There was nothing in the annals of family history to suggest that Edward Winslow, and eventually his younger brothers, would migrate to live in a religious colony 3,000 miles away. Everything about his early life seemed comprehensively tied down by the entangling webs of tradition and desire for worldly position. His father, also called Edward, was an aspiring merchant, in the prosperous Midlands market town of Droitwich.
Edward senior dealt in grain and pease, had an interest in the salt business and travelled for work, mainly to Bristol, sometimes to London for a court case or to hand over clients' monies. He was in effect a paralegal, or legal executive – someone with a knowledge of the law but not sufficiently well educated to have been qualified – and seems to have been an unofficial notary or person of standing in the community who could be relied on for witnessing legal documents.
He mingled with the elite who ran the town. Though regarded as a decent and reliable chap, he was not quite one of them. He and his wife Magdalen were always scraping by, though she was of gentle birth and the Winslows themselves had seen better days. To her chagrin he never owned his own house. They moved home several times over twenty-five years. Sometimes they lived pleasantly in the sort of cosy sixteenth-century salt merchant's house which today is still seen in Droitwich High Street; at other times, as business waned they found themselves in smaller, damper lodgings.
Edward and Magdalen Winslow's eldest child was christened Edward on 20 October 1595 over the medieval font in the ancient church of St Peter in Droitwich. They went on to have four more sons – John, Gilbert, Josiah and Kenelm – and a daughter, Magdalen.
For several hundred years the Winslows had been recorded as living in Worcestershire as yeomen farmers. But at the end of the sixteenth century Edward senior's father, Kenelm Winslow, decided to stop being a yeoman farmer getting by on seventy-five acres, and became a cloth merchant.
There has been much debate about the Winslows' social status. In the more class-ridden age of the nineteenth century, rumours proliferated that they were of aristocratic descent. They themselves, however, were proud to use the term yeomen, which is what we would call middle class.
Yeomen could be wealthy enough to move amongst the gentry, and a reference in a seventeenth-century history of Worcestershire suggests that at some point Kenelm was a man of considerable estate, but then fell on hard times. However, it is generally agreed among historians that he owned a large house at Kerswell Green. Today it is a Grade II listed building, a thatch-roofed farmhouse from the late medieval period, with various alterations in the seventeenth, eighteenth and twentieth centuries – a fairly extensive half-timbered house with a large hall, gables and expensive brick elements.
Judging by the inventory attached to his will, Kenelm was a man who was accustomed to the elegances of the sixteenth century: he had table linen and napkins, and drank out of glasses. His meals were cooked in brass pans and served in brass pots and pewter dishes.
Kenelm was a daring and perhaps rather too entrepreneurial type, a trait his grandson Edward junior would inherit. Becoming a clothier or cloth merchant was one of the swiftest means to wealth during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Worcester and Droitwich were boom towns because of the cloth industry. Ever since the Roman occupation, Droitwich's position on massive salt deposits made it prosperous. As well as being the best preservative for fish and meat before refrigerators, in the late Middle Ages salt's chemical properties became integral to the cloth trade, and Droitwich really took off. Salt was not only used for cleaning, dyeing and softening wool and leather but the trade also expanded into materials used in shipbuilding, such as flax and hemp, as well as medicines and ointments. A tradition of commerce and centuries of busy, crafty merchant activity and lucrative trade meant Droitwich was notably successful. And its propinquity to Worcester had a knock-on effect.
Worcester was famous for its rich red dye and was a centre for the international wool trade. Merchants in the late sixteenth century were the new success story. They were flexing their muscles, feeling their strength. Famously termed 'the middle sort of people', they were 'a composite body of people of intermediate wealth, comprising substantial commercial farmers, prosperous manufacturers, independent tradesmen and the increasing numbers who gained their livings in commerce, the law and the provision of other professional services'. Kenelm Winslow and his son Edward now had their feet fairly well set on the first rungs of this dynamic merchant community. It was the place to be.
Thanks to trade and exploration in the late sixteenth century, England was diversifying and spreading its influence internationally. As a result the landed gentry were being enticed into commerce. There were far fewer university places than now, and many gentry families made their sons apprentices. In an inheritance system of male primogeniture, apprenticeships for younger sons had social cachet, particularly in the London livery companies. Daniel Defoe summed up the change as 'this amphibious creature, this land-water thing called a gentleman tradesman'.
This process would have been particularly clear at Droitwich where the burgesses (the powerful merchants) 'be poor for the most part; because gentlemen have for the most part the great gain of it and the burgesses have all the labour'. Among those of 'the meaner rank' (which simply meant non-noble) who 'had and have salt-makings here' was Kenelm's son Edward. He rented salt vats from Robert Wintour.
