They were enemies of the state – religious malcontents and political subversives. This left England’s most radical puritans with just two options under Tudor treason law (besides execution, of course): either shut up or pack up and leave.
Elizabethan severity against Roman Catholics made sense, as Catholic powers across Europe were waging war against England. They united in a series of conspiracies to replace Elizabeth I with Mary Queen of Scots. The pope excommunicated Elizabeth and even ordered English subjects not to “dare obey her orders”.
But why would a Protestant queen outlaw zealous Protestants – and what was so subversive about worshipping the way they wanted?
The trouble was that some reformists went beyond insisting on minor improvements to the Church of England. They denounced it all together as false. They rejected the monarch’s supremacy over the church. And they widely publicised all this, calling bishops monstrous beasts.
When James VI of Scotland came to the English throne in 1603, his attempts to appease both ends of the spectrum fell on deaf ears. Disaffected Catholics hatched an elaborate plan to blow up the king and parliament in the Gunpowder Plot. On the other end of discontent, zealous Protestants separated from the Church of England and decided to pack up and leave. But they refused to shut up.
Many puritan dissenters headed to the Netherlands, where they exploited freedom of the press to print and distribute illicit texts from Leiden. They did so, according to the chief minister and leader of the core Mayflower migrants, John Robinson, because “lesse hurt comes by silence, than by speech” but so too “doth lesse good”.
Recently discovered manuscripts held at Trinity College Dublin Library shed new light on the pilgrims’ views and their later reception. Robinson himself had been strongly influenced by Henry Jacob (1562/3-1624), a Calvinist minister from Kent.
Jacob engaged in extensive underground exchanges with his fellow puritan critics. These hidden debates open up new ways of seeing how Jacob and Robinson played a far more radical role in one of the greatest political, military, and religious conflicts in British history.
According to his critics, Jacob was the first in the English-speaking world to espouse a view of ecclesiastical “independency”. Invoking the ancient Roman Republic’s idea of liberty as non-dependence, he argued explicitly that each particular church was free and not dependent on any higher ecclesiastical authority (whether the pope, bishop or church council). More importantly, he argued for the first time that any group of individual believers had the freedom to set up a new church society if they so chose.
Contemporaries feared Jacob would “begin a new world” by justifying the freedom to create new self-authenticating church societies. And that was exactly what he did. He migrated to Virginia after planting an independent church in London.
He also inspired Robinson, who cited Jacob to justify the freedom to establish new churches. Robinson further developed the idea of the freedom to discover the unknown, warning that injury from falling forward was less fatal than falling backwards.
Brave new world
Two decades after the Mayflower voyage to the new world, these ideas were threatening to create another crisis back in the old world.
Critics claimed that Robinson was responsible for spreading far more radical ideas back in England than in the new Plymouth colony. As the British Isles spiralled into civil war in the 1640s, radicals seized the moment to make new claims to liberty – which ended in the trial and execution of Charles I.
It was here that Robinson reappeared. His work was allegedly plagiarised by revolutionaries in parliament’s New Model Army who were fighting against royalist troops and threatening to dismantle all social hierarchy.
Edmund Chillenden was one such army agitator who appeared to silently lift Robinson’s arguments to make the case for any man – however humble and whether ordained as a minister or not – to preach publicly. No surprise that Chillenden was also a member of one of Jacob’s offshoot churches in London.
Jacob’s brand of independence did more than simply revive the Roman idea of freedom as non-dependence. He was the first person to argue that the church was defined in the New Testament solely as an independent congregation, as opposed to seeing each church as part of a single universal visible church.
This stretched independence beyond a political idea reserved for an elite group of men and made it universally applicable to every believer. This meant it could appeal to men lower down the social order and might even extend to women.
Robinson was careful to qualify the most egalitarian implications of his ideas. For instance, he denied that women had the right to speak and teach in public church assemblies ordinarily. (Exceptional women who were seen as prophetesses could speak openly in church, but this was rare.) New England colonists were at pains to deny their views would result in social anarchy.
But the Jacob connection again tells a different story.
Another member of the Jacob offshoot churches in London cited Robinson to stretch the social boundaries of freedom as independence. Katherine Chidley was one of the earliest and most vocal female writers and political activists in the English Revolution, leading an army of women in London to petition parliament.
She vigorously defended Robinson’s views in her Justification of Independant Churches. For Chidley, there was nothing exceptional about this. She believed in the freedom and natural ability of women to speak independently in public.
Following the Plymouth plantation in the new world, Robinson helped plant a new one in the old. Chidley used his ideas to justify female speech and dissent. Her public interventions were offensive – and even insulting – to many at the time because they challenged traditional hierarchy and overturned social conventions. They were pushing the same ideas in England that had prompted the Mayflower voyage.
One obvious difference, of course, was that she didn’t have to pack up or shut up. Instead, she spoke up.