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Puritans, pilgrims and parchment

Written by community archaeologist Alexis Haslam

We are coming up to the 402nd anniversary of the establishment of the Plymouth Colony in North America.

The Mayflower is recorded as arriving at Plymouth Rock on 21 November 1620. The pilgrims disembarked and had a good old pray, after a most unpleasant journey across the Atlantic in horribly overcrowded conditions, fierce storms and plenty of seasickness! This is well recorded in the history books, but what relevance does this event have to Fulham Palace, and why on earth am I writing a blog about it? This is actually a most confusing topic and one that the Bishops of London spent many ponderous moments attempting to resolve themselves. So, I’ll try and keep this as simple as possible.

By 1660 it was established that the Anglican (Church of England) clergy overseas, whether in colonial territories or foreign countries, were directly responsible to the Bishop of London. There is no clear explanation of why this was the case, with many Bishops simply accepting the fact. Others questioned a role that they felt they had very little control over. Bishop Sherlock (1748-61) certainly wasn’t happy about it, and Gibson (1723-48), an individual well versed in ecclesiastical law, tried in vain to discover the rationale behind his colonial responsibility. The best he could come up with was that it had something to do with Charles II. Although several of the colonies themselves understood that it was William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury (1633-45) who had passed the responsibility on. Further research suggests that the mercantile and expansive London Guilds, heavily involved with the settlement of the colonies (and trading activity, including of course the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans), may have been the reason for the Bishop’s involvement as they fell within his diocese.

In early America, as in many of the new colonies, Anglican Christianity was the sole lawful religion, yet establishing episcopal supervision was a persistent problem. On the 24th of May 1607, the London Company (officially the Virginia Company of London) founded the first enduring plantation on the James River in Virginia. Known as Jamestown, this settlement followed an English model complete with churches and vestries.

The situation in Plymouth was quite different. Amongst the pioneers was a group of Puritans led by William Bradford. Along with others of a similar religious belief, Bradford had left England for Amsterdam in 1608 before later settling in Leiden. The Dutch Republic was well known for its religious tolerance. The circumstances in England were most unfavourable towards this new form of Protestantism, with the High Church of Charles I and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Laud, at odds with the newly emerging faith. The collapse in the cloth trade also economically impacted a large proportion of the population. However, concerned by the influence of Dutch customs and language on their children, Bradford and his emigrant congregation decided to establish their own colony in America. They gained initial permission from the Company of Merchant Adventurers to settle in north Virginia, however, a storm on arrival forced them to settle in Plymouth.

Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1899 image credit Wikipedia

However, new settlements such as those at Plymouth were beginning to cause concern within the English Church. Archbishop Laud started to realise that the emigration of non-conformists and dissenters to the colonies, and the establishment of their own settlements, would leave them free to teach and preach their own doctrine unimpeded. For that reason, a Royal Proclamation was arranged which prevented emigrants from sailing to the colonies without a sworn testimony of religious conformity to the Church of England.

This was the situation during the first half of the 17th century. Although it’s clear that the Bishop of London was involved in some of this decision-making, what else is there that connects Fulham Palace to Plymouth Rock? A most significant manuscript entitled ‘Of Plimoth Plantation’ is the document that binds these two places together. This journal was composed between 1630 and 1651 and describes the Pilgrims’ story: from their arrival in the Dutch Republic in 1608; their journey to a new home on the mayflower; and the establishment of the Plymouth Colony. It was written by William Bradford who would eventually become the Governor of the Colony and included a list of the Mayflower passengers and what happened to them next.

The journal now resides in the State Library of Massachusetts, but for many years it was housed within the library at Fulham Palace. The reasons behind the arrival of this text at Fulham are unclear. It is understood to have been handed to Reverend T. Prince to deposit within the New England Library in 1728. At some point the journal went missing, and there has been much speculation regarding how it ended up in England. It may have been removed from the library during the American Revolution (1765-91) when Boston was evacuated in 1776. Or it may have been taken by Thomas Hutchinson, the last Royal Governor of Massachusetts, prior to the outbreak of the war. Alternatively, it was later suggested that it had been purchased by Bishop Porteus as part of his library collection, presumably after its removal from America.

Mayflower Compact document. Image credit Massachusetts State Archives.

The disappearance of the journal was certainly a mystery. But in 1855 the Reverend J. S. Barry noticed similarities in passages between Samuel Wilberforce’s ‘A History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America’ (1844) and citations made by Reverend Prince from the original journal. This led to the ‘Plimoth’ document being re-discovered within the Fulham Palace library. Bishop Blomfield subsequently allowed a transcription to be made which was paid for by the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1856. Although, this wasn’t quite the same thing as having the original document, with suggestions made that it should be returned to its homeland.  Requests were made for its return in 1855 and again in 1867 when the Prime Minister and Lord Stanley wrote to Bishop Tait questioning whether it should be handed back. However, Tait seems to have disagreed, as did Bishop Jackson in 1877, when yet another request for its return was evidently turned down.

Senator George Hoar wrote to request access to the journal during Bishop Mandell Creighton’s tenure (1897-1901) and received a more positive response. This was followed by further requests to Creighton from numerous American historical societies to return the document.  In 1897 the American Ambassador to Great Britain wrote to Creighton stating that the Secretary of State of the United States had personally asked him to bring the matter to the Bishop’s attention. In response, Creighton summoned a Consistory Court (a type of ecclesiastical court) to discuss the matter on the 25th of March 1897, and it was agreed that ‘Of Plimoth Plantation’ should be returned to its rightful home. It was delivered to Massachusetts on the 26th of May 1897, with Fulham Palace taking part in what must have been quite an early example of museum repatriation!


Learn more about the long and layered history of the Palace on a guided tour!