Ralph Levett

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Rev. Ralph Levett (1600 – c. 1660) was an Anglican minister who served as domestic chaplain to an aristocratic English family from Lincolnshire with Puritan sympathies, who subsequently installed him as rector of the local parish. A graduate of Christ's College, Cambridge,[1] where he became a protégé of the prominent Puritan minister John Cotton, Levett later married the sister of the wife of his friend Rev. John Wheelwright, another well-known early Puritan settler of New England.


Early life[edit]

John Cotton (1585–1652), mentor to Rev. Ralph Levett

Ralph Levett was born in 1600 in High Melton, South Yorkshire to an old Yorkshire family previously seated at Normanton and Hooton Levitt.[2] His father, Thomas Levett, was of middling rank in the local gentry, not owning the manor at High Melton, but identified as 'gent.' in local records.[3] Ralph Levett's mother was Elizabeth Mirfin of a family who owned the manor of Thurcroft.[4][5]

Levett enrolled at Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1617, where he took his B.A. and M.A. degrees, and was ordained in 1624, when he was named a deacon at York.[1] Following his ordination, Levett spent time in the Boston, Lincolnshire, household of Rev. John Cotton, a leading Puritan of his day. The practice of taking in postgraduate students for training in a Puritan rector's household was a well-established one, and Cotton had many such Cambridge acolytes, who came to learn the ways of carrying on a Puritan ministry.[6]

Ashby cum Fenby[edit]

Following his time in Cotton's household, Levett took up his post as private chaplain with the household of Sir William Wray in Ashby cum Fenby, Lincolnshire.[7] Wray was the son of Sir Christopher Wray, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales and a wealthy politician, having enriched himself with profits from the Royal mint. Sir Christopher Wray was lord of several manors in Yorkshire, as well as four others, including Grainsby, in Lincolnshire.[8] His son Sir William, (1555–1617) was created baronet, and was the father of two sons: Sir John Wray and, by his second wife Frances, daughter of Sir William Drury of Hawstead, Suffolk, Sir Christopher Wray (1601–1646).

Although originally from Yorkshire, Levett apparently decided to remain in Lincolnshire. His post within the Wray family household, known as Puritan sympathizers, shielded Levett to some degree from the persecution by Archbishop William Laud of clergymen with Puritan sympathies. In 1636, by contrast, Levett's friend Wheelwright, whom he apparently knew at Cambridge, was driven from his post at Bilsby by the ecclesiastical authorities, and departed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony.[9] (Wheelwright was following John Cotton, who himself had fled to Massachusetts three years earlier to avoid imprisonment for nonconformity.[10])

Still, the rigors of ministering to an aristocratic, if Puritan-inclined household, meant that Levett sometimes wrote to his former mentor Cotton for advice on handling tricky situations. In 1627 the novice Levett wrote Cotton, inquiring how to pray appropriately for his patroness when she was in the congregation, and Levett asked for particular guidance on dealing with entertainments he witnessed at Christmastime, including "cardinge" (card playing) as well as "mixt dancinge." Valentine's Day caught Levett unawares when he was approached by the household's "2. young Ladyes" and asked to draw a name from a hat.

"His Puritan principles," writes Sargent Bush in his The Correspondence of John Cotton, "were clearly being challenged as he considered what was an appropriate response for him as a minister of God on the one hand and an employee of the family on the other. So he looked to his mentor for advice."

In Cotton's responses, one senses the subtle nuances required of some Puritan thinkers, as well as the collegial nature of the early Puritan ministerial cadre. Cotton gave Levett advice on how to pray for his patroness without appearing to flatter her, and he warned Levett against 'carding' and drawing names at Valentine's as they were 'lotteries.' Interestingly, Cotton had no problem with dancing, except "lasciuious dauncinge to wanton dittyes & in amorous gestures & wanton dalliances especially after great feasts."[6]

In 1632, five years after Levett's letter to Cotton, Lincolnshire records show the marriage of "Mr. Ralfe Levit and Anne Hutchinson" in Bilsby, the parish of Rev. John Wheelwright and not far from Ashby cum Fenby.[11] Anne Hutchinson was the daughter of Edward Hutchinson of Alford, and the sister of Mary Hutchinson, Wheelwright's second wife. Mary Hutchinson, John Wheelwright's wife, was the sister-in-law of her brother William Hutchinson's wife, another Anne Hutchinson, who later became prominent in the Massachusetts Antinomian controversy.[12]


But unlike his Puritan friends, Levett elected to remain in England. He left his post as domestic chaplain to the Wray family for the rector's job in a manor owned by his Wray patrons. In 1633 he began signing the transcripts at the church at Grainsby as 'Radulphus Levet, rector.' On 3 April 1635, when the previous rector Thomas Humphrey was buried, 'Ralph Levitt, M.A.' was presented to the rectory of Grainsby by Frances, widow of Sir William Wray.[13] Perhaps the Wray family's endorsement provided Levett some measure of protection, or his brother John's position as Chancellor and Commissary to the Archbishop of York helped shield him from persecution.

