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The Pilgrims, Leiden, and the Early Years of Plymouth Plantation - Chapter 1, page 1

Disordered and Unlawful Conventicles1

by Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs © 2006

- The Deluge
- Persecutions
- The Act against Puritans 1593

The Deluge

On the clear morning of Tuesday, January 20, 1607, a huge wave backed up from the southwestern English coast, appeared to gather strength, then crashed in, breaking over the shores from Devon up the Bristol Channel and the Severn River, flooding inland as far as fourteen miles and submerging more than thirty villages in England and Wales from Cardiff to Gloucester.2 Four villages in Somerset were "swallowed up" by the waters, according to contemporary accounts. Coastal towns like Weston-super-Mare were hit first, but riverside villages inland, like Congresbury and Wrington, were flooded before alarms could be raised. Towns beyond the constricting narrows of the Bristol Channel were overcome by even higher waves at increasing speeds, as fast as thirty-eight miles an hour. The dead numbered over two thousand when terrified survivors started counting the corpses of lost family members, servants, neighbors, and friends.

A pamphlet of the time described "mighty hilles of water tombling over one another in such sort as if the greatest mountains in the world had overwhelmed the lowe villages or marshy grounds. Sometimes it dazzled many of the spectators that they imagined it had bin some fogge or mist coming with great swiftness towards them and with such a smoke as if mountains were all on fire, and to the view of some it seemed as if myriads of thousands of arrows had been shot forth all at one time." Professors Simon Haslett and Ted Bryant, in 2002, recognized this event would now be called a tsunami. Images of the Asian tsunami of 2004 astonish us with the staggering force of what we name "nature." In 1607, people who understood minor unexpected occurrences as unnatural events with portentous power were certain that this destructive wave was the punishing hand of God.

"God's warning to His people of England, by the great overflowing of the waters or floudes lately hapned in South-wales, and many other places," was how William Jones interpreted the event in his description published in London that year.3 "Lamentable newes out of Monmouthshire in VVales Contayning, the wonderfull and most fearefull accidents of the great ouerflowing of waters in the saide countye, drowning of infinite numbers of cattell of all kinds, as sheepe, oxen, kine and horses, with others: together with the losse of many men, women and children, and the subuersion of xxvi parishes in Ianuary last 1607" was the title of another, anonymous, pamphlet also issued in London, where news of the disaster had arrived by mid-February.4

Small signs of mercy were discovered in tales of miraculous survival. A baby placed high on a roof beam in an attempt to save it from the flooding filling the house survived the cold of the night because a chicken flew up to the same perch and provided warmth. A cat saved another infant by rocking the floating cradle they shared so that the waves did not swamp the little vessel. But others in the devastated region found only death — death of people, of livestock, of the idea that all was well with their part of the world.

Alexander Carpenter and his family left Wrington before the flooding, but as an exile he must have pondered the destruction of his former home when news reached the English community in Amsterdam.5 We meet the Carpenter family later in Leiden, as members of John Robinson's congregation that had tried to flee to the Low Countries in 1607 and succeeded by the summer of 1608. But in 1607 people had to attempt to understand why God had punished England.

John Foxe, in his Book of Martyrs (first published in 1559 in Latin and translated, emended, and reprinted continuously), succinctly stated the prevailing opinion of how such disasters were related to religious experience: "accordying to [th]e state of the Churche, the dispostition of the common wealthe commonly is guyded, either to be with aduersitie afflicted or elles in prosperitie to flourishe."6

