Common section

Image The East of England before the Great Migration

The parts of eastern England from which these Puritans came—East Anglia, eastern Lincolnshire, eastern Cambridge and the northeastern fringe of Kent—are not recognized as a single region today. But in the seventeenth century they shared many qualities in common. In physical terms, all of these territories tended to be flat, open country, with long vistas and unbroken views of the sky. Some parts of this land were highly fertile. Other parts were so very poor that Charles I once suggested that the soil of Norfolk should be divided to make highways in the other counties of England.1

Despite its poor resources, methods of farming were more advanced in the eastern counties than elsewhere in England. The agricultural revolution came early to East Anglia, as also it did to the Netherlands; “replenishing crops” were used as early as the mid-seventeenth century.2 The great reformer Arthur Young observed as he traveled through the eastern counties that England’s best farmers lived on its worst soil. Agriculture in this region was mostly a regime of mixed farming, which supplied food for urban markets and wool for a local textile industry.3

Cambridge: The Emmanuel Connection


Note: Other Emmanuel men who came to New England (with dates of matriculation in the college) included Nathaniel Ward (1596); Thomas Hooker (1604); Samuel Stone; John Harvard (1627); Samuel Dudley (1626); George Alcock who married the sister of Thomas Hooker; Thomas Allen who married the widow of John Harvard; Wm. Blackstone (1614); Simon Bradstreet (1618); Edmund Browne (1624); Ezekiel Cheever (1633); John Cotton (1606); Giles Firmin (1629) who married a daughter of Nathaniel Ward; Isaac Johnson (1616); William Mildmay (1640); William Pelham (1615); William Perkins (1624); John Phillips (1600) who married a sister of William Ames; Peter Prudden (1620); Nathaniel Rogers (1614); Richard Sadler (1636); Richard Saltonstall Jr.; Nicholas Street (MA 1636); Zechariah Symmes (1617); William Walton (1621); John Ward son of Nathaniel Ward (1622); Samuel Whiting (1613) whose second wife was sister to Oliver St. John and cousin to Peter Bulkeley and John Wilson.

Lincolnshire: The Fiennes-Clinton Connection


Note: The Fiennes-Clinton Family was also connected to the Pelham Family. John Humphrey’s first wife was a Pelham; William Pelham sailed in Arbella. Penelope Pelham aged 16 also sailed to Massachusetts in 1635. Also connected to this family was Thomas Dudley, a close friend and steward to the Earl of Lincoln, and Simon Bradstreet, also steward to the Earl of Lincoln and Dudley’s son-in-law.

Sources: A. M. Cook, Boston (Boston, Lincolnshire, 1948); H. A. Doubleday et al., The Complete Peerage (London, 1929); and genealogical materials in LINCRO.

Alford, Lincolnshire: The Wentworth-Marbury-Storre-Hutchinson-Oliver Connection


Source: Genealogical materials in LINCRO.

Today, East Anglia seems very rural by comparison with other English regions. But in the early seventeenth century, it was the most densely settled and highly urbanized part of England, and had been so for many centuries. Norwich was England’s second largest city in 1630—a dynamic center whose population had trebled in the preceding fifty years. There were also many small seaports and market towns. In 1600, no fewer than 130 little ports of entry existed on the coast of Essex alone.4

Many inhabitants of East Anglia were artisans and skilled craftsmen. In 1630, half the adult population of Essex was employed in the cloth trade. Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridge and Kent were also major textile centers, specializing in the manufacture of light woolens favored in southern Europe, and also in luxurious “Suffolk shortcloths,” which were worn by the rulers of the Western world. This trade had been deeply depressed by wars with Spain (1625-30) and France (1627-29) and by a general depression of commerce in this period. As a result, unemployment and poverty were major problems in East Anglia on the eve of the great migration. In 1629, unemployed weavers besieged the courts at Braintree and Sudbury in search of work. Their suffering was deepened by a severe “scarcity and dearth of corn” in that year.5

Local scarcities were made worse by the wretched state of overland communications. Even short trips were so dangerous that the D’Ewes family left an infant with a wet nurse rather than expose it to the danger of even a single day’s journey.6 Travel by land was slow and painful; but travel by water was cheap and easy. The sea linked East Anglia, Kent and Lincolnshire with each other, and also with the Netherlands, in a cultural nexus of great importance in the seventeenth century.7 East Anglia was invigorated by Dutch trade, Dutch immigrants, Dutch architecture, Dutch religion and Dutch culture. The culture of New England, as we shall see, owed much to this Dutch connection, as did the folkways of East Anglia itself.8

