This month marks the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower setting sail on a voyage that led to the foundation of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Of the 102 passengers on board we know that at least seven came from Norfolk. So what was the religious climate of Norfolk like at the time which may have contributed to a number of it’s former citizens joining other pilgrims on this journey.
It is no coincidence that of all counties, Norfolk was the most represented amongst the pilgrims who resettled in the Netherlands and would subsequently sail to the Americas aboard the Mayflower. In the century preceding the voyage in 1620, Norfolk had been in a state of near continuous religious tumult; the urban areas of the county were some of the most fervent hotbeds of Puritanism and other forms of non-conformity that the Tudors and Stuarts had to contend with.
Upon the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558, prominent Protestant preachers and theologians who had fled the country during the reign of her Catholic sister returned to our shores. These “Marian exiles”, who had been further radicalised during their stay in Puritanical hotbeds in Switzerland, Germany and the Low Countries, formed the basis of a new wave of English Puritanism which would ultimately transform the religious landscape. East Anglia and the South East were particularly prone to puritanical beliefs. Literate middle classes and gentry were often the first of society to commit to the Protestant cause, and with large cities like Norwich, they were in abundance.
As Puritanical preachers and texts began to spread throughout the county, prominent Puritan gentry formed a powerbase that began to rival the Church itself. Bishop Edmund Freke, who took up the diocese of Norwich in 1575, lead a campaign to enforce state-sanctioned proceedings among the puritanical clergy of the diocese, many of whom were espousing alleged “false doctrine”, not wearing correct clothing, or not administering the sacraments. The Bishop encountered heavy resistance from the Puritan gentry and Justices of the Peace of the major towns in the diocese, with one rabble-rouser going as far as to call the Bishop as “toss-pot”! Freke ultimately failed to quell Puritan clergymen or preachers despite his best efforts to suspend those deemed improper, and Puritanism continued to be a dominant force in Norfolk’s religious culture.
The role of St Andrews Church, Norwich
The church of St. Andrew’s in Norwich is in fact regarded as one of the seminal gathering places for England’s Puritanical elite in the 16th and 17th centuries, rivalling some of the great London churches such as St. Ann’s and Blackfriars. This church was religiously and socially dominated by the preacher John More, known as the “apostle of Norwich”. For 20 years until his death in 1592 he preached a broadly non-conformist doctrine at St. Andrew’s despite attempts from the Church authorities to curtail him; Freke did managed to suspend him in 1576, but such was his popularity among the elite of Norwich that he was back in place within two years. Under More, St. Andrew’s church became notoriously popular among Puritan schismatics, with it being noted in 1589 that no member of the congregation was not a Puritan, a Brownist (a Protestant separatist group following Robert Browne), or at least a “disobedient person”. This culture remained after More’s death. In 1603, the churchwardens of St. Andrews resisted an episcopal order to rearrange seating in the Church – a source of enormous social tension during this time. Upon refusing this request, the churchwardens were summarily all excommunicated, and St. Andrew’s was denounced in the church court as a centre of “schismatics” and “contemners of authoritie”. Norwich and other Norfolk market towns would continue to be centres for Presbyterianism and nonconformity throughout the seventeenth century, however increasing Church and government inference saw many wishing to travel overseas to areas where they would be free to practice their extreme Protestantism in peace.
Upon the accession of James I in 1603, many Puritans were initially hopeful – after all, James had ruled over the fiercely Presbyterian Scotland for more than thirty years prior. In January 1604, more than one thousand Puritans signed a petition to reform the Church to a manner more befitting their puritan ideals. In response, James held a conference at Hampton Court that same year, with the aim to discuss and debate Church reform. However, the puritans would leave that conference bitterly disappointed. Changes made were very minor, and largely consisted of small-scale changes to the wording of the Book of Common Prayer, and the issuing of a new English translation of the Bible. Puritan demands of the removal of the sign of the cross at baptism and making the wearing of the surplice non-obligatory were rejected, and any hope they had to remove the office of bishop from the Church would have been quenched with the King repeatedly asserting “no Bishop, no King.” Many puritans would have returned to Norfolk disconsolate, knowing that being a strict Puritan in England was only going to get more difficult.
James’ crackdown on non-conforming ministers began in 1605, with those not swearing an oath of the King’s supremacy removed from their position; one of these was John Robinson, a preacher at St. Andrew’s. Robinson has been referred to as “The Pastor of the Pilgrims”; as a preacher, he had addressed a plethora of Puritan congregations throughout Norfolk and East Anglia, and followed them in their initial migration to the Netherlands where he joined the University of Leiden as a theologian. Robinson’s charisma and preaching ability was well renowned, and such was his popularity and influence among the Puritans of Norfolk that it is quite well documented that Robinson continued to preach in Norwich years after his deposition. In 1608, a Norwich puritan named Henry Ainsworth wrote that several lay people had been excommunicated for consorting with Robinson – “a man worthily reverenced of all the city for the graces of God in him […] and to whom the cure and charge of their souls was ere while committed.” Robinson would subsequently preach at Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, whose congregation in 1607/1608 decided to resettle in the Netherlands to avoid religious persecution. Robinson continued to lead the Leiden congregation until a minority of them sailed to America in 1620; Robinson himself would remain in the Netherlands.
John Jegan, bishop of Norwich from 1603-1618, was a learned Calvinist and enjoyed exceptional relations with the townspeople and clergy of Norfolk. While it would not be true to say he tolerated nonconformity, Jegan nevertheless strived for amicability with the local puritan congregations and gained admiration in promoting preaching at previously neglected areas of the county, like Swaffham. Urban areas of Norfolk retained their evangelicalism, but relations between puritan congregations and the state church had reached somewhat of an equilibrium. For those for whom this was not enough, places such as Leiden in the Netherlands or Plymouth Colony were seen as the only viable alternatives. When we observe the religious climate of the county, it is no wonder that Norfolk was so represented at the English congregations at Leiden and aboard the Mayflower itself, of whom seven passengers were known the hail from the county. Samuel Fuller, church deacon for Plymouth Colony for eleven years was born at Redenhall and most likely had attended services at St. Andrew’s church; it is well worth remembering that much of what formed the basis of the first successful pilgrimage to the Americas originated from the county of Norfolk.
Researched and compiled by Ashley Armstrong
Bangs, Jeremy, Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners (Leiden, 2009)
Collinson, Patrick, The Religion of Protestants (Oxford, 1979)
Collinson, Patrick, “English Puritanism”, in The Historical Association 106 (Cambridge, 1983)
Strype, John, Annals of the Reformation Vols. I, II & III (Cambridge, 1824)
Tomkins, Stephen, The Journey to the Mayflower: God’s Outlaws and the Invention of Freedom (New York, 2020)
State Library of Massachusetts. https://www.mass.gov/orgs/state-library-of-massachusetts