England, from Trent and Severn hitherto,
By south and east is to my part assign’d;
All westward, Wales beyond the Severn shore,
And all the fertile land within that bound,
To Owen Glendower; and, dear coz, to you
The remnant northward, lying off from Trent.
—SHAKESPEARE, KING HENRY IV PART 1 (1597)
There is a place on the outer end of Cape Cod, close to a trailer park twenty miles from Provincetown, where a narrow stream winds slowly down toward the marshes beside Wellfleet Harbor. Before it passes through a culvert under a country road, it measures no more than a yard across. Nothing remains nearby to suggest that the site has any historical significance.
In December, the month when skies are at their clearest on the coast, the brook soaks its way forward in an icy brown mess of fallen leaves. And yet for William Bradford, who stepped across it on December 7, 1620, the stream came as a blessing, a merciful relief from the sandy dryness of the Cape. He carefully noted the event in Mourt’s Relation. “We saw two becks of fresh water … the first running waters that we saw in the country,” Bradford wrote.1
His account of these opening weeks in America contains details so exact that today one can follow on foot the path he took. Living in an age before pesticides and tractors, William Bradford had to know land with an intimacy that few of us share today. This is why he carefully examined each slope of the new country, soil that he might have to cultivate one day by hand, with an iron mattock or with a plow drawn by oxen. He catalogs the trees and the russet surface of the Cape, its ponds, and even the texture of the ground. Describing the Provincetown Hook, Bradford speaks of the “excellent black earth” a spade deep, and this is true. Drive a blade into the cordgrass on the edge of the salt marsh, and up comes wet, dark peat.
When he talks about the stream, Bradford displays his origins by using a dialect word. To call it a “beck” marks him out as a man from what he called “the North Parts” of England. This word for a stream rarely appears on a map of the country south of the Trent, the river that divided the two halves of the kingdom. Born and raised nearly two hundred miles from the capital, William Bradford and his Mayflower colleague William Brewster came from a region of wetland, heath, and wide open fields of red clay, just inside the North Parts.
Of course, people could migrate to Massachusetts without being born in that part of the country. The great majority of those who colonized New England originated elsewhere, chiefly in East Anglia, much nearer to London, but numbers mattered less than leadership. It was leadership that made a new venture a success or a deadly fiasco, and the men who led the Plymouth Colony came from a precise, distinctive zone, with special tensions, limits, and possibilities that shaped their upbringing and their attitudes. They came from a place where the land carries many meanings, inscribed by glaciers, by floodwaters, by politics, and by religion.
THE SCROOBY MISTAKE
This is the eastern edge of England’s mining country, green and black, a mixed terrain of wildlife and machinery, spoil heaps, woods, and pasture. Mostly, the coal mines have closed, the tips made over for cubicled housing in brick and tile, but the country still has its rabbits, its foxes, its retired miners with emphysema, and its peaks and falls, made from a coupling of industry and nature. Historians will tell you that the Mayflower Pilgrims came from Scrooby, in the northern corner of Nottinghamshire. This is not false, but by itself it says nothing about the country or its character. Least of all do the books mention coal, the embarrassing resource that has left the region looking as it does today.
Come to Scrooby by car, twenty minutes from the old railway town of Doncaster, and you will see little that the Pilgrims might recognize, and a very great deal that they would not. Three thousand yards to the west, a tall blue and gray tower overlooks the village from the summit of a ridge. Visible fifteen miles away, it overwhelms the limestone steeple of Scrooby’s medieval church. Built only twenty years ago, the tower holds the winding gear for the shafts of Harworth Colliery, Britain’s deepest coal mine. Used only occasionally now, because of lurking methane gas and buckled rock, the shafts descend three thousand feet. At the bottom, the seams dip away under the earth, shelving downward to the east and beneath the North Sea, bearing hundreds of millions of tons of virgin coal.
At Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, the medieval church of St. Wilfred, viewed from the northwest. At the left, the lane leads toward Scrooby Manor, while on the right is the cottage known as the Old Vicarage, partly dating from around 1600. Behind the low stone wall beside the lane is the old village pound, used to keep stray animals. (Photography: Nick Bunker)
Eight miles away in the same direction, plumes of steam rise over another ridge. They come from power stations in the valley of the river Trent, located there for the sake of access to coal and water. Not far to the north, an airport sits on a low plateau, above Austerfield in Yorkshire, the place where William Bradford was born. Before it became an airport, its hangars kept the Vulcan jets that carried the hydrogen bomb for Britain. Enter the village of Scrooby, and again you will find the relics of the Pilgrims half-hidden and overshadowed by the vestiges of a much later age.
The church remains, gray, small, and squat, built mostly in the fifteenth century, with the eroding heads of angels perched around its windows. Nearby is a cottage with a timber frame, dating from about 1600, which Brewster may have helped to build for the parish minister. Part of Brewster’s home still stands, at Scrooby Manor, out-of-bounds to the casual tourist, though a tumbled heap of broken masonry remains visible behind the garden wall of a house nearby. Beyond the wire, a soggy depression marks the site of a medieval moat, with fishponds to right and left, but the blatant, dominating feature of the place is the railway. The main line from Edinburgh to London slices noisily down the western edge of Austerfield. Then it passes within two hundred yards of the manor at Scrooby, cutting it off from open country to the east.
The railway runs where it does because it follows the path of the Great North Road, the old highway to Scotland. William Brewster lived here because he was the postmaster at Scrooby, stabling the horses that carried the king’s mail from London to the Scottish capital. Scrooby stands at a gateway between north and south, where the English Midlands meet the Vale of York. The railway, the coal mines, and the airport with its runways facing Germany and Russia are modern signs of the strategic value of the place.
Long before the era of the Pilgrims, people had already molded the landscape for centuries, including the Romans who laid a road across the wetlands. Scrooby, and the land around it, were sought after for reasons that differed from one period to another: game for hunting, or proximity to the sea, or the deep geology of coal. Whichever resource mattered most, at any given time, the district was never minor or irrelevant.
Little of this history has left its mark in books about the Pilgrims. This is because it clashes with an orthodox version of the Scrooby story, a version dating back to 1849. In that year, a Presbyterian minister called Joseph Hunter published the first account of their roots. He depicted the Pilgrims as simple folk from an obscure place with little or no past to speak of, and certainly no scars left by industry or warfare. Hunter identified Scrooby as the home of William Brewster and the site of the Separatist assembly that formed the nucleus of the Mayflower community. In doing so, he fashioned a naive and mistaken image of the people in question.
“They were but inconsiderable persons at home,” Hunter wrote. “There is scarcely anything to be told of their early history, besides the very small facts … which make the history of men who are of but small account in the midst of a larger and advanced population.” Oddly patronizing, Hunter set the tone for the writers who followed him.2
Hunter was an excellent archivist, but he lived at a time when historians took little interest in people who ranked below the upper reaches of the landed gentry. As a result, he made errors and oversights. Because Scrooby was a small village a long way from London—in 1603 it had little more than two hundred residents, or forty households—he portrayed the Pilgrims as a tiny, humble band, arising in some spontaneous way from rural tranquillity. Hunter made them sound isolated, or eccentric. He gave the impression that nothing more could be found out about them.