Scrooby, Parish Church
of St. Wilfrid

Earlier warnings were recognized. 33,000 people had died of the plague in London in 1603.7 Villages near Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, where the Pilgrim movement was beginning, also recorded unusually high numbers of deaths at about the same time. At Sutton-cum-Lound, for example, thirty-one burials occurred in 1602, more than twice the number in the previous year, and more than three and a half times as many as two years earlier.8 Next to Scrooby at the tiny village of Mattersey, there were 14 deaths in 1603, preceded by three years with 2, 4, and 9, and followed by years with 5, 5, 4, 5, 6, 8, and then 14 burials in 1610. In the village of Everton, also adjacent to Scrooby, 29 people died in 1602, while in other years the number was no more than half that.9 At Blyth the year with the highest mortality at this time was 1607, when 47 people died. There had been 40 deaths in 1601, but in the other years from 1600 to 1610 the numbers were usually much lower.10 East Retford saw 31 people die in 1602, with far fewer in other years.11 These are the villages in the area near Scrooby, where the Pilgrim congregation formed by covenant around 1605-1606. Unfortunately, records of burials in Scrooby itself are not preserved from this time.

Scrooby, the parish church
where William Brewster
preached in 1598.

Repentence was required, and a renewed attempt to lead a godly life, but the signs of impending judgement did not cease. The summer of 1607 was unusually hot and dry, with resulting crop failures.12 Then, beginning in mid-September, a comet appeared in the western sky, seen in Germany, the Low Countries, and England. The tail pointed east, as the star appeared at midnight, bright at first but gradually diminishing until it faded away in October.13 Some important change was expected. (Comets had signalled the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and the Norman Conquest in 1066. Later it would be discovered that this was the same comet, now called Haley's Comet.) But in the early years of the seventeenth century, scientific analysis was absent and people thought that the signs of God's displeasure continued. The sickness that had returned to Blyth in 1607 was noticed again in London towards the end of the year, and people living in infected places were forbidden to come to the Court.14 By 1608, the plague returned to the capital city in epidemic strength. Theaters were closed to try to reduce contamination in crowds. In the summer, crops again failed.15


King James I of England

Tribulations were the expression of God's testing of the faithful, according to the self-described godly. Their troubles had been increasing in the decades leading up to the death of Queen Elizabeth I on March 24, 1603. But it had been worse a generation earlier. Under Elizabeth's predecessor, her half-sister Mary Tudor, Protestants had had to flee the deadly persecutions that accompanied the re-imposition of Roman Catholicism. The religious tyranny was international and part of an attempt to suppress Protestantism throughout Europe. "Bloody Mary" had been married to the King of Spain, Philip II, the murderous oppressor of Protestants in the Low Countries. Among her victims, nearly three hundred Protestant martyrs, the most famous were Hugh Latimer (the Bishop of Worcester), Nicholas Ridley (the Bishop of Rochester), and Thomas Cranmer, (the Archbishop of Canterbury). Their deaths were not forgotten.

After Mary Tudor died in 1558, with the Protestant Elizabeth as queen, around eight hundred Puritans came back to England from exile in Geneva, Frankfurt, Emden, and elsewhere, with excited hopes for a further reformation of the Anglican church according to Calvinist ideas of what the church's institutional structure should be. Elizabeth, instead, returned the Church of England to the earlier Protestant reforms instituted by her father Henry VIII and her half-brother Edward VI. Mary had revoked those changes to re-impose conformity with the Roman Catholic church and subordination to the Pope. In the decades just before her, Henry and Edward's advisors had rejected Roman control and had reconstituted the Church of England so that the monarch was its head, with supervisory authority over the bishops. Historians had proven that the situation in the early church under Constantine and later emperors had been like this, before the bishops of Rome had gathered political authority to themselves several hundred years later. Lorenzo Valla and other writers had demonstrated a century earlier that the "Donation of Constantine" — the document on which papal political power was based — was a forgery from a much later period, concocted to justify the popes' assumption of earthly authority. Martin Luther and all other Protestants were well aware that this proof of the deceit vitiated the popes' claim to be sovereign over all emperors, kings, and princes. King Henry VIII's advisors, English bishops, understood the implications of the deception. In his very widely read Book of Martyrs, John Foxe summarized the textual analysis that revealed the falsity of the documentary foundation of papal power; and he provided details of the historical evidence that, in the "primitive" church of the first several centuries, no pope was recognized as having superiority over other bishops, and certainly not over all Christendom. The Anglican reforms carried out by Henry VIII and his bishops represented very consciously a return to the recorded historical polity of the early church as it had been established and had developed through the time of the first eight church councils (i.e. until ca.870-80 A.D.).16 Elizabeth had no tolerance, however, for the Puritans desire to purify the national church by returning to their interpretation of its earliest form, in the time of the apostles, before Christianity had become an official religion coordinated by Roman political power. In that earliest period, the churches had been independent of government control.

