August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
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
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.
Only in the matter of dress does there seem to have been difficulty in Margaret’s change to Groton, the house that John’s grandfather had bought and which she now called home. Set on a rise overlooking the five hundred acres of the estate and, in the distance, the River Box and the neighboring village of Boxford, Groton Manor was not opulent. But its hall and great parlor, its many chambers, its pantry, buttery, bakehouse, and brewing house were ample. So too were the produce of the garden that fed the family, and the income of the dependent farms, part from crops and part from the rent of tenants, which when combined with John’s income as a lawyer gave them some eighty pounds a year. Within a few years, as John advanced in his profession and inherited the remainder of his father’s estate, his income was to climb to seven hundred pounds.
At Chelmshey, children and guests had filled the house, their care and comfort being the province of Margaret and her mother. Now there was the same flurry at Groton, where Margaret found herself the mother of four children by John’s first wife: John, Jr., Henry, Forth, and Mary. She herself was to bear John eight of her own: Stephen within a year, Adam, Deane, and Samuel; four others died in infancy. Nine servants or more; her mother-in-law, Anne; and John’s unmarried sister, Lucy, lived in the house, too. And there was John’s father, Adam, he who welcomed her to the family as “gentle mistress Margaret” and who wrote gay doggerel to her:
The sweetness of your love Which I did lately taste, Doth make me to affect the same, Even with a mind most chaste For though my youth be past And head is clad with gray, Yet in your love I do rejoice As do the birds in May.
But if the house was crowded with relatives and visitors—the Winthrop clan was large, and Puritan “brothers” and “sisters” were always welcome—it was all too often empty for the bride. As a lawyer, John’s work took him regularly to London, leaving Margaret busy but lonely at Groton. Letters passing between the two give a portrait that belies the coldness usually attributed to the Puritans.
Mundane matters take up much of these letters. There are the errands that John must do for her in London, clothes he must buy, tobacco that his mother wants him to bring back for her. There is the “turkey and two capons and a cheese” that Margaret is always sending to him, the family greetings that must be passed on, the pipe that John is giving up, the caution against “taking cold.” There are sick servants and sick children to report. There is coy confession, a trip Margaret takes without John’s knowledge or permission: “Thou seest how bold I am to take leave to go abroad in thy absence, but I presume upon thy love and consent, or else I would not do it.” ∗ There is talk of the wayward son, Henry. There are religious exhortations from John, too, and once Margaret responds: “Those serious thoughts of your own which you sent me did make a very good supply instead of a sermon.” But above all, these are love letters: My good husband, your love to me doth daily give me cause of comfort, and doth much increase my love to you, for love liveth by love. I were worse than a brute beast if I should not love and be faithful to thee who hath deserved so well at my hands. I am ashamed and grieved with myself that I have nothing within or without worthy of thee, and yet it pleaseth thee to except of both and to rest contented. …
∗The previous quotations from Margaret Winthrop’s letters to her husband in London have been reproduced with the original spellings and punctuation unchanged. In this one and those following, they have been modernized: the vagaries of seventeenth-century orthography often obscure the meaning. — Editor
I am much indebted to you for your loving and long letters that I must needs write a word or two to show my thankfulness and kind acceptance of them, although I can do nothing to equal them or to requite your love; and so I think I had better do a little than not at all, that I may show my willingness to do it though I am ashamed I can do no better. …
What can be more pleasing to a wife, than to hear of the welfare of her best beloved, and how he is pleased with her poor endeavors. I blush to hear myself commended, knowing my own wants; but it is your love that conceives the best and makes all things seem better than they are. I wish that I may be always pleasing to thee, and that those comforts we have in each other may be daily increased as far as they be pleasing to God. I will use that speech to thee that Abigail did to David: I will be a servant to wash the feet of my Lord; I will do any service wherein I may please my good husband. I confess I cannot do enough for thee, but thou art pleased to accept the will for the deed and rest contented.
