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We venture goods, and lives, ye know, and travel seas and landTo bring by traffic heaps of wealth and treasure to your land.
—POEM COMPOSED IN HONOR OFQUEEN ELIZABETH’S 1574 VISIT TO BRISTOL, ENGLAND
Percival Lowle walked down to the docks on a cool day in late November. The sky overhead was blue, the light of the sun bright and warm. But to the west, heavy gray clouds were collecting over the horizon. Percival quickened his pace. He had business to attend to. He dodged among the crowds of dockworkers, sailors, merchants, and tradesmen, intent on his goal. He walked past vessels from faraway places, rocking against their lines like animals tethered before a fight. Every form and type of rigging, flag, and frame was on display; boats from all over the world. Languages as unintelligible as the cries of birds batted among the foreign crews, mingling with the reassuring authority of the King’s English and the rich, crude dialects of the dockworkers. Above the cacophony of voices: the squawks of gulls, the clanking of lines, the chiming of Bristol’s famous bells at midday.
Percival stopped for a moment and drew in a deep breath, taking in with pleasure all the odors that wafted about him, the smells from bales and hogsheads and packets, from barrels and boxes and billets. It was the heady perfume of the world he knew. He wished he could bottle it up, to hold on to always. Change was coming, and although he was an adapter, had always done what was necessary to keep his family secure, this change would wrench them from all that they knew. It was one thing to move from the small village of Portbury in Somersetshire to Bristol, which he had done with Rebecca when they were still young. But the choice facing him now would take them much farther away.
Everything Percival knew about the geography of the world, he had learned on the docks of Bristol. The ships and their cargoes read like a map. Portugal, with its sweet wine; Toledo and steel; Italy and olive oil; France and figs. He surveyed the map of his England through the goods carried in and sent on: woolen cloths from Leeds, grain from Norfolk, glassware from London, cheese from Cheshire, butter from Wales, soap and clay pipes from Bristol.
Today, Percival was in search of woad from East Anglia, the dried paste of its leaves rolled into hard balls and packed into boxes. Nothing dyed wool better than the woad, the blue as rich and deep as the ocean on a sunny day. Woad once had been such a valuable commodity that farmers plowed under their fields of grains to grow more and more of it. The queen herself had stepped in to avert a famine: England needs food, Elizabeth had ordered, and she’d set restrictions on where woad could be grown and how it could be processed. Turning the dried leaves into paste was a smelly affair—potash and urine the key ingredients—and the queen had prohibited its manufacture within range of her own residences.
Percival knew that woad paste had been used by the ancient Britons of the north to color their bodies before battle—Romans called the warriors “Picts,” meaning “painted”—but now a mill in Coventry wanted the woad to dye their wool. A chuckle from the old merchant as he found the ship he searched for. Yes, woad was still used today, but for covering bodies in comfort, not in battle. And now he would do battle to get a good price, and sell it on for a profit. This is what Percival did, and he was good at it: finding something someone wanted, procuring it through a wrangling of proposals and counterproposals, selling it on. Profiting from need but also satisfying that need. A promise made and a delivery on that promise.
For centuries, Bristol had thrived on the promises of its port. Percival Lowle was up to his elbows in all of it and had been for the past forty years. Two of Percival’s sons, John and Richard, had joined him at Percival Lowle & Co., Importers and Exporters. William Gerrish was another partner, a man who would one day be a son-in-law—but not just yet. Percival employed a clerk, Anthony Somerby. His son John had taken on an apprentice, Richard Dole. All good men, all engaged in the business of trade and in the prosperity of the port of Bristol.
Percival Lowle was not only a merchant but also a certified gentleman. The Lowle family’s coat of arms had been royally registered by his father, Richard Lowle, with a claim connecting the Lowles of Somerset to the Louel on the battle rolls of William the Conqueror. Richard Lowle had paid a fee to the College of Heralds in 1591 to ensure his claim, and he received his coat of arms, few questions asked. The coffers of Elizabeth needed filling and the Lowles wanted to be gentlemen (the Latin word for a gentleman in the 1500s was armigero—that is, one who bears arms). The Lowle coat of arms featured a dark shield upon which a clenched fist held three blunt arrows pointing downward, one vertical and two crossed diagonally. The head of a stag floated above the shield, an arrowhead in blue between its antlers.
