Nicholas Ferrar

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Nicholas Ferrar
Nicholas Ferrar.jpeg
Nicholas Ferrar,
from a portrait by Cornelius Janssens, the original of which hangs in Magdalene College, Cambridge, alongside those of his parents.
Born 22 February 1592
Died 4 December 1637
Little Gidding, Huntingdonshire
Venerated in Anglican Communion
Feast December 4 (Church of England), December 1 (Episcopal Church (United States))

Nicholas Ferrar (22 February 1592 – 4 December 1637) was an English scholar, courtier, businessman and man of religion. Ordained as a deacon in the Church of England and having lost much of the family fortune in the Virginia Company, he retreated with his extended family in 1626 to the manor of Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire. There he lived for his remaining years in an informal spiritual community, following High Anglican practice.[1]

His friend, poet and minister George Herbert (1593–1633) on his deathbed sent Ferrar the manuscript of The Temple, telling him to publish the poems if he thought they might "turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul" and, "If not, let him burn it; for I and it are less than the least of God's mercies."[2] Ferrar published them in 1633, and Herbert's poems have remained in print ever since. They are considered among the masterworks of the English language.

Early life[edit]

Nicholas Ferrar was born in London,[3] the third son and fifth child (of six) of Nicholas Ferrar and his wife Mary (née Woodnoth). At the age of four he was sent to a nearby school, and is said to have been reading perfectly by the age of five. He was confirmed by the Bishop of London in 1598, contriving to have the bishop lay hands on him twice.[2] In 1600 he was sent away to boarding school in Berkshire, and in 1605, aged 13, he entered Clare Hall, Cambridge. He was elected a fellow-commoner at the end of his first year, took his B.A. in 1610 and elected a fellow the following year.[4] He first met George Herbert, known as a metaphysical poet, as a Cambridge undergraduate. Ferrar suffered from poor health and was advised to travel to continental Europe, and away from the damp air of Cambridge.

Travels abroad[edit]

Ferrar obtained a position in the retinue of Princess Elizabeth, daughter of James I who married the Elector Frederick V. In April 1613 he left England with the princess, not returning until 1618.

By May he had left the Court to travel alone. Over the next few years he visited the Dutch Republic, Austria, Bohemia, Italy and Spain, learning to speak Dutch, German, Italian and Spanish. He studied at Leipzig and especially at Padua, where he continued his medical studies. He met Anabaptists and Roman Catholics, including Jesuits and Oratorians, as well as Jews, broadening his religious education. During this time Ferrar recorded many adventures in his letters home to his family and friends. In 1618 he is said to have had a vision that he was needed at home, and so he returned to England.[5][page needed]

The Virginia Company[edit]

St John’s Church, Little Gidding, as rebuilt in 1714

The Ferrar family was deeply involved in the London Virginia Company. His niece is said to be the first woman to have received the name "Virginia".[citation needed] His family home was often visited by Sir Walter Raleigh, half-brother of Sir Humphrey Gilbert. Upon returning to London, Ferrar found that the family fortunes, primarily invested in Virginia, were under threat.

Ferrar entered the Parliament of England and worked with Sir Edwin Sandys. They were part of the parliamentary faction (the "country party" or "patriot party") that seized control of the government's finances from a rival group, the "court faction." They were grouped around Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick; the court faction supported Sir Thomas Smith (or Smythe), also a prominent member of the East India Company. Smythe was treasurer of the Virginia Company from 1609 to 1620; he encouraged the governor to end evangelization of Native Americans and expand tobacco culture.[6]

Ferrar wrote a 16-page pamphlet criticizing Smythe's management, but it was not published until 1990.[7] Smythe (as he spelled his name) was heavily criticized by rivals for allegedly skimming profits, but an investigation revealed no wrongdoing and he continued to enjoy the support of the king.[8] The argument ended with the London Virginia Company losing its charter following a court decision in May 1624.

Ferrar served briefly as Member of Parliament for Lymington.

At Little Gidding[edit]

In 1626 Ferrar and his extended family left London and moved to the deserted village of Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire. The household was centred on the Ferrar family: Nicholas' mother, his brother John Ferrar (with his wife Bathsheba and their children), and his sister Susanna (and her husband John Collett and their children). They bought the manor of Little Gidding and restored the abandoned little church for their use. The household always had someone at prayer and had a strict routine. They tended to the health and education of local children. Ferrar and his family produced harmonies of the gospels that survive today as some of the finest in Britain. Many of the family also learned the art of bookbinding, apparently from the daughter of a Cambridge bookbinder, which style they worked in.[9]

In 1633 the poet George Herbert, on his deathbed, sent the manuscript of The Temple to Nicholas Ferrar, telling him to publish the poems if he thought they might "turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul", and otherwise, to burn them. Ferrar arranged to publish them that year. The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations (1633) had eight editions by 1690.[10]

Nicholas Ferrar died on 4 December 1637, but the extended family continued their way of life without him. After his siblings John Ferrar and Susanna Ferrar Collett died in 1657 within a month of each other, the larger community began to disband.

Puritans criticised the life of the Ferrar household, denouncing them as Arminians, and saying they lived as in a 'Protestant Nunnery'. However, the Ferrars never lived a formal religious life: there was no Rule, vows were not taken, and there was no enclosure. In this sense there was no 'community' at Little Gidding, but rather a family living a Christian life in accordance with the Book of Common Prayer, according to High Church principles.

The fame of the Ferrar household was widespread, and attracted many visitors. Among them was King Charles I, who visited Little Gidding three times. He briefly took refuge there in 1645 after the Battle of Naseby.

