Friday, January 20, 2017

William Pynchon; Massachusetts Puritan and Businessman

William Pynchon, Puritan leader, astute businessman and amateur theologian, was a extremely  interesting man who seems to be somewhat overlooked in the history of the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Although I am not related to him, I wanted to write about him as I do find him  a fascinating standout from his contemporaries. So, here is what I know about William Pynchon.

english origins
William Pynchon would recognize this street in Writtle.
William Pynchon was born in 1590, possibly on the 26th of December. [1] His parents are known to be John Pynchon and Francis Brett Pynchon. He was most likely born at the family home in Writtle in the county of Essex. Queen Elizabeth I still had 13 years left to her reign. The Protestant church had run the Catholics underground but was unable to reach a consensus of exactly what a Protestant should believe. As an adult in Massachusetts, William Pynchon would be part of the narrative of Protestant discourse.

The Pynchon family had deep roots in Essex.  They had owned farmland in and around the village of Writtle, near the market town of Chelmsford, since the late 1400's. William's ancestry can be traced to his great grand father William  Pynchon (1513-1552). Although the Visitation of Essex in 1612 by Herald Raven seems to indicate that the family can be traced to Nicholas Pynchon of London this is not the case.[2] Nicholas Pynchon in his will, proved in 1533, left a bequest to his "cousin" John Pynchon in Writtle. Clearly there was some type of relationship between the Pynchons of London and the Pynchons of Writtle but exactly what we do not know. Nicholas also left money for a Priest in Writtle to sing for the souls of his mother and father and all his children's souls. It may be that he was originally from Writtle. [3]

Parish Church of Writtle
What we know about William comes from his will which he wrote on 13 July 1551 and was proved 5 September 1552. His birth year is only an estimate but we can be sure that he died in the latter part of 1552. Although William called himself Yeoman, he was clearly a wealthy man. His wife's name was Elizabeth Allen. (He named her brother as Robert Allen in his will). She may or may not be the mother of his children. His eldest son and heir was his son John. He also had sons George, Edward and Henry. [4]

William's will was pretty complicated and it appears that he had made a settlement on his wife to which she agreed to not claim her widows thirds which would be to the detriment of his children. To almost force her hand, he gave houses to her two sisters which they would not get if she tried to claim her third. He also had five daughters; Alice, Margery, Joane, Dennys and Joyce all named in his will. [5]

In a key bequest, William left some land to his granddaughter Elizabeth, the daughter of his son John and his wife Helen. This bequest for was some land called Cookes near Roxwell. (more about this later)

It is possible that William operated an inn in Writtle. He left his wife a house that he said was called "The Swan" along with a garden called "The Saffron Garden."  The name  'The Swan' was and is a popular name for public houses in England.  Along with this house he had substantial holdings which he left to his children, his estate was  large enough that his eldest son John was considered a Gentleman.

john pynchon 
Excellent Book on William Pynchon
John, eldest son of William, wrote his will on 10 November 1573, it was proved on 11 December the same year. He was probably a middle aged man at the time, as he was married with only one child at the time of his father's death, 20 years earlier. He was likely born around 1530 or so making him only in his forties when he died.

Henry Waters suggests that John may have been a bailiff or land agent for New College, Oxford. In his will he left Doctor Mr. White, Warden of New College a horse and called him "a great good master." [5] He held leases on East Hall in Bradwell, a windmill and other properties owned by the New College. In his will he names his sister Dennys and his daughter Elizabeth who received the property known as Cookes from her grandfather. This confirms that his father was William Pynchon and not Nicholas Pynchon of London. John had also moved to Springfield, on the opposite side of Chelmsford from Writtle. Today Springfield is part of Chelmsford.

