Life in England
John Winthrop was born on 12 January 1587/8 to Adam and Anne (née Browne) Winthrop in Edwardstone, Suffolk, England. His birth was recorded in the parish register at Groton. His father's family had been successful in the textile business, and his father was a lawyer and prosperous landowner with several properties in Suffolk. His mother's family was also well-to-do, with properties in Suffolk and Essex. When Winthrop was young, his father became a director at Trinity College, Cambridge. Winthrop's uncle John (Adam's brother) emigrated to Ireland, and the Winthrop family took up residence at Groton Manor.
Winthrop was first tutored at home by John Chaplin and was assumed to have attended grammar school at Bury St. Edmunds. He was also regularly exposed to religious discussions between his father and clergymen, and thus came to a deep understanding of theology at an early age. He was admitted to Trinity College in December 1602, matriculating at the university a few months later. Among the students with whom he would have interacted were John Cotton and John Wheelwright, two men who also had important roles in New England. He was a close childhood and university friend of William Spring, later a Puritan Member of Parliament with whom he corresponded for the rest of his life. The teenage Winthrop admitted in his diary of the time to "lusts ... so masterly as no good could fasten upon me." Biographer Francis Bremer suggests that Winthrop's need to control his baser impulses may have prompted him to leave school early and marry at an unusually early age.
In 1604, Winthrop journeyed to Great Stambridge in Essex with a friend. They stayed at the home of a family friend, and Winthrop was favorably impressed with their daughter Mary Forth. He left Trinity College to marry her on 16 April 1605 at Great Stambridge. Mary bore him five children, of whom only three survived to adulthood. The oldest of their children was John Winthrop, the Younger, who became a governor and magistrate of Connecticut. Their last two children, two girls, died not long after birth, and Mary died in 1615 from complications of the last birth. The couple spent most of their time at Great Stambridge, living on the Forth estate. In 1613, Adam Winthrop transferred the family holdings in Groton to Winthrop, who then became Lord of the Manor at Groton.
Lord of the Manor
As Lord of the Manor, Winthrop was deeply involved in the management of the estate, overseeing the agricultural activities and the manor house. He eventually followed his father in practicing law in London, which would have brought him into contact with the city's business elite. He was also appointed to the county commission of the peace, a position that gave him a wider exposure among other lawyers and landowners, and a platform to advance what he saw as God's kingdom. The commission's responsibilities included overseeing countywide issues, including road and bridge maintenance and the issuance of licenses. Some of its members were also empowered to act as local judges for minor offenses, although Winthrop was only able to exercise this authority in cases affecting his estate. The full commission met quarterly, and Winthrop forged a number of important connections through its activities.
Winthrop documented his religious life, keeping a journal beginning 1605 in which he described his religious experiences and feelings. In it, he described his failures to keep "divers vows", and sought to reform his failings by God's grace, praying that God would "give me a new heart, joy in his spirit; that he would dwell with me". He was somewhat distressed that his wife did not share the intensity of his religious feelings, but he eventually observed that "she proved after a right godly woman." He was more intensely religious than his father, whose diaries dealt almost exclusively with secular matters.
His wife Mary died in 1615, and he followed the custom of the time, marrying Thomasine Clopton soon after on 6 December 1615. She was more pious than Mary had been; Winthrop wrote that she was "truly religious & industrious therein". Thomasine died on 8 December 1616 from complications of childbirth; the child did not survive.
In approximately 1613 (records indicate that it may have been earlier), Winthrop was enrolled at Gray's Inn. There he read the law but did not advance to the Bar. His legal connections introduced him to the Tyndal family of Great Maplestead, Essex and he began courting Margaret Tyndal in 1617, the daughter of Sir John Tyndal, a chancery judge, and his wife Anne Egerton, sister of the leading Puritan preacher Stephen Egerton. Her family was initially opposed to the match on financial grounds; Winthrop countered by appealing to piety as a virtue that more than compensated for his modest income. The couple were married on 29 April 1618 at Great Maplestead. They continued to live at Groton, although Winthrop necessarily divided his time between Groton and London, where he eventually acquired a highly desirable post in the Court of Wards and Liveries. His eldest son John sometimes assisted Margaret with the management of the estate while he was away.
