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Our English / Puritan Heritage
What Led to the Puritan
Emigration of the 1630's?
One of the intriguing questions in studying
our ancestors is the motivations behind their migrations. Why would they
leave something that had been home to generations of their ancestors for
the great unknowns of what awaited them in the Americas and the dangers
of the trip? Well, here is the story, which, at times, reads like a soap
Keep in mind that Martin Luther had started this whole ball of Protestant
reform rolling in 1517, just 17 years before King Henry VIII created the
Church of England with himself at the head, instead of the pope. Keep also
in mind what the word Protestant means in the first place: one who protests.
Also, keep in mind that John Calvin, the other great Protestant reformer,
published his first works in 1536 at about the same time as the furor is
going on in England with King Henry. So, what is happening in England is
a small part of the world-wide picture of protestant reform. In fact, the
reforms in England are certainly milder than what eventually happened in
France and Germany, but that's another story. Even if your ancestors weren't
Puritan, I hope you find interesting this short history of England from
1534 to 1660.
The story begins with King Henry VIII, who wanted to get a divorce
and the pope wouldn't let him. This led King Henry to declare the Church
of England the true church of England, the parliament declared the King
the head of the church, and he got his divorce authorized by that church.
This was in 1534. The Pope excommunicated King Henry VIII from the Catholic
church, but he didn't care. After that time, for almost 150 years, a tug
of war was always taking place. This tug of war generally involved the
Church of England, which retained many of the thoughts, practices, and
theology of Catholicism on the one side, and folks who more wanted to follow
the reforms of Luther and Calvin on the other. These folks became known
as Puritans. Occasionally, the Catholics even jumped back in the picture
now and again.
The next hundred fifty years will see a King (or Queen) who favored
the strict Church of England being replaced by one who favored the protestant
reform, and vice versa. King Henry VIII died in 1547. The Church of England
at that time still considered itself "mostly" Catholic in thought, just
separate from the Catholic church headquartered in Rome (although it had
adopted some of the protestant reforms on a limited basis).
Edward VI succeeded his father as King. He was only nine at the
time, but his "advisers" were protestants, and he became an extreme Protestant
by the time he died in 1553, when he was only 15. The country had made
strides towards protestantism. Puritans were on the upswing. He is persuaded
to attempt to make a Protestant monarch follow him, contrary to his father's
will that the Catholic Mary Tudor succeed him. As a result, he signs a
paper provided by Lord Dudley in an attempt by the Protestants to save
the crown. This attempt will result in Lady Jane Grey occupying the throne
for nine days.
Lady Jane Grey, seventeen years old, is placed on the throne by
Lord Dudley in an attempt to keep the monarchy in Protestant hands. His
attempt fails. The supporters of Mary Tudor succeed in dethroning Lady
Jane Grey. Lady Jane Grey, Lord Dudley, his son (who his father had arranged
to marry Lady Jane Grey) and my cousin, Sir John Gates, were all beheaded.
Her reign lasted nine days.
The Catholic Mary Tudor (daughter of the Spanish mother Catherine
of Aragon and King Henry VIII), Bloody Mary, succeeded her half-brother,
the sickly son of King Henry VIII, Edward VI, as sovereign in approximately
1553. The Catholic Queen Mary felt herself called by God to save England
from the abomination of heresy, and England as a whole had no great objection
to a return to the position at the end of Henry VIII's reign, a Catholic
country independent of Rome. Shortly after she took power, during the mid
to late 1550's, over 300 protestants were BURNED at the stake. Even in
that brutal age, the almost daily burnings were revolting to the English
people. This resulted in the name that this Mary is remembered by in history:
Bloody Mary. Mary's reign only lasted five years, until her death, in 1558.
The people were glad to see her go. She was a very unpopular lady.