None of this was fair, but Hunter’s work had an enduring effect. Another English writer, William Bartlett, picked up his material and made it popular, in a book of 1853 called The Pilgrim Fathers. An illustrated bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, it added the visual elements of pointed hats, wide linen collars, and the landing on Plymouth Rock. Bartlett gave wide currency to the same mistakes about Scrooby, and both men distorted or misunderstood William Bradford’s account of events.
Bradford never refers to Scrooby by name. He did not pin the Separatists to the village with Hunter’s degree of precision. Bradford says that they came from “sundrie townes & vilages, some in Notinghamshire, some of Lincollinshire, and some of Yorkshire,” implying that the movement was wide and diffuse, as indeed it was. Joseph Hunter chose to focus on a single detail, of a kind he could easily verify from the archives that he knew best. Bradford says that the Separatists met at Brewster’s home. The house in question was a manor owned by the Church of England. He did not identify it, but Joseph Hunter lived nearby, and he recognized that Bradford was referring to Scrooby Manor. It was a valuable property belonging to the archbishop of York, and Hunter rapidly found proof that it was the spot Bradford had in mind.
Hunter traced William Brewster’s father as a taxpayer at Scrooby during the reign of Elizabeth. By 1849, Hunter had become the deputy keeper of the Public Record Office in London, and there he also found the accounts of the Crown’s postmasters. These revealed the payments of the younger William Brewster’s salary. They ended in the autumn of 1607, immediately before he went into exile in the Netherlands. It also emerged, from the archbishop’s archives, that Brewster’s father was the archbishop’s bailiff. The Bradfords were easy to find, because the parish register of Austerfield survives. It lists the baptism of William.
At that point the story seemed almost complete. A century ago, the loose ends were apparently tied up by two more clergymen, one an American and one a Briton. The American was a Congregational minister called Henry Martyn Dexter. A Yale man, he searched the archives again, and in York he examined the records of the prosecution of the Pilgrims. His book—The England and Holland of the Pilgrims, published in 1905—remains the best starting point for anybody studying their background.
The British scholar was a Unitarian called Walter Burgess. In two books that appeared as long ago as 1911 and 1920, he unearthed new evidence about Robinson, and about another local Separatist called John Smyth. Burgess widened the field of inquiry, but not by much, since he took little interest in politics or in social history. After Burgess, British scholars added very little, for understandable reasons: no matter how much the Pilgrims may matter to Americans, by leaving England they made their exit from the historical stage of their homeland. And, since Hunter had a high reputation, and Dexter had written a very fat book, it was hard to imagine that they had overlooked anything significant. The exception, five decades ago, was a fourth clergyman, an Anglican called Canon Ronald Marchant, who wished to understand how the Church ran its affairs in the area.
Marchant examined a rich but at that time a rarely visited archive, the papers left by the archdeacons of Nottingham. They presided over the Church courts that tried people accused of offenses such as adultery, blasphemy, or low-level witchcraft. The papers contain a host of anecdotes, about fornicating vicars, foulmouthed scolds, and men charged with playing football or spreading dung on a Sunday. Here we find scattered references to Puritans, shedding more light on the Pilgrims. Marchant reproduced them, but his research was limited, few have read his book, and he left the Scrooby myth intact.3
Although Scrooby played its part, it was not the center of the movement. Nor were the Pilgrims a tiny, isolated congregation dwelling in a narrow little district about which nothing more can be said. Actually, the community of dissent extended across a much wider area. Its fulcrum lay in nearby towns that were far larger at the time. And when it came to leadership, the local Separatists looked to four men, rather than two. Brewster and Robinson worked with two partners and colleagues, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys. A clergyman, Smyth was a talented writer with a daring religious imagination. Helwys came from a local yeoman family that had risen to create within three generations a chain of estates across three counties and prospered in business in London.
It was Thomas Helwys who led the flight of the Pilgrims to Holland in 1608. Because he did not reach America, because he fell out with Smyth, and because many records have been overlooked, history has almost forgotten him. Almost, but not entirely: in America, Baptist scholars rightly remember Helwys, and John Smyth, as pioneers of their form of worship. Often Americans think of the Mayflower as a northern event, something that took place above the Mason-Dixon Line and mattered mainly to people who later formed the blue side in the Civil War. In fact, southern and Chicago Baptists can trace their origins to the same tract of land by the Trent. This makes the region still more intriguing.
Why did these things happen here, so far from London and in what looks like a backwater? Open and defiant separation from the Church of England was very rare indeed, and emigration was even less likely. Mostly, nonconformists found ways to stay within the Church by means of compromise or subterfuge. So why did Separatism take root around Scrooby, at a precise point in history, early in the reign of James I, at the moment when Shakespeare was writing Coriolanus?
Of course, the Scrooby region was never really obscure at all, but these were very unusual events, and we have a great deal of explaining to do. The best place to start is with our feet placed firmly on the ground. For want of a better term, we might call the region the Pilgrim Quadrilateral.* It covers some ninety square miles. In 1603, it had a population of about fourteen thousand, divided among some thirty parishes.4 Its highest hill rises to three hundred feet, but most of the land is far lower than that, often only a few feet above sea level.
The Quadrilateral has immense skies, thanks to the low horizon, and soft light, because of the reflection of the sun from lush grass and shallow water. It is a land of two rivers, the Trent and the Idle. In those days it was rich territory for cattlemen and hunters, coveted by rival noblemen and squires who vied for supremacy. Far from being a placid enclave, it bore a closer likeness to a troubled county in Faulkner’s Mississippi.
Behind and beneath it all lay the necessities of the soil. As a great historian once put it, in early modern England agriculture was a vast mountain range, and in front of it other forms of activity were merely minor peaks. But rural productivity remained meager by the standards of a later age. Yielding far too little, each year the average acre gave rise to fewer than fourteen bushels of wheat, a fifth of the amount that farmers can grow on the best land in eastern England today. Fourteen bushels were only a bushel or two more than the yields medieval farmers had achieved, before the Black Death three hundred years earlier.
By bringing more land into use, during the second half of the seventeenth century the English gradually made famine a thing of the past. But in Brewster’s day it remained a lingering threat as the kingdom’s population rose, from three million in 1560 to five million eight decades later. Poor harvests made the mid-1590s miserable years. Then another grain shortage sent prices soaring, at the very moment when the Pilgrims were on the verge of going into exile. This was not the reason they left, but it had implications that they could not evade: nobody could, in an England still so overwhelmingly agrarian.
We can probably never entirely disentangle the mixed motives of the early settlers in New England. Their ambitions for betterment were religious, economic, and political at one and the same time. Separatists like the Pilgrims were men and women who wanted to improve themselves: that was the essence of what Robert Browne had said. It was their duty to create a more perfect form of society, disciplined and fraternal, like the early Christian world he saw in the New Testament. But what did this mean in practice, in the world as it actually was in a region such as the Quadrilateral? Religious ideals could never be pursued without thinking about material well-being as well.
How could a human being be godly if he or she lived in a place that was so obviously not? In a sense, the problem was brutally simple, as it always is for emigrants: the risks of remaining at home began to outweigh the dangers of going somewhere else. The England in which they lived was starting to polarize between landowners and large tenant farmers, on the one hand, and a landless laboring class, on the other. As the gap widened, so the penalty for failure became more and more alarming.
