The Godly Kingdom of the Stour Valley
Thus did John Winthrop, widely acknowledged as the pre-eminent founder of New England, describe his homeland, the area from whence came much the largest portion of the 700 plus passengers on those first 11 ships which set forth for Massachusetts in 1630.
‘Stour Valley’ is an imprecise description, but Winthrop must have meant both the cloth villages and towns along that river and those near the valley namely Sudbury, Long Melford, Lavenham, Clare, Glemsford, Haverhill, Boxford, Bildeston, Kersey, Lindsey, Hadleigh, Stoke by Nayland, Nayland and Bures. He may also have thought of Halstead, Hedingham, Coggeshall, Braintree and Bocking as within “the Godly Kingdom.”
What stimulates intense interest in early American history on this side of the Atlantic is the fact that, between 1630 and the Civil War a dozen years later, all but a few immigrants were from England. It was their culture and values which overwhelmingly shaped the early decades of the growth of New England, whether one is talking of language, culture, politics or religion.
Indeed, what some historians call the ‘folkways’ of that extraordinary country were and remain disproportionately influenced by the four main waves of British immigrants up until 1775. As, for example, William Graham Sumner explains, the values and customs of New England “still show deep traces of the Puritan temper and world philosophy. Perhaps nowhere else in the world can so strong an illustration be seen, both of the persistency of the spirit of mores, and their very ability and adaptability.” He goes on to note that that early English influence permeated later settlements by waves of immigrants from elsewhere and “won control over them.” On the American side this whole riveting subject seems, if anything, even more germane, despite fewer than 1 in 5 Americans today having British ancestry.
However, generalisations about early New England can be misleading. If the early immigrants were mainly Puritan, there developed a growing proportion primarily there for economic reasons. So, too, the anti-Royalist, anti-Establishment character of the colony can be overdone. Few wanted complete separation from England in those early decades, valuing their roots, besides operating under Royal Charter.
What is, however, indisputable is that it took powerful reasons and motives to embolden, emigrants (often travelling as families) to face the manifold dangers and uncertainties of such a venture. The ocean crossing alone would have deterred all but the most commited and hardy individuals. Of the 700 plus emigrants in 1630 nearly a quarter died either going out or by the end of that year. Mind you, with a two-month crossing and no certainty of adequate supplies of medicines or food (complicated by having cattle, horses etc. aboard) that can be no surprise. Of the deceased, incidentally, 21 were from Sudbury alone.
So what made this corner of England the epicentre of America’s foundation? I believe one needs to go a long way back to trace the beginnings of that independence of spirit and character which marked the 21,000 or so pre-war immigrants from these islands (not forgetting that by 1642 there was a reverse flow of men coming back to support the Parliamentary cause).
It may seem fanciful, but I like to think that it was no accident that Boadicea, the Queen of the Iceni tribe and scourge of the Romans came from our neck of the woods! It is also true that the Domesday Book (1086) records a far higher proportion of freemen in Suffolk than anywhere else in England. That also related to the fact that the Vikings were the most mercantile and resourceful of people. The southern extent of Viking territory abutting that of the East Saxons was indeed the River Stour. It is tell-tale that all the towns and large villages were and still are situated on the Suffolk bank between Haverhill and Nayland with afforestation then dominating the Essex side. Then there was notable support here for the Lollards and Peasants Revolt.
The early thriving of the weaving industry in and around the Stour Valley was reinforced first by the early influx of Flemish weavers with their state-of-art techniques and later by the fleeing Huguenots who introduced their renowned silk skills. They soon came out here from Spitalfields to utilise the talents of the hordes of unemployed wool weavers in the mid 18th century. Much of our cloth was from early times exported and depended on and fortified those independent traditions. By the by, it also facilitated smuggling into the valley of Coverdale’s Bibles, the first in English, in the 1530s.
The same mindset was inevitably paralleled in the religious sphere and begat a conscientious resistance to Episcopal, or indeed royal, dictates as to how and what to believe.
A graphic demonstration of that, still vividly remembered in 1630, was the number of public burnings of ‘ordinary’ citizens during the reign of Queen Mary in the 1550s. Essex and Suffolk suffered more such martyrdoms (as they were perceived) than anywhere. The deeply etched memory of their fortitude did more, I surmise, to entrench the primacy of personal conscience in the popular culture of future generations than is now realised. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’ – a contemporary and longstanding best seller – helped ensure that.
