Pilgrims’ progress

The only extant portrait of a Mayflower settler allows insight into individuals still shrouded by obscurity

Rebecca Fraser

The Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower have intrigued me ever since I read Longfellow’s The Courtship of Myles Standish. The 19th-century New England poet was descended from two of the most celebrated Pilgrims, Priscilla Mullins and John Alden. John Demos’s compelling history A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony seemed to provide a key to the tiny, brave community which arrived in the depths of winter in 1620, and began the Puritan emigration to New England. Demos’s almost scientific analysis of their artefacts and their estate inventories overturned prevailing ideas about Puritan families.

 But my curiousity was not quite assuaged. Governor William Bradford’s great account of the Mayflower settlers, Of Plimoth Plantation, means Bradford dominates the story. Yet the “unknown pilgrim” Edward Winslow was the only one ever painted. Why did the portrait of Edward’s daughter-in-law Penelope Winslow look like Queen Henrietta Maria when the Winslows came from a colony that a contemporary described as people “of mean and weak estates”?

The Winslow portraits proved a way into individuals still shrouded in obscurity. Portraits only appeared in New England in the 1670s once Boston became a prosperous and elegant town, but Edward’s portrait is dated 1651. It emerged that the Winslows had been painted in England by an artist in the circle of Robert Walker, Cromwell’s portraitist, and that, as was well known to genealogists, Edward Winslow was related to Sir Arthur Hesilrige. After the Civil War Edward Winslow had ended up on one of the most important revolutionary committees, as a Commissioner for Compounding with royalists for their estates. The grand portrait and a coat of arms followed, as it did for many in Cromwell’s court.

The assistance of the College of Arms determined that Winslow’s sister had married into an ancient Royalist family and that he had a rebel nephew whom he saved from execution. Even more surprisingly, Edward Winslow’s great-nephew William Wake became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1716.

The last lines of Bradford’s history complain of Winslow’s absence for the past four years. An extraordinarily energetic figure who was an ambassador to the American Indian tribes, Winslow returned to London to defend a way of life based on independent church membership. The heady excitement of the republic with its millennial themes and close links with New Englanders (perhaps a quarter returned to fight on Parliament’s side) meant Winslow never went back. Winslow’s son Josiah married the daughter of the first treasurer of Harvard, who returned to Suffolk but kept land in Massachusetts. A lost legacy in a court case against his wife’s Waldegrave grandfather filled out much information about the second generation of settlers.

The voyage of the Mayflower did not end with the peaceful Thanksgiving with the American Indian tribes — though that was the wish of many. Some colonists had a far more transatlantic history.

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