Queen Elizabeth's policy was to require conformity to the English liturgy in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and adherence to the Protestant doctrines expressed in the Church of England's Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, as well as to insist on subordination to the established hierarchy of bishops, inherited from the medieval church. What had originally been optional among lesser rules, such as that ministers should wear particular types of caps and over-robes (surplices) during communion services, became strict requirements. Obedience to authority was considered to be of over-riding importance, even when the particular rule (such as what hat to wear) had no intrinsic theological meaning. Clergy who refused these rules were called non-conformists, and those who opposed the role of bishops and the state religion were anti-establishment (a term that refers to the position of the church and its hierarchy as established legally by the state). Nearly a hundred of these dissenters were deprived of their positions as paid clergy. Many continued to preach anyway, unofficially, hoping for general reform soon to confirm the justice of their opinions. Not separating from the Church of England, they were called "puritans."

Moreover, beyond the aims of the Puritans within the Church of England (including those deprived of their positions who wanted to return to serve that church as soon as further reform came), a few small groups had separated and declared that the concept of a national church was itself not acceptable. These "Separatists" formed independent congregations whose leaders could be, and were, accused of sedition because they denied the authority of the monarch to be head of any church. One of the first ministers to spread these ideas in print was Robert Browne (who had studied at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge), from whom the Separatists got the name "Brownists."17 They felt compelled by the Word of God to speak out against what they identified as abuses within the church and the nation claiming divine authority to rebuke the monarch. Browne's "Treatise of Reformation without tarying for anie" was published in Middelburg (Zeeland, Netherlands) in 1582 or 1583.18 The Separatists were not going to wait.

In 1593, two leaders associated with the Separatist congregation in Southwark (now part of London south of the Thames River), Henry Barrowe and John Greenwood, were executed. A third escaped after five years' imprisonment — the pastor Francis Johnson, who joined many of the Southwark congregation who had fled before him to Amsterdam.

Henry Barrowe studied at Clare College, Cambridge, receiving a B.A. in 1569-1570. Ten years later he responded to a sermon he heard by becoming, first, an ardent Puritan, then a convinced Separatist. Visiting John Greenwood in prison, Barrowe was arrested in 1586. In the next five and a half years he produced several defenses and explanations of Separatism, that were published in Holland. Barrowe was judicially murdered together with John Greenwood on April 6, 1593.

John Greenwood took his B.A. at Cambridge's Corpus Christi College in 1581. He was ordained in the Church of England but renounced that ordination before becoming a leader of the Separatist congregation in Southwark. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1586. In 1592 came his election to be the Southwark congregation's "teacher" (assistant to the pastor, Francis Johnson), when Greenwood was briefly released from jail. Soon he was re-arrested and then killed by the government. Greenwood was a Cambridge contemporary of the future Pilgrim leader William Brewster, who entered Peterhouse College in 1580.

