Welcome to my new series looking at the enthralling lives of the real-life characters in the Mercia Blakewood trilogy! The novels may be fiction, but they’re set in a real historical context featuring some of the most intriguing men and women of the 1660s. Appearing across the books – Birthright, Puritan and Traitor (Allison & Busby, all formats) – these ten remarkable people all have a fascinating tale of their own.
So let’s start the countdown with. . .
10: Elizabeth Winthrop (1614 – 1672)
‘Ah, the first Charles.’ Elizabeth shook her head. ‘Now there is a man who mistrusted us. So many sailed here in the ‘30s because of him.’ She puffed out her cheeks. ‘The Great Migration.’”Elizabeth Winthrop, Puritan, Chapter Two
Although Elizabeth only features briefly in Mercia’s second adventure Puritan, her inclusion in this list is merited through her redoubtable bravery as one of the first ever women to cross the Atlantic to begin an unknown new life in America. We don’t know much about her, truth be told, in contrast to her husband (who will feature later in this series), but what little we do know suggests a woman of great hardiness. So much like Mercia herself, if a little more prim and. . . Puritan.
Born in 1614 as Elizabeth Reade in Wickford, Essex, Elizabeth’s father died young, and her mother, also Elizabeth, remarried not long after. Elizabeth’s stepfather was influential Puritan thinker Hugh Peter, and it was thanks to his standing that a man named John Winthrop, Jr, eldest son of the Governor of Massachusetts Bay, visited the household during a trip to London on behalf of the fledgling colonies in 1635. Although he had been devastated by the deaths of his first wife and baby daughter not long before, John and Elizabeth soon developed an attachment, so much so that the two were married in July that same year.
A Strong Character
Elizabeth would have known her marriage would mean leaving England for good, but whether she was taken by Puritan zeal for the New World like her mother and stepfather, who would accompany her there, or whether she was simply in love with John, nobody can know. Elizabeth was reportedly a strong woman, calm of nature and very devout, certainly well-versed in scripture. So whatever her motivations, hers was an ideal character to endure the rigours of the Puritan lifestyle in the wilds of the nascent colonies.
After a long ocean crossing aboard the Abigail, no doubt fraught with the same discomforts and perils Mercia has to brave during her own Atlantic voyage in Birthright, Elizabeth landed in her new homeland. Over the coming years she would make many homes and give birth to nine children, the first named Elizabeth for herself, and the second Fitz-John for her husband. There were six further girls: Lucy, Mary, Sara, Martha, Margaret and Ann; and one more son, the marvellously named Wait-still. Puritan families of this age would often bestow this kind of name on their children, as is seen in the townsfolk of Meltwater in Puritan: names such as Clemency and Remembrance; Victory and Humility; Perseverance and Godsgift.
On the Move
Much of the time Elizabeth would have raised her children alone, for her husband – one of the most industrious and enthusiastic men in New England – continued to accumulate ever more senior roles, travelling extensively throughout the colonies and departing on multiple voyages to England. Indeed, not long after she even arrived in America, Elizabeth had to remain with John’s relatives in Boston while he attempted to fulfil a commission he had accepted to found a colony at Saybrook, far away in Connecticut. He did return to Boston for the birth of their first daughter, but from then on, Elizabeth’s home was never fixed for long.
As John left the Saybrook colonists to it (they ultimately failed), the young family moved first to Ipswich, Massachusetts, which John had begun settling in 1633 – and perhaps uncomfortably for Elizabeth, where his first wife had died and was buried. A sad period followed with the death of her mother and the return of her stepfather to England, and then she and John moved south, arriving in Connecticut in the 1640s to live at first on small Fisher’s Island, which must have been an arduous and isolated existence over the long winter months. But it was not for long, as John was working to establish the settlement of New London (Nameaug) on the mainland opposite. Elizabeth herself moved across in 1647 and here it’s said she played a semi-diplomatic role with the local American Indians, acting at least once as an intermediary for their sachems (leaders), liaising with her husband on their behalf.
In 1655, the family moved west along the coast to New Haven colony, which Elizabeth apparently liked for all its renowned strictness (or because of it?) and where John put his in-demand medical and mining knowledge to use (he was a man with prodigious interests). But it was not long before John’s upward trajectory led to him being offered the governorship back in Connecticut, and so in 1657 Elizabeth reluctantly moved again, this time to Hartford, now effectively First Lady of Connecticut. Nonetheless Hartford, still the state capital today, ultimately proved a more stable home, for John was re-appointed Governor year after year, much to Elizabeth’s pride. A darker note came when the news reached America of her stepfather’s execution: having found fame as an inflammatory preacher in Oliver Cromwell’s inner circle, at the Restoration of Charles II he was hanged, drawn and quartered for his vocal part in the trial and beheading of the former King, Charles I.
Elizabeth’s own story concludes in 1672, when she died (possibly from influenza) at the age of 58. Her legacy is seen in the vital roles her descendants would play throughout history, while the famous colonist Roger Williams (he of the Key, the phrase book to the local American Indian language that Mercia uses in Puritan) was inspired to name Elizabeth’s Spring after her, near East Greenwich in Rhode Island, supposedly because she would halt to drink from it when travelling. The town of Wickford, Rhode Island, is similarly named after her birthplace in Essex, one of many examples of Puritan towns being named for familiar places from the settlers’ pasts. New England was to be a replica England, it seems, rather than a total break from the old; and Elizabeth, at least, who had cause to call the whole of New England her home, can rightly be considered one of its preeminent founding mothers.
Coming next: Colonel Richard Nicolls, first British Governor of New York
All photographs by David Hingley / Matthew Jackson