The Suffolk man who helped establish America

Puritan settler John Winthrop came from Suffolk 

Puritan settler John Winthrop came from Suffolk - Credit: Bill Baldry/stocksnapper

When we think of America and its early history, the first thing that tends to spring to mind is the Mayflower – the ship that saw families leave England for the New World in 1620.  

These Puritans departed the shores of Plymouth, Devon in the 17th century in search of religious freedom, away from the Church of England which they felt was corrupt and oppressive.  

Arriving in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, this group established the first colony in America. 

But unbeknownst to many, a man from right here in Suffolk spearheaded a follow-up journey – and created the second major settlement in New England following the Plymouth Colony.  

The first pilgrims settled in Plymouth Rock - John and his cohort followed just a decade later

The first pilgrims settled in Plymouth Rock - John and his cohort followed just a decade later - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Edwardstone native John Winthrop was key in founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony – a Puritan settlement established by the owners of the Massachusetts Bay Company. 

But who was John, and why did he leave England behind?  

John Winthrop was born on January 12, 1588 to parents Adam and Anne.  

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“A member of the gentry, John was born at Groton Manor, an estate which also owned land in Kersey,” explain Yvonne Martin, historian and author of ‘Kersey: Through The Centuries’.  

Local historian and author of ‘Kersey: Through The Centuries’ Yvonne Martin

Local historian and author of ‘Kersey: Through The Centuries’ Yvonne Martin, who briefly covers John's early life here in Suffolk - Credit: Charlotte Bond

“His family, merchants as well as landowners, had purchased the estate from Henry VIII and the manor was passed on to him in 1613.” 

John’s father became a director at Cambridge’s Trinity College, and in December 1602 John began studying there.  

“Although he initially led the life of a country squire, he was very religious after his studies at Trinity College and eventually became a committed Puritan,” adds Yvonne.  

Puritans are those who follow Puritanism - a religious reform movement that began in the late 16th century. Puritans believed the Church of England was too similar to Roman Catholicism in terms of practices, and should become more Protestant.  

It was his strong puritanical beliefs that would eventually lead him on a voyage across the Atlantic.  

John Winthrop

John Winthrop - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“He opposed the imposition of High Church conformity by Charles I and was prepared to travel 3,000 miles to the New World to establish a colony where the settlers would be free to worship as they wished and would be encouraged to lead godly lives,” explains Nick Sign, honorary editor of the Suffolk Local History Council’s journal Suffolk Review. 

Before Winthrop made his way to the New World however, he married his first wife Mary Forth in 1605 after meeting her a year prior. The couple had five children together – one of whom, John Winthrop the Younger, became of great importance when he grew up. We’ll get to that later.  

John and Mary spent their early married years at Forth’s family manor in Great Stambridge in Essex until 1613 when John became Lord of the Manor at his family’s Groton estate.  

Life on the estate saw John oversee the house and its sprawling grounds, and at around the same time, he enrolled at Gray’s Inn in London to read law.  

He divided his time between Suffolk and London, working as an attorney in the court of wards and liveries on the city and county commission of the peace in Suffolk.  

But sadly, tragedy struck when Mary passed away in 1615. Shortly after, John married Thomasine Clopton but she died just a year after their marriage due to complications from childbirth.  

By 1630, John was married to his third wife, Margaret Tyndal, and was the father to eight children.  

While his 515-acre manor was valued at around £5,760 and produced an annual income of £430, Winthrop was still in debt, according to ‘The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649'.  

“In the late 1620s, affected financially by the slump in income from the land and denied a position at Charles I’s court due to his puritanism, he took the enormous step of obtaining a royal charter to set up a colony in New England,” explains Yvonne. 

And in 1629, Winthrop, alongside Robert Sampson of Kersey, William Clarke from Semer, and Justinian and Richard Holden from Lindsey set up the Massachusetts Bay Company.  

A depiction of pilgrim fathers leaving England for the New World

A depiction of pilgrim fathers leaving England for the New World - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

On August 26 that year, Winthrop signed the Cambridge Agreement in which he pledged with 11 other Puritan gentlemen to move with his family if the seat of the company's government and its charter were also transferred to America.  

The shareholders accepted this plan, and Winthrop was elected as governor on October 20.  

“He brought a total of almost 1,000 immigrants to the USA,” explains Yvonne.  

Winthrop departed from the Isle of Wight and set sail across the Atlantic in the spring of 1630 aboard the Arbella. 

While he was on the ship, he is reputed to have given his now-famous ‘A Model of Christian Charity’ sermon, in which he outlines his reasons leaving England behind and how the settlers were going to create a new community built on Puritan values. Within it, he stated: “we must love one another with a pure heart fervently.” 

Winthrop believed he, along with the other colonists, were divinely ordained to build ‘A City on a Hill’ - a phrase which has since been referenced by the likes of former US presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. The phrase, and Winthrop’s speech, have since been linked to American exceptionalism – the idea that America sets an example for the rest of the world, and is unlike any other country.  

After eight gruelling weeks at sea, Winthrop and his fleet finally arrived in Salem on June 12, 1630.  

They were welcomed by fellow settler John Endecott before soon setting off to find an area suitable for the remaining arrivals who were due over the coming months.  

The colonialists first settled in what is now modern-day Charlestown before splitting up and founding colonies along the coast and the Charles River. Today, these settlements have since grown to become Charlestown (which became the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first capital), Boston, Cambridge, Roxbury, Dorchester, Watertown, and Medford. 

The Massachusetts Bay Colony covered land north of the Plymouth Colony, mainly around Salem and Boston.  

In the subsequent 10 years after Winthrop’s arrival, around 20,000 Puritans made the same fateful voyage across the Atlantic to Massachusetts – with many setting up their own colonies including Thomas Hooker’s Connecticut Colony, and Roger Williams’ the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence.  

Serving various terms, Winthrop was the 2nd, 6th, 9th, and 12th Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for a total of 12 years during its first 20 years of existence.  

“By striving toward what he saw as a radically better world while insisting on moderate and traditional measures to progress toward that goal, he helped to prevent his colony from being blown off course by the winds of extremism and from being wrecked on the rocks of fanaticism,” says historian and author Francis J. Bremer in his 2003 book, ‘John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father’. 

“He envisioned a City on a Hill that would inspire others, but his vision was rooted in traditional forms and patterns of the England in which he had been raised. Zealous, but not a zealot, he strove to always include as many people as possible in his journey toward a better world, and to teach them to love one another. Perhaps no better tribute can be paid that that which came from one of those banished from Massachusetts – Roger William’s judgement that he was a ‘counsellor of peace’.” 

Winthrop passed away on March 26, 1649, at the age of 61. He was survived by his fourth wife, Martha, and five sons, one of whom – John Winthrop the Younger – went on to become a magistrate and governor of the Connecticut Colony.  

“Winthrop can be seen as both a visionary utopian and a social reactionary but his aim was probably to encourage both group discipline and individual responsibility in the colonists. The way he set up the government of Massachusetts was a useful blueprint for later foundations,” adds Nick Sign. 

“Finally, his journal and papers, including memoranda and correspondence, are an invaluable record of the early years of the New England colonies.”