TWO sisters says the title, yet the picture shows the FOUR Wray sisters on their father’s tomb at Glentworth, Lincolnshire. Typically for the time, two of the four died, but Isabel (far right) and Frances (second from right) lived long loves of enormous impact on the growth of English – and even American – Christianity.
Ask for a list of English church leaders from the early 1600s and a knowledgeable American might mention William Brewster, William Bradford and John Robinson, the central group that led to the Mayflower Pilgrims. Some might also mention Richard Clyfton, their spiritual leader, and perhaps John Smyth and Thomas Helwys – the first English Baptist Church leaders. An expert might also mention John Cotton, Sir Henry Vane, Roger Williams and even Anne Hutchinson, a woman who certainly shook up the New England community.
It is extraordinary that all these people had connections with one small area of England in the north Midlands. Why? It is increasingly clear that the connections between the various leaders were crucial in providing an energy for religious reform that proved unstoppable – and arguably is still continuing today as these people began the tradition of ‘nonconformity.’ It is a pattern comparable to modern Christian networks that criss-cross the globe.
At the very centre of this network was the Wray family, notably the brother and sisters Sir William (c1555-1617), Isabel (-1622) and Frances (-1634); Isabel successively married as Foljambe, Bowes and Darcy. Frances was firstly Lady St Paul and secondly Lady Rich, Countess of Warwick. How this brother and two sisters came to be progressives in Christianity is surprising because their father, Sir Christopher, had been Lord Chief Justice under Elizabeth. His conservatism was instrumental in seeing him appointed as Speaker of the Commons in 1571, though he soon lost control of debate as puritan influence grew. Returning to the law as a judge, he proved relentless in chasing down the disaffected on both Catholic and puritan wings. Officially ‘indifferent’ in religion, he was associated with Catholics, and disliked by some local progressives. He was the archetypal establishment man, yet his three surviving children courted controversy throughout their lives in pursuit of a new vision of the Church.
After the death of their father Isabel’s brother Sir William built up the family estates in Lincolnshire at Ashby, near Grimsby, and Glentworth. He was at various times elected as an MP for the borough of Grimsby in 1604 and also the County of Lincoln. He was rather denigrated in the family history as ‘he does not seem to have made any figure in the world, though he brought honour to his name by two good marriages he made.’ Sir William Wray (1555-1617) supported the radical puritan preacher John Smyth , who believed Wray to be the ‘principal patron of godly religion in Lincolnshire – ’ a better epitaph than the worthless judgement of the family history! Gervase Holles described Sir William as ‘a simple honest man’ and a strong puritan. He formed a Parliamentary alliance with his brother in law, Sir George St Paul (or St Poll) to promote many puritan causes – mostly with little success. In 1604 they promoted a Bill against ‘scandalous and unworthy ministers’ and for reform of the ecclesiastical courts. In 1606 he was trying to win legislation on Sabbath observance and to control ‘pluralities’ and ministers who did not live in their parishes. He wanted legal action to develop greater learning amidst the ministry. He had some direct control over eight parishes where he tried to ensure puritan preachers. He died in 1617.
This came to the attention of Isabel Foljambe who was living at Walton near Chesterfield . Perhaps it was her who called in various ‘godly’ ministers to help, but to no avail. Then John Darrell and Thomas Beckingham were called in. The exorcism case caused considerable local controversy and Isabel’s husband, a Justice of the Peace, showed little sympathy for Darrell who may have been seen as discrediting the puritan cause.
Isabel linked Darrell with another group of puritans under Arthur Hildersham at Ashby de la Zouch. They in turn had a network with like-minded men such as John Ireton, the rector of Kegworth 1581-1606. Isabel’s policy was to identify and support godly young men through university – normally Cambridge – and then into suitable parishes; it has been suggested that John Smyth, the first English Baptist, was one such , and Richard Bernard was certainly another – intriguingly he was at Cambridge with John Robinson from almost the same area of the country. In 1599 Isabel married again and became Lady Bowes, with a husband who owned much property in the North of England, and her circle widened to include influential figures for the future such as Thomas Helwys – the future leader of the Baptist Church. Darrell was twice more involved with controversial exorcisms, culminating in a long legal battle with leading Anglican archbishops. As a result, by canon law 72 exorcism could only be practiced with a licence from the bishop. Another puritan practice, open prayer or ‘prophesying’, was also banned.
