer charges. By doing so, the High Commission made it plain that they intended to use the full rigor of the law against the Separatists, exactly as they did when dealing with their Catholic counterparts.
This was very new: the records from Nottinghamshire show nothing like it in the previous thirty years. It also created another alarming prospect: the risk of death by hanging. As we shall see, the authorities never came close to employing the death penalty, but it is quite likely that by the end of 1607some of the Separatists believed that they were in danger of the noose.
One thing can be said with certainty: the Pilgrims ran no risk of death by fire, since the penalty of burning at the stake applied only in cases of heresy. Nobody ever accused the Pilgrims of that. Nor could the High Commission hang a man or woman for Separatism. It was against the law to attend “unlawful assemblies, conventicles or meetings” for religious purposes, but this was not treason. It was not even a capital crime. The penalty was imprisonment until the defendant confessed, took an oath not to repeat the offense, and then returned to worship in the parish church. After three months in jail, those who refused could be handed over for punishment either to the JPs or to the king’s judges at the county assizes, where a jury trial might be required. Even if found guilty, the offenders faced not death but banishment. They only became felons, liable to face the death penalty, if they returned without permission.35
However, the Separatists ran the risk of conviction for a different offense. Nevyle used words that might give rise to a charge of sedition because, like Fuller, he questioned the lawfulness of the court. Saying what he said in court was not a crime, but it might be if the Separatists were found to be spreading the same talk in their area, or if they put it into print. So, when the Crown charged Fuller with sedition, the Pilgrims had to think very carefully. Even sedition was not automatically a felony: Nick Fuller was released and died a wealthy man. But from their reading, especially of Ainsworth, who carefully listed the sentences imposed on earlier Separatists, Robinson and Smyth knew that the Crown had used the law against sedition to send Henry Barrow to the gibbet.
Even if this were not so, Archbishop Matthew remained an intractable foe. He kept Nevyle in prison, still refusing to testify. Unable to find Brewster, the High Commission arrested Joanna Helwys and John Drew of Everton. They appeared in court on March 22, 1608, they refused “to take an oath to answeare according to lawe,” and they were also detained in York Castle. Meanwhile, Robinson preached illegally at churches near Sturton, in November 1607 and again in March 1608. Then his name too disappears from the records that remain.
By now, the Separatists had already made their first, abortive effort to leave the country, in the autumn of 1607. This in itself, the act of emigration, was probably illegal, though the precise Jacobean letter of the law is hard to reconstruct. Since at least the 1540s, the Privy Council had required people to obtain a license before traveling overseas, but the register of licenses has mostly failed to survive: the relevant entries in the archives relate chiefly to Roman Catholics suspected of heading for Flanders to enroll in the Spanish army. We do not know how, if at all, the rules were applied to seamen or merchants. But whatever the law may have said, Bradford makes it plain that the Separatists expected harbors to be closed against them.
They hired a ship to meet them in a secluded haven, somewhere close to the town of Boston in Lincolnshire. Only after a long delay did the ship arrive, by night, but the skipper had betrayed them. Customs officers boarded the vessel, stripped and searched the Separatists, both men and women, seized their books, money, and belongings, and took them to the town under arrest. The local justices asked London what to do: after a month in custody, most were set free, under orders from the Privy Council. According to Bradford, seven remained in prison, to be tried at the assizes, but they were also released.
Little trace of this episode remains among the archives: merely a single scrap of manuscript, undated and overlooked, but preserved in the county record office at Lincoln. It lists fifteen Separatists, accused of “certaine unlawfull assemblyes” at Boston, “maliciously and with seditious intent,” language drawn from the Elizabethan statutes against religious nonconformity. Among the fifteen were Richard Clifton and Thomas Helwys, and somebody called “W.Br.g”: William Brewster, gentleman, perhaps. Alongside them was another interesting name, that of Leonard Beetson, from Boston, a draper, who shortly afterward joined the town council.36
Beetson was neither famous nor important, but other material survives about him that helps place all this in its context. Much later, Beetson became a close friend of John Cotton, the Puritan vicar of Boston who, in the 1630s, sailed to the new town of the same name in America.*
Sixty miles of countryside lie between Boston and Scrooby, and so this scrap of paper and the mention of Leonard Beetson suggest that by 1607 Brewster and Helwys had already built a far-flung movement. Their extended network linked them directly to the local municipal rulers of a distant town that many years later became one of the principal sources of English settlers in Massachusetts, a decade after the voyage of the Mayflower. It seems that the original organization of Separatists was far larger than scholars have recognized. The ties between the Separatists and the later migrants to New Boston may have been much closer than those described in standard histories of these events.
No further attempt at escape was possible during the winter. Conditions were atrocious: “most miserable … frost and snow for many weeks … such weather as no man could travel through,” as Toby Matthew put it in his diary. Then, in the spring of 1608, Thomas Helwys led a party of Separatists who tried again. This time we can describe the episode exactly as it happened, and again with new sources beyond William Bradford.
* John Beck, the mayor who dismissed Smyth, was barred from office in 1609 for “inordinate and excessive drinkinge … the lothsome & odyous sinne … which tends to the overthrow of the cyttie.”
* Without documentary evidence, historians have often said that Smyth and the Separatists worshipped at Gainsborough Old Hall. A magnificent fifteenth-century brick manor house, it still stands close to the parish church. It belonged to Sir William Hickman, which means that the story is unlikely to be true if it refers to events in 1607, in view of Hickman’s attitude to John Noble. However, Smyth commanded widespread respect in the town, and so he would certainly have been a guest there in earlier years. In any event, the Old Hall retains its exceptional importance as one of the finest late-medieval buildings in England.
* When Beetson made his will in 1625, dying shortly afterward, he left twenty shillings to “our revrent Pastor John Cotton Vicar of Boston.”