England & The Brewster Family
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England & the Brewster Family

        How was England ruled and what caused the Puritan upheaval in the 16th century?  Henry VIII, king of England from 1509 to 1547 instigated the Reformation of the English church by the elimination of Catholicism.  Although the Reformation stemmed from Henry's desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, it became a controlled revolution, supervised by the able minister Thomas Cromwell. Henry VIII broke with Rome, subordinated the church to the state, ended monasticism, and annexed vast church properties to the crown. The last were gradually sold and came into the hands of the gentry and middle classes, immensely increasing their economic strength and leading them to claim greater political power through the House of Commons.

        Henry VIII was followed by his son Edward VI (1547-1553), and then his daughter Mary I (1553-1558). After Mary’s death Elizabeth I (1558-1603) became Queen, who was also the daughter of Henry VIII second marriage to Anne Boleyn. Noted for her long preserved virginity (the Colony of Virginia was named for her), Elizabeth I was responsible for one of the greatest periods in English history, later known as the Elizabethan Age. England not only became a leading maritime and commercial power but also enjoyed a major cultural and artistic renaissance, epitomized by the great dramatist William Shakespeare.       

        Religion in England had been unsettled since Henry VIII's break with the pope in 1533. Moderate Protestantism had been practiced under Henry, and more radical Protestant programs were implemented under Edward VI; but Mary had restored the Roman Catholic faith and papal jurisdiction to England. Elizabeth herself was a moderate Protestant. Her settlement again excluded papal authority, and it brought back the Book of Common Prayer, an English-language liturgy, but it did not recognize the demands of the more extreme Puritans. Pressure for further reform continued throughout Elizabeth's reign, but she resisted. The Puritans were eventually driven underground, to reappear in the early Stuart period.

        Since Elizabeth had no children and there were no other descendants of Henry VIII, the Tudor line was extinguished upon her death. Throughout her reign Elizabeth refused to designate a successor, but it is clear that she expected King James VI of Scotland to follow her. When Elizabeth died on Mar. 24, 1603, James, the son of Mary Queen of Scots but a Protestant, succeeded without incident as James I of England.

        In 1603, James became the first Stuart king of England, and he devoted himself almost entirely to English affairs thereafter. Although raised as a Presbyterian, he immediately antagonized the rising Puritan movement by rejecting a petition for reform of the Church of England at the Hampton Court Conference (1604).

        As we have seen, small numbers of English Puritans, known as Separatists, broke away from the Church of England because they felt that it had not completed the work of the Reformation. They wanted to purify the Church of England by eliminating every shred of Catholic influence. They committed themselves to a life based on the Bible. Most of these Separatists were farmers, poorly educated and without social or political standing. But not so of our ancestor William Brewster II, from Scrooby, Nottinghamshire. There is still much of importance about his life that is obscure, including his precise dates of birth and death. Various authorities put these between 1559-67 and sometime in April 1644, respectively.

        Elder Brewster, son of William Brewster I who was steward of the Archbishop of York’s manor of Scrooby, entered Peterhouse at Cambridge on 3 December 1580, but there is no record in the severely abbreviated Alumni Cantabrigiensis that he took a degree. Brewster was a contemporary at Cambridge of the dramatist Christopher Marlowe, who was at Corpus Christi, B.A. in 1583, and it is likely that he was at least acquainted with him. Both Brewster and Marlowe (Marlowe was killed in a London tavern in mysterious circumstances in 1593) were recruited as students for secret government agents be Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State William Cecil (1520-98), first Baron Burghley. Brewster was made assistant to Sir William Davidson and went with him on a mission to Holland in 1585. A promising public career was cut short, however, when Davidson was imprisoned after the execution of Mary Queen of Scotts in 1587, and Brewster was perhaps fortunate to be allowed to resign his post and return to Scrooby. There he was later appointed postmaster in succession to his father, who died in the spring of 1590.

        William Brewster, who may well have adopted his ‘radical’ views on religion, as so many of his contemporaries did, while at Cambridge. He became a leader of a group of these Separatists in the area of Scrooby included the young William Bradford, the future Governor of Plymouth colony, whose guardian Brewster became. Brewster was summoned for ‘religious contumacy’ (resistance to authority) before the High Court of Commission in 1607, but while attempting to escape secretly to Holland with a group of Separatists he was betrayed by the ship’s master and imprisoned for a time at Boston, Lincolnshire. After his release he, along with the Scrooby group, emigrated to Amsterdam, Holland in 1608. The next year they moved to Leiden (Leiden was the intellectual center of the Netherlands at that time, and the birthplace of several important Dutch painters such as Rembrandt and Jan Steen), where, enjoying full religious freedom, they remained for almost 12 years, supporting his family by setting up as a printer. About 125 members of the Scrooby Separatist congregation were there including two ministers, the Rev. Richard Clyfton and John Robinson, as well as William Bradford.

        In 1617, discouraged by economic difficulties, the pervasive Dutch influence on their children, and their inability to secure civil autonomy, the congregation voted to emigrate to America. Through the Brewster family's friendship with Sir Edwin Sandys, treasurer of the London Company, the congregation secured two patents authorizing them to settle in the northern part of the company's jurisdiction. Unable to finance the costs of the emigration with their own meager resources, they negotiated a financial agreement with Thomas Weston, a prominent London iron merchant. Fewer than half of the group's members elected to leave Leiden. A small ship, the Speedwell, carried them to Southampton, England, where they were to join another group of Separatists and pick up a second ship. After some delays and disputes, the voyagers regrouped at Plymouth aboard the 180-ton Mayflower. It began its historic voyage on Sept. 16, 1620, with about 102 passengers--fewer than half of them from Leiden.

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