It can be no surprise, therefore, that this part of England was particularly resistant to most of the catholicising ‘reforms’ of James I and Charles I, which helped provoke the 1630 sailings by those principled malcontents who felt impelled to risk all to gain all.
In those days life was so much more localised than it is now. When someone then talked of their “country” they invariably meant their “county”. The villages and towns were marked by stability, their own customs and social autonomy. Eccentricity thrived and reputation meant everything. Commonality and mutuality were intense, as were loyalties and allegiances. The ‘Godly Accord’ agreed to in Boxford is a typical example of that, where the inhabitants established a consensual modus vivendi. Consider, too, how the solemn oaths required of the multitudinous office holders in Boroughs like Sudbury made for civic solidarity. Furthermore, the strong inter-connection between local politics and local religion, particularly as fashioned by local squires and clergy, was unsurprising given that very many of the former had patronage over appointment of the latter.
Looking back, the number of truly exemplary clergy who served in and around the Stour Valley in those vibrant and changeable years is remarkable. Several went on to achieve great distinction within the established church with many more doing so in the non-conformist realm. Some examples of the latter are Henry Sandes of Boxford, Samuel Crossman of Sudbury, Henry Jessey of Assington, Ezekiel Culverwell of Felsted, John Ward of Haverhill, John Wilson of Sudbury and William Jenkyn, Thomas Weld of Terling, Thomas Jenner and John Owen of Fordham and so on and on. A few emigrated to New England; all were sympathetic to its promise.
As for the Knights, Squires and Gentlemen, they largely ran the county institutions, particularly as Justices of the Peace and MPs. In the Civil War the County Committee of Suffolk and that of the Associated Counties of East Anglia – acknowledged as the backbone of the Parliamentary cause – were again dependent on support and solidarity amongst the same leading families. In Suffolk and north Essex, the clear majority were Parliament/Puritan supporters. One indication of that is that fewer than one in ten landed families in Suffolk had their estates sequestrated during the Civil War, though the yield from them was the highest in England, which may well be a mark of the relatively uncorrupt collection process.
Collection of imposts and taxes, whether demanded by monarch or Parliament. That invariably involved “farming” which entitled the collector to retain part of the sum collected. But, since the collector often determined how much was due, the incitement to corrupt deals was strong. Such positions were often bought, as were monopolies and charters.
Robert Reyce (from Preston, within the Godly Kingdon), in his contemporary “Breviary of Suffolk,” wrote of “the covetousness of this world, not content with any moderate or large bounds of gain” so that the rich grew richer, too often through ill means. It is no accident that radical Puritans talked of ‘common wealth’.
Reyse also noted that the gentry “met often, conversing most familiarly together, which so winneth the goodwill one of another, with all reverent regard of the meaner sort… that divisions are soon smothered and appeased.” Thus although many honestly wavered in their views and harboured qualified loyalties between the two sides, a generally conciliatory example was set by local leaders. There was also much inter-marriage across the divides with its multi-generational amity. That historic goodwill was further underpinned by a certain class solidarity.
All these ameliorating factors rendered those turbulent times extraordinarily free of civic brutality in the valley, especially when compared with events in Europe, let alone Ireland. Most impressive was the restraint amongst the ‘lower orders’. In the Stour valley, only the wholesale sacking of Melford Hall, Lady Rivers’ abode, and the mansion of Sir Francis Mannock at Stoke- by-Nayland – both owners being unpopular Catholics – created pandemonium and even then there were no casualties.
Returning to the birth of New England, what finally lit the emigration fuse? By 1630 John Winthrop was describing the Country’s predicament as one of “common grievances groaning for reformation.” Apart from corruption, those certainly included the economic plight of the later 1620s (hitting weaving disastrously); the reactionary and aggressive religious policies of the Anglican church, particularly via Bishop (later Archbishop) Laud; the attempt by Charles I to halt the expanding power of Parliament by bypassing it via the forced loan of 1626 and then by its dissolution in 1629 which led to his personal rule until he had to recall it in 1640; and a deeply unpopular and counter-productive foreign policy.
The offensive micro management of public worship meant, for example that, not wearing a surplice was an offence, as was not bowing. No one could go to another church to hear another preacher without licence, even if there was no sermon in the home church. Then there were the church lectureships which had sprung up in increasing numbers in eastern England from the 1580s, and which were very popular, especially on market days in places such as Boxford and Sudbury. But they were much disliked by the church authoritarians and an ecclesiastical edict of 1629 prohibiting them was for some the last straw.
