Chapter Nine


Betweene Grimsbe and Hull … was a large comone a good way distante from any town.


It was May 12, a cold Thursday, about four in the afternoon. The flood tide had peaked, the brown foam of the river had turned to a rapid ebb, and the wind had begun to blow from the higher ground upstream. The moment had come for ships bound down the estuary to slip their moorings, and to look for the deep channel toward the open sea.

The Francis, a sailing barge built to carry coal, swung at her anchor in the shallows in Stallingborough Haven, on the south bank of the Humber. Here a stream flowed slowly down between salt marshes, where sheep grazed three or four to the acre. At the point where it entered the river, the stream carved a deep trench, winding out through the mud of the haven until it merged with the breakers. On the mud, churned into rust-colored puddles like dung beside a cattle trough, an onlooker would have seen black-and-white wading birds picking out cockles with their long beaks.

This was the widest point on the estuary, nearly six miles across in the year 1608, far wider than today, but the width was deceptive. At the flood, each tide carried in from the North Sea many hundreds of tons of silt, to be washed out again with the ebb. But the frequent storms stemmed the outflow, and the red and brown clay particles dropped down to form a cordon of shifting mudflats. Stallingborough Haven lay at the thin, northernmost tip of the largest of the flats, a long wedge of mud that fanned out southward along the shore as far as Grimsby, five miles away.

Covered with shallow water at high tide, when seen from a distance at low tide the flats seemed to form a solid, dry beach, but again the appearance was misleading. Anybody trying to cross them would find that a man’s boot sinks deeply into the upper layers of the wet silt. A soft ooze, it has a color and a thickness that resemble dirty pink heavy cream.

The mudflats shelved downward with only the gentlest of gradients. Even two thousand yards from the shore, in places the water was barely three feet deep. For this reason, the mayor and burgesses of Hull, the chief port of the Humber, had placed a buoy or a beacon on Burcom Shoal, a mile or so out into the estuary from Stallingborough. It warned mariners to follow the seaward channel to its north. But in the dark, in the frequent fogs, or caught between tides and winds beating against each other in opposite directions, even a local skipper with a flat-bottomed craft could find himself stranded by sandbanks that constantly moved and might baffle the most experienced pilot.1

So it had been with the Francis. She came from Hull, farther up the river, her master was Henry Spencer, and the customs records describe her as a vessel of fifty tons, capable of long coasting voyages from Tyneside to the Thames. And yet the falling tide had trapped her on Wednesday on the flats at Stallingborough. Seeking refuge from a heavy swell, she had entered the haven and found herself grounded, unable to move until Thursday noon.

In the ordinary way of things, the delay might have caused little harm. The usual business of vessels the size of the Francis was to pick up coal, either from Newcastle or from the quaysides by the river Trent, and then to ferry it to Hull or all the way down to London to feed the kitchen fires of the capital. There as well as in Yorkshire the winter had been harsh, the coldest perhaps for more than forty years, freezing the river at London Bridge. Whatever the date of Spencer’s arrival, demand would be keen, as householders filled their cellars for the following year.2

On this occasion, however, the ship’s cargo consisted not of coal but of human beings and their belongings. Spencer docked at Gainsborough on Monday, and then the following morning, May 10, he received aboard ten women, three children, and two men, one old and one young. As she passed down the Trent, and then into the Humber, the Francis must have made more stops at the creeks and river ports along the way, because by the time she reached Stallingborough on Wednesday, she was filled with between eighty and a hundred passengers. Their bed linen, chests, and trunks came with them, amid the coal dust, and they were seasick. Shallow though it was, the Humber had a foul reputation for choppy voyages.

Because of the people, another sailing vessel waited in the estuary not far from the shore, somewhere close to the spot where today a light vessel has replaced the old Tudor beacon. She intended to take the passengers of the Francis across the sea, to her own home port. She was foreign, this other craft, a Dutchman bound back to Amsterdam, and most likely smaller than the barge she had come to meet. She was a hoy, the name given to a tiny Dutch ship with a single mast, rigged fore and aft, the sort of bustling little thing we see today crowding the foreground of oil paintings by Frans Hals.