Lady Bowes, as Isabel Foljambe had now become, was concerned about the spiritual state of the people in the North and selected another of her protegés, Richard Rothwell, to work with miners on her new husband’s lands in the North around Barnard Castle. As a peeress she was entitled to appoint her own chaplains. When she expressed concern as to the reception he would get, Rothwell told her – ‘Madam, if I thought I should not meet the devil, I would not go: he and I have been at odds in other places, and I hope we shall not agree there.’ However, after much success in County Durham, Rothwell began to suffer from an unexplained illness in the head and perhaps for this reason Lady Bowes brought him to Mansfield.
Sir William, and presumably Lady Bowes, was angered by the lack of progress on church reform and wrote to the earl of Shrewsbury, who had a house at Worksop, in 1603. Sir William unusually wrote that he had consulted his wife because ‘she is verie wise, especiallie in thinges of this kind’. Sir William included her commentary on the University of Oxford’s arguments against reform. Isabel then added her own postscript to the letter. She also prayed that God would turn the king’s heart and lead him to favour the reformist petition. Shrewsbury replied to Lady Bowes that ‘your indiscrete comparison bewrayes the weaknes of your womanhode, thoughe much disagreeing from the modestie of your sex’. He went on, invoking the example of Eve, to warn Sir William against following his wife’s counsel and bewailed the influence puritan ministers had on ‘simple women’. Isabel, though, was far from simple.
However perhaps the greatest moment in Isabel Wray’s life was when, in 1606 at her house in Coventry, she and Sir William hosted what was effectively a ‘summit meeting’ of leading puritans to discuss whether they should separate from the Church of England. At this meeting a split developed – men like Hildersham decided to stay in the Church, but John Smyth, John Robinson and Thomas Helwys (who all lived within a few miles of Isabel’s home) decided they had to leave. Another Wray protegé, Richard Bernard the puritan vicar of Worksop, prevaricated before finally returning to the Church of England. This set in train events that were to lead to many of the puritans going first to the Netherlands and then New England, but it also created the nonconformist tradition in English church life. Helwys returned in 1612 to start the Baptist Church; although he had taken a different route to Isabel, he still dedicated his Declaration of the Faith to her in 1611, stating that ‘I know there is none in the land that hath better means to procure a cause of religion to be handled according to the judgement of the best.’ That these events started from a meeting at her house is testament to the influence of Isabel Wray on English spiritual life.
Bernard is worth further note. Coming from Epworth, he was plainly ‘talent spotted’ by the Wray sisters – Frances Wray’s husband had lands at Epworth. After being funded through Cambridge, he gained the living of Worksop and became an influential writer and preacher. Richard Bernard survived in his position at Worksop until April 1605 when he was finally deprived of his Church of England living for his views, including refusal to wear a surplice. For a time he was possibly associated at Gainsborough with Smyth before returning to the Church of England. Some of his books are seen as a great influence on John Bunyan.
Rothwell was brought to Mansfield as a lecturer in 1621 as the incumbent of the Church of England was ineffective due to drink. He was a known nonconformist and was preacher at a church where the vicar was a conformist, yet he had complete freedom to preach there and in other churches thereabouts. It was perhaps the influence of Isabel Wray that allowed Mansfield to be, in Marchant’s view, ‘the centre of a puritan area’ which certainly also included Sutton in Ashfield, which was a puritan church where Darrell had been allowed to preach in 1607 and which had Hezekial Burton as its puritan curate. Rothwell’s most famous case involved a John Fox ‘near Nottingham:
“This man was possessed with a devil,
who would violently throw him down; and take
away the use of every member of his body, which
was changed as black as pitch, while those fits were
upon him; and then spoke with an audible voice
within him, which seemed sometimes to sound out
of his belly, sometimes out of his throat, and some-
times out of his mouth, his lips not moving.”
Casting the demon out of Fox was a long and drawn out affair during which Rothwell had a ‘lengthy discourse, by way of question and answer’ with the demon. Eventually it left and Fox recovered after a short time when people thought he was dead.
Isabel seems to have continued her support for puritan clergy including those who had lost their livings as control tightened. She died in 1622 and was buried at Rawmarsh. According to the possibly doubtful evidence of Rothwell’s biographer, the text preached at her funeral was Matthew 26.13: ‘Wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done be told for a memorial of her. ’ Though the fact that she had no children undoubtedly gave Isabel a level of freedom many other gentry women did not have, she was clearly a woman of strong faith in the mould of Anne Askew – a relative in the local landscape and through marriage.
