You may remember learning about the Puritans from your school days – they were the killjoys that cancelled Christmas and closed theatres in 17th century England. As it happens, there was much more to them than this, but allow me to provide a similarly inadequate sketch of who they were, to put you in the picture before we jump in to their importance in Ipswich. The Puritans were a religious movement that grew out of those that felt that the church during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603) was not Protestant enough; they felt that the reformation that had begun under Henry VIII, after his break from Rome, needed to be extended so that all forms of ritual and anything that came between the individual and God were removed. This is why they disliked statues of saints and stained glass windows in churches for example.
Ipswich was “a Puritan stronghold in a county that was noted for its opposition to Roman Catholicism and High Church Anglicanism” according to Robert Malster. This was predominantly due to two factors: first, Ipswich’s geographical location as a port town on the east coast of England made it an ideal place to smuggle reformation texts into the country. Indeed, in the early years of the reformation many books were brought into Ipswich by boat, hidden in casks, spreading ideas from continental Europe. Second, Ipswich already had a long history as a place of trade by the beginning of the 17th century. As puritanism tended to flourish in the merchant classes it is perhaps not surprising that it was strongly embraced in Ipswich.
Ipswich was so renowned as a hotbed for resistance that a court play of the period called The City Match describes a character as being “inspired from Ipswich” when she models her sweetmeats into the forms of people from Actes and Monumentes (John Foxe’s famous book that describes protestant martyrs). This tells us two things: Ipswich was nationally renowned for its nonconformist Puritan views, and the Tudors enjoyed playing with their food. England was primed for alphabetti spaghetti, but would have to wait some three hundred years for its common adoption. An England controlled by Puritan reformers was a prospect much closer to hand.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, the Ipswich Corporation had begun appointing its own town lecturer/preacher. A succession of Puritan town preachers, who outlined their views on how the reformation in England should develop, followed. Samuel Ward was the most enduring and influential of these town lecturers. He was appointed in 1605 at the age of 28 and served the town in this capacity until his death in 1640. Ward, who became known in the town as ‘Watch Ward’, was a successful and popular appointment – he was elected town lecturer for life after only two years in post and his wages continued to rise throughout his time in this position.
While very popular in Ipswich, Ward was never too far from controversy in the wider nation. Ward preached against set forms of prayer and in 1621 published caricatures of the (Catholic) court of Spain – normally this would have been viewed as patriotic, but it came at just the wrong moment, as King James was then negotiating with the Spanish over the marriage of his son and after a complaint by the Spanish ambassador Ward was thrown into prison. Ward humbly petitioned the king and was soon released, only to be prosecuted again a year later for nonconformity. Somehow, yet again, Ward escaped unscathed with the final judgement in the matter finding him to be “not altogether blameless, but a man to be won easily by fair dealing.” Clearly, if nothing else, Ward was a man capable of getting out of the stickiest of situations.
Ward may have been granted reprieves for his outspoken views, but others were less fortunate. The pamphleteer William Prynne wrote and published Newes from Ipswich, which attacked those higher up in the church of “detestable practices” including the removal of “orthodox and sincere preachers” and “ushering in popery.” Although Prynne had published the work under the name “Mathew White” he was discovered and, having already lost his ears for publishing a previous dissenting text, this time he was sentenced to have the roots of his ears removed, to be branded on both cheeks with the letters “S.L.” for “Seditious Libeller” and to be imprisoned for life.
When it came to the civil wars of the 1640s Puritan Ipswich, unsurprisingly, backed parliament in its fight against the Royalists. Indeed, according to Twinch “Historians agree that in no other shire was support for parliament more widespread than in Suffolk, and there were few towns in England where the corporation was more thoroughly sympathetic to parliament than in Ipswich.” This can be largely attributed to its reforming, puritan fervour. Fortunately for the townspeople, military action didn’t come to Ipswich. However, it is a sign of how trusted the community was in its support of parliament’s cause that England’s eastern supply of gun powder, and much of its shot, was moved from Cambridge to Ipswich during the conflict as a measure to increase its security.
Although the Puritan base of support for parliament was strong in Ipswich, it would be unfair to say that all, even of a Puritan bent, supported everything that parliament did. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the decision to execute Charles I in 1649 after his defeat by the parliamentary forces. It is hard for us to grasp just how extraordinary this event must have been for people living in England at the time – most people saw the king as ordained to rule by God; for this man to be executed by his subjects was unprecedented and for many incredibly unsettling. A much quoted phrase of the time, all these centuries later, still sums it up best “the world turned upside down”.
In Ipswich, Nathaniel Bacon, the well-respected town Recorder, laid down his pen in sadness upon hearing the news of Charles I’s execution. Bacon concluded his records by stating ‘I have summed up the affairs of the government of this town of Ippeswiche under the bayliffes and whoe are happie in this, that God hathe established their seate more sure than the throne of kings.’
Soon Ipswich’s Puritan rulers found themselves freed to put their tenets into full practice. On the Sabbath day there was to be “no sporting or playing, […] no unnecessary rowing in boats, no bathing or washing in the river, no leaping nor running not sporting with horses” according to Redstone. Despite lists like this giving the Puritans a reputation as killjoys, they also did plenty of good especially in creating an environment in which learning flourished. Eager to spread the word of God to ordinary people, the Puritans opened public libraries and reorganised the Grammar School and Christ’s Hospital in Ipswich.
Those, like Nathaniel Bacon, who were sad to hear of the execution of Charles I, would not have to wait too long for the re-establishment of the monarchy. Oliver Cromwell died in 1658. After a failed attempt by his son, Richard, to command the confidence of the army and continue the office of Lord Protector, internal divisions within the Republican Party led to his resignation. In 1660 Charles II was invited to return to Britain as king in what is now commonly known as the Restoration.
There were celebrations around the country, even in Puritan strong-holds like Ipswich. The most notable surviving relic of the monarchy’s restoration in Ipswich is to be found adorning the front of one of the town’s best known buildings, Ancient House. The Royal Arms of Charles II were placed there by the Sparrow family at the time of the Restoration. The Sparrows were long-time supporters of Charles II and even went on to claim they had hidden him in the house during the Civil War.
An interesting footnote
Samuel Ward’s brother, Nathaniel, travelled to New England to take up residency in Ipswich, Massachusetts. While there he wrote the first code of laws in North America called the Body of Liberties, which was adopted by the Massachusetts General Court in 1641. Some have argued that this work began the American tradition of codified liberties that would eventually lead to the United States Constitution.
Malster, Robert, A History of Ipswich, Phillimore & Co Ltd, 2000
Malster, Robert, Ipswich, an A to Z of Local History, Wharncliffe Books, 2005
Redstone, Lillian, Ipswich Through the Ages, East Anglian Magazine Ltd, 1948, republished 1969
Twinch, Carol, The History of Ipswich, The Breendon Books Publishing Company Limited, 2008
Image of Samuel Ward reproduced with kind permission of Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service, Ipswich Borough Council collection