Another contemporary of Brewster's was John Penry, who matriculated at Peterhouse in December, 1580, and received his B.A. in 1584.19 Being together in the same college, the acquaintance of the two men is indisputable. Penry, from Wales, urged that measures be taken to provide preachers in that country. Not ordained, he nevertheless was licensed to preach at both Cambridge and, later, at Oxford, where he took the M.A. at St. Alban's Hall in 1586. In 1588-1589 he was accused of being instrumental in the production of the satyrical anti-establishment Marprelate tracts, that were issued using a portable printing press set up at different places to avoid discovery. Penry's exact role remains unclear, as he denied the charge. Although the printing material was captured in August, 1589, Penry escaped to Edinburgh, Scotland. In 1592 he returned to London and preached in the Separatist congregation whose leaders, Johnson and Greenwood, had been arrested and imprisoned. Penry, too, was arrested, then executed on May 29, 1593, on charges of sedition. Penry's pursuers were the extremely anti-Puritan Richard Bancroft (then canon of Westminster Abbey and prebendary of St. Paul's Cathedral) and John Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, who signed Penry's death warrant. (Although Cambridge is accurately considered a center of Puritan thought, simplistic conclusions are discouraged by the realization that Cambridge was also where Bancroft and Whitgift studied. Evidently, some people in close contact with the Cambridge Puritans grew to dislike them intently.)20

The Act against Puritans, 1593

Whitgift inspired the government's passage of The Act Against Puritans of 1593.21 This law made it a felony to be absent from or to refuse to attend established church services for more than a month, "without lawful cause," as well as to encourage anyone else to stay away, whether verbally or in writing. Also illegal was "to deny, withstand, and impugn her majesty's power and authority in causes ecclesiastical." Attendance was forbidden at "any such assemblies, conventicles, or meetings, under colour or pretence of any such exercise of religion, contrary to the laws and statutes of this realm," on pain of imprisonment without bail, until the prisoners "shall conform and yield themselves to come to some church, chapel, or usual place of common prayer, and hear divine service, according to her majesty's laws and statutes aforesaid, and to make such open submission and declaration of their said conformity, as hereafter in this Act is declared and appointed." Anyone convicted of the crime who refused to conform would, after three months' refusal, be banished out of England.

A form for confession, that could be made in any parish church and would serve to cancel the charges brought under the act, was provided for contrite offenders who agreed to conform. "'I, A. B., do humbly confess and acknowledge, that I have grievously offended God in condemning her majesty's godly and lawful government and authority, by absenting myself from church, and from hearing divine service, contrary to the godly laws and statutes of this realm, and in using and frequenting disordered and unlawful conventicles and assemblies, under pretence and colour of exercise of religion: and I am heartily sorry for the same, and do acknowledge and testify in my conscience that no other person has or ought to have any power or authority over her majesty: and I do promise and protest, without any dissimulation, or any colour or means of any dispensation, that from henceforth I will from time to time obey and perform her majesty's laws and statutes, in repairing to the church and hearing divine service, and do my uttermost endeavour to maintain and defend the same.'" Providing shelter to anyone who was an offender under this act was itself a crime, punishable with a heavy fine of ten pounds a month. Dissenting family members, however, were excluded from consideration, because of the common obligation to provide for ones relatives. Similarly, children did not lose their rights of inheritance, and a wife did not lose her dower rights, in the estate of anyone who was convicted of this crime, although the offender's property of all sorts was to be confiscated during his lifetime.

The act of 1593 was vigorously enforced, especially after Richard Bancroft became Bishop of London in 1597 and took on many of the administrative tasks of the Archbishop, whose ill health necessitated assistance. As Patrick Collinson observes, "For the remainder of the reign, puritanism was effectively outlawed by a government vigilant against the least overt demonstration of the old radical spirit. In Norwich in 1596, the bishop and his fellow ecclesiastical commissioners suspended a minister [...] and imposed on him a public penance for the offence of merely possessing a 'seditious' presbyterian sermon [...]"22 Collinson continues, "As Elizabeth's reign at last approached its conclusion, Josias Nichols described how the godly ministers, finding 'the mighty winds and strong stream' against them, had reserved themselves 'to a better time, when it should please his gracious wisdom to make his own truth to appear, and to move the minds of our superiors to be more favorable.'"23 The Puritans had reason to hope the better time would be brought in by Queen Elizabeth's successor, and they hoped that the new monarch would be James VI of Scotland, who had a legitimate claim to Englan's throne and who had been the king for thirty-six years, of a presbyterian country.