As the tide ebbed, she hoisted her anchor and her sails, but before she did so, a rowboat put out to meet her. The two oarsmen and the boat belonged to the Francis, and they carried as many as sixteen men who had been waiting on the shore, pacing up and down above the mud. They had come on foot over the chain of low hills, the Wolds, which run parallel to the coastline a few miles inland. At about four o’clock they clambered out of the rowboat and into the Dutch hoy. As they did so, they looked back and saw a troop of armed men, on horseback and on foot, hurrying down toward the haven. The members of the troop carried guns and bills, an infantry weapon of the day, a curved blade mounted on a long wooden shaft.

The armed men were most likely the local militia, under the orders of the Grimsby justices. To reach Stallingborough, they had to cross a wetland that stretched back behind the shore for as much as two miles, as far as the parish church at Stallingborough village, and then curved down along the coast in Grimsby’s direction. A bridle path or two led across the marsh, between the grazing livestock, but the land was so flat that anybody walking along the path would be visible from a long distance.

When he saw the militia, the master of the hoy swore loudly. He hoisted his anchor and set his sails. Off he went toward the North Sea, taking with him his sixteen Englishmen. They left behind on the Francis their belongings, their comrades, their wives, and their weeping children. The Dutchman and his passengers reached his home port safely, but only after a difficult passage, buffeted by gales, which took them far out to the northeast, close to the coast of modern Norway or Sweden. Meanwhile, the eighty people left at Stallingborough divided into two groups. While the able-bodied men among them scattered and fled, the women and children and their leaders remained behind to face the magistrates.


On Friday, May 13, the justices questioned the master and crew of the Francis, probably at the town hall of Grimsby. They also brought before them Thomas Helwys, the man who led the attempted escape. Diligent servants of the Crown, the two JPs sent down to Whitehall Palace a copy of the depositions taken from Helwys, and his servant, and from Spencer and one of his crewmen. The event they record was nothing other than the flight of the Pilgrims from the coast of England, the episode of suffering and escape that William Bradford later chronicled with such emotion in his history of the Plymouth Colony.

As so often, Bradford passes over in silence his own role in the incident. However, so intensely does he describe the voyage of the hoy to Amsterdam that it seems likely he was on board and witnessed the events. It has always been thought that his narrative provided the only version of this affair, the distant precursor of the landing at Plymouth Rock, but this is not so. In fact, the depositions have lain forgotten and forlorn among the English State Papers for four centuries. They expand on Bradford’s story, adding far more detail and confirming the accuracy of what he writes. They also place the episode firmly back within its historical setting.3

Until now, readers have examined the depositions perhaps only twice: when they were cataloged in the reign of Queen Victoria, and then when they were microfilmed, a few decades ago, along with the rest of the Privy Council’s working memoranda. It may seem remarkable that the depositions have gone unnoticed, but the reason is very simple. The relevant catalog entry gives not the slightest indication of the importance of what lies behind it.

The catalog appeared as long ago as the 1850s, in the form of the Calendar of State Papers for the early years of the reign of James I. It was compiled by a busy archivist called Mary Green.4 At the time, the Pilgrims had only recently attracted interest from historians in England, and Mrs. Green may have known nothing about them. She produced more than forty volumes of calendars, and the speed with which she worked meant that she could not dwell for long on each of many thousands of documents. By this time Joseph Hunter, the Englishman who knew most about the Pilgrims, was sick and elderly and rarely seen among the archives: he died in 1861. Even if Mrs. Green had heard of Helwys (and that is unlikely), the allusion to him was easy to miss. Jacobean writers wrote the name with an anarchic variety of spellings—Ellwis, Helliwis, Elwaies, and so on—and at Grimsby the justices found a version of their own. They described him as “Thomas Elvish of Basford in the county of Nottingham gen.” In the index of the catalog only the name Elvish appears.

Whatever the reason, the papers have never been closely studied. And yet, from these documents, and from the scientific geography of the Humber then and now, it is possible to reconstruct what happened as it really was, with no call for mythology. This material, and Bradford’s narrative, are the main sources for this chapter’s description of the flight from Stallingborough. On the Humber, the haven and the stream can be found today behind the steel piers of the oil tanker terminal at Immingham, visible when the fog clears, with behind it on the drained marshes a long row of factories making latex gloves and vinyl paint.

