Join us for a presentation on “Witches and Traitors in My Family” by Gretchen Gibbs, author of The Book of Maggie Bradstreet and Anne of the Fens on Thursday, October 29, 2015 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Greenwood Lake Public Library.
Puritan, the word conveys a stiff-backed man or woman in black who is upright, up tight, and no fun at all. It turns out even in the heydey of Puritanism back in the 17th century, nobody liked to be called a Puritan. Puritans called themselves “The Godly.”
So who were they, these godly? We all know how Henry VIII left the Catholic Church because he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn. That left a lot of unhappy English. Catholics were not happy about having to give up their religion. Those who went willingly to the Church of England, the Anglicans, had identity issues; the Church had to work out its principles, its rituals and ceremonies. Those who were influenced by the reformation in England, the Puritans, wanted the Anglicans to “purify” their church and abandon every trace of Catholicism. Each of the three groups hated the others, and England see-sawed back and forth as different rulers – (Edward VI was Church of England) (Bloody Mary was a Catholic) – persecuted those who were not in their group. Bloody Mary executed 400 Puritans.
Queen Elizabeth was a godsend, so to speak, as she allowed all three religions to exist. When James and Charles I followed her, they leaned more in the Catholic direction, and Puritans became fearful they might be persecuted again. They were forced to incorporate Church of England rituals into their services. John Cotton, the Bradstreets’ minister, was somehow successful in keeping his services “pure.” Twelve years after the Bradstreets left for the New World, the religious conflict between Puritans and Church of England would erupt into Civil War, in which Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan, attained power.
Puritans believed, like Calvinists, that those who would go to heaven were pre-elected. Good works could not get you into heaven, though it was important to spend your life serving God. Thus, Puritans felt they were a chosen people. The Pilgrims were not the same as Puritans, as Pilgrims were separatists. They wanted their own church, whereas Puritans wanted to work within the Church of England. Once in the New World, however, Puritans did tend to form new denominations.
Were Puritans as stiff and dull as we imagine them? They didn’t celebrate holidays. They couldn’t work on the holy day. They demanded obedience from children to their parents, and from wives to their husbands. But they certainly drank plenty of beer and other alcohol. They didn’t always wear black though they favored dull colors. Puritans seemed to love their children, as Anne Bradstreet’s poems and sayings demonstrate. They weren’t “puritanical” about sex. You weren’t supposed to have sex out of marriage. Once married, though, anything went. Enjoying the act did honor to God. One Puritan husband in the colonies was brought to court for not “servicing” his wife.
Anne Bradstreet and her family were good Puritans. They thought a lot about God and what God would want from them. But they were real people, also, with the human strengths and faults of all of us.
What are fens, anyway? They’re wetlands, like bogs or marshes. (If you want to be precise, fens are like bogs but less acidic.) Much of eastern England was composed of fens at the time of Anne’s childhood.
Back 8000 years ago, England was attached to the rest of Europe by a piece of land called Doggerland, which has disappeared, flooded and probably destroyed by a tsunami. Doggerland linked England and Holland. So when thinking about what England looked like before the fens were drained, think Holland. Parts of the east coast of England, like parts of Holland, are still below sea level.
Around the time of Anne of the Fens, Charles I hired a Dutchman named Cornelius Vermuyden to begin to drain the fens, starting in Lincolnshire north of where the Dudleys lived. The locals were opposed to the plan, mainly because Charles planned to fence in and take over a third of the recovered land. Cornelius was knighted in 1629 for his efforts, and went on later to drain a larger piece of the fens.
I spent some time in Lincolnshire before writing the novel, and I loved the fens. Much of them have of course been drained and filled in, but you can still see portions, with little creeks threading through them, that look like they must have looked 400 years ago. I loved their flatness, stretching on like ocean or fields of wheat in our midwest. I loved the birds, the many different kinds of waterfowl I had never dreamed of. And best I liked the little blue damselflies, like dragonflies only smaller, irridescent and sparkling in the sun.
I am excited about the publication of my new novel, Anne of the Fens, released by Glenmere Press on April 30th. It tells the story of the early life, before she emigrated to the New World, of Anne Dudley Bradstreet, the first American poet.
Anne is my ancestor, and the grandmother of the heroine of my first novel, The Book of Maggie Bradstreet. After I completed the book about Maggie Bradstreet and the witch trials she was involved with in Amherst, I began to read about her grandmother, Anne. If you’re not interested in poetry, you may not know of Anne Bradstreet, so I thought I would tell a little about her.
She wasn’t just the first American poet, she was a great poet. It’s almost four hundred years since she wrote, not that long after Shakespeare, so the language was different, yet we can still enjoy her work. She wrote some long historical pieces, but much of what she produced was about her daily life, something that neither men nor women thought important enough to portray at that time. She wrote about her love for her husband and her children, she wrote of grief and happiness.
She was a resilient and brave woman, who emigrated from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony ten years after the Pilgrims arrived. She raised four girls and four boys in that primitive environment, with the threat of disease, famine, Indians, and wild animals. Her house burned down. She still found time to produce her poetry.
She was an early feminist. At a time when the role of women was to raise children and be obedient to their husbands, her life and her writing demonstrated the strength of women. Here, for instance, is her tribute to Queen Elizabeth I.
Let such as say our sex is void of reason,
Know tis a slander now but once was treason.
In addition, Anne had a fascinating early life. The family was forced to emigrate because they housed a traitor to the king. This is the fact that is the center of my story.
We don’t actually know much about Anne’s early life. She wrote a page or so about her childhood and teen-age years, in a notebook which survived, but which was covered by the scribbles of her children. That scribbling makes it easy to identify with her life; in four hundred years children haven’t changed in their search for surfaces to draw on.
She talked in this document about her religion and how she began reading the Bible at age six or seven. However, at age fourteen she writes about “becoming loose from God,” and discovering her carnal feelings. This, too, I have used in writing Anne of the Fens.
What else do we know? Anne’s father was steward to the Earl of Lincoln. I have set the story in the Earl’s castle, Tattershall, a beautiful brick building in the fen country of Lincolnshire. Anne actually spent much of her childhood at the Earl’s home in Sempringham, a former monastery converted to a manor. The family moved to Boston, England, at one point, and left the stewardship of Sempringham in the hands of John Holland, who was the traitor Anne’s family later took in. At the point of my story, the Earl is in trouble with the King over taxes the Earl will not pay. We don’t know for sure where the family lived at that time, but since John Holland was at Sempringham, it seems logical that the Dudleys moved back with the Earl into his castle, Tattershall.
Another known fact about Anne’s early life is that she was sickly. We don’t know what she had, of course, but the speculation has included malaria and rheumatic heart. At all events she had a chronic illness that she struggled with her whole life. She also had small pox, described in my book. Towards the end of her life, she watched three of her grandchildren die, one after another, two of them named for her, and then her daughter-in-law died as well. After that, Anne seems to have lost her will to live, and died at age sixty, of some wasting illness.
She could not have imagined that students would study her work, that biographers would research her life, or that someone would write a historical novel about her teenage years. I hope she would be glad.