The Mayflower: The New England men at Westminster, 1640-1660

In September 1620, the ship Mayflower set sail, transporting the first Puritan separatists to the ‘New World’. But, even thousands of miles across the sea, ‘New England’ would not be unfamiliar to many of those in Westminster, as our director Dr Stephen Roberts explores…

Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, Devon, in September 1620, reaching what became New Plymouth, on the eastern coast of America, in November. About a third of the passengers were committed Puritan separatists, who left England for religious freedom denied them under the government of James I. None of the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ nor indeed any other of those passengers had been or was to be a Member of Parliament. Nevertheless, this voyage and many others like it created in New England a culture that fed directly and indirectly into the English parliaments held between 1640 and 1660.

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, William Halsall, 1882. Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Many men active in public life, out of sympathy with the regimes of James I and Charles I, are known to have contemplated going to America, or encouraged colonial schemes there. Sir John Clotworthy considered going in 1637, because of his alienation from government policy. John Pym, who would provide leadership to the Long Parliament in its early years, was a leading backer of Saybrook, a settlement at the mouth of the Connecticut River sponsored by two Puritan peers, and would have gone there had Parliament not been summoned in 1640. Oliver Cromwell was said to have been bent on a similar course in 1641.

A smaller number of the MPs of this twenty-year period had direct experience of living in America, but had returned to England. They had left England for America not at the time of Mayflower’s sailing, nor even in the 1620s, but in the following decade. Puritanism united them all, a Puritanism defined by a commitment to the principle that each church congregation should be independent and self-governing. Some crossed the Atlantic as boys or youths. George Downing, for example, who later gave his name to Downing Street in London, arrived in 1638 with his family in Salem, Massachusetts, aged 15. He trained to be a church minister at the newly-founded Harvard College and returned to England in 1645. Stephen Winthrop sailed when aged 11, and became recorder (chief legal officer) of Boston while still in his twenties. He came back to England for short visits on a number of occasions, staying this side of the pond finally in 1646. John Humfrey, of a Dorset family, sailed in 1634 aged 12, and came back in 1641.

Sir Henry (Harry) Vane the Younger, Peter Lely. Cromwell Museum via ArtUK.

Others went in the prime of life to take up particular positions of responsibility. The best-known is Sir Henry Vane junior, tasked in 1635 with establishing the colony of Saybrook. He quickly became governor of Massachusetts, but returned in 1637, disillusioned with the religious factionalism that had sprung up in New England. Another pioneer builder of Saybrook was George Fenwick, who went there in 1636 and came back in 1644. Less spectacular was the career of Herbert Pelham, who went to Cambridge, Massachusetts around 1638, and acted as a commissioner for the confederation of New England colonies (Massachusetts, New Plymouth, Connecticut and New Haven) before being sent to England to negotiate with parliament over colonial land disputes. He was a reluctant returner, but in the event never went back to America. Finally, there was Thomas Gorges, chosen by his powerful cousin, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, to be governor of Maine, where he served from 1640 until 1643.

A number of shared themes run through the careers of these individuals, apart from their commitment to establishing a new Puritan way of life in the New World. The dominant factor was their common networking. Stephen Winthrop’s father was John Winthrop, a towering figure in the founding of Massachusetts. Herbert Pelham’s brother was in Winthrop’s service. Sir Henry Vane was an associate of Winthrop’s; George Downing’s father was Winthrop’s brother-in-law. Another common link was the minister Hugh Peter or Peters, a highly persuasive and influential magnet for those convinced of the ‘New England way’ in religion. Stephen Winthrop was a cousin of Peter’s, Downing was a member of his congregation, and John Humfrey’s father was a friend of his, as was Sir Henry Vane. And on their return to England, most of these men took up arms against Charles I, or were attached to the army. Downing became scoutmaster-general in the New Model army, and Winthrop, Gorges, Humfrey and Fenwick became army officers.

Sir George Downing, 1st Bt, Robert M. Pratt. Painting owned by Colleges in the University of Cambridge via ArtUK.

With the exception of Sir Henry Vane, who sat in both the Parliaments that assembled in 1640, and Herbert Pelham, who first sat in 1645, all of these men sat in the Parliaments of the 1650s. It is important to emphasize that when they took their seats they did not bring with them a political colonial dimension that the Long Parliament of the 1640s had lacked. The Committee for Foreign Plantations, the Long Parliament’s agency for regulating the government of the colonies, had been managed by men experienced in commercial and governmental traffic with the American colonies, albeit with limited success even when relations between New England colonists and parliamentarians were broadly harmonious. The returners from New England in the Cromwellian Parliaments were not in the first rank of MPs, were not shapers and movers. They provided instead a solid phalanx of Puritan gentry that could generally be relied on by the government of the lord protector. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 saw most of those who had seen the New World at first hand quietly slip into obscurity. For some, the change in the political wind was an unmitigated disaster. Hugh Peter, such an early influence on the New England known to these men, met in October 1660 the hideous execution reserved for traitors. Sir Henry Vane was beheaded in 1662. One shamelessly put his past behind him. George Downing, once a pious candidate at Harvard for the Puritan ministry, betrayed every principle he had once held dear, and to curry favour with Charles II actively sought out and brought to trial and execution three who had believed in the ‘Good Old Cause’ of Parliament, as he once had. Samuel Pepys’s judgment on Downing, that he was ‘a perfidious rogue’, seems more than apt. 

S R

Further reading

Biographies of Sir John Clotworthy, John Pym, Oliver Cromwell, George Downing, Stephen Winthrop, Thomas Gorges, Herbert Pelham, John Humfrey, George Fenwick and Sir Henry Vane II will appear in The Commons 1640-1660 currently in preparation.

C. G. Pestana, The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004)

R. Brenner, Merchants and Revolution (Cambridge, 1993)       

The biographies of many figures mentioned are currently being prepared for our Commons 1640-1660 project. Find out more about some of the key parliamentarians of the time, including John Pym and Oliver Cromwell, on the History of Parliament Youtube channel.

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