“my Beloved And Good Husband…”
Thus Margaret Winthrop to her spouse, the governor of the Bay Colony. Her letters—and John’s in reply—reveal behind the cold Puritan exterior a warm and deeply touching relationship
August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
I have many resons to make me love thee whereof I will name two,” Margaret Winthrop once wrote her husband. “First because thou lovest God, and secondly because that thou lovest me. If these two were wantinge all the rest would be eclipsed.”
The year was 1627, nine years after the marriage of John and Margaret Winthrop, three years before John was to lead the first major wave of Puritan migration to Massachusetts Bay in the New World, and more than four years before Margaret was to leave the comforts and relative riches of an English manor house to follow her husband to the wilds of America. In England in that year of 1627, King Charles 1 was fighting Parliament tooth and nail, levying a “forced loan” to circumvent Parliament’s self-asserted right to the exclusive establishment of taxes and imprisoning landholders who refused to “lend” the monarch what he wanted. The Puritan revolt—half religious, half parliamentary—which would end in regicide and Oliver Cromwell, was in the making. Puritan men were being branded as “illiterate, morose, melancholy, discontented, craied"; the Puritan woman was being lampooned in a popular book of the clay as “a she-precise hypocrite” who “overflows so with the Bible that she spills it upon every occasion, and will not cudgel her maids without Scripture.” John Winthrop, on business in London, surrounded by heated partisanship, could find relief in the quiet words of home and love: “But I must leave this discourse anil go about my household affayres. I am a bad huswife to be so longe from them; but I must needs borowe a little lime to talke with thee my sweet harte.”
Except that she was John Winthrop’s wife, history knows liltle of Margaret. Before their marriage, John was a dour, morbid, introspective, and hyperintense Puritan, converted to his ways by his first wife, made desolate by the death of his second after only a year of marriage. Afterward, in England and as governor of Puritan Massachusetts, he was gentle, considerate, kind, and even liberal in his dealings with the nonPuritan world. Margaret has been given credit for the transformation. But no portrait of her exists, no description other than John’s sometime comments on her as “a very gracious woman” of “sweet face” and “lovely countenance” surrounded by “sweet and smiling” children.
We do know that she was born in 1591 at Chelmshey House, Great Maplestead, not far from the Winthrop family home, Groton, in Suffolk. Her father was Sir John Tyndal, knight and judge of chancery court. There, in a farm-and-gentry environment much like that in which John was raised, Margaret learned her letters, undoubtedly from her mother, Anne, who introduced her to the complexities of running a seventeenth-century household, perhaps even reading to her the poetic proscriptions of neighbor Thomas Tusser’s Boohe of Huswiferie:
Though cat (a good mouser) doth dwell in the house yet ever in dairy have trap for n mouse. Take heed how thon lay est the bane for the rats for poisoning of senrvant, thyself and thy brats. Though scouring be needful, yet scouring too much is pride without profit and robbcth thine hutch. The woman the name of a huswife doth win, by keeping her house, and of doings therein; And she that with husband will quietly dwell must think in this lesson, and follow it well.
From child, to girl, to woman. At twenty-six, tragedy struck Margaret when her lather was murdered by a disappointed litigant. But on May 17, 1617, John Winthrop, tall and bearded, with piercing eyes and a wistful expression, looking younger than his twenty-nine years, came calling for the first time, riding down from Groton to pay his respects and charm the daughter of the house. Where the two had met, or if they had met at all before this visit, is unknown. What is certain is that John began courting her a bare five months after the death of his second wife. On April a.j, i(ii8, after Margaret had overcome the scruples of her family, who thought him not well enough oft to support her, John took her home to Groton as his wife.
A bride at twenty-seven—old for an east-country girl to be just married—Margaret was bright and sparkling, vivacious; willful, but retiring too, as befitted a country daughter and wife of that time; apparently Puritan but not nearly as religious-minded as her husband. An overfondness for clothes, for doodads and spangles, had brought a sharp warning from John in one of two letters surviving from the courtship. Putting the blame not on her but on relatives “savouring too much of the flesh,” John had taken [Jains to point out that “ornaments which for virgins and knights’ daughters, et cetera may be comely” hardly suited a Puritan wife. Pert Margaret complied and dressed from then on in blacks and grays and olive greens. But as a husband, John found himself buying an inordinate number of dresses, gowns, petticoats, and velvet capes.