John named in his will his wife Jane, children William, John, Edward and Elizabeth the daughter named in his father's will. It appears that his first wife Helen died and he remarried. There is some confusion as to the identity of Jane, who was mother of William, John and Edward. According to Waters Jane was the daughter of Sir Richard Empson, a knight and MP, who was on the wrong side of King Henry VIII. Henry had him beheaded at the Tower of London in 1510. Pretty exciting stuff! But, Sir Richard was beheaded in 1510. Jane did not marry John until after the probate of William's will, remember John was married to Helen. She would not have given birth to William until 1553 or 1554 at the earliest. If Sir Richard was her father, the latest she could have been born was 1511. This would put her in her mid forties when she began having children and in her mid fifties when she gave birth to her last child. I don't believe it. Also, there is no source that would back this up. No writing about Sir Richard includes a daughter named Jane.

jane pynchon wilson
John left Jane a very wealthy widow with lots of land and houses. She remained unmarried for several years. She eventually remarried. Her new husband, of whom she must have been very proud, was in her words, " the Honorable Thomas Wilson, One of her Majesties Principal Secretaries."[7] In his own will dated 1582, Thomas said he was a member of Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council and called Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen's Spymaster, his great friend. Pretty exciting stuff, I wonder if she got to meet the Queen. I hope so. Jane left all her land and houses to her eldest son Willliam. William was to pay her second son John £300 out of the estate.

john pynchon jr.
Norman tower, St. Mary's Broomfield
Again, what we know about John Pynchon comes from his will. He died on the fourth of September 1610. [8] John's older brother William had received  the lion's share of their father's estate; land and houses in Writtle and the surrounding countryside. William's wife Rose, in her will, left thousands of pounds to her children. Despite being a second son, John had enough wealth to be considered a gentleman. He made his home in Springfield, which today is a part of Chelmsford. It is on the opposite side of the town from Writtle.

In his will of 1610 John identified his wife as Frances and his children as William, his heir, Peter, and six daughters; Ann, Frances, Jane, Alice, Isabel and Susanne. John died before his son William had reached his majority, which seems to have happen quite often.

John's wife Frances was the daughter of John Brett and his third wife Isabel Brook. She was baptized on 29 July 1570 at Broomfield, Essex. John Brett was a gentleman who lived in Broomfield, possibly he was Lord of the Manor as he owned a dovecote, a privilege reserved for those in that position. Isabel Brook was his third wife. She was from Terling and at the time of her marriage she was a servant of Sir Thomas Mildmay. John died in late 1582. Francis Brett's brother Thomas left her son William several pieces of property in his will. [9]

william the immigrant
William came of age during a tumultuous time in English history. He was born in the dying days of the Tudor Dynasty. Queen Elizabeth was a old woman without a direct male heir. Her cousin, James 6th of Scotland became James I of England. James was a lifelong Calvinist and without getting bogged down in the details, his religious beliefs put him at odds with many of the protestants in England. This would have a great impact on the life of William Pynchon.

William reached his majority the year after his father's death in 1610. He inherited a house, barn and farm buildings, garden and orchard as well as acreage. He also inherited property in Broomfield from his Uncle Thomas Brett.

marriage and children
The exact date, even year, of William's marriage to Ann Andrews, daughter of William Andrews, is unknown. Nor do we know where they were married. William Andrews lived in Twywell in Nottinghamshire, near the town of Northampton. Based on their children's ages, they were most likely married around 1618.

As most fertile couples did, they fired off children in 1 1/2 to 2 year intervals. Anna was born about 1620, Mary was born about 1622, Margaret about 1624 and finally John, who was born around 1625 or 1626. [10] (this birth order is according to his biographer David M. Powers). Robert Charles Anderson's Winthrop Fleet has a slightly different birth order with Anne b. 1618, Mary b. 1620, John b. 1622 and finally Margaret b. 1624. [11]

a good puritan
Chelmsford, Essex was a large market town and legal center. County Essex in the1620's was "Puritan Central." Many of the ministers and puritan leaders  of the Massachusett Bay Colony, including John Winthrop, were from Essex. The Reverend Thomas Hooker was lecturing in Chelmsford by 1626.  He was one of the most influential Puritan Minister, he fled England in 1629 to avoid Archbishop Laud and his ecclesiastical court, the Court of High Commission. He immigrated to Massachuestt in 1633 and was the founder of the Connecticut Colony. It is possible if not probable that his evangelical style of preaching influenced William Pynchon.

It is not known if William attended college, but he was certainly a very intelligent man who was well educated. He served several times as churchwarden for his parish in Springfield, Essex. All Saint's Church was their place of worship. The church warden was not only responsible for the church building, but for the people who attended it. The warden was concerned with law and order, local housing for the poor and unemployment. [12] This work surely honed his administrative skills that he would put to good use in Springfield, Massachusetts.