Queen Elizabeth I succeeded Queen Mary in 1558. Only 25 at the time,
(Elizabeth was the half sister of both Edward VI and Mary Tudor, who had
preceded her) Elizabeth proved to be a shrewd politician. She had no particular
religious zeal, but was politically motivated to restore England to its
greatness - and separation from Spain and France (which in the meantime
had gotten itself linked into the bloodlines of the Scottish rulers). She
used parliament to pass some Acts which became political instruments of
accomplishing her aims. In 1558, when Elizabeth I took power, England had
been a Catholic country subject to Spain, and Scotland a Catholic country
subject to France (by marriages, note conquests). By 1560, she had shaken
both away and had TWO national protestant churches: episcopal (Church of
England) and presbyterian (Scotland).
During the 1560's, under Queen Elizabeth's rule, the industrial
machine of England was rebuilt and refined. Then, in the 1570's, the plot
began to thicken again. It seems that Mary, Queen of Scots had married
the chap who murdered her husband. She promptly got exiled for this little
misbehavior, to guess where? Of course, to England. Her son James VI became
King of Scotland. For the next twenty years, there was cold war involving
Spain, catholic intrigues involving Mary, ex-Queen of Scots; while, at
the same time England was enjoying prosperity. In 1587, Mary, Queen of
Scots was implicated in a plot to murder Elizabeth and was executed.
The reign of Elizabeth saw the real beginnings of Puritanism and
protestantism in England, as the pendulum swung in favor of religious reform
away from the structure of the Church of England, which, even though not
Catholic, was still very regimented and just wasn't making enough changes
away from Catholicism.
In 1588, a year after the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, Spain
sent its Invincible Armada to conquer England. But the smaller and quicker
English ships, aided by terrible weather, sunk half the Spanish Fleet.
Spain would never fully recover from this mis-adventure. Up to that time,
Spain was the most powerful country in the world. England would now take
that mantle and wear it, with some small exceptions, over the next 200-300
In the meantime, the Anglican extremists and the Protestant extremists
(the latter including the Puritans), played a game of give and take, jab
and parry. Spain tried to support Catholics in Ireland. England eventually
brutally put down the Catholic "revolt" there, one of its actions that
earned the animosity of the Irish towards the English to this day.
Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, 15 years after the Spanish Armada
was defeated, and was replaced with... guess who?? James VI, King of Scotland
(who changed his numbers and became King James I of England) - the son
of the catholic Queen Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been beheaded 16 years
earlier. Whew... how does this compare to your favorite soap opera? Queen
Elizabeth was the last Queen from the house of Tudor. James I was the first
King from the House of Stuart. Protestant/Puritan reform and religious
freedom had been allowed to flourish under Queen Elizabeth. This period
of pro-protestant rule was about to change.
Not long after the coronation of King James I as King of England
in 1603, will come the settlement of the first permanent English colony,
Jamestown, in 1607. (Wanna guess who it's named after?) Jamestown was primarily
a commercial venture. It was not a colony the founding of which was motivated
on religious freedom or other socialistic aims. No other serious attempts
at colonization will occur for thirteen years.
King James I, a native Scot, did not understand England at all. He
ruled until 1625. He was a strong Anglican. He detested the Scottish Presbyterians
and tried to force the Puritans to conform to the Anglican church or he
would "harry them out of the land". Three hundred protestant/puritan clergy
were ejected from their positions.
It was during his reign that he thought he would solve two problems
with one stone. He "cleared" the north of Catholic Ireland and "invited"
Scots to emigrate there. His thinking was that this would end the problems
he was having in both Scotland and Ireland. The exiling of Scottish "problems"
to Ireland, which would, in turn, help to rebuff the Catholic Irish problems.
The English often seemed to adopt policies of trying to solve two problems
with one action, only to have it backfire on them, and create a larger
problem than they had before, which, as we all know is exactly what we
This would eventually lead to the present problems we have today
in Northern Ireland. It would also lead to the immigration to the Americas
of that class of immigrant we in America label as the "Scotch/Irish".
The Pilgrims, a Separatist sect, establish a settlement at Plymouth
In 1625, James I died and Charles I inherited his throne. This is
4 years before the first "exploratory" trips by Puritan scouting parties
and five years before Winthrop's fleet, with a 1,000 souls, would first
land in Massachusetts. Charles had Catholic sympathies and had strong feelings
for the Anglican High Church, the Church of England. The Church of England
became more and more the church of the royal and elite and the Puritans
and protestants the church of the common man. He married married a Catholic,
the Princess Henrietta Maria, of France, only making the problem worse.