We can see very similar patterns in her sister. Frances Wray married her brother’s friend, Sir George St Paul (1562-1613), who had homes at Melwood Grange , Epworth, and Snarford in Lindsey. He was also ‘an ardent puritan’ and supported the same causes as Sir William in Parliament. This is perhaps unsurprising since his grandmother was Jane Askew, sister of the famous Protestant martyr Anne . His involvement with the Bill against ‘scandalous clergy’ in 1604 was ‘to make fit the ground and to weed.’ After Guy Fawkes’ failed plot, St Paul was on a committee to consider the Jesuits. In 1607 he was supporting the more free preaching of the Gospel and in 1610 was supporting typically puritan proposals to stop clergymen holding several benefices and to restrain ‘excesses in apparel’. It is thus clear that both Wray women successively chose husbands with whom they could feel ‘at one.’
St Paul liked reading the works of Bishop Jewel and condemned Catholicism as ‘ambition, human policy and heathenish superstition.’ He attempted to help the puritan clergyman Allen of Louth who got into problems for not using the Prayer Book, and left him £5 in his will. He also laboured hard as a magistrate, seeing public service as a Christian duty.
Frances Wray later married Robert Rich, 1st Earl of Warwick, also a puritan. She was described in later life as ‘a person of shining conversation and eminent bounty’ and who supported her father’s patronage of Magdalen College at Cambridge with three fellowships and six scholarships . The Countess of Warwick, as she had now become, continued to support the university education of suitable young men such as Edward Reyner, who graduated in 1621 and then became master of Sir George St Paul’s school in Market Rasen. A puritan of impeccable credentials he was a friend of John Cotton and was influential enough not to be too troubled by minor nonconformities, becoming lecturer in Lincoln 1626 – a position which he held until war came calling. During the Civil War he was nearly murdered by Royalists in the cathedral library, but was saved by a past pupil; later he preached to the Parliamentary army at the siege of Newark.
Her stepson, Robert Rich, who became the 2nd Earl, also had puritan sympathies which made him distance himself from King Charles I and drew him to the New England colonies as well as Virginia. In 1628 he helped to get a patent for the Massachusetts Bay Company. He opposed Charles in the Civil War and commanded the Parliamentary navy, providing some help to the colony of Rhode Island in 1643 and therefore aligning with the supporters of religious liberty . Richard Bernard’s daughter Mary was married to Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. Here again one small family proves to have connections across the globe.
The contribution of this extraordinary family to ‘godly’ life did not end with the death of Isabel in 1622 and Frances in 1634.
Sir John Wray (c1586-1655), one of the sons of Sir William and a key figure in Lincolnshire. Isabel and Frances Wray were his aunts. Sir John, whose seat was at Wharton near Blyton, was described by Bernard as ‘of more than ordinarie zeale for holiness and religion. ’ Although his family already had a strong Protestant element, the family history credits European travel for developing this in him; ‘whither he travelled I know not, but he returned with a strong hatred of Papists and a love of hearing his own voice.’ He supported more puritan clergy in the family tradition, including Thomas Coleman, and was imprisoned for eight months for his opposition to the King. Indeed he refused to pay the ‘forced loan’ to Charles I even though his father in law offered to pay it for him. He was released in 1628 and then re-elected as MP for Lincolnshire but continued to criticise the King and the influence of the Duke of Buckingham. In 1630 he sided with the Axholme commoners against the King’s drainage works. In Parliament, he was a known critic of Ship Money. When re-elected in 1640, he continued his opposition to the King.
Another of the sons of Sir William Wray was Sir Christopher (c1601-1646) who inherited the family estate at Ashby, near Grimsby. He was the half-brother of Sir John by their father’s second wife, Frances, and father-in-law of Sir Henry Vane. He was prominent as MP for Grimsby from 1628 and gradually became an opponent of the King, also defending the commoners of Axholme against the draining of the Carrs in 1630 – which would see the land handed over to Charles I. As a member of a family who could not be expected to side with the direction being taken by Archbishop Laud, Wray opposed Ship Money in 1636 but his involvement in the Civil War was inglorious, being on the losing side at Ancaster Heath in April 1643. He had sided with Presbyterianism before his death in 1646. However Wray’s daughter Frances, who was ‘very godly and virtuous….very desirable in all respects,’ had married Sir Henry Vane in 1640. This of course is the same Sir Henry who had been governor in Massachusetts during the crisis over the views of Anne Hutchinson , and who was a friend of Roger Williams. He was executed in 1661, despite having been promised mercy by Charles II.
The Wrays interest in radical religion continued into the 1650s. In 1655 Quakers Farnworth and Nayler met Thomas Moore and the ‘Manifestarians’ at Glenworth for a debate – he challenged them to fast for a fortnight on water alone and to preach without use of books! There is also known to have been a similar ‘dispute’ between Baptists and Quakers at Wrawby. Later in 1656 George Fox returned to Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, where Sir Richard and Sir John Wray attended his meetings with their wives, the latter being ‘convinced’.