An enterprising yeoman might, by hard work and shrewd speculation, gradually assemble enough land to rank as a gentleman. Equally well, his family might sink down the scale, because of excessive debts, because a breadwinner died young, or because they simply had too many children. Because the land was still so unproductive, and because farm rents and the price of food rose far more rapidly than wages, the downward spiral might relegate them to degrading poverty. It has been estimated that between 1500 and 1620, the income of an English laborer fell by more than half in real terms. This created spiritual hazards, as well as the risk of destitution.5
How could such a society fail to cause strife, conflict, and sin? And how could people be godly if they were poor, illiterate, and bullied by godless superiors? The social evils caused by poverty were all too obvious in the Quadrilateral, as we shall see. So too were the startling flaws of the men set above the population, in positions of authority.
If we begin with things as they were, and not with the Scrooby myth, it will be easier to see why someone might wish to leave such a territory. The Mayflower story is the record of the extraordinary manner in which a group of people broke out of confining limits. Those boundaries were very specific, rooted in the landscape from which they came. The only way to grasp the meaning of the country is to walk across it patiently, from east to west, with an eye educated by what the archives contain.
THE RIVER AND THE CLAY
The river Trent defines the eastern edge of the Quadrilateral. Shakespeare called the Trent a “smug and silver” stream, and so it may sometimes appear, but it has a fluid drama of its own. From south to north, falling slowly in wide curves, from a Tudor ruin called Torksey Castle to the town of Gainsborough, the river drops only ten inches in each of the eight miles between the two. At this point, where it divides the counties of Nottingham and Lincoln, the current is slack, but the river is unstable.
For millennia, its course has shifted back and forth over a plain two miles wide, creating bends a mile across and then chopping through them at the neck to form isolated lakes that dry out into boggy hollows. Although the Trent has thirty miles to go before it reaches its estuary, it is tidal as far as Torksey, with a foaming bore that charges up the river after a high tide in the North Sea. All this has made the river a very ambiguous resource. Being tidal, the Trent is rich with fish and fowl. In Brewster’s time, salmon swam in its waters alongside sixty breeding pairs of swans. But because it is tidal, and because the estuary into which it flows drains one-fifth of the surface area of England, the Trent has often flooded with disastrous effect.
Elderly farmers recall how after the last great inundation, caused by melting snows after the harsh winter of 1947, the land became an elongated lake stretching fifteen miles north to the steel town of Scunthorpe. Even so, hazardous though the river can be, the same floods made the valley wealthy and sought after. They laid down deep beds of fertile alluvium, forming earth that clots after rain into heavy dark brown double cubes.6
Before modern farming, the land was too dense and too wet to be plowed for corn. So in Brewster’s day the Trent valley was cow country. Here by the river they fattened livestock before the drive to Doncaster, the largest cattle market in the north, or the long journey on the hoof down to London.7 As early as 1560, a drover took sixty head from the Quadrilateral to the capital. Nine-tenths of the land by the river was given over to grass, either for grazing or as hay meadows, on land known then and now by a local dialect word, the “Ings.” Today a rim of dikes protects the Ings, but a painting from 1835 shows how they would have looked in the reign of Elizabeth. Trodden into mud at its edge, the Trent was a magnet for horses, red cows, fishermen, and guns, a coveted locale for watering cattle and for field sports.
Thanks to the grass, the villages by the Trent were large and thriving.8 As towns grew, and their citizens ate more meat, the price of hay doubled in England in the twenty years before the Pilgrims went into exile. “Of all other grounds, none are as profitable as medow,” wrote the author of a surveyor’s manual, a book that Brewster took with him to Massachusetts. Rents along the riverbank were the highest in the region, but greed for meadow and pasture had its darker side. The archives show frequent disputes, sometimes fought in the courts and sometimes with fists and pitchforks. Villagers squabbled about their rights to graze cattle on the Ings, and members of the landed gentry argued about the terms of leases and bad debts.
As we shall see, conflicts of this type, about land and status, played their part in the birth of the Pilgrim movement. Behind all this lay that same economic fact. A gap was widening between those who had land, either as owners or as large, secure tenant farmers, and those who were landless or lacked firm tenure. In the Quadrilateral, farm rents increased by perhaps a third in the ten years after 1594. This raised the stakes in all the conflicts of the region. Competition for land made the rich still wealthier, and made failure more devastating, giving each controversy about ideas an urgency it might otherwise have lacked.9
If the Pilgrim movement had a center, it was not at Scrooby but here by the Trent. The largest incident of religious disobedience at the time occurred about ten miles from Scrooby, at Treswell, a Trent valley village. Here, in 1610, some twenty-seven residents refused to attend sermons given by a new vicar. They were fined a shilling each. The Treswell twenty-seven most likely drew their inspiration from preachers farther down the Trent, in two larger settlements on either side of the river, at Sturton and Gainsborough, at the northeastern corner of the Quadrilateral.
The larger of the two was Gainsborough, where the early Baptist John Smyth organized his Separatist congregation. The area’s leading market town, with about seventeen hundred inhabitants, Gainsborough serves as a test tube where we can see Pilgrim origins come into crystalline form.
Gainsborough stood on the right bank of the river, just across the county boundary in Lincolnshire. It owed its stature to its location. Although it lies inland, Gainsborough was a seaport too, at a time that saw a boom in coastal traffic. Gainsborough could handle vessels as large as eighty tons, dealing in coal, lead, and grain, and life in the town was dynamic. Because the parish register contains an unusually rich amount of detail, it can be seen in high relief. Starting at the moment when Separatism was at its height, in 1607, the parish clerk helpfully recorded the occupations of all three hundred men who died, married, or fathered newborn children during the next three years. Nearly a fifth of the men worked in trades reliant on cows: tanners, glovers, shoemakers, and no fewer than thirteen butchers. Twenty-three of the men listed were boatmen, fishermen, or shipwrights, and there were eleven tailors and six blacksmiths.
Later, an opponent mocked John Smyth because he was “made minister by Tradesmen, and called himself the Pastour of the Church at Gainsborough,” and in this there was more than a grain of truth. Gainsborough was a commercial town of self-employed craftsmen and shopkeepers, based on the cattle trade but open to the outside world, by sea, by river, and up and down the Great North Road.10
For this it paid a high price. In each of six epidemic years between 1587 and 1610, the grave diggers of Gainsborough consigned seventy people to the ground, compared with about twenty-five in a normal year. As a result, the average death rate was far worse than the norm for England at the time. Low-lying market towns in wetlands close to highways or to rivers suffered severely from infectious disease, imported from outside and fed by poor sanitation, or transmitted by mosquitoes: a form of malaria was common. William Brewster’s mother came from Doncaster, situated on the Great North Road and next to a marsh, and in 1583 a pestilence killed a quarter of its inhabitants. In Gainsborough, the other side of the coin was an even higher birthrate, far outstripping deaths. The town’s population grew by about fifteen surviving infants each year. Even this was a cause for concern, because so many of the births were illegitimate.