William was a founding member of the "Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England." He was named in the 1628 charter issued by King Charles I. From May 1629 onward he participated in most of the prepatory meetings leading up to the launch of the expedition. William was recorded as paying £25  for stock in the company; this would guarantee him a share in land and profits, if there were any.  He was also part of a smaller group known as the Roxwell Group. These men pushed hard for action and not just talk. They were fully committed to leaving England and immigrating to New England. They signed an agreement promising to embark for Massachusetts by March 1, 1630. [13] This agreement was known as The Cambridge Agreement can be read here in full at the Winthrop Society webpage.

They didn't quite make the March 1 deadline but by late March the passengers were aboard their ships. The Pynchon family sailed on the Ambrose. They remained anchored off of Cowes until the morning of 8 April; a favorable wind was at their back, the Captain weighed anchor and set his course for Salem, Massachusetts. The passengers spent many weeks on the open sea and arrived in Salem around the 13th of June 1630. [14] One can only imagine their relief at stepping onto dry land once again.

After spending some time recuperating, and regaining their land legs, the new settlers began to spread out looking for optimum locations to set up their new homes. William and his family built their first home in what in now Quincy but was the newly formed town of  Dorchester on the banks of the river Neponset.

On or around 30 August tragedy struck the Pynchon family in the form of death; Ann Pynchon, wife and mother died. William did what most widowers did at that time, he remarried ASAP. His second wife was twice widowed Frances Sanford. She had arrived in Massachusetts with her son, Henry, on 20 March 1630. They were members of the Dorchester Company who sailed on the Mary and John.  Within a few years, Anna Pynchon would married her step brother Henry.

The newly formed family pulled up stakes in Dorchester and settled in Roxbury. William negotiated the sale of his land from the indian Chickataubut, the first of many deals he would make with Native Americans. William played an important role in the new colony. He served on the court of assistants, he was the colony treasurer, he helped establish the first church of Roxbury, and he was in charge of munitions and armaments. All while trying to grow food for his family to eat.

While in Roxbury, William began importing goods to resell to his fellow immigrants. He had a storeroom filled with pots and pans, fabrics and even toys for children. [15] Business was good. Relations with the government were not.  William  had a problem with taxes, he didn't like paying them. This would lead to friction with the colony leaders.

Not only did William import goods, he was an exporter as well. His most profitable export was beaver skins. On 15 July 1636 William signed a deed with the local indians for the rights to the land that would become Springfield, Massachusetts. At that time it was under the jurisdiction of Connecticut. The colony of Plymouth had a head start in the fur trade and had tied up all the land up into Maine. The traders in Massachusett had to look to the west to find their beavers. Springfield proved a profitable location for trading with Indian hunters. It was located on the banks of the Connecticut River which gave them access to Boston by ship rather than overland.

Pynchon was very diffent from his fellow immigrants in his treatment of the native population. He recoginized that the land was theirs. He did not allow natives to be held as slaves but rather dealt with them as fellow businessmen. Men of all trades were sought to swell the population of Springfield. Coopers, brickmakers, blacksmiths, all were welcome. All significant part of the population was from Wales. The townspeople were not necessarily the best Puritans and some where probably not particualarly religious. Over all, William Pynchon held sway. And so it went for almost 20 years. Then he wrote a book.

the meritorious price
On 16 October 1650 a book arrived in the Colony from London. It had a lenghty title and was most likely boring as hell, but it raised quite the controversy. The author was none other than William Pynchon. Although he was not trained as a theologian he certainly had immersed himself in the subject. His book had over 33 sources including a few catholic writers.

His book made four claims but the one that most upset the religious establishment in Massachusetts was his claim that Jesus did not suffer at the hand of God. Humans caused him suffering but God did not. He also claimed that Jesus did not go to Hell upon his death. These comment may possible raise a few eyebrows today, but the response in 1650 was overwhelming condemnation for his book.