Legacy and honours[edit]

"Easter Wings", an example of the "pattern poems" in George Herbert's The Temple, a book which Ferrar edited and had published. The lines of the poem were arranged to be printed sideways, with each stanza forming an image meant to suggest a bird flying up with outstretched wings.[11]

Nicholas Ferrar is commemorated in the calendar of the Church of England on 4 December, the date of his death. In the calendar of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America he is commemorated on 1 December.

T. S. Eliot honoured Nicholas Ferrar in the Four Quartets, naming one of the quartets Little Gidding. The Friends of Little Gidding was founded in 1946 by Alan Maycock with the patronage of T. S. Eliot, to maintain and adorn the church at Little Gidding, and to honour the life of Nicholas Ferrar and his family and their life in the village. The Friends organize an annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Nicholas Ferrar each July, and celebrate Nicholas Ferrar Day on 4 December.

A new religious community was founded at Little Gidding in the 1970s, inspired by the example of Ferrar. That group, calling itself the Community of Christ the Sower, ended in 1998.

Poet laureate Ted Hughes was directly related to Nicholas Ferrar on his mother's side. Hughes and his wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, named their son Nicholas Farrar Hughes. The family evidently used both spellings of the surname.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wilson, Colin (1965), Beyond the Outsider: The Philosophy of the Future, Boston: Houghton Mifflin
  2. ^ a b Maycock 1938, pages 234-235
  3. ^ Maycock 1938, page 6.
  4. ^ "Ferrar, Nicholas (FRR609N)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  5. ^ Maycock 1938.
  6. ^ Christopher Hodgkins, Reforming Empire: Protestant Colonialism and Conscience in British Literature (Google eBook), Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002, p.156
  7. ^ Ferrar, Nicholas (1990), Ransome, DR, ed., Sir Thomas Smith's Misgovernment of the Virginia Company. A Manuscript from the Devonshire Papers at Chatsworth House, Roxburghe Club . Unpublished. Presented to the Members by the Duke of Devonshire. Note: "Sir Thomas Smith's Misgovernment of the Virginia Company" was not published until 1990, after the manuscript had been donated to and edited by the Roxburghe Club. Ferrar alleged that Smith and his son-in-law, Alderman Robert Johnson, were running a company within a company to skim off the profits from the shareholders. He also alleged that Dr John Woodall had bought some Polish settlers as white slaves, and sold them again in Virginia to Lord de La Warr. Ferrar said that Smith was trying to reduce other colonists to slavery by extending their period of indenture indefinitely beyond the seventh year.
  8. ^ Cal. State Papers, North American, 16 July 1622, 20 Feb., 8 Oct. 1629, 23 April, 13 May, 15 June 1625
  9. ^ English Bindings:13, from The Binding of Books, An Essay in the History of Gold-Tooled Bindings by Herbert P. Horne, London 1894; Harthan, John P., Bookbinding, p. 13, 1961, HMSO for the Victoria and Albert Museum
  10. ^ Cox, Michael, ed. (2004), The Concise Oxford Chronology of English Literature, Oxford University Press, p. 92, ISBN 0-19-860634-6 
  11. ^ Ferguson, Margaret, et al., editors, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, fourth edition, New York: W. W. Norton & Company (1996) ISBN 0-393-96820-0; p. 331.
  12. ^ Butscher, Edward (1976) Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury Press; p. 284

Works on Nicholas Ferrar and Little Gidding[edit]

Note: This listing is not limited to items cited in this article.

  • Acland, John Edward. Little Gidding and Its Inmates in the Time of King Charles I. with an Account of the Harmonies. Project Gutenburg Transcription
  • MacDonogh, Rev. Terence Michael, ed. Brief Memoirs of Nicholas Ferrar: founder of a Protestant religious establishment at Little Gidding, Huntingdonshire. Chiefly collected from a Narrative by the Right Rev. Dr, Turner, Formerly Lord Bishop of Ely; And now edited, with Additions. 2nd ed. London: Jacob Nisbet, 1837. (The original of this important source is now lost.) Internet Archive downloadable PDF Google Books downloadable PDF
  • Maycock, Alan Lawson. Chronicles of Little Gidding. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1954.
  • Maycock, Alan Lawson (1938), Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding, London, New York: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Macmillan .
  • Mayor, John Eyton Bickersteth. Nicholas Ferrar. Two Lives by His Brother John and by Doctor Jebb. Now first Edited with Illustrations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1855. Internet Archive downloadable PDF
  • Moore, William W. The Little Church that Refused to Die. Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1993.
  • Peckard, Peter. Memoirs of the life of Mr. Nicholas Ferrar. Cambridge, Eng: J. Archdeacon, 1790.
  • Ransome, Joyce. The Web of Friendship : Nicholas Ferrar and Little Gidding. Cambridge, Eng: James Clarke & Co., 2011.
  • Riley, Kate E. The Good Old Way Revisited: The Ferrar Family of Little Gidding, c. 1625–1637. A 2007 dissertation from Australia (265 PDFs)
  • Skipton, Horace Pitt Kennedy. The Life and Times of Nicholas Ferrar. London: A. R Mowbray & Co, 1907. Internet Archive downloadable PDF
  • Turner, Francis see MacDonogh, Rev. T. M. (Terence Michael), ed.
  • Willam, A. M. Conversations at Little Gidding. 'On the retirement of Charles V.' 'On the austere life': dialogues by members of the Ferrar family [transcribed by Nicholas Ferrar] with and introduction and notes. London: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

External links[edit]

Parliament of England
Preceded by
Sir William Doddington
Henry Crompton
Member of Parliament for Lymington
With: John More
Succeeded by
John Button
John Mills