Usher on William Brewster

Graham Robbins

For the most part Roland Usher's 1918 book The Pilgrims and Their History runs through the standard story of William Brewster and the origins of the Separatist church of Scrooby. But there are some aspects of Usher's narrative which are distinctive and fresh.

Usher's Portrayal of Scrooby's Early Seventeenth Century Landscape and Community

Usher emphasises the inconsequential status of the region and the ordinary, even rough, character of the landscape. Scrooby villagers were 'simple farmers, tilling the open fields of an old hunting park, between moors and fens alive with game' (1). Scrooby 'was not in 1606 and indeed never had been since the Norman Conquest an agricultural or industrial district in any proper sense of the word. It was in fact a hunting lodge, located upon a tongue of fenny land, thrown out in the midst of the moors, broad lakes, and swamps of the lower Trent valley' (5).

Usher also draws attention to the wholesale landscape change affected by enclosure and improvement between the Seventeenth and Twentieth Centuries; 'The very earth is different. The moors and fens have been drained and ploughed; the game has departed, leaving only the lark and the cuckoo behind; the tangled thickets are now waving fields of grain, dotted by scarlet poppies and fringed with hawthorn, wild roses, and honeysuckle. Here and there only is an untamed spot, where the brilliant yellow of the gorse against the dark green of its own foliage gives us a suggestion of the sort of landscape the first Pilgrims left behind them' (7).

Usher also characterises the community as fairly lowly; 'the population at Scrooby consisted of the small tenant farmers and their labourers, connected more or less immediately with the estate of the archbishops, and living around the Manor House, subject in civil as well as in economic matters to the authority of the Archiepiscopal Receiver or Bailiff. There was of course no leisured class; men of any education at all were few; and the little district boasted no residents of wealth, birth, or station' (6).

The Social Standing of William Brewster Snr & Jnr

The second divergence from the standard narrative of the Pilgrim Fathers is Usher's insistence on the high social standing of the post of Archiepiscopal Receiver or Bailiff, held by William Brewster Snr between 1575 and his death in 1590, and by William Brewster Jnr until his resignation in 1607. William Brewster Snr was appointed by Archbishop Grindal to the office of Receiver and Bailiff of the Manor of Scrooby and 'all liberties of the same in the County of Nottingham' (7). Usher states 'he became not only the Archbishop's agent in the management of his farms and in the collection of rents, but also the civil authority, for this particular district was legally and administratively exempt from the County of Nottingham. He must also have exercised such ecclesiastical jurisdiction as there was when the Archbishop and his commissaries were not themselves present' (7).

Usher summarises; 'it is obvious therefore that the father of the famous William Brewster was a man of some substance and position, easily the most prominent individual in the little village and its immediate environs' (8). Indeed, it sounds as if Brewster held almost autocratic power over his domain!

With reference to the geographical extent of Brewster's power, Usher makes a comment which I simply don't understand; 'some seventeen little groups of people in villages lived on the large domain' (7). Is Usher referring to the villages within the old liberty of Sutton with Scrooby?

Persecution or Disapprobation?

The third strand to Usher's discussion which I think interesting is his conviction that opposition to the Separitists came not from offical sanction, but from the radical's disdainful neighbours; 'no sooner was the little congregation 'gathered' then persecution began. Not indeed by Church and State; the orthodox majority at Scrooby and the nearby villages, the friends and relatives of the Separatists, raised vehement objection to the new Church. ... Behind this opposition was something akin to indignation that any Protestants should turn traitor to the great cause in the face of the Catholic majority in Northern England ... But there was also much honest dislike that these relatives and neighbours should presume to stand apart. ... Their hosility was outspoken and frank; the scoffing and jeering frequent and biting.' (17 - 18).

Usher stresses this hostility as the direct cause of the Separatists' emigration; 'The importance of this hostility of the little community must not be underestimated, if we are to grasp one of the really significant reasons why the Pilgrims concluded life in England to be unbearable. Such daily nagging, scoffing, and deriding was to them the most difficult of persecutions to endure' (18).

Presumably, Usher is relying on William Bradford's c.1630 On Plimoth Plantation for first hand evidence of the attitude of the local community to the Separatists.

Conversely Usher de-emphasises the role of legal prosecution; 'there is absolutely no evidence in the records, civil or ecclesiastical, that the existence of the Scrooby group was known at Whitehall or at Lambeth, before the attempt to flee in 1607 led to the report by the Magistrates of Boston to the Privy Council. Nor was importance attached to their existence then.' (18). That may be so, but Usher has to conceed that the ecclesiastical authorities took some interest in the group, for in 1607 'York instituted proceedings of inquiry into the reports and complaints which the hostile majority of Scrooby district disseminated. This is a point of much interest and importance. ... The entries in these cases are all formal; prosecution ex officio was commonly assumed by the court in such cases because informants refused to prosecute; the failure to utilize the full possibilities of fines, excommunication, and attachment, the failure to follow up the regular routine subsequent to citation are inconsistent with the initiative by the authorities in opening the case. When a decision to prosecute came from above, particularly when it came from London, action was prompt, thorough, and severe. Failure to follow up a case almost invariably means that the information was a presentment by individuals.' (19 - 20). In other words, Usher thinks that legal proceedings were initiated following complaints made to the authorities by the local community, and that the authorities went through the motions without bringing the full force of the law down upon the despised Separatists.

So his case is this; 'We shall only partly understand their decision to leave England if we see in the exodus a mere flight from implacable authorities, or the simple expression of the fear of the consequences likely to be visited upon them for remaining in England. It is a great error to stress the hostility of the Church toward them and say that they were harried from the land.' (22). Rather, Usher wants to emphasise the Separatists' intolerance of the community around them, and deeply felt opposition to the national institutions of state and church. 'England was unclean. ... How could the new Church remain at Scrooby, where the majority of people opposed and resisted the word of God, truly preached? How could they stay in England where the law of the land maintained in existence a vain hierarchy of anti-Christion prelates?' (23).


Usher, R G 1918 The Pilgrims and Their History New York Macmillan