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“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
In London, or on occasional trips elsewhere, John read her letters, and, as he had done in the days of their courtship when he wrote “to my best beloved, Mistress Margaret Tyndal,” he answered in kind: And now, my sweet love, let me a while solace myself in the remembrance of our love, of which this springtime of our acquaintance can put forth as yet no more but the leaves and blossoms whilst the fruit lies wrapped up in the tender bud of hope. … Let it be our care and labor to preserve these hopeful buds from the beasts of the field, and from frosts and other injuries of the air, lest our fruit fall off ere it be ripe, or lose aught in the beauty and pleasantness of it. …
I must intreat thy gentle patience until this business be dispatched, which I hope will be betimes the next week. In the meantime, thou art well persuaded that my heart is with thee, as (I know) thine is with him to whom thou has given thyself, a faithful and loving yokel. …
I thank thee for thy kind letters, but I know not what to say for myself. I should mend and grow a better husband, having the help and example of so good a wife, but I grow still worse. …
Thou mayest marvel that thou had no letter from me … but I know thou wilt not impute it to any decay of love or neglect of thee, who art more precious to me than any other thing in this world.
Thy frail yet faithful husband.
During the dozen years the couple lived in England there was no diminishment. Taking a moment here and there—she from her housework, he usually late at night—the two wrote often and ardently. When John fell ill in London and told Margaret to stay at Groton, she disregarded his words about the difficulty of winter travel and went to him. John hurt his hand, and Margaret wrote in sympathy: “I will not look for any long letters this term because I pity your poor hand. If I had it here 1 would make more of it than ever I did, and bind it up very softly for fear of hurting it.” Writing on a fourteenth of February, John scrawled a postscript: “Thou must be my valentine, for none hath challenged me.”
Only occasionally did John mention contemporary happenings in his letters, and then in bare, stark terms: “Two or three Londoners committed about the loan"; “News from Bohemia is very bad"; “The gentlemen who were in prison are like to be delivered.” But behind these few comments is the history of a decade of turbulence both in England and on the Continent. In Europe, ablaze with the Thirty Years’ War, Protestantism seemed to be crumbling before the Catholic Counter Reformation. Cardinal Richelieu, in France, had besieged and conquered the Huguenot stronghold at La Rochelle; in Protestant Germany, Wallenstein was cutting his bloody swath in the name of Catholicism. And in England there was growing tenseness between Puritans and emerging Anglicanism, between Parliament and King. Religion and politics had become hopelessly intertwined as Charles I insisted on religious conformity and parliamentary subservience, while Puritans sought a strong Parliament as protection for their religious views. In March of 1629 a crisis was reached when Parliament decreed that supporters of the royal prerogative and the High Church were enemies of the realm. Charles retaliated in a climactic and violent scene, closing Parliament and trundling its Puritan leaders off to the Tower of London.
To John Winthrop—made vaguely discontented throughout the preceding decade by what he considered a religiously “desolate” country, by a Catholic queen, by the genuflection and high altar of the Anglican Church, by the corruption and immorality of the Stuart kings—the closing of Parliament seemed disastrous. Combined with the rise to power of Bishop William Laud, archexponent of the High Church, and a wave of anti-Puritan persecution, it portended the subjugation of Puritanism in England, perhaps even England’s return to Catholicism and a repetition of the bloodletting of La Rochelle and Germany.
From London during the feverish days that followed the closing of Parliament, John unburdened himself to Margaret. We can almost hear his panic when, in May, 1629, he wrote to her condemning his own past complacency and passiveness in “these so evil and declining times” and expressing dread for the future. The Protestant churches of Europe had been “smitten,” he wrote; the Lord had made them to drink of the bitter cup of tribulation, even unto death; we saw this, and humbled not ourselves to turn from our evil ways, but hath provoked Him more than all the nations around us. Therefore He is turning the cup toward us also, and because we are the last, our portion must be to drink the very dregs which remain. My dear wife, I am verily persuaded God will bring some heavy affliction upon this land, and that speedily.
His composure had slipped for a moment but had not been lost. In the same letter John could assure Margaret that in the catastrophe which seemed so imminent, “He will provide a shelter and a hiding place for us and ours, as a Zoar for Lott.” And when, during the surge of Puritan persecution, John lost his position with the Court of Wards and Liveries which had taken him so often to London, he could offer her consolation in the fact that, as he wrote, “I shall not wrong thee so much with my absence as I have done.”