The sale of the family arms had been good business for the queen; for the Lowles, it was a calculable cost of doing business, like a tax or a duty. But now the calculations were getting more difficult. Under King James and then King Charles, the royal coffers were bottomless and in constant need of filling. There were always more taxes to be paid, more duties to be figured out, and new costs of doing business.
* * *
Percival concluded his transaction for woad. Delivery was secured through an exchange of papers, a shaking of hands. Then a mutual shaking of heads as the men discussed future prospects: Hard times were coming for everyone. Harvests had failed all over England. Last winter had been brutal and long, the spring wet and short, the summer a mix of drought and drenching rains. Crops couldn’t grow and there was not enough wheat for all the bread needed by the people of England, nor barley or rye, not enough onions nor peas or beans; even the sheep out on the rough had trouble finding grass enough to feed upon.
Percival asked the trader if he had paid up the latest royal commission, the fifth one demanded this year. Of course he had paid, as Percival had paid the commissions demanded of him, and the duties and the taxes. What could be done about it? The royal agents seized goods if money wasn’t paid, and there was little protection from a Parliament that was dissolved by the king with regularity. The last time Parliament had met was in 1629, almost ten years ago now. King Charles, loyal advisers at his side, ruled alone.
Percival took his time walking back up from the docks into the center of Bristol. He looked around as he strolled, taking in the sight of a town he had grown to know so well. Its churches and its taverns, its shops and marketplace squares. Bristol had been good to him. Here he had found prosperity. Prestige. Children had been born to him, and more children, and grandchildren. A steady routine of church on Sunday and work every other day. Percival turned and looked back over the water. The storm to the west was holding off. He continued his walk, past the narrow streets of small shops and miserable hovels—barely a window to a room, dirt floors, little air—and then on up to the rows of finer homes on the ridge. Up to his own house, plastered and timbered, tall and stately, with glazed windows and a finely carved heavy wooden door. A house both solid and secure.
Percival arrived winded, a sheen of perspiration across his brow despite the cool temperatures of the day. Rebecca, his wife of forty years, greeted him in the front hall, took his long cloak, and then draped over his shoulders a robe lined in fur. The hall was cold; she didn’t want him to catch a chill. She took his arm and drew him into the parlor, where a fire had been lit. It was warm in there and she would bring him a pot of ale. She knew Percival was worried about the decision he faced for their family. But it might be time for change. Before they lost everything. Percival settled himself back into a deep chair lined with embroidered cushions and draped with a heavy Venetian rug. Tapestries hung on two walls, a hunting scene depicted on one and a mythological fantasy on the other. Books were piled up on the ornate table beside him, the books embossed and the table inlaid with bone and mother-of-pearl. The logs on the fire roasted away atop a handsome pair of andirons fashioned to look like hunting dogs, their iron heads resting on iron paws. Tonight he would eat a good dinner prepared by a cook, cleared by a housemaid. Perhaps they’d dine on fish, always plentiful in the port town, or maybe a bit of meat, freshly slaughtered sheep brought in for winter from the summer grazing. There would be cheese and apples at the end of the meal, and wine to drink throughout.
His sons would likely fancy a game of cards after dinner. Gleek, primero, maw, cent, and new cut. The names of the card games sounded like drugs, and for many, the playing of cards was an addiction. Queen Elizabeth herself had been known to bet heavily on spades and deuces. But the Lowle family stayed clear of gaming debts, preferring to play for fun, not money. Richard would bring out a bottle of Madeira; John might sit down to read, his father having given him the gift just days ago of the recently republished Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Rebecca would sit beside him, and his daughter Joan, too, talking gossip and discussing news from town.
Just yesterday, Joan had seen a neighbor woman taken to the cuck stool and dunked in the river Frome. The ancient practice of scold cucking had been moribund for years, until the town governors revived it in 1621. The cuck stool was a commode or chamber pot—cukken meant “defecation”—attached to a large lever. The lever moved the stool out over the river and then dipped it into the water. Women who had been found by the local magistrate to be too strident or rude were ordered to take their place on the stool. One by one, they were whirled out over the water and repeatedly dunked, to the great amusement of the watching crowd.