From the number of entries marked “base” in the register, it seems that the people of Gainsborough copulated out of wedlock with twice the gusto of the average English town, leaving double the usual number of bastards. In August 1607, the local archdeacon summoned the church wardens to report offenders. Of the thirty-one people named, the seven accused of some form of religious dissent were outnumbered by the eight accused of premarital sex or adultery, the four drunkards, and the eleven men charged with plowing or hay making on Sunday. Most wicked of all was Janet Rogers, arraigned “for suspition of keeping a bawdie-house & herself being ye queane.” Behind this lay a national scandal. Rates of illegitimacy soared in England under Queen Elizabeth, to reach a peak in about 1600 before dropping away after about 1615. As a place of transit, Gainsborough offered more temptations than most.11
It was an ungodly community in which, paradoxically, a new religious movement was all the more likely to gain ground. Moral danger, the random but ever-present threat of sudden death, the entry of new ideas by way of contacts with the outside world, the hope of advancement, and the fear of squalor: these were all features of a town like Gainsborough. A man or woman was as likely to embrace an evangelical vocation here as he or she might have been in an urban ghetto in the twentieth century. The reasons might be the same: the yearning to carve out a space for respectability, and to gather allies against sin and the devil.
The same was true of Sturton, across the river in Nottinghamshire. It was a smaller place, but even so it was the largest village in the Quadrilateral, with about 650 residents. John Robinson was born here, John Smyth taught at the village school in 1602, and Sturton gave birth to the Mayflower passenger Katherine Carver, who married the first governor of New Plymouth. As we shall see, it was a troubled, violent parish, where the vicar brawled in the main street and armed men ran off each other’s livestock, but by the standards of the time it was prosperous. Again this helps explain why it became another center for religious enthusiasm. Prosperity was insecure, and those who achieved it could not assume that it would continue indefinitely.*
Visit Sturton today, and the signs of past affluence are unmistakable, in the shape of its medieval church. Unusually grand, it has a tower so tall that it can be seen from the castle battlements far away at Lincoln. In 1593, the village had fifteen men wealthy enough to pay the subsidy, the principal tax levied by the Crown and Parliament. Among them were John Robinson’s father, also called John, and his father-in-law, Alexander White. Robinson married Alexander’s daughter Bridget White, taking her with him into exile in Leiden, and Bridget’s sister Katherine became in due course the Mayflower’s Mrs. Carver. Sturton had more taxpayers than any other village in the Quadrilateral. It was and remains a large parish, of more than four thousand acres, with an excellent situation.12
To the east, a wide bend of the river created an expanse of grassland more than a mile across, known as the Upper Ings and the Out Ings. Drained by a lattice of ditches, the Ings were divided into long rectangles of meadow and pasture, with their short side along the water, and here the cattle fed. This was valuable land, but the secret of Sturton’s success lay in a combination of assets, and soil of many different kinds. To the west, the ground begins to rise gently, up a long shallow gradient, toward the top of an escarpment that runs north and south, parallel with the Trent. High, dry, and easily worked for grain, with copses of oak on its summit, the escarpment has been known as the North Clay since the early Middle Ages. Its color and its characteristics added a second defining feature of the Pilgrim country, and another source of wealth.
After harvest, the empty fields of the North Clay resemble vast rashers of raw bacon hung out to smoke on the hillside. Beneath the earth is a soft sedimentary rock, and it frays at the surface into a red soil, which crumbles easily and does not impede the plow. The land drains freely into streams that fall down to the Trent and give the villages fresh water. So distinctive is the land that medieval writers simply called its inhabitants “Men of the Clay.” Likewise, the soil, its pigment, and the crops upon it determined the name of the nearest market town to the west, Retford, and the names of villages nearby: North and South Wheatley, Clayworth, and Clarborough.13
Sturton lay astride the clay ridge and the river meadows, encompassing cornfields, orchards, woods, and grass, with ample manure from its livestock. If a farmer could assemble a mixed portfolio, combining each type of land, he could do very well: and so it was with the Whites. When Katherine Carver’s father died, in about 1595, he owned nearly 160 acres of land in and around the village. He owned two houses, six cottages, two gardens, and two orchards, and he rented more land across the river. On the slopes of the escarpment, Alexander White had arable land, while out on the Ings he owned pastures and meadows. The hay alone would have brought in roughly twenty-two pounds a year, about three times the earnings of a field laborer. If he sold all his land on the open market, it would fetch close to six hundred pounds, enough to place him within the top 1 or 2 percent of England’s population.
And yet even the Whites were insecure. Holdings as large as theirs could provide a good standard of living, but they could not guarantee its maintenance from father to children. At his death, Alexander White made over the bulk of his estate to his widow and eldest son, Charles, but there remained three younger sons and four unmarried daughters. To the daughters, including the future Bridget Robinson and Katherine Carver, he gave sixty-seven pounds each, and at least two of them found solid husbands. But the younger sons each received a meager yearly income of two pounds, intended to be paid from the profits of the White properties. The problem was typical. As the birthrate ran ahead of a family’s means to support its offspring, the younger sons and the unmarried daughters had to seek alternative routes to security and status.
One of the younger sons, Roger White, became a Separatist and went to Leiden, exchanging letters with William Bradford in America. Meanwhile, those Whites who stayed at home became industrial pioneers in coal mining. Forty miles away across the county they rented another estate, at Beauvale Priory near Nottingham. By the 1590s, this was already an active coalfield, and so the Whites went into the trade. Leases survive, showing that Katherine Carver’s nephew Charles White Jr. rented the rights to sink mines at Beauvale, using horse-driven engines to pump water from the shafts.
This was the social stratum from which the leaders of the Plymouth Colony came. They were the nouveaux riches of rural England. If they had luck and aptitude, they might prosper in villages where rising profits flowed from the land, but there were limits to advancement. The cruel statistics of fecundity and early death stacked the odds against them. At the same time, these conditions planted seeds of incentive to work and better themselves, by way of coal or by way of exile. If William Bradford had stayed in England, it is hard to believe that he would have floundered in passive idleness. Like his teacher John Robinson, he might well have married a White, and ended his days as another coal-mining entrepreneur.14
THE IDLE WETLANDS
At its northern extremity, the North Clay ends in a conical hill, called Gringley Beacon. From its top, a shepherd gazing down would see to the west another floodplain. Through it flowed the Idle, the second river of the Quadrilateral. From the steep side of the escarpment, the clay fields overlook the Idle valley, a low-lying basin that extends like a concave green dinner plate as far as Scrooby, three miles away. This was William Brewster’s immediate neighborhood. Like the land by the Trent, it was pasture and meadow, but damper still. And again this had its implications for the Pilgrims in the coastal wetlands of New England.
In winter, heavy rain often floods the valley. Almost overnight, the river can turn from a stream fifteen yards across to a chain of ponds ten times that width, with wild swans feeding among the drowned crops. In Brewster’s day, before modern drainage, this happened all the more often. The paths across the valley were merely narrow filaments of gravel lined by scrubby trees, where men and women gathered willow wands for basket weaving. Many traces survive in the archives of the constant struggle to maintain the fields and tracks, and to keep them dry. In 1648, after winning the Civil War, Parliament sent commissioners to survey Scrooby Manor, confiscated because it was Church property. The manor house had mostly been demolished. What was left was “built of Bricke & Timber & much ruinated,” and nearby they found “parcells of meadow … wasted by the overflowing of waters.”