Levett apparently held the living of the tiny village of Grainsby until at least 1649, when he signed the transcripts as 'R. Levet, rector.'[14] His son Francis[15] graduated at Queens' College, Cambridge, also became a minister, and was rector of Little Carlton, Lincolnshire, from 1662 until 1711. (When the emigrant Rev. John Wheelwright finally disposed of the last of his Lincolnshire property in 1677, Massachusetts records attest that it was "purchased of Francis Levett, gentleman," likely the son of his old friend Ralph Levett.)[16]

St Nicholas's Church, Grainsby, Lincolnshire


Ralph Levett's two brothers were both prominent Oxford-educated lawyers. His brother Thomas Levett[17] served as High Sheriff of Rutland, and his brother John Levett was a well-known figure in York legal circles, frequently representing the Archbishop of York. The two improvident brothers apparently dissipated what was a large estate of properties scattered across Yorkshire.[18] Thomas Levett was well known as an antiquarian, and his disposal of monastic charters descended in the Levett family to Roger Dodsworth for publication was an important event in Yorkshire historical circles. Another brother, Peter Levett, also graduated from Christ's College, Cambridge, and became a Yorkshire vicar, successively at Cantley, South Yorkshire, and Boynton, East Riding of Yorkshire.[19]


  1. ^ a b "Levett, Ralph (LVT617R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  2. ^ Levett of High Melton, ThurcroftWeb, thurcroftweb.co.uk
  3. ^ The Will of Thomas Levett of High Melton, Gent., 7 October 1622, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. LXVII, Henry Fitz-Gilbert Waters, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Published by the Society, Boston, 1913
  4. ^ Mirfin/Myrfin of Slade Hooton, Thurcroft, Brookhouse, Thurcroft Web, thurcroft.web.co.uk
  5. ^ Deed of Mirfin to Levett and Eyre, Sawn Moor Manor, Sheffield Archives, Marrian Deeds, ThurcroftWeb, thurcroft.web.co.uk
  6. ^ a b The Correspondence of John Cotton, Sargent Bush (ed.), Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, University of North Carolina Press, 2001
  7. ^ The Levett family of High Melton and the Wrays of Yorkshire had common dealings for centuries, and Ralph Levett would have been known to the Wrays, even though Sir Christopher Wray had relocated to nearby Lincolnshire in the sixteenth century. The Levetts were related to many Yorkshire families familiar to the Wrays, such as the Wests of Firbeck Hall[1], the Wentworths, the Mirfields (Mirfins), Gargraves, Bosviles, Westbys, the Lindleys, Copleys, Hansons and other gentry families.
  8. ^ History, Gazetteer, and Directory, of Lincolnshire, and the City & Diocese of Lincoln; William White, Simpkin, Marshall & Co., London, 1882
  9. ^ Rev. John Wheelwright's lifelong friend Sir Henry Vane, Member of Parliament and an early colonial Governor of Massachusetts, married Frances Wray, granddaughter of Sir William Wray.[2]
  10. ^ American Jezebel: the uncommon life of Anne Hutchinson, the woman who defied the Puritans; Eve LaPlante, HarperCollins, New York, 2004 ISBN 0-06-056233-1 ISBN 978-0-06-056233-5
  11. ^ The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Vol. XLV, New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, New York, 1914
  12. ^ The Correspondence of John Cotton - John Cotton, Sargent Bush, Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture - Google Boeken. Books.google.com. 2001-07-23. Retrieved 2012-07-30. 
  13. ^ The New England Historical and Genealogical Register; Henry Fitz-Gilbert Waters, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Published by the Society, Boston, 1913
  14. ^ Even in the 19th century, tiny Grainsby village, located seven miles south of Grimsby, Lincolnshire, only had some 15 houses and 114 inhabitants.[3] In his Lincolnshire (Penguin Books, 1964) Nikolaus Pevsner noted that St Nicholas's Church had a tall Norman doorway and an order of shafts with scallop capitals. He described the hamlet as "attractive" with a "poplar-lined lane." [4] The tiny village seems an obscure outpost for a Puritan rector--but perhaps that was just the point.
  15. ^ "Levett, Francis (LVT648F)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  16. ^ Wheelwright Deed, Suffolk Deeds, Suffolk County, 1899
  17. ^ A 'Radulphus filius Thomae Levett Jr.," i.e. Ralph Levett son of Thomas Levett Jr., was baptized at St Andrew's Church, Kirk Ella, East Riding, Yorkshire, in 1638. It is possible that Rev. Ralph Levett's brother Thomas named a son after him. [5]
  18. ^ The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Henry Fitz-Gilbert Waters, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Published by the Society, Boston, 1913
  19. ^ "Levett, Peter (LVT628P)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  • Sargent Bush, ed. (2001) The Correspondence of John Cotton. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia ISBN 0-8078-2635-9, ISBN 978-0-8078-2635-5

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