From the Jacobean state papers, the original depositions taken in May 1608 from Thomas Helwys (spelled “Elvish” here) and his servant, after their arrests at Stallingborough Haven. The official stamp dates from the reign of Queen Victoria, when the papers were numbered and cataloged. (SP 14/32, fol. 82, National Archives, Kew)

Of the two Grimsby JPs, the more active was a landowner by the name of Thomas Hatcliffe, who signed off the report to the Privy Council. His family labored beneath a curse, or so it was said, because they had taken stone from a demolished church to build their manor house in the village that bore their name. And indeed, the Hatcliffes soon died out, and their home has vanished, leaving nothing but a weedy mound. Their graves lie lost beneath illegible inscriptions in the tiny vestry of Hatcliffe Church, in a wooded valley a few miles inland. But in his day, people had to pay attention to Thomas Hatcliffe, because he was member of Parliament for Grimsby, and the leading local gentleman in a remote neighborhood where vigilance was essential, to protect the interests of the realm.5

Because of the silting up of the estuary, by the seventeenth century the havens and creeks along the coast of Lincolnshire had long since ceased to be commercial ports. Even Grimsby was semi-dormant, its harbor choked with mud. Its revival to become the world’s busiest fishing town did not occur until two centuries later, when engineers built new docks. But precisely because they were so quiet, the inlets along the coast made places of secret entry and exit for smugglers or for Roman Catholic plotters. A long way from roads and houses, Stallingborough Haven made a perfect spot for shipping in and out illicit cargoes.

In the spring of 1608, it fell to Hatcliffe and his colleagues to keep an especially close eye on places such as these. Stallingborough lay beneath the jurisdiction of the customs men at Hull, but the chief officer there was under investigation for corruption. What’s more, the poor harvest of 1607 and the cold winter that followed gave rise to fears for the next year’s crop. For this reason, the Crown banned exports of grain and told local justices to arrest ships breaching the order. Then, in April, the Privy Council instructed magistrates to stop travelers leaving or entering by sea and to make them swear the oath of allegiance to the king before allowing them to go on their way.6

This seems to have been a measure prompted by the flight of the Irish earls from Donegal, and by fears of another war with Spain. Hatcliffe’s inner thoughts will never be known, but perhaps we can understand why, when he heard about a group of people loitering on the seashore, he sent the militia to intercept them. Perhaps he thought they were papists on their way to join O’Neill and O’Donnell in subversive exile on the continent of Europe.

The true story took a little time to emerge. Under examination, Thomas Helwys flatly refused to answer, for fear of incriminating himself. Much the same was true of his servant, Edward Armfield, who later turned up as a Separatist in Amsterdam. Despite prolonged questioning, he revealed only two details, minor in themselves, but such as to help us reconstruct what took place. Armfield said that he spent Tuesday night at Caistor, a market town on the Wolds. This means that he and the men who came overland had walked thirty-five miles across country in more or less a straight line from Gainsborough. Thomas and Joan Helwys seem to have done the same. They arrived at Stallingborough on Wednesday, to spend a cold night with Armfield in a shepherd’s hut.

The justices found Spencer and his crewman much more helpful. They revealed that Thomas Helwys had hired the Francis at Gainsborough on Monday, May 9, to take down the river a cargo including goods belonging to his cousin Sir Gervase. This in itself was a startling detail, which must have raised eyebrows in the courtroom, because that year Sir Gervase Helwys was serving as county sheriff for Lincolnshire. We do not know what he thought about his name being dragged into the affair like this; but his involvement may help explain why later, when the dust settled, the authorities quietly allowed Thomas Helwys to slip away to the Netherlands.

Sir Gervase was not a Separatist, but he must have been fully aware of what the Brownists were up to. In 1609, the year after the escape from Stallingborough, he made Thomas a potential beneficiary of his will, implying no disapproval of what he had done. Nor did any of this do lasting harm to Sir Gervase, who in due course became lieutenant governor of the Tower of London. He ended his life on the gallows, hanged for his role as accessory to murder in the infamous Overbury affair, a sensational case of poisoning in the Tower, but that is another story. Poor Sir Gervase, by all accounts not the cleverest of men, seems to have played merely the role of a dupe.