In William Brewster’s day, the leading resident of Scrooby was a man called Richard Torre. He acted as business manager for the area’s richest magnate, Gilbert, seventh Earl of Shrewsbury, arranging shipments of lead from the earl’s mines to Europe. When Torre died in 1602, he left twenty shillings to his neighbors, “towardes the mendinge of the hye waye into the Inges,” enough to pay six laborers for a week’s work on the path that led out of Scrooby to the east. Two years before that another man, from Mattersey, the next village, fell afoul of the archdeacon’s court for cleaning out a ditch on the Sabbath. In 1606, a woman from Clayworth was charged with failing to attend her parish church. Her excuse, accepted by the judge, was that in winter the way was “so dangerous that without dainger to her health she cannot resort.”15
Even now, the green wetness of the plain has sounds, shades, and textures that, at times and fleetingly, invite us back into the world Brewster inhabited. Come on foot to Scrooby from the east, or wander to the south, and you will see on the horizon a chain of seven medieval church towers. They encircle the lowest part of the valley. Each tower pokes up like the small gray horn of a cow, and they mark dry spots on the rim of the wetland where islands of the same gravel supplied sites for building.
One of these church towers is at Scrooby, and another is at Austerfield. Between them the river Idle bends in a wide U, curving around to the northeast toward its junction with the Trent, through what are known as “Carrs,” another dialect word. Created by the last glaciation, twenty thousand years ago, the Carrlands mark the northern frontier of the Quadrilateral, but this is a damp, blurred frontier without a rigid frame. The eye is always drawn away into the far distance, over alternating bands of dark and light green as far as a man or woman can see.
At their farthest extremity, the glaciers ended about fifteen miles south of the city of York. They left only a ridge of moraine to make a low barrier across the country from west to east. In front of the glacier, meltwaters collected in a huge lake. When it emptied, and formed the estuary of the river Humber, the lake bed filled with peat from rotting vegetation, forming wetlands known as the Humberhead Levels. Rivers flowing out of the glacier, off the hills, and across the lake bed created a braided pattern of peat and sand, leaving the low humps and levees where the churches and causeways can now be found.
How did the wet, flat geography and the vast skies affect the minds of those who lived there? It is impossible to say for sure, especially now that drains and pumps have tamed the Levels, but some elements of their mental life can be reliably imagined. Because to the east the Levels melted into an estuary, the sea and what lay beyond it were far closer than they appear on a modern map. Between Scrooby and Austerfield, there were wharves on the Idle at Bawtry, another river port where packhorse routes converged, carrying wool and minerals for shipment down the rivers to the ocean. Because of the direction in which the valleys bend and the waters flow, those who lived nearby looked eastward toward the North Sea, and the region’s chief seaport, at Hull. The Idle basin was a place with a wide perspective, facing outward. It was not an enclosed, landlocked zone of introversion.
For centuries, in fact, the Levels had a reputation for nonconformity, as a place where hunting and gathering vied in importance with stationary farming as a way of life. Austerfield lay on the edge of Hatfield Chase, a royal hunting forest, often submerged, where in the reign of King James red deer in their hundreds swam in flight from men pursuing them in flat-bottomed boats. Where islands rose above the water, the people herded cattle or foraged in the wetlands for shellfish and eels. On account of their independence, and their occasional lawlessness, they came to be known as borderers, stilt walkers, or free dwellers. By 1830, engineers had already drained most of the Chase and the Carrs, but at the time of the American Civil War a newspaper in Doncaster carried a series of articles that recorded the details of this older way of life. The writer interviewed men and women whose memories stretched back into an environment that the Pilgrims would have recognized.
Their England was not yet a domesticated place, but a landscape with wild features, and these he recorded. Otters four feet long lived on the Idle, close to Scrooby, where men hunted them with spears. They stalked the otters along the riverbed, using a long pole to vault across deep streams. Stag hunting continued on the Carrlands until as late as 1762. Beds of rushes sheltered pike and twenty species of wild duck, and the Carrlands supplied a rich habitat for tens of thousands of wildfowl taking refuge from stormy weather out on the North Sea. Trout swam in a brook that flowed past Brewster’s back gate. In the summer, he would hear the high-pitched whistle of the osprey, a migrant from Africa, swooping down with black-and-white wings six feet wide to take fish from the waterways. The last osprey in the valley was shot near Austerfield in 1856. Even within living memory, after World War II, the clumps of sedge at Scrooby between the trout stream and the railway were thick with the nests of snipe.
Historians often write about the early English settlers of America in a cerebral way, or with a sentimentality that the Pilgrims would have found very odd. In fact, they came from the old, feral England, as it was before the railways, and as it still exists in vestiges today. The Mayflower carried two dogs to America, not as pets, but as hunting dogs: a spaniel for retrieving game birds and a mastiff for running down deer. When Bradford spoke of “the innumerable store of fowl, and excellent good” that the Pilgrims found at New Plymouth, he knew what he meant. Scrooby had a village poacher, prosecuted three times in 1605 and 1607 for shooting hares and geese and killing swans without a license.16
When the Pilgrims explored Cape Cod and the forest behind New Plymouth, they were excited young men, wandering freely in a game-filled land that echoed on a vastly larger scale the semi-wilderness they knew in the land of their birth. In America, herons rise blue and serene from the marshes at Wellfleet, and they have their transatlantic cousins in the herons that alight on the Idle.
Southern New England was also formed by glaciers, and their aftermath created a similar pattern of wetlands, low hills of sand, and wide shallow estuaries, ideal for migrating birds like the wetlands between Scrooby and the sea. When settlers crossed the Atlantic, they followed paths taken long before by vagrant sandpipers. Sometimes the birds fly back and forth from America and feed in England, probing for mussels on the mudflats along the Humber.17
THE FOREST AND THE OPEN FIELDS
Not all the land was wet. Three miles west of Austerfield, there grew until 1820 an ancient oak called “the jutting tree,” and by tradition it marked the northern end of the royal hunting forest of Sherwood. The legal boundary of the forest lay farther south, but the tree made perfect sense as a marker. Sherwood was a forest, used for hunting, because the rock beneath it is acidic sandstone, fit only for woodlands of oak and birch. The rock began close to the jutting tree, extending past Scrooby and south in a long strip as far as the city of Nottingham, where the castle sits on its most conspicuous yellow outcrop. Because the sandstone was hard and dry, the Great North Road ran along its eastern margin, above the marshes, but it also created heaths and wastelands close to Austerfield. They formed a no-man’s-land between north and south, long viewed with official distrust.
If the legends of Robin Hood have any basis, it derives from outlaws in this part of medieval England. Today the name Raker’s Field on the map marks a spot, behind Harworth Colliery, that was licensed by Richard the Lionheart as a tournament ground. Bands of men from Yorkshire met their rivals from the south in legalized fights that had to be banned when they became deadly brawls. In Bradford’s day, highwaymen plied their trade on the Great North Road, pillaging travelers until King James ordered a purge of innkeepers who harbored them. For six weeks in 1605, judges sat at Doncaster and Sheffield to put on trial and hang the felons whom they found.18
So, long before he reached New England, the young Pilgrim had already lived on a frontier of a sort, in a village where life was arduous and rewards were small. Austerfield bore little resemblance to the fat cattle country along the Trent. Again, the village has left behind it a footprint of early documents, while the terrain preserves memories of its own that open a window into the world he knew.