Though Worcestershire was a centre for Catholic recusants, the Winslow family's leaning was straightforwardly Protestant. Edward was a client of the rising Puritan gentry of the county. Perhaps one of the traditions Kenelm passed on to his son was a taste for the fiercer, more fervent side of the new Protestant ideas through contact with Dutch merchants in the wool trade.
The Netherlands was where all English cloth was finished, and also the home of a legendary Protestantism. What a man believed – and why he believed it – was a constant subject of discussion which had a natural appeal for ruggedly individual merchants such as Kenelm whose success relied entirely on their own enterprise and brains.
Although Kenelm did not leave a huge amount of cash, his way of life was comfortable and elegant. He was a fairly successful figure in the merchant world. His son had expectations of various inheritances, and the fact that they did not materialise left Edward's wife Magdalen feeling hard done by, she having been brought up to better things.
Nevertheless, Edward Winslow became a well-placed member of the town's hierarchy. His signature can be seen on deeds of sale of salt vats belonging to various well-off families who had gentry status, such as the Wildes, the Wyeths, the Bucks and the Gowers. In various documents in what today would be called small claims courts he is described as 'gent'. This was a pleasing description, for not all yeomen were so honoured, and indeed the fact that Edward rented his vats and was taxed at the lowest rate of twenty shillings suggests he did not own his property but was living in rented accommodation. Given his slightly impecunious circumstances, and despite his energy and can-do abilities, he remained outside the magic circle of the burgesses and members of the corporation who in addition to owning the vats, ran the town and elected its two MPs. Although he was outside the inner circle, that did not mean that he was not longingly looking in. He just needed a bit of luck. In this socially mobile society, wealth and a grand house were all that lay between a yeoman and a fully paid-up member of the gentry.
Edward senior was probably not formally schooled, but his eldest son Edward was prepared for a life amongst the county's prosperous elite by attending the King's School in Worcester. Only ten per cent of pupils were yeomen's sons; most of them were from the country gentry. Edward senior had a series of financial setbacks in this period but nevertheless, perhaps in accordance with his wife's upbringing, he decided his son must be educated at the leading school in Worcestershire (as it remains today).
Young Edward attended King's College from 2 April 1606 to April 1611, leaving aged fifteen and a half, having been clever enough to win one of the coveted scholarships. The requirements were that the candidate was already literate. Edward's mother was probably able to read and taught him. Thanks to her he displayed a 'native genius', with an 'inborn aptitude for learning'. Although Kenelm was probably illiterate – his inventory contained no books – his son must have been taught to read, as he handled legal documents. Now Edward junior was to be educated to high standards. There is no record of other boys in the family attending the school. His other brothers were of a more practical bent. One – Kenelm – was a joiner. Their father's hopes must have rested on the intelligent Edward.
The effect of an exceptional headmaster, Henry Bright, on Edward's receptive character was to give him an idealistic sense of what life might hold, and to expand his horizons far beyond Worcestershire. As the rector of several Worcester parishes, Bright may well have heard of the Winslows' clever son, especially as generations of the Winslows' friends and patrons, the Wilde family (sometimes spelled Wylde or Wyld), attended the school. In Bright's epitaph he is singled out as 'placed by Divine Providence in this city, in the Marches', to communicate a love of learning to the boys of England and Wales. The cataloguer of notables of the day, the antiquarian Anthony Wood, recorded Bright had 'a most excellent faculty in instructing youths in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, most of which were afterwards sent to the universities, where they proved eminent to emulation'.
Thanks to his reputation the school expanded to 150 boys. He encouraged intellectual tastes among the students and a curiosity that never left Edward, whose experience at King's honed his mind, and refined what became a vivid prose style as well as giving him a historical sense and humanistic enthusiasm so typical of the Renaissance world view.
Most important of all, Bright's scholarly interests meant King's pupils had the unusual privilege of being exposed to the work of leading Reformation scholars. The case for Reformation was eagerly absorbed by Edward's fervent personality. Not only did Bright have a profoundly held religious belief, he was also a powerful preacher. His teaching gave Edward his clear way of seeing things, and a recognition of the intense spiritual satisfaction to be found in Protestant theological ideas. Bright was an inspirational figure in a commercial landscape which might otherwise have been limited to the rapid-fire calculation of profit and loss.
Thanks to Bright, Edward was charged with new purpose, and his Protestantism became his driving religious impulse. He was a young man requiring only a match to set fire to the pressing desire within him to serve in some way. Bright was that match. The furnace started burning.