Babworth, Parish Church
of All Saints

Not all, however, chose the wisdom of reticent patience. At Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, Cambridge-trained William Brewster, later to become famous as the leading layman in the Pilgrim congregation, began his preaching career by giving unauthorized sermon commentaries in the village church of St. Wilfrid. At Easter, 1598, in a required report to the archdeaconry about non-compliance with the new laws to suppress the Puritans, the Scrooby "churchwardens and swornmen" entered a complaint that their curate, Mr. Henrie Jones, was lax about wearing the surplice. More important was that William Brewster was "repeating sermons publicly in the church without authority." Brewster and his wife and family are named with several other people who were offending by attending other churches during the services and sermons at Scrooby. No doubt, Brewster and the others were going to Babworth and Bawtry, where Richard Clyfton could be heard preaching. Brewster's Scrooby friends were "Roland Stringer and his wife and family," as well as "Richard Jackson and his wife and family, Anthonie Bentam, Edward Bentam, William Bradley and John Bett." Stringer and his wife and John Bett were also noted for failure to take communion at Scrooby.24 We may see here the names of the earliest members of the Scrooby Separatist congregation that was to meet a few years later in the manor house where the Brewster and Jackson families lived. But for the moment, in 1598, Brewster and his friends were evidently still working for reformation within the existing parish churches (although not just in their local parish).

This presentment is the first documentary reference to the independent preaching that would inspire the Pilgrim migration. The text in full can be given.

xxviie Aprilis 1598

{wm. Throope } } wm. Benson }
gard. } jurat
{Edward Sliued} } Raphe Chompney }
To the firste 2.3. theie haue nothinge to p[rese]nte
To the 4 theie p[rese]nte that theie lacke the paraphrases of
Erasmus & the table of the tenne commaundements [...?]
To the nynthe theire curat Mr Henrie Jones dothe not alwaies
weare the surplesse but for the moste p[ar]te & at the ministra
c[i]on of the sacramente he dothe use it.
To the 21 theie p[rese]nte will[ia]m Bruster for repeatinge of sermons
publiquelie in the churche w[it]hout authoritie for anie thinge
theie knowe
To the 31 theie p[rese]nte ["that" stricken out] Mr Rowland Stringer his wyfe & famelie
will[ia]m Bruster his wyfe & famelie Richard Jackson his wyfe
& famelie Anthonie Bentam & Edward Bentam & Wm. Bradley
for resortinge to other churches in service & sermon tyme
[inserted] & John Bett
To the 33 theie p[rese]nte Rowland Stringer and his wyfe for
Not receavinge the communion at Scroobie otherwise all is
well. But what is in question at yorke betweene Wm. Benson
& Elizabeth wrighte who hath defamed the said Wm. For
fornicac[i]on committed w[i]th her
[signed with marks and one signature:] R M
B X V [inverted]
Jo: Tibberde25

Bawtry, Church of St. Nicholas.

In 1960, Ronald A. Marchant, a scholar with unsurpassed knowledge of the ecclesiastical court records from the diocese of York, discovered Brewster's defense in answer to the charges. Marchant considered it likely that the Puritans had been organized at Scrooby and Bawtry for some years before the 1598 presentment, "at least from the time that Brewster returned home" from his employment in London as a secretary to Sir William Davison.26 Brewster responded in court on June 17, 1598, "[...] as touchinge the repeatinge of sermons he with others doe note the sermons delivered by the preacher and in the afternoone they that have noted doe confer with one another what they have noted or lost [= left] unnoted and otherwyse they have no repetition, and to the rest of the presentment he sayeth that the two townes of Bawtree and Scroobie do maynteyne one preacher between them who preaches one sundaye at the one towne, and at the other towne on the next sundaye by a continuall course, so that yf their preacher preache at Bawtrie he with other of the parish of Scroobie goe thither to heare him, and otherwyse he doth not absent him selfe from his parish churche on the Sabothe daye." Brewster and Anthony and Edward Bentham, who had appeared with him in court, received only an admonition.27

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