Near the church where William Bradford was baptized, a narrow track called Low Common Lane veers away from the road. Follow the lane until it dwindles into a path, and three things catch the eye. The first is the hedge that lies along its eastern side. It contains a host of species—hawthorn, holly, wild blackberries, and more—and then a stand of oak and beech. Hedgerows like this take centuries to establish, and so in Low Common Lane we encounter remnants of the Jacobean landscape. The second signature of the land is bracken, spilling across the path’s western side. The third is a dead rabbit, slung over a fence by its throat.
A rabbit killed with a shotgun can sum up a page of a history book. With about 130 residents, divided among some twenty-five households, Austerfield was one of the tiniest townships in the Quadrilateral. It had so few people, so much bracken, and so many rabbits because so much of its soil was sand. Ten minutes’ walk from the church, in an arc around the village, quarrymen have dug huge pits, and they reveal that the topsoil is thin. Exposed beneath it lies sand the color of burnished copper, pockmarked by rabbit holes. Not all the land was quite as difficult as this—to the east and south, the soil is darker, near the Idle—but most of the parish offered little to the farmer.
The northern half of Austerfield consisted of thickets and rough pasture known as High Common. Here the villagers cut hay and gathered firewood, while their pigs rooted for acorns. To the south, between High Common and the church, lay the Ridding Field, the site of the sand pits, where William Bradford’s uncle Robert rented seven acres. Again, “ridding” was a dialect word meaning a clearing hacked from a forest, and again the soil was sparse. It was unsuitable for wheat. So they grew rye and peas to make the best of the sandy conditions, but next to the Great North Road the ground was fit only for trees. A strip of woodland lay along the highway.
On a modern map it still bears the name the King’s Wood, because Austerfield was a royal manor, and the Bradfords were tenants of the sovereign. The Crown occasionally surveyed its estates, and sometimes the results survive, as they do at Austerfield. Because of this, and because before they died the Bradfords made detailed wills, the family’s changing fortunes can be plotted over time. They did well during the sixteenth century, but Austerfield did not offer much by way of opportunity. Under King James, the Bradfords faced the likelihood that life would become harder still. Against this background, the young William left and went into religious exile.
William Bradford had a great-great-grandfather called Peter. During the reign of Henry VIII, he lived in the wet lowlands to the north of Doncaster. There he grew barley and raised sheep. A good Catholic, at his death he bequeathed his soul to “god Almightie and to owre ladie saint Marie and all tholie company of heaven.” His family multiplied and fanned out across the countryside. They accumulated horses and more sheep and a broken line of land to the south of Doncaster, as outright owners or as holders of a lease. In doing so, they were typical of large tenant farmers in the first half of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Because leases were long, with rents set many years before, a tenant selling his produce for rising prices could prosper and acquire freehold property himself. At his death in 1578 the Pilgrim’s great-uncle Robert Bradford gave his daughter forty pounds and an income of six pounds per annum, after leaving the bulk of his assets to his widow.
At some time before 1560, the Pilgrim’s grandfather, also called William, moved to Austerfield, where he joined a small, intermarried elite of yeoman farmers, ranking above the landless field hands. Grandfather William had two sons, another William and another Robert. In 1584, William married Alice Hanson, also of Austerfield. Their first child was William Bradford the Mayflower passenger, baptized on March 19, 1590. When the boy was less than a year old, his father died, and two years later his mother, Alice Bradford, wedded an Austerfield man called Robert Briggs.
In 1599, Austerfield had only four villagers affluent enough to pay the taxes voted by Parliament, and three of these were William Bradford’s grandfather, uncle, and stepfather: John Hanson, Robert Bradford, and Robert Briggs. When more deaths struck the family, the boy was passed from one man to another. Alice died in 1597, and so young William entered the care of John Hanson, Austerfield’s wealthiest tenant. When in turn Hanson died in 1602, the twelve-year-old Pilgrim went to live with his uncle Robert.19
What effect did the chain of bereavements have on the boy? We have no idea what emotional damage might have occurred, if any, but we do know that he stood to inherit his father’s property, such as it was, making him independent at twenty-one. We can also locate the Bradfords precisely in the social scale of their time.
Like most of the Crown’s land, Austerfield had been neglected, its rents packaged up and sold off on derisory terms on a long lease to a remote absentee. In 1608, in a vain effort to restore the solvency of James I, the lord treasurer commissioned a new survey of royal manors, to see what income they would yield if they were managed commercially. Along with the will of William’s uncle Robert—he died in 1609—the document tells us what kind of people the Bradfords were. Their upward mobility had apparently ceased.
On the royal manor, Robert Bradford owned a house and a little under eleven acres of plow land and meadow, and he rented another twenty-three acres. A holding of this size made him no more than a minor yeoman: independent, making perhaps fifteen pounds a year, twice as much as a laborer, but without a safety cushion against disaster in the event of a string of poor harvests or a bout of cattle plague. At his death, Robert Bradford had two maidservants—to one he left a cow called Daisy, and to the other a horse—and he owned a team of oxen. Besides that, and his tenancies, he had very little.
At Austerfield, he enjoyed the status of a village elder, but only because this was such a small place, and because he was lucky enough to find a careless landlord in the shape of the Crown. The survey showed that Bradford paid less than nine shillings in rent, while he should have been paying forty. His kinfolk, the Hansons, had the same good fortune. For their seventeen acres they paid less than six shillings, about a seventh of the rent the surveyor thought was a fair amount. This situation clearly held risks of its own, if the Crown tried to push the rents up as high as they would go when the tenancies fell due for renewal.
Small yeoman farmers like the Bradfords had little status, and far less security than the Whites of Sturton. Uncle Robert left behind him an eighteen-year-old son and three teenage daughters, cousins of the future Pilgrim. An estate of his size would not support a dowry. All three Bradford daughters died unmarried, and in the conditions of the time they would have had to work as domestic servants. Robert Bradford’s will said that his children should receive “tuition” from neighbors, but “tutor” could mean a guardian or an employer, rather than implying any element of education.
Perhaps all this explains why, when the young William Bradford became an ardent Puritan, he found his family less than sympathetic. Nearly a century later, the Massachusetts historian Cotton Mather wrote a short biography of the Pilgrim, and despite its brevity it contains details that carry us back into the harsh realities of rural life. Mather says that Bradford encountered the “wrath of his uncles … [and] the scoff of his neighbours.” According to Mather, after an illness at about the age of twelve William Bradford began to read the Scriptures, and then he came under the influence of a local Puritan clergyman, Richard Clifton. It is easy to see why this upset his family. As an only child, with what Mather calls a “comfortable inheritance,” the young William should have been helping his kin, perhaps by marrying a cousin. This was all the more necessary if the rents they paid were about to shoot up.20
That was the way things were in the Jacobean countryside, just as they would have been in County Clare in 1870, or Calabria in 1900, or as they are on the plains of northern India today. And yet in another sense Austerfield was very distinctively English, in a way that shaped the attitudes of the people who lived there. It was what historians call an “open field” village, like Scrooby and Sturton. For perhaps five centuries or more, men and women had farmed in the same way, according to the medieval field system of the English Midlands. This too had its implications for William Bradford.