Decision to emigrate
In the mid to late 1620s, the religious atmosphere in England began to look bleak for Puritans and other groups whose adherents believed that the English Reformation was in danger. King Charles I had ascended the throne in 1625, and he had married a Roman Catholic. Charles was opposed to all manner of recusants and supported the Church of England in its efforts against religious groups such as the Puritans that did not adhere fully to its teachings and practices. This atmosphere of intolerance led Puritan religious and business leaders to consider emigration to the New World as a viable means to escape persecution.
The first successful religious colonization of the New World occurred in 1620 with the establishment of the Plymouth Colony on the shores of Cape Cod Bay. An effort in 1624 orchestrated by pastor John White led to a short-lived colony at Cape Ann, also on the Massachusetts coast. In 1628, some of the investors in that effort joined with new investors to acquire a land grant for the territory roughly between the Charles and Merrimack Rivers. It was first styled the New England Company, then renamed the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1629 after it acquired a royal charter granting it permission to govern the territory. Shortly after acquiring the land grant in 1628, it sent a small group of settlers led by John Endecott to prepare the way for further migration. John Winthrop was apparently not involved in any of these early activities, which involved primarily individuals from Lincolnshire; however, by early 1629, he was probably aware of the company's activities and plans. The exact connection is uncertain by which he became involved with the company, because there were many indirect connections between Winthrop and individuals directly associated with the company. Winthrop was also aware of attempts to colonize other places; his son Henry became involved in efforts to settle Barbados in 1626, which Winthrop financially supported for a time.
In March 1629, King Charles dissolved Parliament, beginning eleven years of rule without Parliament. This action apparently raised new concerns among the company's principals; in their July meeting, Governor Matthew Cradock proposed that the company reorganize itself and transport its charter and governance to the colony. It also worried Winthrop, who lost his position in the Court of Wards and Liveries in the crackdown on Puritans that followed the dissolution of Parliament. He wrote, "If the Lord seeth it wilbe good for us, he will provide a shelter & a hidinge place for us and others". During the following months, he became more involved with the company, meeting with others in Lincolnshire. By early August, he had emerged as a significant proponent of emigration and, on 12 August, he circulated a paper providing eight separate reasons in favor of emigration. His name appears in formal connection with the company on the Cambridge Agreement, signed 26 August; this document provided means for emigrating shareholders to buy out non-emigrating shareholders of the company.
The company shareholders met on 20 October to enact the changes agreed to in August. Governor Cradock was not emigrating and a new governor needed to be chosen. Winthrop was seen as the most dedicated of the three candidates proposed to replace Cradock, and he won the election. The other two were Richard Saltonstall and John Humphrey; they had many other interests, and their dedication to settling in Massachusetts was viewed as uncertain. Humphrey was chosen as deputy governor, a post that he relinquished the following year when he decided to delay his emigration.
Winthrop and other company officials then began the process of arranging a transport fleet and supplies for the migration. He also worked to recruit individuals with special skills that the new colony would require, including pastors to see to the colony's spiritual needs.
It was unclear to Winthrop when his wife would come over; she was due to give birth in April 1630, near the fleet's departure time. They consequently decided that she would not come over until a later time; it was not until 1631 that the couple were reunited in the New World. To maintain some connection with his wife during their separation, the couple agreed to think of each other between the hours of 5 and 6 in the evening each Monday and Friday. Winthrop also worked to convince his grown children to join the migration; John, Jr. and Henry both decided to do so, but only Henry sailed in the 1630 fleet.
By April 1630, Winthrop had put most of his affairs in order. Groton Manor had not yet been sold because of a long-running title dispute. The legal dispute was only resolved after his departure, and the property's sale was finalized by Margaret before she and John Jr. left for the colony.
Coat of arms
The coat of arms of John Winthrop
John Winthrop used a coat of arms that was reportedly confirmed to his paternal uncle by the College of Arms, London in 1592. It was also used by his sons. These arms appear on his tombstone in the King's Chapel Burying Ground. It is also the coat of arms for Winthrop House at Harvard University and is displayed on the 1675 house of his youngest son Deane Winthrop at the Deane Winthrop House. The heraldic blazon of arms is Argent three chevronels Gules overall a lion rampant Sable.