But Joan did not laugh at what she saw. Public humiliation was no way to lead a woman to goodness. Only a sense of purpose and duty could do that. And in England today, duty and purpose were becoming lost. A renewal was necessary, but where to find it? The Puritans sought renewal in cleansing the Church of ritual; the king sought renewal in strengthening his Archbishop Laud to punish the heretics; the royal agents only sought money and more money. Joan was soon to be married and was eager to start a new life, away from the tensions of religious factions and economic uncertainties.
Percival sat before the fire and dozed. He wasn’t sleeping well at night these days, despite the upstairs bed lined with heavy linens and thick rugs to keep him warm, and the sachets of lavender that Rebecca tucked below the ticking to induce sleep. When Guy Fawkes had tried to blow up Parliament in 1605, striking a blow for Catholics, many of Percival’s neighbors had sought to protect themselves from Catholic evils by carving demon tracks into the floorboards of their bedrooms. But Percival was never one for either superstition or overreaction, and he had kept his floors unmarked. Only if his beloved Rebecca had pleaded for it might he have acquiesced. She took care of him, and he took care of her. She was no more superstitious than he was, and just as practical. A fine floor was for polishing, not for carving up.
Now in his seventh decade, Percival had survived so much, and Rebecca had been beside him for most of it. When the plague came through Bristol, as it often did, working its way briskly through the crowded lanes and hovels, dispensing death like daily bread, both he and his wife had been spared, and their family, too. Percival hadn’t been bothered by the extra taxes collected then, for he understood that money was needed to cover the costs of housing plague victims and removing and burying the dead. He’d paid up and counted himself lucky.
He’d avoided consumption, which was a death sentence, and smallpox, and the other pox, the French one, called syphilis, untreatable and debilitating. He’d survived epidemics of typhus and measles; he’d endured bad colds and nasty infections. Percival and his Rebecca were living longer than most, royals included.
But not all his family had been so lucky. Percival and Rebecca had lost two children, Edward at age four and Gerard, only one year old. Both boys were buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s in Portbury, in the countryside. Before they’d been put in the ground, Rebecca had taken snippets of their hair. She’d carried these locks with her when they moved to Bristol. Percival bought her a box for the mementos, from a Spanish sailor; a tiny box, damascened wood inlaid with an intricate design of crosses. The sailor was a Catholic, but no one needed to know that. Rebecca hid the box with its treasure in a trunk of birthing blankets. Blankets used when her babies had been born and now used to protect what remained of them.
* * *
Merchants had always paid royal taxes, tolls, and tariffs, back through centuries of commerce. Under Queen Elizabeth, Percival and all the traders along the English coastlines had wrangled their way through a labyrinth of duties and rules that not only set how much it cost to bring and take things in and out of England but from where and to where things could be brought and taken. Monopolies were granted by royal charter but then could just as easily be taken away again; arbitrary limits were set on who could manufacture and trade what and where. Taxes and commissions and fees multiplied upon themselves like fleas. As monopolies changed and taxes rose, corruption—the paying of bribes and granting of accommodations, currying favor and then gaining it through gifts, privileges, and subservience—became an even more necessary cost of doing business.
Under James I, who came to the throne in 1603 after Elizabeth died, the burden of taxation had grown even heavier. Corruption evolved to new heights of ingenuity. Paying off the right sheriff or royal officer or even the king himself could release a merchant from a tax or duty, or even an employment obligation—it seemed as if everyone and everything had a price, and the prices were rising.
When James was first crowned, the town leaders of Bristol came up with a plan. They would take up a collection from the local merchants and use the moneys to purchase presents for the new king and his family. The idea was to create an early favoritism toward Bristol on the part of James I, to secure the so-called royal treatment for the ambitious port.1
The plan failed. James took the proffered gifts but did nothing to relieve the increasing burden of taxes, duties, and rents. He even revived the ancient—and long-defunct—custom of purveyance. Purveyance was based on the assumption that all towns should be happy and willing to host their king and queen at any time. The royal court could expect to be fed, lodged, and supplied with drink wherever they might travel throughout England. All costs of such hospitality would be covered by the local merchants—and those who refused to comply would have their entire stores of goods seized, and perhaps even face imprisonment.