Your loving and obedient wife
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.”
Whatever joy Margaret had in this promise was doomed to quick disappointment, however, for the loss of his position freed John for the project of planting a Puritan refuge—the “hiding place” he had written of earlier—in the New World. Not only would this entail a separation of more than a year, but eventually Margaret would have to give up Groton and sail overseas herself. John seems to have asked her if she would do this, and though the reply is missing, she undoubtedly answered in biblical terms: “Whither thou goest, I will go.” “My comfort,” he wrote her, “is that thou art willing to be my companion in what place or condition soever, in weal or woe.” John sent her pamphlets and letters describing New England, which she read and “rejoiced” in. She had no misgivings about the project, she told him, but in his letters John seemed to. “Cheer up thy heart in expectation of God’s goodness to us,” she wrote; “Let nothing dismay or discourage thee. If the Lord be with us, who can be against us?”
Events moved fast. The decision for New England made, John made contact with a group of Puritans who would sail with him. Within weeks of the loss of his court position in June of 1629, he was in conference with the emigrating group; within four months he was named governor of the company, which was to depart in the spring of 1630; within a year—after feverish months of gathering ships, settlers, supplies, and equipment—he sailed. To Margaret he wrote in good-by: And now (my sweet soul) I must once again take my last farewell of thee in old England. It goeth very near to my heart to leave thee, but I know to whom I have committed thee, even to Him who loves thee much better than any husband can.
On his last visit to Groton before sailing, he and Margaret had arranged to set aside a time each week when, if they could not write, they could think of each other. Now he reminded her: When I shall be at some leisure, I shall not avoid the remembrance of thee, nor the grief for thy absence. Thou hast thy share with me, but I hope the course we have agreed upon will be some ease to us both. Mondays and Fridays, at five of the clock at night, we shall meet in spirit, till we meet in person. …
Only the younger children remained at Groton with Margaret as she waited—pregnant again and troubled by tenants who, with the master gone and depression abroad, were recalcitrant about the rents—for word from America. John’s voyage to Massachusetts Bay would take three months, she might have figured; the return of a ship, another three. She could not expect a letter for half a year.
As she waited, thirty-nine now and no longer young, she spent her time preparing to leave Groton where she had been a bride and the east country of England where she had been a girl. Undoubtedly she met John “in spirit” each Monday and Friday. Undoubtedly, too, she read and reread the pamphlets on New England John had left her. Certainly she lacked nothing, for John had given her brother, Deane Tyndal, fifteen hundred pounds to be invested should anything happen to him. Then, finally, a letter came, bringing news welcome and unwelcome. John himself was well and happy, the New World countryside was better than they had expected, but Henry—"my son Henry, my son Henry, ah, poor childl"—had drowned. Other news came, some telling of hardships, hunger, and disease during the first winter in Massachusetts. But from John: “Be not discouraged (my dear wife) by anything thou shall hear from hence, for I see no cause to repent our coming hither.” Margaret must join him soon, he wrote, and the greater part of his letters detailed the supplies and equipment that she should bring with her: “Two or three skillets of several sizes, and a large frying pan … store of linen for use at sea, and sack to bestow among the sailors; some drinking vessels, and pewter … And for phisick you shall need no other but a pound of Doctor Wright’s Electuarium Lenitium , and his direction to use it.”
