Becoming Separatists and risking all

“But after these things they could not long continue in any peaceable condition, but were hunted & persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken & clapped up in prison, others had their houses beset & watched night and day, & hardly escaped their hands; and the most were fain to flee & leave their houses & habitations, and the means of their livelihood.”

This is how William Bradford, Pilgrim chronicler and Plymouth colony Governor, recollected the plight the Separatists had faced in England before they fled to Holland.

Last week we explored what a Separatist was – this week, we’ll consider their decision to go against the Church and the State which led to their persecution.

Disagreeing with the Church in the 1500s and early 1600s meant you were actually disagreeing with the King (or Queen) as head of State and head of the Church too. And this was a dangerous thing to do.

This was before the English Civil War, which is when the absolute power of the monarch (which they thought came from God) was questioned and ultimately resulted in the execution of the King, Charles I. When the monarchy was restored the power of the King would never again be so absolute.

The Separatists had many reasons for rejecting the Church – they didn’t agree with some of the ritual for example, and they objected to the authority of the Bishops and the hierarchy within the Church. They believed instead that a church should be managed by its own congregation – by the people who attended it each week.

People’s social and personal lives though were effectively managed by the laws created and upheld by the Church and its courts. So, if you didn’t attend church (and you had to go to your local one rather than choose which one), you could be fined. Before the Separatists actually stopped attending church, they had been taken to court themselves many times for going to other churches or preaching illegally – only the ordained priests could do this.

What’s interesting about the Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire Separatists is that they managed to meet together and develop plans without getting into severe trouble. Had they lived in a city, perhaps they wouldn’t have got away with it quite as much. As Bradford notes though, they still faced increasing amounts of persecution even in this rural situation.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Church courts and the types of offences they prosecuted, the University of Nottingham’s Presentment Bills project sets these out and provides a searchable database.

If you want to understand more about why religious dissent emerged in Nottinghamshire at this time, you might be interested in reading Stuart B. Jennings PhD thesis on the subject: The Gathering of the Elect: the development, nature and social-economic structures of Protestant religious dissent in seventeenth century Nottinghamshire.

Next week: Faith – what did the Pilgrims believe and how did this motivate them?

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