Daily Archives: September 20, 2020
They were enemies of the state – religious malcontents and political subversives. This left England’s most radical puritans with just two options under Tudor treason law (besides execution, of course): either shut up or pack up and leave.
Elizabethan severity against Roman Catholics made sense, as Catholic powers across Europe were waging war against England. They united in a series of conspiracies to replace Elizabeth I with Mary Queen of Scots. The pope excommunicated Elizabeth and even ordered English subjects not to “dare obey her orders”.
But why would a Protestant queen outlaw zealous Protestants – and what was so subversive about worshipping the way they wanted?
The trouble was that some reformists went beyond insisting on minor improvements to the Church of England. They denounced it all together as false. They rejected the monarch’s supremacy over the church. And they widely publicised all this, calling bishops monstrous beasts.
When James VI of Scotland came to the English throne in 1603, his attempts to appease both ends of the spectrum fell on deaf ears. Disaffected Catholics hatched an elaborate plan to blow up the king and parliament in the Gunpowder Plot. On the other end of discontent, zealous Protestants separated from the Church of England and decided to pack up and leave. But they refused to shut up.
Many puritan dissenters headed to the Netherlands, where they exploited freedom of the press to print and distribute illicit texts from Leiden. They did so, according to the chief minister and leader of the core Mayflower migrants, John Robinson, because “lesse hurt comes by silence, than by speech” but so too “doth lesse good”.
Recently discovered manuscripts held at Trinity College Dublin Library shed new light on the pilgrims’ views and their later reception. Robinson himself had been strongly influenced by Henry Jacob (1562/3-1624), a Calvinist minister from Kent.
Jacob engaged in extensive underground exchanges with his fellow puritan critics. These hidden debates open up new ways of seeing how Jacob and Robinson played a far more radical role in one of the greatest political, military, and religious conflicts in British history.
According to his critics, Jacob was the first in the English-speaking world to espouse a view of ecclesiastical “independency”. Invoking the ancient Roman Republic’s idea of liberty as non-dependence, he argued explicitly that each particular church was free and not dependent on any higher ecclesiastical authority (whether the pope, bishop or church council). More importantly, he argued for the first time that any group of individual believers had the freedom to set up a new church society if they so chose.
Contemporaries feared Jacob would “begin a new world” by justifying the freedom to create new self-authenticating church societies. And that was exactly what he did. He migrated to Virginia after planting an independent church in London.
He also inspired Robinson, who cited Jacob to justify the freedom to establish new churches. Robinson further developed the idea of the freedom to discover the unknown, warning that injury from falling forward was less fatal than falling backwards.
Brave new world
Two decades after the Mayflower voyage to the new world, these ideas were threatening to create another crisis back in the old world.
Critics claimed that Robinson was responsible for spreading far more radical ideas back in England than in the new Plymouth colony. As the British Isles spiralled into civil war in the 1640s, radicals seized the moment to make new claims to liberty – which ended in the trial and execution of Charles I.
It was here that Robinson reappeared. His work was allegedly plagiarised by revolutionaries in parliament’s New Model Army who were fighting against royalist troops and threatening to dismantle all social hierarchy.
Edmund Chillenden was one such army agitator who appeared to silently lift Robinson’s arguments to make the case for any man – however humble and whether ordained as a minister or not – to preach publicly. No surprise that Chillenden was also a member of one of Jacob’s offshoot churches in London.
Jacob’s brand of independence did more than simply revive the Roman idea of freedom as non-dependence. He was the first person to argue that the church was defined in the New Testament solely as an independent congregation, as opposed to seeing each church as part of a single universal visible church.
This stretched independence beyond a political idea reserved for an elite group of men and made it universally applicable to every believer. This meant it could appeal to men lower down the social order and might even extend to women.
Robinson was careful to qualify the most egalitarian implications of his ideas. For instance, he denied that women had the right to speak and teach in public church assemblies ordinarily. (Exceptional women who were seen as prophetesses could speak openly in church, but this was rare.) New England colonists were at pains to deny their views would result in social anarchy.
But the Jacob connection again tells a different story.
Another member of the Jacob offshoot churches in London cited Robinson to stretch the social boundaries of freedom as independence. Katherine Chidley was one of the earliest and most vocal female writers and political activists in the English Revolution, leading an army of women in London to petition parliament.
She vigorously defended Robinson’s views in her Justification of Independant Churches. For Chidley, there was nothing exceptional about this. She believed in the freedom and natural ability of women to speak independently in public.
Following the Plymouth plantation in the new world, Robinson helped plant a new one in the old. Chidley used his ideas to justify female speech and dissent. Her public interventions were offensive – and even insulting – to many at the time because they challenged traditional hierarchy and overturned social conventions. They were pushing the same ideas in England that had prompted the Mayflower voyage.