In an open-field village, the farmers divided the land for grain into many hundreds or even thousands of strips. Each strip occupied about an acre. They were arrayed asymmetrically across the land so that the furrows followed the natural slope. That way, rainwater drained by itself across the contours, emptying into ditches at the field edge. In each village the strips were grouped into three or four great open fields, sometimes a mile wide, with no fences or hedges within them, spaces entirely different from the uniform rectangles that long ago replaced them.
At Scrooby, the open fields covered the dry and rising ground to the west of the Great North Road, with woad for blue dye grown nearer to the village. Austerfield had three open fields—the Ridding Field, the West Field, and the Low Field—arranged in a ring around the parish church. Robert Bradford rented six or seven acres in each one, so that his strip holdings lay as much as a mile apart. They were scattered among those of his neighbors, as the system decreed, so that each man had a share of good or bad ground.
Open field farming was not some kind of communism. All the villagers were tenants of a landlord. At Austerfield and Scrooby the farmers were commercial, buying and selling cattle, hiring extra grazing land for cash when they needed it, and sometimes subletting cottages to one another. Pragmatically, the open field system survived not as a form of socialism but because it saved time on fencing and ditching, the bane of an English farmer’s life, in a rain-soaked country that relied on livestock for fertilizer and protein.21
Certainly, they managed the land in a communal way, but again this was simply pragmatic. Out of experience, they planned the farming year jointly, with everyone plowing, planting, weeding, and harvesting at the same time. They moved their cattle only when necessary, at fixed dates. By doing so, the village made the most of its labor, keeping fences to a minimum, ensuring that everybody had a stake in the yearly outcome. All the tenants had rights to scavenge and to feed their beasts on the meager soil that formed the commons of Austerfield, but this too was subject to rules. No one could keep more than an allotted number of sheep or swine. To enforce the regulations, they had a manorial court. With a jury of tenants, it levied fines on those who tried to dodge the system by putting a few more animals on the common or by cutting more than a fair quantity of wood.22
How this system affected the way people thought and felt we cannot know for sure, but the mental world of William Bradford had characteristics that we can realistically guess. The first was the pervasive anxiety of a system under threat. During his teenage years, a few landlords and large tenant farmers were just starting to enclose the open fields in villages within twenty miles of Austerfield. They cast greedy eyes on such spaces as High Common, with a view to a new, more risky kind of system, where enterprising men did as they pleased with their land. Fair or unfair, this was likely to bring unsettling change.
Austerfield was small but not isolated, since London already exerted a magnetic force, as men from the region went there and back to do business. Aside from the Crown, the largest landowners were the Frobishers, including the Arctic explorer Martin Frobisher. With his plunder from raiding the Spanish in the West Indies, he bought the manor next to Austerfield, and in Bradford’s boyhood the Frobishers owned half the houses in the village.23 Even so, places such as this were inherently conservative, because of disciplines of an economic kind. The open field system imposed rules, and it required team spirit. As it came under threat, relationships were bound to become more fraught.
Families would almost inevitably persecute those of their members who showed signs of being different. If a landowning youth like William Bradford displayed too much independence, bucking the constraints of kinfolk and community, and especially if he spoke the language of piety, the conflict was likely to be all the more unpleasant. At Austerfield the surviving records suggest that people lived on rye bread, pea soup, weak beer, and in wintertime a little pork and bacon. Being told by a Puritan that they were ungodly was doubtless more than they could tolerate.
William Bradford grew to manhood in circumstances such as these, but economics and rural envy were not the only forces that formed his mind. From Austerfield he would have learned other things too. Life among the open fields gave rise to a precise awareness of nature, the habit that the Pilgrim took with him to Cape Cod.
Men and women of his period knew the trees, flowers, animals, and wild birds of the countryside in intricate detail. They had a huge, largely forgotten vocabulary of words for each and every species. Prescientific, it survives best of all in Shakespeare, in the scenes portraying the madness of King Lear and in the names of the wildflowers gathered for a garland by the drowned Ophelia: “crow-flowers, nettles, daisies and long purples.” This was not imaginary: because plows drawn by oxen required a large turning circle, and because the wetter parts of the soil were left untilled, the open fields were fringed and hemmed by ribbons of color, thickest where the livestock left their droppings. And beneath the corn, the clay required its own ample lexicon.
Within the open fields each patch of soil possessed a label according to its dampness, its dryness, its use, or the landmarks that gave it an identity. A little of this lingers on in early surveyors’ plans of Sturton, from the eighteenth century, and in the list of Alexander White’s real estate. Within the Low Field and the West Field at Sturton were “House Furlong,” “Robinet Furlong,” “Four Sandhills Furlong,” and “Nether Bolgate.” In open fields with no fences between the strips, men and women needed such a plethora of terms to define the spaces they occupied. The sought-after grazing land was parceled out precisely too, in small lots, each with its own designation.24 All of this went with Bradford to America, and again it helps explain the care with which he described the New World.
There was also something Shakespearean about the narratives that unfolded in the Pilgrim Quadrilateral. The years that saw the local birth of Separatism were a period of abrasive conflict. This was especially true of Sturton, the home of John Robinson and Katherine Carver. People fought for grazing land, for the tithe revenues of the Church, or for the rights to levy tolls on river traffic or goods sold on market day. They competed for precedence, quarreling over symbols of rank within a local hierarchy. In the stories the village left behind, again we can begin to see why people might wish to emigrate, and how little Christianity in the neighborhood resembled a Puritan ideal.
The parish church at Sturton le Steeple, Nottinghamshire, seen from Freeman’s Lane to the northwest. According to local tradition, the Robinsons lived close by, near the left-hand edge of the picture. In the foreground is land known in 1600 as Wybern Dale, where Alexander White, father of the Mayflower passenger Katherine Carver, owned a close, a fenced area probably used for livestock. The picture has been edited to remove electric power lines. (Photography: Nick Bunker)
THE BREAKING OF THE PEWS
Two muddy roads met in Sturton by the parish church. One was the old Roman highway from Lincoln, which crossed the Trent by way of a ferry before heading over the North Clay to Bawtry. The second road ran north to south, parallel with the river. On May 16, 1594, the vicar of Sturton, John Quippe, was leaving the church when he saw by the crossroads a gentleman called George Lassells. Aged thirty-three, Lassells was lord of the manor of Sturton. Lassells carried a pistol, while Quippe had only his walking stick.