Perhaps that was also the way it was in the spring of 1608. According to Henry Spencer, early on Tuesday, May 10, the Francis took on board the first contingent of Brownists, the fifteen men, women, and children who embarked at Gainsborough. He was reluctant to say more, but the rest of the details were filled in by his crewman Robert Barnby, who had helped take the rowboat out to the hoy. He confirmed that the refugees had filled the Francis, that they had numbered between eighty and a hundred, and that the skipper of the hoy said that he came from Amsterdam.

The depositions say nothing about what happened next, but the mere fact that they survive at all means that the documents must have reached London. Once again, the Privy Council had to ponder the fate of the Separatists. Once again, they reacted with moderation, just as they did when the Pilgrims were caught trying to sail from Boston. They did not unleash an all-out attack on nonconformists in the north. The explanation lies in the fine detail of the politics of the age.

The arrest of women and children created an awkward dilemma for the king’s ministers, a point that William Bradford makes very plain. From the moment they were taken prisoner, they became a grave embarrassment, these “poore women in … distress,” as Bradford describes them: “weeping & crying on every side, some for their husbands, that were carried away in ye ship … others not knowing what should become of them, & their little ones; others againe melted in teares, seeing their poore little ones hanging about them, crying for fear, and quaking with could.” They posed a legal problem too, because they had committed no obvious crime, since they were women whose duty it was to follow their husbands: or so a lawyer like Nick Fuller might argue.

Was it an offense for them to try to quit the realm without the obligatory license? The legal position was muddled and uncertain. Nobody had codified England’s many laws, which were full of contradictions, and of course they had also laid down since 1593 that banishment was the penalty for Brownists. Hence in theory the people arrested at Stallingborough should be exiled anyway, making it nonsense to prosecute them for seeking to leave the country.

What if the justices simply released the womenfolk and the children? That would create a new problem of another kind. With their husbands gone, the women would have no means of support. They had already sold their homes to finance the escape. Destitute, they would become a burden on the local taxpayers wherever they settled, and so nobody would wish to take them. Due in part to the new poor laws, English villages were becoming increasingly hostile to outsiders, to vagrants and beggars who might demand the welfare payments that the law required. Bradford says that the women and children were shunted from one JP to another, and from one place to the next.

This was understandable. Less so is the fact that even the ringleaders escaped stern punishment. No record survives of any pursuit or criminal prosecution of John Robinson or of John Smyth, and after his interrogation it seems that Thomas Helwys was merely released on bail. All three men surfaced in Amsterdam during the summer. Brewster and Robinson must have been in hiding in England before that, since William Bradford clearly says that they were among the last to reach the Netherlands. Smyth, however, may have been one of the men who sailed from Stallingborough, because he appears to have been in Holland as early as June, within weeks of the incident.*

In fact, the authorities took most interest in Joan Helwys, perhaps because she had already been in prison before jumping bail to join the flight from Stallingborough. Even so, she was allowed home, and then she vanished again, leaving the High Commission at York with the task of recovering her bail money from the men who stood as sureties. She, too, later turned up in Amsterdam at her husband’s side. Back home, the seventh Earl of Shrewsbury kept watch on suspected troublemakers: the Talbot Papers show that he intercepted mail sent back by Helwys from Holland.

With Joan Helwys gone, only three of the Brownists—Nevyle, Drew, and Thomas Jessop—remained in the cells at York Castle, awaiting trial. It would seem, from one source, that they appeared before the judges at the assizes in York in July, but again they avoided harsh treatment. Less than a year later, on May 25, 1609, the Privy Council simply ordered Lord Sheffield to release the three men and banish them from the kingdom, as “sectaries … in matters of religion,” the punishment they should have received at the outset. It was a course of action entirely in line with the policy of exclusion that King James had followed many times, in all three of his kingdoms.7

Nevyle and his comrades left for Holland, and with their departure the first act of the Pilgrim drama came to a quiet close. Periodically in the next decade or so, laymen and laywomen were hauled up before the ecclesiastical courts in the Quadrilateral, accused of nonconformity. Perhaps a Brownist underground eked out a shadowy existence in the area. As late as 1618, ten years after the crisis, there were reports of private conventicles at Clarborough, on the North Clay between Scrooby and Sturton, and a man from one of the Trent valley villages was arraigned “for beinge a separist.”8 We can also find subterranean affiliations between the Separatists of 1608 and later Puritan activists in the region. Even so, with the departure of Brewster, Helwys, Smyth, and Robinson the movement lost its local leadership. Not until the 1640s and the English Civil War did Nottinghamshire provide another challenge to authority of so blatant a kind.