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In 1605 when Edward was ten, Worcestershire was shaken by the national emergency of the Gunpowder Plot. It implicated the grand Catholic recusant families who lived within a few miles of Droitwich and Worcester, in huge, mysterious houses riddled with priests' holes. Anyone linked to them came under suspicion. Edward Winslow senior was connected to one of the conspirators, Robert Wintour, because he rented Wintour's salt vats. Wintour was savagely executed and Winslow suffered interrogation, but fortunately for him, it was agreed that his connections were strictly business arrangements.
There is a certain irony in this brush with danger, as Winslow was, in fact, a good Protestant. He became the trusted man to manage affairs for the Puritan-leaning Wildes, a family whose status in the world was rising at this period. John Wilde was one of Droitwich's MPs from 1621 to 1640, and Chief Baron of the Court of the Exchequer from 1646 to 1653. His father, Thomas Wilde, was the owner of a quarter of the advowson of St Peter's Droitwich and probably made Winslow a churchwarden in 1600. Other important patrons were the Puritan Coventry family. Edward senior was on affectionate terms with Thomas Coventry, a highly successful government minister who took it upon himself to be interested in his client's intelligent son.
The urbane Coventry was friendly with various open Puritans. He took a shine to the young Edward with his gleaming intelligence and evident commitment, discreetly assisting him at various times. It turned out that Edward's zeal for reformation would be far greater than Coventry ever dreamed.
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Two and a half years after leaving the gentle milieu of King's, Edward was learning how to set type in the shadow of St Bride's Church in London. His employer, John Beale, published a whole range of books, including Puritan tracts at a time when it required commitment and nerve to do so.
We do not know how Edward got a job there, although it has long been believed that his family had a connection with the printing industry. His parents had married in St Bride's Church, traditionally associated with printers.
But the young man did not stay for long. In 1617, halfway through his eight-year apprenticeship, he broke his contract, and went to Leiden in Holland, thus ending any hopes of assured profitable employment as a Master of the Printers' Guild.
If his headmaster had lit a match, being in the company of Beale and other printers was the fuel. His faith was a matter of such urgency he was willing to throw away his professional career. Edward became the employee of Thomas Brewer, one of the most notorious Puritan activists of the age, responsible for all the illegal Puritan literature coming to England from Holland.
Leaving London for Leiden was an extraordinary decision. He would now be an outlaw. The heroic Puritanism which held him in a grip of iron had begun to transform his life. He was deliberately seeking employment in a dangerous field.
* * *
Puritans were Protestants who believed the English Reformation had not gone far enough. The Elizabethan religious settlement returned the Church in England from Roman Catholicism to the Anglicanism established by Henry VIII. Anxious not to offend the population – many of whom had been disturbed by the Reformation in the first place – Elizabeth's government did not wish to make the new religious settlement too Protestant. But many of the English Protestant clergy who had been driven out by the Catholic queen Mary Tudor now returned from Geneva imbued with the ideas of important theologians of the sixteenth century, including Jean Calvin. Many of Elizabeth's chief ministers were Calvinists in points of doctrine such as predestination. However, they took the position that the state must dictate the form of the church. Bishops were an essential part of that. Calvin meanwhile promoted a system of church government run by Elders of the church or presbyters (from the Greek word presbyteros, meaning an elder).
How the church should be governed and how much it should be reformed became a running battle between the Elizabethan government and Puritan clergy. Bishops were not mentioned in the New Testament, nor were making the sign of the cross, saints' days or wearing vestments. In 1570 the Cambridge professor of theology Thomas Cartwright's dramatic conclusion that there were no bishops in the ancient church seemed definitive. But Elizabeth, her ministers and the church hierarchy held the line against a challenge to the Crown's authority. English clergymen had to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles. Cartwright had no plans to create a separate church – he was a scholar, not a politician – but the genie was out of the bottle, and the issue became political. Clergymen found it hard to conform to an increasingly prescriptive Church of England under the hardline Archbishop Whitgift in the 1580s and 1590s. Puritan sympathisers were organised into secret groups. Extreme Puritans wanted a church which would not include the ungodly, as non-Puritans were increasingly believed to be.
Most Puritans, however, were ardent patriots at a time when Protestantism was threatened by an aggressive Catholicism, exemplified by plots to put Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne and an invasion of England by the Spanish Armada. They wanted reform, not expulsion from the Church of England. Separatism remained a term of abuse, and much disliked by the individual separatist churches themselves.