The aldermen of Bristol sent a party to Parliament to protest the purveyances. Not only was its practice unfair, they argued, but it was clearly illegal as well, given that Parliament had never approved the imposition of purveyance. James gave the members of Parliament no chance to respond; he shut chambers down. Parliament was dissolved. Then he sent a crew of royal purveyors directly to Bristol. Barrel after barrel of claret and sack were seized and carried back to the king. When the queen visited Bath months later, the merchants of Bristol did not hesitate to supply what she needed; “6 tuns, 5 butts, 3 pipes and 50 hogsheads of wine,” along with sugar, spices, pepper, and an assortment of groceries, were delivered without delay.2
Under James’s rule, Bristol was denied any commerce with either Turkey or the Levant, countries that had always been good trading partners, and the right to make certain products was taken away. The starch factories, long prosperous in Bristol, were shuttered; the workers were dispersed and the fortunes of the owners were destroyed. Anticipating where trade might be allowed, or which products might be made and sold, became a guessing game. The only way to have some advantage in the game was to offer absurd bribes and elaborate gifts, and hope for the best.
Managing a business did not improve under King Charles, who ascended to the throne when James died in 1625. Like James, Charles dissolved Parliament when it came too close to curtailing his activities. Charles continued the practice of ever-increasing taxes, customs, duties, and rents to pay for the royal lifestyle, and he initiated a new tax, the payment of “ship money.” These were funds collected for the support of the Royal Navy, purportedly to defend the Church and England against the threats of Catholicism and Spain. But was there a need for such defense, Percival wondered, when the new king was himself married to a Catholic and the Spanish threat had diminished?
Percival and his sons, his clerk Anthony, his partner William—every day they went over the accounts, tried to juggle the figures, to work out a way to keep the business going. And now the bad harvest. Percival had heard the rumors all summer—a good trader always stays abreast of the whispers from field and factory, from incoming sailors and outgoing captains—and the fall had proved the rumors true. There wouldn’t be enough food to trade, and getting enough to eat would cost plenty. What crops were gathered would be requisitioned, most likely, by the ever more greedy king, his Catholic wife, and his grasping archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, a menace to rational men and the scourge of the Puritans, who had hoped for so much, for so long. It was no wonder Puritans were leaving in droves.
Bristol had long been involved in the exploration of the New World, dating back to 1497, when Sebastian Cabot, working under contract to King Henry VII of France, sailed from Bristol to explore the coast of Newfoundland. In the years of the 1600s, Percival Lowle had witnessed the outfitting of ship after ship for the purpose of traveling to America. He might even have been one of the investors joining in to send local boy Martin Pring off on a journey of discovery in the year 1603. Pring was twenty-three years old when he set out for the Americas, but as confident and brash a sea captain as ever sailed. He went with one purpose: to locate and load up abundant supplies of sassafras, “a plant of soveriegne vertue for the French Poxe.”3 Syphilis was a problem, sassafras was a known cure (or palliative), and the man who could supply the cure could be sure of good fortune.
Leading a fleet of two small ships, the Speedwell and the Explorer, Pring crossed the Atlantic from Bristol and landed on the shores of Massachusetts Bay. He named the spot Whitson Bay in honor of one of his sponsors. Seventeen years later, this spot would be renamed Plymouth. Pring set off into the woods, searching for the sassafras that would make his fortune. He returned home six months later, his two boats laden to the gills with the golden green cargo.
In 1610 and then again in 1618, captains from Bristol set sail to establish a colony in Newfoundland. The first settlement failed and the second prospered. In 1632, yet another ship sailed from Bristol to Newfoundland, captained by Welshman Thomas James. He landed in the bay he would name for himself (and that would forever be known as James Bay) and claimed the land in the name of Charles I, while affixing the seal of the town of Bristol to a large tree on the shoreline of the bay.
