Parliament and the Mayflower: the case of Samuel More’s children

This month marks the 400 year anniversary of the voyage of Mayflower, the ship that transported 102 passengers to begin their lives in ‘New England’. Last month the History of Parliament’s Director, Dr Stephen Roberts, explored the men who during the 1640s and 50s made the return journey from America to take up seats in Westminster. Today Stephen casts his attention to the MP Samuel More and a family dispute that saw his children depart on the ship…

No MPs of the English Parliament, past or future, sailed on Mayflower. As discussed previously, the voyage nevertheless symbolized an important strand of emigration and return-migration to and from New England that contributed a great deal to the complexion of Parliaments in the 1640s and 50s, most of it strongly associated with the ideology and lifestyles of English Puritans. As a factor in parliamentary history, the voyage of Mayflower in 1620 can be seen as a symbol of a momentous religious and political movement that nearly 30 years later would eventually topple the English monarchy. However, before we leave the practicalities of the voyage of Mayflower, we should note that while no MP was among the passengers, four children of a man who would later serve in four Parliaments, were.

Departure of the ‘Mayflower’, 1620
British School, 19th c.
Southampton City Art Gallery via ArtUK

Samuel More, the eldest son of a Shropshire gentleman, was in 1620 aged 26. When he was 16, he had married his cousin, Katherine More, in an alliance that was intended to consolidate the estates of the separate branches of the More family in their native county. Katherine was eight years older than Samuel. By 1617 they had four children, and Samuel was in the service of Edward Zouche, 11th Baron Zouche, a nobleman who had served as president of the council in the marches of Wales, based at Ludlow. More’s employment prospects looked rosy, but his marriage was a disaster from the start. Katherine had considered herself already betrothed to Jacob Blakeway, a tenant farmer and in Samuel’s eyes ‘a fellow of mean parentage and condition’. More was tortured by ‘the apparent likeness and resemblance of most of the said children in their visages and lineaments of their bodies’ to Blakeway, and was therefore convinced they were not his. In a period before divorce was commonly available, it was Katherine and Jacob, not Samuel, who initially tried to dissolve the More marriage by resorting to the church court at Hereford, their diocese. Appealing to older church law precedents, by which the declaration of a contract was valid even without a church ceremony, they argued that Katherine’s prior betrothal to Jacob invalidated the arranged marriage with More. He in turn retaliated by insisting on the validity of the marriage, which had been solemnized in a parish church in what had by then become the dominant and uncontested legal and ceremonial way.

The case was pursued in six courts, both ecclesiastical and secular. Neither of the warring parties found satisfaction in any of them, though the two men in the case came away with something: Jacob Blakeway was pardoned for his adultery, and Samuel More won the legal argument. On appeal, Katherine lost her case that the Mores’ marriage had never been lawful, and Samuel secured a divorce on the grounds of Katherine’s adultery. This final verdict was reached in the summer of 1620. Samuel then repudiated the children he would not accept were his, despite their bearing his name. He resolved to send them out of the country. Mayflower began the Atlantic crossing on 6 September, sailing from Plymouth after having acquired some of its final complement of 102 passengers at various south coast ports in previous weeks. So the decision to send his children away was probably taken by More at the point his marriage was dissolved.  The children were Elinor (aged 8), Jasper (aged 7), Richard (aged 6) and Mary (aged 4). They seem to have joined the ship at Southampton. Their father had entrusted them to the Puritan leaders of the expedition, known to him probably through west midlands connections. He intended not to cast them away carelessly, but had seemingly concluded that, with the scandal of their parents’ divorce over their heads, the children would have a better life in a place ‘remote from those parts where these great blots and blemishes may fall upon them’. After reaching New England, each child was to have 50 acres of land after seven years of service in the households of their Puritan masters. Even if we accept that his deliberations were considered, More seems not to have given due consideration to the hazards of any Atlantic crossing and settlement in an unforgiving natural environment. Of the four, only Richard lived beyond a year or two.  Elinor died soon after Mayflower reached land; Jasper died only weeks later and Mary did not survive the winter of 1620-1. Despite the horrors of his early childhood, Richard lived a full and adventurous life, becoming a sea captain and respected citizen in Massachusetts. He returned to England on more than one occasion, but never sought to make it again his country of residence.

The remains of Hopton Castle keep
Chris Gunns via WikimediaCommons

Initially helped by his employer, Lord Zouche, Samuel More, the Mayflower children’s father, sat in the Parliaments of 1621, 1624, 1656 and 1659. Moving in puritan circles in the west midlands, he formed an association with the Harley family of Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire, at the start of the English civil war in 1642, and had a colourful career as a local garrison commander in the service of Parliament. Assisting Brilliana Harley, Sir Robert Harley’s wife, he ably defended Brampton Bryan Castle against a siege by the royalists, and was subsequently put in charge of Hopton Castle in the same region. In March 1644, he was obliged to surrender the castle, after having refused an earlier call to give it up. All 29 of the parliamentarian defending soldiers at the castle were executed, except More, who believed he escaped their fate only because he mentioned to his captors that he knew the king’s secretary of state, Sir Edward Nicholas. After his release from a brief period of imprisonment, More resumed his military career as a garrison commander, continuing to be the recipient of the patronage of the Harleys. His parliamentary career, by contrast, was quite undistinguished. He died in 1662.     

What became of Jacob Blakeway and Katherine More is unknown. By the terms of the prevailing very strict and limited divorce laws, Samuel More was unable to marry until after the death of his first wife, though in practice re-marriages by parties deemed innocent in adultery cases did take place. Whether or not Katherine was then dead, by 1627 Samuel had married again, and went on to have seven more children. He named one of them Richard.

S R

Further reading

Rebecca Fraser, The Mayflower Generation: The Winslow Family and the Fight for the New World (2017)

Lawrence Stone: Road to Divorce (1990)

A biography of Samuel More will feature in our Commons 1640-1660 volumes, which are currently being produced. To follow the research of our Civil War section, head to James I to Restoration.

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