Some of the Separatists are thought to have worshipped clandestinely at Gainsborough Old Hall – now regarded as one of the best preserved medieval manor houses in Britain – with the permission of its sympathetic owner, merchant William Hickman.
Their preacher, John Smyth, was a strong influence on the Mayflower Pilgrims, and is generally considered to have later been a founder of the Baptist churches. Smyth had a large congregation of sixty or seventy people meeting secretly, thanks to the sympathies of William Hickman.
In 1606, they formally separated from the state church. Two groups formed – one in Gainsborough and one in Scrooby, across the Trent, under the care of a like-minded preacher Richard Clifton, the former rector of Babworth.
Using the Bible as their guide the Gainsborough Separatists vowed:
“We covenant with God and with one another to walk in His ways made known or to be made known to us, according to our best endeavours, whatsoever it will cost us, the Lord assisting us.”
It cost them much hardship and heartache and ultimately their homes and their homeland. As the authorities intensified their crackdown on the Separatists, Smyth and a number of his followers resolved to emigrate in pursuit of their religious freedom. They slipped away from Gainsborough in 1607-08, heading for Holland.
William Hickman’s mother Rose was a remarkable lady who wrote her life story in her own hand at the age of 85. Born Rose Locke in 1535 during Henry VIII’s reign, she grew up a committed Protestant. She married Anthony Hickman, a London based merchant adventurer who, with her brother Thomas Locke as partner voyaged to the far countries to the south and south east parts of the world. Their pioneering trading journeys were chronicled by the geographer Hakluyt.
When Henry VIII’s daughter Mary I came to the throne in 1553 she reversed her father’s church reforms and forcibly reintroduced Catholicism. She looked once more to the Pope in Rome to head the English Church. Rose, Anthony and Thomas secretly helped the Protestant cause and gave shelter to hunted men, including the founder of the Presbyterian Church John Knox. Frightened by the men’s arrest and solitary confinement in London’s notorious Fleet Prison, Anthony escaped and fled to Antwerp on his release.
Rose was expecting her first child and could not travel with her husband. When the baby was born she stored all her household stuff in a friend’s house and took only the baby and a large feather bed which she laid in the bottom of the old hulk that took her to Antwerp. The master of the ship said, “If it please god to speed us well in the voyage, it should never to to sea again.”
The crossing took five days in rough seas.
Rose avoided a full Catholic baptism for her first child in England by substituting sugar for the salt she should have provided as part of the ritual. In Antwerp the Church was also Catholic but worship was in a large congregation in the Cathedral and they were not missed. When her second baby was born Rose again avoided Catholic baptism. Their house had two doors leading out onto separate streets and she implied to neighbours that she had left by the other door to go to the baptism.
There was a chapel for English merchants and their families but the governor of the small English community turned a blind eye to the Hickmans and he let them know that though he did bark, yet he did not bite.
During Queen Mary’s reign Rose often prayed earnestly to God to take either ‘her or me’ forth of the world. When Mary died in 1558, the Hickmans were able to return to England. Rose proudly claimed that during Mary’s reign, she never was present at any of the Popish masses or any other idolatrous service.
Rose was still vigorously alive during the years when the Separatist Church formed in Gainsborough and must surely have influenced her son’s attitude towards religious freedom. She was buried at the Parish Church in Gainsborough on 22nd November 1613.
A religious exile as a baby and the son of strong-minded free-thinking parents, William grew up valuing religious freedom. In 1596 the merchant class, to which William belonged, was rising buoyantly in England as trade in Europe and the newly developing colonies boomed. Many merchants found their wealth overtaking that of the traditional aristocracy whose incomes were fixed and whose lifestyles and commitments to the Queen and her armed forces were financially crippling.
Living in London at the time when Lord Burgh was negotiating with London moneylenders for loans, William was in an ideal position to acquire his own country house and estate as did many of his fellows.
The Gainsborough Separatists & John Smyth
John Smyth was a preacher in the city of Lincoln from 1600 to 1602, but after two years there he was deposed by the Bishop of Lincoln for his strange doctrines and forward preaching of his Puritan views that had been developing since his early days at Cambridge University.
He then came to Gainsborough as a preacher. His daughter Chara was baptised in Gainsborough Parish Church in 1603/4, followed by Sara in March 1605/6. Later that year he broke with the Church of England to join the Separatists.
It is thought that John Smyth enjoyed the freedom to preach in his own style at the Old Hall under the protection of the new lord of the manor William Hickman, who was far from worried about public opinion or harassment by the bishop.
Hopes of religious freedom were dashed for people like John Smyth and Richard Clyfton in 1604. The new monarch King James dreaded a church without bishops because he could see a time when there would be no bishops – and no king. He threatened “I will have bishops to govern the Church. I will make them conform themselves or I will harry them out of this land – or else do worse.” He banned private religious meetings and removed clergymen who refused to conform. The Separatists were under severe pressure.
By this time, John Smyth already had a large congregation of sixty or seventy people meeting secretly in Gainsborough. Members were drawn from the town and the surrounding country including the Isle of Axholme, Retford, Worksop, Broxtowe Hall, Scrooby, Sutton, Mattersey, Sturton le Steeple and North Wheatley.
In 1606, they formally separated from the state church. Later the same year the Gainsborough congregation split into two groups. One group now met nearer their homes across the River Trent under the care of a like-minded preacher Richard Clifton, the former rector of Babworth.
Using the Bible as their guide the Gainsborough Separatists vowed: ” We covenant with God and with one another to walk in His ways made known or to be made known to ue, according to our best endeavours, whatsoever it will cost us, the Lord assisting us.”
It cost them much hardship and heartache and ultimately their homes and their homeland.
By 1606, Scrooby had Richard Clifton as Preacher, John Robinson as Teacher and William Brewster as Elder. The large congregation, including William Bradford, met secretly in Scrooby Manor House where Brewster entertained them with great love.
They continued to meet there during the spring and summer of 1607, but their activities were reported and in September Brewster lost his government job as master of the post. The congregation was then ‘hunted and persecuted on every side’. Brewster and three others were also harassed by the Archbishop of York, the owner of Scrooby Manor, and they were imprisoned and fined in York. ‘Some were taken and clapped in prison, others had their houses beset and watched day and night and most were fain to fly and leave their houses and habitations and their means of livelihood’. At that, both the Scrooby and the Gainsborough Separatists decided to leave England and they began to sell their belongings.
Escape to Holland: The Gainsborough Congregation’s Escape
The Separatists were being pushed to conform. Sir William Hickman found himself under pressure from the Bishop of Lincoln for permitting John Smyth to preach. Unable to emigrate legally without permits and unable to obtain permits, John Smyth and at least forty of his Gainsborough followers slipped quietly away and disappeared from Gainsborough in late 1607 or early 1608.
How they went is not known but it would be relatively easy to slip aboard a river barge at the town docks and travel to Hull and then to sail from there on a merchant ship. They are next heard of in Amsterdam where they joined some 300 other English Separatists in exile. At the time of their escape John Smyth’s two daughters, recently baptised at the Parish Church, were still babies.