Puritans did not observe birthdays as we do, but the occasion—John Winthrop’s twenty-ninth birthday—in January 1617 may well have been a time for greater reflection than normal. Winthrop was in mourning for his wife, Thomasine Clopton Winthrop, who had died on 8 December. Four hundred years later, it is appropriate to reflect on what Winthrop’s experience and his Thomasine’s protracted death tells us about love and marriage, and death, and dying in puritan society.
John had been born and baptized in Edwardstone, one of the small communities adjoining Groton where the Winthrop’s owned land. His uncle was the lord of Groton manor, and shortly after John’s birth his family moved to Groton so his father, Adam Winthrop, could manage the estate for his brother. Groton was part of a godly kingdom encompassing much of the Stour Valley that was deeply shaped by puritan values. In 1602, John matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge and may well have expected to prepare for the ministry. But his plans changed. On a visit to Great Stambridge, Essex, the home of one of his college friends, he was smitten by Mary Forth and the 17-year-old married her a few months later, in April 1605. There is reason to believe that the attraction was largely sexual. Contrary to what many believe, puritans did not view sex as sinful. They saw human sexuality as a gift from God that would bring a married couple closer together. Intercourse between a husband and wife was, as the puritan clergyman William Gouge preached, “one of the most proper and essential acts of marriage.” It “must be performed with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully.” “As the man must be satisfied at all times in his wife,” he wrote, “and even ravished with her love; so must the woman.”
Mary gave birth to a son John in 1606, Henry in 1608, Forth in 1609, and Mary in 1612, while two other daughters died shortly after birth in 1614 and 1615. While physically compatible, the couple was not well matched spiritually. John was struggling to adapt to the different expectations of the puritan community in southwest Essex—he was criticized for hunting along a creek and allowing card-playing by his servants—but he was also troubled by Mary’s unwillingness “to talk with me about any goodness.”
Mary died in childbirth in June 1615. In 1613, the couple had moved to Groton, where John had, with the help of his father, purchased the estate from his uncle. Bereft of the marital companionship which was so important to him in December 1615, John married Thomasine Clopton, whom he had known from childhood. Thomasine was well read and deeply spiritual. She shared his concern for the broader community and supported the erection of a house for the impotent poor on manorial land John donated to Groton’s overseers of the poor and church wardens. Thomasine soon became pregnant, but their child, a daughter born on 30 November 1616, died a few days later. Thomasine herself did not recover from the childbirth, and died on 8 December.
During the days that Thomasine hovered between life and death, John was constantly at her bedside. His long and detailed account of her last days is one of the most affecting deathbed accounts of the period. Winthrop’s concern for his “dear and loved wife” is evident, as is Thomasine’s concern for him and her step-children, and the deep religious faith they shared. John was constantly with her, reading to her from the Scriptures, especially the gospel of John and the Psalms. She called the various servants of the estate to her bedside, exhorting them to live godly lives, and identifying things, such as excessive pride, that they should guard against. She thanked John’s parents for the kindness and love they had given her, and blessed the children. What made her situation more painful for John was that the “second Sunday of her illness,” when her death was certain, was the anniversary of their marriage. Devastated by his own approaching loss, he comforted her with how “she should sup with Christ in Paradise that night” and of “the promises of the Gospel, and the happy estate that she was entering into.”
Years later, in his lay sermon on “Christian Charity,” he preached to those embarking on the errand into the New England wilderness, John Winthrop would express the obligation for members of a godly Christian community to “mourn together” as well as to “rejoice together,” always having before them “our community as members of the same body.” Winthrop himself had recorded occasions of having visited and comforted neighbors who were in need. Now, following the death of Thomasine, he himself needed the support of friends—including a group of clergy and laymen whom he had joined in a conference (a spiritual prayer group)—as he struggled with his sense of loss. He gradually emerged from a grief that for a time led him to question God’s love, and by the end of 1617, he had begun to court Margaret Tyndale, whom he would wed in 1618 and who would stand by his side till her death in 1647.
John’s remarriage sixteen months after Thomasine’s death was not evidence of insincerity in the affection he had expressed for Thomasine, nor simply a necessity to find a helpmate in raising his young children. As noted before, marriage was seen by Winthrop and most puritans as a critical relationship in which a couple through love came together to aid one another not only materially but spiritually. Winthrop’s religious faith was often strengthened by a comparison between the love he felt for a spouse and the love God bestowed on him. On one such occasion he dreamed of Christ and was “so ravished with his love towards me, far exceeding the affection of the kindest husband, that being awakened,” he had “a more lively feeling of the love of Christ than ever before.” We should not generalize about puritan views of marriage and love from the experiences of one individual, but there are ample other examples in the poetry of Anne Bradstreet and the diaries of Samuel Sewall, as well as elsewhere, to make it clear that if Winthrop’s story was not that of all puritans it was certainly common. Marital love, religious faith, and social commitment all were interrelated in his story.
Featured image credit: Oil painting of John Winthrop from the early 18th century, based on a portrait from the 1630s. Artist unknown, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.