In just a few years, the Puritans, who had not been Separatists,
as the Pilgrims of 1620 were, had had enough of Charles I and his anti-church
policies. They were ready to move from England if that was what it took
to attain their goals. And the opportune moment for that departure was
the formation of the Massachusetts Bay Company.
Winthrop's Fleet bearing the first Puritans, including my ancestors,
Ezekiel and Susanna (Bradford) Richardson, arrives in Massachusetts with
a 1,000 passengers, and a whole new chapter in world history will
result. Over the next twelve years or so, approximately 26,000 English
Puritans will migrate to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
English civil war. Charles I proved to be obstinate and not a very
good politician, eventually plunging England into Civil War. Oliver Cromwell,
a friend of the Puritan movement, and a great military commander, eventually
assumes control, and even dictatorship, over England. In the meantime,
Charles I had effectively shut off the emigration to the colonies at the
beginning of the Civil War, approximately 1642. After he was beheaded,
and a pro-Puritan was ruling England, the motivation for migration decreased.
Oliver Cromwell was influential in the process that led to the decision
that Charles I be beheaded. This was 20 years after the Puritans
first arrived in America and started the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
End of the "Great" Puritan Migration
England existed as a republic for ten years, until 1660. (Actually,
it was more like a dictatorship, but Cromwell refused the title of King.)
Some call the ten year period that Cromwell ran the country the Puritan
Republic. Englishmen were allowed expression of free thought without fear
of prosecution as they had never been before. But, Cromwell was ruthless,
too. He put down civil revolts in Ireland and Scotland that were particularly
Cromwell's taking control of England actually marked the end of
the Puritan migration. With a pro-Puritan, Cromwell, in power now, there
was no need to "escape" to religious freedom. The great "Puritan Migration"
was over. It had only involved 20-30,000 immigrants over twenty years.
But, those 20-30,000 immigrants would multiply (by natural means, without
benefit of additional immigration) to close to a million people in New
England by the time of the American Revolution, 125 years later.
The monarchy was restored after Oliver Cromwell's death (his death
by natural means!). The House of Stuart was restored to the throne with
the recall of King Charles II, who had been in exile in France. He is pro-Anglican.
Here we go again, another swing in the pendulum!
The story continues in England after that with more intrigues and
overthrows, but I will cease now, as the original hope of my thesis is
how now reached its end, to explain the English heritage of our Puritan
forefathers who came to America.
Puritan Concept Often Over-Simplified
If you have a bit of an understanding of the above, you start to see that
the concept we Americans often have of Puritans is just a tad bit oversimplified,
that is, the concept of a group of religious fanatics who placed a great
focus on religion in their lives. (It is unfortunate that the sad, and
isolated, incident of the Witchcraft Trials in Salem has helped to color
this over-simplification.) Yes, they stressed religion in their lives,
no denying that, but the forces that led them to leave England in search
of greener pastures in the Americas is a whole lot more complicated than
that. It involved over a century of wars and bickering and dickering and
anglican kings and protestant queens and burning at the stake and complicated
duels between countries headed by protestants on one side and catholics
on the other, and all the other elements of this melo-drama.
Dramatic Effect on America The idea
of Puritanism is not a simple one, there were different styles of it, and
it changed often during the 100 years of its existence in England. Witness
Roger Williams was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because he
thought the government still had too much control. He went on to found
Providence, Rhode Island, a haven for religious freedom. In a way, it is
ironic that the basic tenets of Puritanism seem to have eventually lost
out to the Church of England, in England, but its impact on America has
been more than substantial. The concepts of freedom of religion and expression
and congregationalism and salvation and the related Calvinism movement
were what took hold in this country. The Church of England never took a
strong foothold here. In that sense, our Puritan heritage is around us
every day, right here in America. Many of our thoughts and beliefs are
an indirect result of the Puritan beliefs of our ancestors and are as much
a part of our every-day lives as the blood we carry in our veins from them.
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Copyright, Norris Taylor, 1998