The public executioner for Boston was instructed to publicly burn the book. Pynchon was called to Boston to respond before the General Court on 17 April 1651, he faced accusations of heresy. The court required him to work with several prominent ministers of his own choosing to 'correct his thinking'. On 9 May 1651 a letter from him was read to the General Court. He stated that he had changed him mind on one point but was vague about the details. The Court was not satisfied and required him to continue to work on his positions, meaning conform to our way of thinking. He was removed from all magisterial duties pending to outcome of his reschooling. His stepson Henry Smith was made magistrate of Springfield in his stead. William was ordered to report to the court on 14 October 1651. He failed to show. [15]

return to england
After receiving his summons to appear before the General Court William transferred land he had bought from the Indians to several Springfield men including his son and son in law. They were instructed to distribute the land as they saw fit. Shortly before his scheduled court appearance at the October 1651 court, he transferred all his land and business interests to his son John. It is clear that he knew things would not go well for him and he was unyielding in his beliefs. William chose to return to England where his theological beliefs would be tolerated.

England at that time was governed by the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Many wealthy men had left New England to enjoy their Puritan "time in the sun". In fact, there was a reverse migration as families returned England.

Surprisingly, at least to me, William did not return to his ancestral home of Springfield or even to Writtle. Instead, William acquired land in Wraysbury, just to the south of Windsor Castle on the river Thames. He purchased a house called Wyrardisbury House which included the house, outbuildings, dovecote, garden and orchards. the house stood at the south end of Wraybury across the river from Runymede, the site where King John I was forced to sign the Magna Carta.

In October of 1652 Henry Smith, returned to England. Two years later, Ann Pynchon Smith returned with her children. Margaret Pynchon Davis died in childbirth in 1653. John Pynchon, of course, stayed in Springfield, Massachusetts.

meritorious returns
After his return to England, William had his book reprinted. He continued writing up until his death. His books continued to be controversial but he was no longer in danger of being dragged into court or being forced to witness them being burnt.

John Pynchon of Springfield, Massachusetts visited his father and step mother while on business in England. This must have been a happy reunion but a sad farewell. Although John would return to England, he would never see his father or step mother again. William's wife, Francis Sanford Pynchon died on 10 October 1657, five years after their return to England. William's daughter Mary Pynchon Holyoke died in Massachusetts that same October. William had his portrait painted around this time, he seems rather stern and somber.

William, aged 72, wrote his will dated 4 October 1662, it was proved two months later in December. He had lived long enough to witness the end of the Puritan experiment and the return of King Charles II in 1660. I wonder what he thought about that.


[1] Robert Charles Anderson, The Winthrop Fleet, (Boston: New England Historic and Genealogical Society, 2012) 541.

[2] Walter C. Metcalf, editor, The Visitation of Essex, (London: Mitchell and Hughes, 1878) 266. The 1612 Visitation of Essex by Herald Raven, The Pynchon Family.

[3] Henry F. Waters, Genealogical Gleanings in England, (Boston: New England Historic and Genelogicl Society, 1901)845-67.

[4] Waters, Genealogical Gleanings, 848.

[5] Waters, Genealogical Gleanings. 848.

[6] Henry F. Waters, "Genelaogical Gleanings in England", The New England Historic and Genealogical Register. Vol. 48 (April 1894) 241-257.

[7] Waters, Genealogical Gleanings, 852.

[8] Anderson, The Winthrop Fleet, 543.

[8] David M. Powers, Damnable Heresy, William Pynchon, the Indians, and the First Book Banned (and Burned ) in Boston, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2015).

[9] Leslie Mahler, "The Family Origin of Frances Brett, Mother of William Pynchon of Roxbury and Springfield, Massachusetts," The American Genealogist, Vol. 76 (July 2001) 211-216; digital images, American Ancestors ( : accessed 17 January 2017).

[10] David M. Powers, Damnable Heresy, William Pynchon, the Indians, and the First Book Banned (and Burned ) in Boston, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2015).

[11] Anderson, The Winthrop Fleet, 543-4.

[12] David M. Powers, Damnable Heresy, 21.

[13] David M. Powers, Damnable Heresy. 14.

[14] John Winthrop, "His Shipboard Journal," The Winthrop Society ( : accessed 18 January2017).

[15] David M. Powers, Damnable Heresy.

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