It is enlightening to contextualise these controversies in relation to the cultural trends, started in the reign of Elizabeth. One has only to utter the names of Shakespeare, Milton, Johnson and Donne, amongst many, to understand how and why the unleashing of the vox populi became eventually uncontainable.
The resulting diversity was ineffable. Most poets and playwrights openly took very public sides in the Civil War. Surprisingly, from one viewpoint, Milton, Marvell and Dryden served in Cromwell’s Foreign Office when he was Protector. What bureaucrats! But one must be careful not to judge attitudes then by today’s standards. Thus John Winthrop, who might have been expected to champion democracy in all its modern essentials, couldn’t go all the way because he believed it to be inconsistent with the Fifth Commandment.
Let me give one particular case history of how King James and then King Charles gradually antagonised many of their most forceful subjects: that of George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham. Uniquely, he was the intimate and dominant adviser to both Kings, and a lover of the former. The foreign policy of the two monarchs under Buckingham’s sway could scarcely have been more counter-productive, at different times alienating the Netherlands, France and Spain and, in the process, closing vital markets for our local cloth output.
As it happens, Buckingham, was assassinated in 1628 by John Felton, whose family home in Pentlow near Cavendish backed onto the Stour. The fact that the event was greeted by public celebrations and ringing of church bells throughout the land says everything. A further twist is provided by the fact that Buckingham’s son, the no less controversial second Duke, married the granddaughter of Parliament’s second most famous General, Lord Fairfax, her family home being at Tilbury juxta Clare, only a few miles from Felton’s Pentlow.
Perhaps the most notable Stour Valley personage in those years was Sir Nathaniel Barnardiston who had six remarkable merchant sons. No account of the Godly Kingdom would be complete without him. He was incarcerated in the Tower of London in 1626 for refusing to pay the loan which Charles I attempted to force from the well off without the sanction of Parliament. He was a highly successful foreign merchant, twice MP for Sudbury (as was son Thomas) and a man very much of Winthrop’s ilk. They and their families were close and intermarried along with mutual friends, like the Gurdons and Brands, many of whom provided emigrants to New England in the early days. Barnardiston was the archetypal good Puritan – principled, idealistic and public spirited.
As for the travails of John Winthrop, he had become a very disappointed and pressured man. He had lost his position as a JP in 1625/6. At the same time, he failed to be selected as Sudbury’s second MP along with Sir Nathaniel Barnadiston. Worse were the effects of Winthrop’s appointment to the lucrative position as an Attorney of the Court of Wards and Liveries in 1627. The strains of serving this remunerative but corrupt institution and the ethical compromises that went with it may well have contributed to the serious illness he suffered in December 1628. Overall his predicament may have convinced him that his mode of life was incompatible with his deep beliefs, so that to turn his back on it all was what he was being called upon to do. (Read Francis J. Bremer’s revelatory biography, “John Winthrop – America’s Forgotten Founding Father”)
To buttress such introspections, the plague was at large locally; there had been a disastrous drought; and there was an intensifying collapse of trade, not just in weaving, which spawned poverty on every hand with no relief in sight. Indeed, in Sudbury and other nearby towns there was real unrest. So emigration it was to be.
One cannot now comprehend the complexity of putting together that first convoy of four vessels in March/April, and of the further seven ships which followed before the summer was out. With the primitive means of communication which existed (perhaps the greatest contrast between then and now), one’s imagination is beggared in trying to understand how such a sensitive and intricate operation could have been undertaken, not least the crucial task of attracting, selecting and organising the passengers.
But undertaken it was, and the new world which grew from it satisfied, to a remarkable degree, the hopes of the emigrants from ‘The Godly Kingdom’ and beyond. But then, as Winthrop wrote to his fellow-emigrants at the time, “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick, and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.”
Andrew Phillips (Copyright retained)
Andrew Phillips was born in Long Melford and raised in Sudbury, where he now lives. After Cambridge he qualified as a solicitor in Sudbury and in 1970 established his own firm in London. He served in the House of Lords as ‘Lord Phillips of Sudbury’ from 1998 until 2015. He has had extensive business, print and media engagements (best known for his 24 years on BBC2 as ‘Legal Eagle’ on the Jimmy Young Show). He founded or co-founded three national charities and is still very involved in the voluntary sector in the town and county. He is married to Penelope and they have three children and five grandchildren).