For us, however, one question remains unanswered. Why in 1608, in the face of such a defiant gesture, such a drastic act of civil disobedience, did the Privy Council do so little and act so leniently, especially in the case of Thomas Helwys? To find the answer, we have to look at events through the eyes of the most powerful man in England after the king. This was the lord treasurer, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, the minister whose job it was to respond to the reports from Grimsby. In the troubled spring of that year, Cecil had on his hands an Irish rebellion and a minor fiscal crisis, and Puritan agitators were a sideshow. Furthermore, Robert Cecil and the Crown could afford to be merciful. They had already won their war on dissent. Or so they thought.

The Humber estuary at Stallingborough Haven, Lincolnshire, seen in May 2008 in fog at the same time of day and in the same tidal conditions as those when the Pilgrims embarked for Holland. The Immingham docks are located immediately to the north. (Photography: Nick Bunker)


In 1608, Cecil found himself dealing with an almost perfect duplicate of the situation that confronted his father, Lord Burghley, some twenty-five years before, in the case of his kinsman Robert Browne. As it happens, a document has survived that casts a bright light on Cecil and his leadership, at precisely this moment. It paints a clear picture of the manner in which decisions were made at the very heart of Jacobean politics. The document is a detailed daily journal of Cecil’s activities between May and July, and it exists for the following reason.

After James came to the throne, Robert Cecil gradually tightened his grip on the levers of power. The period of his greatest influence began barely a week before the events at Stallingborough, on May 4, when he added the post of lord treasurer to his existing roles as Secretary of State and privy councillor. His appointment came as an immense relief to the second-in-command of the royal finances, the heroically named Sir Julius Caesar. Wearied by the king’s lavish spending, Sir Julius spent long nights of insomnia worrying about a royal bankruptcy, but in Robert Cecil he saw a man who would bring reform. At forty-four, and despite his weak appearance—he was small and humpbacked—Cecil was in his prime. He acted with determination. Within a matter of weeks, he put in place a battery of new taxes—on trade in luxury goods, spices, and exotic fruits—he hastened the collection of debts due to the Crown, and he ordered the survey of royal manors, such as Austerfield.

Awed by Cecil’s intellect and hard work, Caesar kept a diary of his first eleven weeks in office. It covers the period during which the dispatch about the Pilgrims would have arrived from Hatcliffe. We can be sure that it came to Cecil, because the supervision of port and customs fell within his role as finance minister. He certainly knew all about the corrupt officer at Hull. Cecil’s papers include a long letter dated April 30, which accuses the man of allowing the shipment through the port of contraband goods. Since Cecil himself had issued the orders banning the export of grain, he took a close interest in any news that arrived from coastal regions.9

By far the most pressing issue of the month was that bloody perennial, the Irish question. In early May, news reached London of a rebellion in Ulster, led by the young Gaelic nobleman Sir Cahir O’Doherty, aged twenty-one and the lord of Inishowen, the peninsula forming the easternmost portion of Donegal. After the Flight of the Earls, colonial officials continued to taunt and provoke the Gaelic gentry, including O’Doherty, until they pushed him too far.

At two on the morning of April 18, O’Doherty led ninety rebels in a surprise attack on the tiny English settlement at Londonderry. Swarming up from the Bogside, his followers took the fort, burned the town, and killed the governor. After Derry, the young warrior gathered a force of five hundred men, and with them he ranged across the northwest of Ireland, probing toward the English territory within the hinterland of Dublin. Sir Cahir had the makings of a hero, but in July he fell to a musket ball. His defeated followers fled, and the English displayed the rebel leader’s head on a spike. Even so, the affair caused alarm in London. It might foreshadow a much larger insurgency, led perhaps by the exiled Earl of Tyrone, returning with a Spanish army at his side.10

If Hatcliffe promptly sent his report down to the capital, it would have arrived on or about Wednesday, May 18. The king was about to leave for Windsor Castle, and so that evening the lord treasurer welcomed the royal family to his own mansion by the Thames. Because James’s love of hunting kept him away from London for long periods, during his visits to the capital Cecil tried to spend as much time with the king as possible. On this occasion, James would want to know what Cecil was doing about O’Doherty, while Cecil would be looking for royal approval for his new taxes.