There are two versions of what happened next. The first, and the more likely, says that George Lassells flew into a rage. He felled the vicar and rained blows down on him. Struggling to escape, Quippe, a man in his mid-fifties, asked what might have provoked the attack. Lassells told Quippe that he was “a vyle priest” and accused him of reporting the Lassells household to the authorities for failing to come to church. The story Lassells told was different—he accused the vicar of assaulting him—but a fracas there clearly was, and it was neither the first nor the last. George Lassells was the eldest of at least eight brothers. They fought their neighbors, and they fought each other, leaving behind them a long chronicle of violence.25
A word must be said about the sources. The details of the brawl come from the records of the Court of Star Chamber, where Lassells sued Quippe. On at least thirteen occasions George Lassells, his father, or his siblings were parties to litigation in that court, which heard case after case filled with stories of mayhem. Historians must be skeptical about some of these anecdotes of bloodshed, because lawsuits in the Star Chamber were apparently used as a form of intimidation. Complaints filed with the court were not given under oath, and so false accusations were often made as a way to smear an enemy. However, at Sturton we have other sources, and they corroborate the picture of a troubled village. George Lassells was a bully, and a predatory lecher. Such were the local rulers of the Pilgrim country.26
A stream of incidents in 1605 convey a picture of life as they lived it. On January 12, a laborer from Sturton called Henry Arnold appeared before the local JPs, charged with a felony. He confessed, so they sentenced him to be whipped by the parish constable “till his body be bloody.” The constable failed to carry out the punishment, and so in April the justices put the constable in the stocks, and they ordered a flogging for two Sturton men accused of theft. Meanwhile, an unholy scene had occurred in Sturton Churchyard involving George Lassells—or rather, Sir George, as we must call him, because King James had given him a knighthood.
One Sunday in Lent, after evening prayer, the villagers found Sir George arguing with a manservant called Biggs. “Young man, I will teach you to behave,” said Lassells. “I am too olde to be taught by you,” Biggs replied. “I never offered 40 shillings and a gowns cloth to one of my maids to occupie her as you did.” Among those present was John Robinson, the preacher’s father. Three lawsuits for libel followed, and produced a stream of testimony on oath, from Robinson and others. It appears that Sir George had approached a serving girl one morning, as she made the beds. In exchange for sex, he offered her money, a bodice made of taffeta, and enough material to make a pair of sleeves to go with it. The story was all the more credible because Sir George had a history of mistreating his employees. In 1604, the JPs at Retford had summoned Sir George to appear before them for failing to pay his servants their wages. Lassells was a JP himself, which makes it virtually certain that these allegations were true.27
At Sturton, even the parish church became a site of combat. The state of the building was a disgrace. It was a common problem in the period, when the Reformation had made men and women more reluctant to mend leaking roofs and broken windows. In November 1597, the people of Sturton gathered to discuss repairs, and they decided to erect new pews. A churchwarden, called Dickens, installed a private pew and sat in it every Sunday until Christmas. As the vicar celebrated the Nativity, his prayers were interrupted by uproar in the aisles. One Isabell Sturton clambered into the pew, claiming that “tyme out of mynde” her ancestors had occupied the spot. Dickens told her to move and threatened to punch her in the face if she did it again. She and her menfolk waited, and then did what they had to do. One night in February, someone crept into the church and smashed the pew to pieces.28
Behind all this lay a story of dispossession, a chain of injustice that destroyed whatever harmony this village may once have enjoyed. In the time of Henry VIII, the lord of the manor at Sturton was Thomas, Baron Darcy. A valiant soldier, Darcy held firm Catholic beliefs. He opposed Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and he objected to the dissolution of the monasteries. When the king’s greed caused an insurrection in the north in 1536, Darcy sided with the rebels, but he also tried to bring about reconciliation with the king. He was courageous, but he was naive.
Darcy failed to allow for the ambitions of the Lassells family. Minor landowners near Worksop, at the opposite corner of the Quadrilateral, they hitched their cart to the horse of Protestant reform. George Lassells, grandfather of Sir George, acted as an informer, alleging that Darcy had conspired with the rebels. Darcy was beheaded, and his estates were taken by the Crown. As a reward, the Crown gave George Lassells the whole of Darcy’s land in the North Clay.29
Men who had behaved in such a way were bound to be unpopular, but for other reasons too the village became unstable. The parish contained more than one manor, and the Lassells family had made enemies. Their rivals were a dynasty called Thornhagh, who lived as lords of the manor at Fenton, half a mile from Sturton crossroads.*
By 1600 the Thornhaghs had amassed an ample estate in the neighborhood, and they bought more land whenever they could. Wealthier than the Lassells clan, the Thornhaghs also outranked them in status and in education. They sent their sons to Cambridge, and their mortal remains still lie in the place of honor at the eastern end of Sturton Church. The two families waged a long war for domination of their little world. Over the space of thirty years, Lassells and Thornhagh sued each other time and again, exchanging accusations of fraud, barn burning, and abduction of each other’s cattle. By the early seventeenth century, the feud had come to center on the church tithes, but the conflict was entirely irreligious.
As always, the villagers had to pay by way of tithes a tenth of the produce of the land. At Sturton, the Church gave the Thornhaghs a lease of the revenue in return for a yearly rent. This angered the Lassells family beyond endurance. During the harvest of 1600, George Lassells told his men to gather the peas and beans that grew amid the corn, and he refused to give the compulsory tenth to his rivals. Then, one autumn day, two men from the Thornhagh household rode down to the Trent to hunt with a hawk.
By the river they met George Lassells, leading a gang armed with swords and pikes. In the fight that followed, Lassells and his men killed the hawk, and then to add another insult, they stole a spaniel belonging to the Thornhaghs. The Thornhaghs went to court, filing with the Star Chamber a diatribe that filled a parchment thirty inches square. In the Church courts, they began another lawsuit, demanding their fair share of Sturton’s green vegetables.30
These tales of vendetta in the countryside might be trivial if they were isolated affairs, but in fact they were typical of the landscape from which the Pilgrims came. Worst of all was the rivalry between the Earl of Shrewsbury and his enemies, a family called Stanhope. It reached its climax in 1593 in a pitched battle by the Trent. Among those who fought for the earl were Richard Torre of Scrooby and the Lassells family: no mêlée was complete without them. In the reign of Elizabeth, the county of Nottingham acquired a reputation as one of the most turbulent in the realm. Under King James its infamy continued.31
In those days, a happy and peaceful shire needed a dominant aristocrat to mediate between the squabbling gentry and to plead the county’s case before the king. If the poor were lucky, the nobleman in question would organize food supplies in hungry years and hear their complaints against exploitation. He would also try to make sure that the JPs who undertook most local government did their job as they should, rather than making it a pretext to serve their own greed and ambition. Nottinghamshire had no such man to lead it. Instead, the local aristocracy were divided, each rival magnate seeking his own self-interest and each hoping to emerge as the king’s favored grandee in the region.
In due course, the Pilgrims fell victim to the toxic conditions created by this local battle for power. By far the most dangerous of the rival magnates was Gilbert Talbot, the seventh Earl of Shrewsbury. As we shall see, the earl stood to gain the most from a purge against religious dissent, and he hated Puritans with venom. But before we come to that, and to the events that forced the Pilgrims out of England, we have to look more closely at their early lives. In America the leading layman among the exiles was William Bradford’s mentor, William Brewster. To him we must now turn, and to his misbehaving father, William Brewster the bailiff of Scrooby.
* Most of the area in question fell within an administrative unit called the Hundred of Bassetlaw, part of Nottinghamshire. However, the Pilgrim movement spilled over the county lines, into Lincolnshire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. It also included people from other districts in Nottinghamshire a long way from Scrooby. To call the people involved the Bassetlaw Pilgrims would be incorrect: Pilgrim Quadrilateral makes more sense, which is why the phrase has been coined for use in this book.
* At some time in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century, the village came to be known as Sturton le Steeple, the name it bears today.
* Thornhagh was pronounced either “Thorney” or “Thorn-hay.”