At the same time, the sea also exposed East Anglia to many hazards. For more than a thousand years, sea raiders had fallen upon the English coast, and the memory of their depredations was very much alive in 1630. In that year, at least two towns in Essex and the village of Linton in Cambridge still had nailed to their church doors the human skins of marauding Danes who had been flayed alive by their intended victims.9 Raiders from the sea had attacked East Anglia as recently as 1626 and 1627 when the dreaded “Dunkirkers” came ashore—killing, looting and raping as so many other sea people had done before.10

Through the centuries, some of these many waves of raiders had remained to settle there, particularly the people known as Angles, and later those called Danes in East Anglia and Jutes (from Jutland) in Kent. It was in part the culture of these people that gave East Anglia and Kent their special character. As early as the sixth century, both East Kent and East Anglia were very different from Wessex, Mercia and the north of England in their comparatively large numbers of freemen, and small numbers of servi andvillani. Also, in the words of historian K. P. Witney, they were special in “the greatly superior status enjoyed by the ordinary freemen.”11

The eastern counties were also distinctive in their political character. Many rebellions against arbitrary power had occurred there—Jack Straw’s Rising in Suffolk, Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, John Ball’s Insurrection in Kent, and Robert Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk, where the leader sat under an oak called the “tree of reformation” while the terrified gentry were tried before a makeshift jury of their former victims. The Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381 was heavily concentrated in nine eastern counties. So also was Clarence’s Rising in 1477 and Buckingham’s Revolt in 1483.12



This region also became a major center of resistance to Charles I after 1625. When the Civil War began in 1642, Parliamentary forces found their greatest strength in the counties called the Eastern Association—the same area from which Massachusetts was settled.13

The religious life of this region also differed from other parts of England. It had been marked by dissent for centuries before Martin Luther. During the early fifteenth century, the movement called Lollardy found many of its followers in East Anglia. After its suppression, the underground cells of Lollards who met to study the scriptures were exceptionally numerous in eastern counties from Lincoln and Norfolk to Kent.14

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century also flourished in East Anglia, more than elsewhere in England. The Marian martyrs—men and women executed for their Protestant faith in the reign of the Queen Mary—came mostly from this region. Of 273 Protestants who were burned at the stake for heresy during the counter reformation of the Catholic Queen (1553-58), no fewer than 225 (82%) came from nine eastern counties.15 In the era of Elizabeth I, nearly half of Puritan ministers came from the East Anglian counties of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. If other eastern counties were included, the proportion rose to 75 percent.16

People of every religious party agreed that Puritanism was specially strong in the eastern counties. The Puritan leader John Hampden said of Essex that it was “the place of the most life of religion in the land.” The Puritans’ great enemy, Archbiship William Laud, complained that East Anglia was the throbbing heart of heresy in England.17

Within East Anglia, the Puritan movement was strongest in the small towns whence so many migrants left for Massachusetts. Of Colchester (Essex) one Puritan leader said that “the town, for the earnest profession of the gospel, became like unto a city upon a hill, and as a candle upon a candle stick.” That passage from St. Matthew, however inappropriate it may have been to the topography of East Anglia, was often used by Puritans to describe the spiritual condition of this region. When John Winthrop described his intended settlement in Massachusetts as “a city upon a hill,” he employed a gospel phrase that had become a cliché in the communities of eastern England.18

The Puritanism of eastern England was not all of a piece. Several distinct varieties of religious dissent developed there, each with its own base. A special strain of religious radicalism which put heavy stress upon the spirit (Antinomianism) flourished among Puritans in eastern Lincolnshire. The more conservative and highly rationalist variant of Calvinism (Arminianism) found many adherents in London, Middlesex and Hertfordshire. In between were men and women from the counties of Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk who adopted a Puritan “middle way.” Their faith became the official religion of Massachusetts for two centuries.19


East Anglia was also exceptional in its educational and cultural attainments. In the seventeenth century, rates of literacy were higher there than in other English regions. When Havelock Ellis undertook to measure the geography of intellectual distinction in English history, he found that a larger proportion of scholars, scientists and artists came from East Anglia than from any other part of England.20

Many cultural stereotypes attached to the people of eastern England. East Anglian historian R. W. Ketton-Cremer writes, “The Norfolk man, gentle or simple, tended to be dour, stubborn, fond of argument and litigation, strongly Puritan in his religious views. The type was far from universal … but it was a type to which the majority of all classes to some degree conformed.”21 These images added yet another dimension to regional identity in the seventeenth century.

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