With John’s letters to encourage and guide her, Margaret hurried preparations for her own departure, urging her stepson, John, Jr., to make haste in selling Groton Manor and arranging passage. “My heart and thoughts are there already,” she wrote to him from London. “I want but means to carry my body after them.” Her brother advised her to wait awhile, but as she wrote young John, “I hope to break through that, and get his good will. … Therefore, my good son, let me intreat thee to take order for our going as soon as thou canst.” Brother Deane was won over—who could refuse Margaret?—and in the summer of 1631 she sailed on the ship Lyon . With her went John, Jr., his family, and the other children, including the daughter John had never seen and never would. The new baby, Anne, died, and was buried at sea. In November, the ship entered Massachusetts Bay, and Margaret’s arrival set off a celebration. Squire John had fallen in love with the paraphernalia of power, and now he spread them before his beloved wife. As Margaret was rowed ashore, the harbor reverberated with a “six or seven gun” salute from ships lying at anchor. On the beach the infant colony’s military might, “the captains with their companions in arms,” volleyed and paraded past. Feasting followed—”fat hogs, kid, venison, poultry, geese, partridges"—and her husband, the governor, proclaimed November 11 a day of thanksgiving—for the harvest, the prosperity of the colony, and his wife’s arrival.
The Boston that Margaret came to was but a poor, straggling settlement set on a rolling, grass-covered peninsula jutting out into Massachusetts Bay. Its houses were for the most part wigwamlike huts of thatch, linked together by winding footpaths. Anticipating Margaret’s arrival, John had hurried the construction of a frame house, but it was probably unfinished when she landed—Governor William Bradford of nearby Plymouth Colony, their first guest, stayed aboard a ship in the bay. In the early i64o’s they would move into another house, one with six rooms, elaborate for a wilderness. The craftsmanship was of the crudest, and all Margaret’s womanliness was needed to make the bare walls a home. Even so, the house was plain and sparsely furnished, the hall (or living room) never boasting more than a cupboard, six chairs, a table, a white notions box, a case of bottles (wine from Madeira was commonly drunk in the family), pewter and tin plates, candlestands, snuffers, and here and there a piece of bric-a-brac, remembrances of Groton. John’s “study” with its books and writing materials—where every day, in the words of a contemporary, he wrote “particular passages of the country in a great book” (his journal History of New England ) —did duty as workshop and armory too. Yet for Margaret, John was there, John who had written during their separation: “Oh, how it refresheth my heart to think that I shall yet again see thy sweet face in the land of the living; that lovely countenance that I have so much delighted in and beheld with so great content.”
If it straggled in 1631, Boston and the colony grew quickly. During the first ten years some fifteen thousand people landed at Boston and spread out to settle as far as the Merrimack River in the northeast and the Connecticut in the southwest. Boston itself boasted well over one thousand people by 1640. Paths became streets; a new meetinghouse was built, and a market; substantial frame houses—John Coddington built the first brick house—each set in its own garden plot, gave the settlement the look of a village, then a town. One center of life was the church, and every Sabbath a bell called the Winthrops and their neighbors to prayer and preaching. The other center was Margaret’s house, for during most of his life in Massachusetts John served as governor. During regular sessions of the General Court, Massachusetts’ legislature, liveried militiamen formed a governor’s guard at the house; leading freemen and deputies crowded the “hall” and spilled over into the side parlor, which did double duty as bedroom for the master and mistress. Even between sessions the house was host to the great and near-great of the colony and the Puritan world outside—John Cotton, Sir Harry Vane, Roger Williams, Hugh Peter, Bradford of Plymouth, Thomas Hooker of Connecticut, Saltonstalls, Bradstreets, Dudleys, big and bluff John Endecott. This constant flurry of visitors, at least, was familiar to Margaret from Groton Manor.
She had much to learn and unlearn now. Even Thomas Tusser’s Huswiferie hints would have failed her, for Tusser and England knew nothing of the Indian corn that replaced wheat as a staple food; nothing of cooking without an abundance of expensive spices; nothing of silk grass, which replaced hemp and flax for the first few years, or of milkweed, which supplied candlewicks and filled pillows and bolsters. Yet Margaret had help in adapting to her new surroundings; some of the Groton servants had come over with John and gained a year’s experience which they passed on to their mistress. And if there were differences, there were many similarities between life in America and life in England. Unlike later American frontiers, this first one relied heavily on what it could buy from “home.” Margaret’s clothes, her linens, her “best” candles, her utensils; John’s books and swords and guns and tools; the equipment and livestock for the farms surrounding the town—all were brought in by ship. The colony was a “little England,” somewhat coarser and much simplified.