But it was the journey of John Winthrop that drew the interest and lit the imagination of Percival Lowle. Winthrop was younger than Percival and better educated, and came from a wealthy and prestigious family. But like Percival, Winthrop had a family he worried about, a wife he loved, and ambitions for a better way of doing things. Winthrop was a Puritan: he believed the Church of England needed to be reformed, stripped of meaningless ritual and hierarchical corruption. A revived piety would renew England, and Winthrop placed his faith in his countrymen’s desire for change and renewal.
As a devout Puritan, Winthrop and his family had found life unpleasant under King James. But under King Charles, their daily existence became intolerable. The religious reforms sought by Puritans that had seemed possible under James now became unlikely. Instead of limiting the rituals of the Church, Archbishop Laud instituted more lavish, and what the Puritans considered more Catholic, practices into the daily liturgy, as well as into the physical space of the churches. Elaborate stained glass replaced simple windows, and ornately carved rails were built, separating the altar from the congregation. Above all else, Laud was devoted to maintaining the Church of England’s controlling hierarchy. He went on a campaign to silence the Puritans, driving them from positions of power within and outside of the Church.
Winthrop’s identity as a Puritan cost him his post to the law courts in early 1629. Although he had been born into a wealthy family and had himself enjoyed financial security as a lawyer, the family fortunes were dwindling. Winthrop’s two sons had to drop out of Cambridge University, for there was no money to pay their fees. When offered the opportunity to participate in the formation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Winthrop saw an answer to both his financial and spiritual concerns. In the summer of 1630, Winthrop left for Massachusetts, leading a fleet of four ships carrying over seven hundred emigrants. Before he left, he was named governor of the colony, and upon arrival at Boston, he proclaimed the new settlement to be a “City upon a Hill” that all the world would look to for inspiration.4
Percival followed Winthrop’s journey with interest, seizing up the reports that came into Bristol on ships returning from the west. He knew men who had gone over to the New World with Winthrop and understood why they had left. The Puritans whom Winthrop led across the sea were not separatists from the Church of England; they did not want a new church, but a reformed church, with fresh and pure congregations of faith set within the belief system of the existing Protestant religion. They were practical and determined. Percival knew that with the help of the wealthy Englishmen who funded the enterprise, Winthrop’s men and women had a good chance at making their fresh start stick.
Now Percival had a choice to make. Many of his fellow merchants had already left—not for religious reasons, but for economic ones. Artisans were also joining the exodus, along with farmers and even gentry. Anyone tired of the corruption of England looked to the New World for a more wholesome atmosphere in the secular as well as spiritual arenas. England was crooked and complicated; settlements in the Americas were bound to be more honest and simple, if only for their relative newness. And there would be opportunity in America: economic opportunity.
King Charles himself recognized the economic potential of the New World. He granted a Royal Charter to the Massachusetts Bay Colony as yet another way to fund his many exploits. New supplies of fur and fish and corn would bring in money for him. It was the same desire for return of profit that explained why wealthy backers, including some of Percival’s friends from Bristol, had invested in the colony at Plymouth in 1620 and now in Winthrop’s fledgling one in Massachusetts. Bristol money was laid down in the hopes that the Massachusetts Bay Colony would provide a wealth of trade, and not only for the king.
* * *
In the early months of 1639, King Charles sent out the call for all able-bodied men to join the fight against Scotland. The Church of Scotland had thrown out bishops appointed by Archbishop Laud and refused to conform to the Church of England’s rituals, the English Book of Common Prayer, and the Church hierarchy favored by Laud. King Charles, goaded on by his archbishop, proposed to march on Scotland. To carry out his plans, he needed money and men.
For Percival, the call to arms was the final straw. There was no security for his family in England, with taxes and duties rising all the time, harvests failing, and now a war to be fought. For almost forty years, he had prospered on the promises of the port of Bristol. He had grown old and grown rich, but he was weary of the old trades. It was time for a new trade. It was time to follow the promise of a New World. For the first time in his long life, Percival Lowle was heading out to sea. He was going to America.
Copyright © 2017 by Nina Sankovitch