One obvious difference, of course, was that she didn’t have to pack up or shut up. Instead, she spoke up.
Mayflower 400: the English were relative latecomers to the Americas, despite the USA’s founding myth
Popular anglophone histories tend to play up England’s settlement of the “New World”, but – in reality – England under Elizabeth I was, by comparison with Spain and France, a minor player on the European scene and for the most part non-existent in the New World.
Having lost Calais, its final territory in France, in 1558 – and having experienced the two short reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Mary – England could not compete with the strength, stability and financial resources of Spain. At that time Spain was vastly rich as gold and silver flowed from the mines of the New World, especially from Potosi, into Spanish coffers.
England and Spain had long been allies before Elizabeth’s reign – Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was Spanish, as was Mary Tudor’s husband Philip II. But animosities beneath the surface eventually boiled over into open warfare after England intervened in the Dutch Revolt to support the Dutch against Spanish control in 1585.
Philip had entertained the idea of aggression against England prior to 1585, but English engagement in the Netherlands along with piracy on the seas by the likes of Francis Drake provoked the launching of the Spanish Armada in 1588 in an attempt to invade and subjugate England to Spanish control. As the saying goes, “God blew and they were scattered”, and the 1580s mark a turning point in English ambition on the seas and relative to its European neighbours.
With adventurers such as Drake, Walter Raleigh and other privateers, soon independent Englishmen found private investors to finance their voyages to, and activity in, the New World. This was seen as a countermeasure to Spain and an opportunity to explore commercial ventures for trade.
The landing of the Mayflower in November 1620 is a significant historical marker. Its recognition is warranted because of the legacy that followed. But in many ways, the Mayflower represents not only the beginning of an Anglo-American story, for it is just one part of a wider European tale of exploration, settlement, and displacement and subjugation of indigenous populations.
The Mayflower followed the first successful English settlement at Jamestown in 1607, which itself was more than a century after the initial forays of the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas.
‘In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue’
Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo) was Italian and sailed to the New World under a Spanish flag. Other Italians followed in his wake – including Amerigo Vespucci, under both Spanish and Portuguese flags shortly after Columbus, and Giovanni Verrazzano under the French flag in 1524. Zuan Caboto (Britain knows him as John Cabot) sailed under an English flag in the 1490s, but his efforts never resulted in any permanent settlements by the English. Spanish exploration and colonisation in the New World stretched thousands of miles from deep into South America to the plains of North America.
New Spain (“Hispania Nova”) dominated early maps of the western hemisphere, and in these lands the Spanish government established colonial governance and administration, complete with churches and missionaries to attempt converting the indigenous. Lands claimed by Portugal in modern-day Brazil were also vast and easily recognisable on such maps.
International acknowledgement of Spanish and Portuguese territories and domination came with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 – which, in the years that followed, earned the pope’s approval in Rome. Not to be outdone, by 1550 the French explored and subsequently claimed massive lands in what is now Canada – “Nova Francia”, though active settlement by the French in this area was limited.
Spain’s activity was not restricted to Central or South America. Spanish exploration in North America continued to expand as the century progressed. Hernando de Soto explored Florida during the 1540s, while Francisco Coronado the south-west (and Grand Canyon) at the same time. What is today Mexico had by this point been thoroughly occupied by Spain, the colonial capital city of Mexico City being built upon the ashes of the former Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.
The Spanish empire expanded further and further across the globe under King Philip II during the second half of the 16th century, especially when all Portuguese lands came under his dominion in 1580. So mighty, so awe-inspiring was Spanish power in Europe and the New World that none dared question it, even if daredevils like Drake drew Spanish ire by plundering along the coasts of South America during the 1570s.
So expansive, so far-reaching were Spanish lands that Europeans – the English very much included – knew how the sun never set on the Spanish empire in the 16th century (long before it never set on the British empire of the 19th).
By the early 17th century, England was more assured of itself on a European level than it had been since the reign of Henry VIII, but it still had a lot of catching up to do. Alongside Spain (especially having absorbed Portuguese dominions), the Dutch and even the Danish soon became active in exploring and claiming lands in the Americas.
The English, led by private companies or religious refugees, such as the Mayflower pilgrims, were in some respects on the back foot until the second half of the 17th century.
To situate the Mayflower within a broader context of European exploration and colonisation, and to understand early modern England among its mainland European neighbours, is not to belittle the achievements or significance of either. Rather, doing so helps us to see how a wide variety of countries and peoples came together – in commerce and trade but also in rivalry and war – to bring European cultures to the indigenous cultures of the New World with dramatic and often horrible effects.
And so began the great mixing and melding of peoples in the Americas.