In Massachusetts, John was regularly at home, and this was a difference between the colony and Groton that Margaret found most pleasant. As governor or magistrate, John was ever busy with the daily business of government—to the neglect of his own affairs and the resultant diminution of his once-substantial income—and he was often perplexed by the sharp controversies that constantly broke out in the Puritan commonwealth. But at night he would come home to Margaret, to his books, and to his carpenter’s benchhe had turned out to be a quite respectable carpenter. Only occasionally did he have to travel, and then it was within the comparatively narrow confines of the colony. Few letters of the last years remain. Probably few were written, there being no postal system and not many travelers to carry a hurried note from Ipswich or Salem to Boston and Margaret: My sweet wife: … I praise God I am well. The Lord bless thee and all ours. So I kiss thee a second time. Farewell. …
I was unwillingly hindered from coming to thee, nor am I like to see thee before the last day of this week. … The Lord bless and keep thee, my sweet wife, and all our family, and send us a comfortable meeting. So I kiss thee and love thee ever. …
I am still detained from thee, but it is by the Lord who hath a greater interest in me than thyself. When this work is done He will restore me to thee again, to our mutual comfort, Amen. I thank thee for thy sweet letter; my heart was with thee to have written to thee every day, but business would not permit me. …
And one from Margaret, dated 1637 and bearing a mark of sadness engendered by a religious schism which was then dividing the colony into two bitter and irreconcilable groups: Dear in my thoughts, I blush to think how much I have neglected the opportunity of presenting my love to you. Sad thoughts possess my spirits, and I cannot repulse them, which makes me unfit for anything, wondering what the Lord means by all these troubles among us. …
Again the years pass. In 1640 John was fifty-two, Margaret forty-nine, old age for that era. Past troubles subsided—recalcitrant Indians were destroyed in war; the religious schismatics were expelled—and new ones arose. In the early i64o’s, the colony was threatened by French invasion; controversy arose with the Dutch at New Netherlands; Puritan revolt broke out in England, and many Massachusetts leaders returned to fight in the war that followed, some to vote for the decapitation of Charles I. Even John thought of returning, but decided his work lay in New England. In 1645 a quarrel within Massachusetts saw John impeached but then acquitted. Children died, including all of Margaret’s stepchildren but young John. The four of her own who had grown to manhood remained, though: Stephen, who was to sit in Cromwell’s Parliament; Adam; Deane; and Samuel, who later became governor of Antigua in the West Indies. And despite tribulation in the colony, the Puritan commonwealth was, to Margaret, a sanctuary: “When I think of the troublesome times and manifold distractions …” she wrote to John, Jr., who was in England at the time, “I think we do not prize our happiness here as we have cause, that we should be in peace when so many troubles are in most places of the world. I wish we were more sensible of the calamities of others …”
In the summer of 1647, as John began his eleventh term as governor of the colony, an “epidemical sickness” broke out among the Indians and spread to the settlers. Forty died, and one of them was Margaret, who came down with the sickness on the afternoon of June 13 and was dead the next morning. The husband she had bolstered, cheered, and loved mourned her but went quietly about his work as governor—a new Indian crisis was impending. In his journal he noted only that she “left this world for a better, being about fifty-six years of age, a woman of singular virtue, prudence, modesty, and piety, and specially beloved and honored of all the country.” The following year, the loneliness unbearable, he married again, taking to wife Mistress Martha Coytemore, a widow. Less than a year later—on March 26, 1649—he too died.
Long before, as they had parted, one to travel to Massachusetts and the other to wait at Groton, John had written to Margaret of their eventual reunion: “Yet, if all these hopes should fail, blessed be our God that we are assured we shall meet one day, if not as husband and wife, yet in a better condition. Let that stay and comfort thy heart.”