Assuming, too, that the depositions had arrived, Cecil would have been able to tell the king about the news from Lincolnshire. The next full council meeting took place on Sunday, May 22. This must have provided the first opportunity for its members to discuss the Pilgrims. And, indeed, the diary of Sir Julius Caesar records that immediately afterward, on Monday, Cecil sent a number of dispatches to the north. Caesar says that they dealt with finance—Cecil wished to stop illegal felling of trees in the royal woodlands—but they might also have included his instructions, whatever they were, about the prisoners at Grimsby.

Of one thing we can be sure. During these crowded weeks, Robert Cecil impressed observers with his decisive manner. On June 2, he presided over a session of the Exchequer, the law court that dealt with cases having to do with taxation, and Cecil performed with what Sir Julius calls “admirable dexterity, quick apprehension and sound judgment.” It seems that he displayed the same qualities on June 5, when he led an all-day session of the Privy Council, in the presence of the king. The meeting ended with orders to send four thousand pistols and muskets to Ireland, to reinforce the English garrisons.11

A man of Cecil’s caliber, one who acted in such a way, would not have failed the test that the Pilgrims imposed on him. Their choice of a departure point showed that they hoped to escape detection, but Thomas Helwys did not behave like a weakling. His behavior had been an affront to authority. If Cecil quietly let Helwys and his accomplices go, despite their temerity, he must have had a motive. He would have thought carefully before deciding to let the matter drop, and to allow the Separatists to travel to Holland as they wished.

Happily for them, in matters of religion the lord treasurer was a flexible man. Indeed, Robert Cecil was so pragmatic that even the historians who have studied him most closely have found it very hard to say what he believed. Observers said as much in his lifetime, too. Only six months before Stallingborough, the king accused Cecil of being a Puritan himself, in one of those half-joking letters that James was inclined to fire off at his officials as a way to keep them guessing about his private thoughts. Others took the opposite view, that Cecil was a secret Roman Catholic, a man prepared to do anything to preserve the fragile peace with Spain. He was certainly a close friend of the man in the north who took the toughest line against the Puritans, the overbearing Gilbert, Earl of Shrewsbury. Even so, the baffling Robert Cecil made no effort to hand the earl the heads of Puritans on a dish.12

Most likely, he let the Pilgrims go because nothing was to be gained by making them stay, and because he did not want to give them a platform for oratory. Like his father, Cecil held the post of chancellor of Cambridge University. That being so, he might well have known the two intellectuals John Robinson and John Smyth, at least by reputation, and the bishops could have supplied any more information he needed. Highly intelligent and articulate men, the two preachers might stir up an embarrassing fuss if they were placed before a tribunal.

At this very moment, as we saw, the most brilliant lawyers of the day were hoping for a fight about the jurisdiction of the archbishops of Canterbury and York, for which the case of the fleeing Pilgrims would provide an excellent opportunity. For Robert Cecil it may have seemed far better, in the circumstances, to let them wander off into impotent exile in Amsterdam. Being the ardent Protestants they were, they would pose no threat to national security. They did not wish to see a toppling of King James, in favor perhaps of a papist invader.

Evidence from the playhouse adds weight to this interpretation. Two years later, at the Globe Theatre, a London audience saw the first performance of The Alchemist, the comic masterpiece of Ben Jonson. It mocked the Separatists of Amsterdam and Leiden. Most of all it made fun of a pastor by the name of Tribulation, a character who quotes from the same German theologians who inspired Robinson and Smyth. No one would have chuckled if they and their like were not already familiar targets for satire. That, perhaps, was what Cecil expected: that the Pilgrims had most to fear from the old anti-Puritan weapon of ridicule.

* It is conceivable that the ecclesiastical High Commission in London prosecuted both Robinson and Smyth, because some of their activities took place in the Diocese of Lincoln, south of the Trent. Sadly, the London commission’s records were almost entirely destroyed during the early 1640s.

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