A few miles north of Boston (Lincs), within a quiet dale of the Lincolnshire Wolds, is the hamlet of Belleau. It takes its name from the beautiful chalk spring waters that flow out from here. There are a few houses, a church and some neglected farm buildings which mark the site of an old manor house.
Yet what a history there is here – for in this place three of the greats of early American history met, wrote, talked and preached. These three were Sir Henry Vane, Roger Williams and John Wheelwright. Just around the corner lived Anne Hutchinson, Wheelwright’s relative by marriage – one of the most controversial figures of the 1630s. From a few miles up the road came Hanserd Knollys, another radical preacher who found life in New England a bit of a challenge.
This delightful country estate by a clear spring of fresh water in the Lincolnshire Wolds was rented and then bought from the Earl of Lindsey by Sir Henry Vane. Vane had gone to New England as a young man in 1635, became embroiled in controversy with Ann Hutchinson and John Wheelwright, but returned to England and married France Wray in 1640 – a beautiful 16 year old from Lincolnshire’s leading puritan family. She was described as ‘very godly and virtuous….very desirable in all respects.’
It is likely he acquired Belleau for her as it was near her family, but it became their favourite home and this is where Roger Williams – another key figure in American history – came to stay and write in the mid-1600s. Ironically Williams’s father in law had been a notable early protégé of the Wray dynasty, and his most radical ideas came from their associates Smyth, Helwys and Murton.
Vane and Williams had had a bad time in Massachusetts, the former fleeing to England in 1637 and the latter being ejected after which he set up the colony of Providence (Rhode Island). The problem had been that Anne Hutchinson and John Wheelwright, both from this district of Lincolnshire, had challenged religious orthodoxy, and had been prosecuted because of it. In 1644 Williams published The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, reprinting the words of John Murton of Gainsborough, and arguing powerfully for religious tolerance:
It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries: and that they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only, in soul matters, able to conquer: to wit the sword of God’s Spirit, the word of God.
Williams wrote Experiments of Spiritual Life, and Health and their Preservation whilst staying amidst the Native Americans – “in the thickest of the naked Indians of America, in their very wild houses and by their barbarous fires.” This work he chose to dedicate to Lady Frances Vane when it was published in London in 1652, referring to her as ‘truly honourable.’
Wheelwright, famous in America for his controversial ‘Fast Day Sermon’, came here to preach, so in one place we can locate three major figures of early American history. Both Williams and Wheelwright returned to America and were successful there but Vane stayed in England throughout the Civil War. However he was executed in 1662 – Charles II having broken a promise to spare him – even though he had played no part in the death of Charles I.
Nowadays there is a small memorial to Vane in the church. Amongst the farm buildings you can see a few remains of the old manor house. There is nothing here to mark the passing through of Roger Williams or of Wheelwright. It is time to do something about this! For the moment all we can do is poke around the old buildings and ask, ‘Did Roger Williams look through this window?’