William Vassall

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William Vassall (baptized August 27, 1592, Stepney, Middlesex (London), England, died 1656) was an English settler in North America. He was from the educated gentry, and a supporter of freedom of religion. In March 1629 he was recorded in the Charter for the Massachusetts Bay Company as a patentee, along with his brother Samuel.[1][2][3]

Vassall family[edit]

William Vassall was a son of John Vassall and Anne Russell. William Vassall's paternal grandfather, also named John Vassall, sent William's father to England to escape persecution in France[4], as the Vassall family were Huguenots from Normandy in the time of French religious purges in the 16th century.[5] William Vassall's father had been recognized by Queen Elizabeth I as achieving merit in the war with the Spanish Armada in 1588 by providing two ships which he commanded at his own expense, the Samuel and the Little Toby.[6][7] A 'Mayflower' (not the Pilgrim ship), of 250 tons out of London, owned by William Vassall's father John Vassall and others, was outfitted in 1588 for the Queen, possibly also for Armada service.[8] The Vassall arms can be noted on the National Armada Memorial in Plymouth England.[9] In 1609, John Vassall was recorded as a shareholder on the Second Charter of The Virginia Company. Anne Russell was John Vassall's second of three wives and with her had five children, William being the youngest.[10]

In New England and return to London[edit]

In England in March 1629, William Vassall was recorded in the Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company as an Assistant to the Governor. He was a signatory to both the Massachusetts Bay Charter and the Cambridge Agreement in 1629.[11][12] The Cambridge Agreement was to move the entire government of Massachusetts from England to the New World.[13]

At an October 1629 meeting of the Company, William Vassall, with others, was appointed to travel out to New England. Per page 256 of The Mayflower Quarterly of September 2010, William Vassall sailed on the Lyon to New England in 1630 and returned on the Lyon to England about one month later. There is some confusion in the article as it states that Vassall traveled in company with Governor John Winthrop, who was just assuming his post. Other sources state that Winthrop did not travel on the Lyon but was on the Arbella, flagship of what became known as The Winthrop Fleet - eleven ships bringing over 700 persons.[14] This was the beginning of what came to be known as the historic event called The Great Migration - thousands of English settlers coming to New England in the early-mid-1630s.

Regarding William Vassall's first trip to New England, research indicates that if he did travel on the Lyon to New England, he may have arrived in February 1630 as per the Letter from Deputy Governor Thomas Dudley to Lady Bridget, Countess of Lincoln, March 1631:[14] in this letter the Lyon is noted several times, once for its arrival date from Bristol of February 5, 1630 and another for being in-port in Salem on July 7, 1630. Additionally, some sources state that his family came with him on this first trip, but this cannot be confirmed.

Return to Massachusetts[edit]

In mid-1635 William Vassall returned to New England on the ship "Blessing" out of London with his family - per the manifest: William, 42, wife Anna, 42 and children: Judith 16, Frances 12, John 10, Ann 6, Margaret 2, and Mary age 1. The family first settled in Roxbury and then Scituate, Massachusetts Colony.[15][16] He is recorded as owning 200 acres of upland and some acreage of meadow land and was licensed to operate a ferry on the North River.[2]

On November 28, 1636 William Vassall joined the church of Rev. John Lathrop. What followed were many years of rancorous events involving Vassall over his perception of Puritan religious intolerance in New England.[2]

In 1639 William Vassall was granted the liberty "to make an oyster bank in the North River, in some convenient place near his farm which was called the 'West Newland' and to appropriate it for his own use, forbidding all others to use same without his license."[2]

William Vassall was an advocate of religious freedom for all in the New England church. He was very much against those whose religious opinions followed the strict Puritan line and agitated against the heavy-handed methods of the colonial government. He had strong convictions in the rights and religious freedoms of his fellow colonists and worked hard for religious tolerance which caused him no end of problems with the conservative colonial government.

In 1644-45 Vassall was involved in a controversy involving the church in Scituate about baptism, which caused half the congregation, with the minister, to relocate to Barnstable. Meanwhile, the part of the congregation that included William Vassall and his daughter Judith White, wife of Mayflower passenger Resolved White, remained at Scituate. The "Vassall group" left behind, called their church the "Second church" of Scituate, the first Church apparently the one that moved to Barnstable. The Vassall church also brought the pastor from the Duxbury church to Scituate to be their pastor, ordaining him in September 1645 in spite of the refusal of the Duxbury church to dismiss him.[17]

William Vassall was known for the Remonstrance of 1646, in which Robert Child and others petitioned the Bay Colony General Court for greater religious and political freedom and closer adherence to the laws of England. Vassall, as a resident of Plymouth, did not sign the Bay Remonstrance of 1646, but Gov. Winthrop, and most other persons, believed it was actually his creation. In order to counter Vassall's charges, the very conservative Edward Winslow was sent to London in 1646 on behalf of Gov. Winthrop and other Bay Colony leaders.[18]

The conservative Winslow would be the liberal Vassall's nemesis for a number of years and they should have been friends, since they were in-laws - Vassall's daughter Judith was married to Resolved White, who was Edward Winslow's stepson. Both men died in the Caribbean in the 1650s - Vassall on Barbados and Winslow off the coast of Jamaica.

Though Vassall is known for his work on the famous 1646 Bay Colony Remonstrance, he was earlier involved in a 1645 incident whereby he petitioned to the Plymouth General Court asking for full religious toleration for well-behaving men - i.e. religious freedom. Many of the town deputies, plus assistants, including Myles Standish, William Collier, Thomas Prence and Edward Winslow were opposed. The petition could have passed, but a delaying action by William Bradford gave the conservative side time to maneuver against it which caused its defeat. In a letter to Gov. Winthrop, Winslow expressed his pleasure at the defeat.[19]

With the Bradford-engineered defeat of Vassall's 1645 petition, even though most of the deputies were for it, Winslow described what happened to Gov. Winthrop: "but our Governour and divers of us having expressed the sad consequences would follow, especially my selfe and mr. Prence, yet notwithstanding it was required according to order to be voted: But the Governour would not suffer it to come to vote as being that indeed would eate out the power of Godlines etc."[20]

Winthrop stated in his History of New England, that Vassall was "a busy and factious spirit, and always opposite to the civil governments of this country and the way of our churches." He describes Vassall's several petitions to the Bay Colony and Plymouth courts, and to Parliament, as asking that "the distinctions which were maintained here, both in civil and church estate, might be taken away, and that we might be wholly governed by the laws of England."[21]

Former Pilgrim leaders, William Bradford and Edward Winslow, both prior Plymouth governors, still had much power over religion in New England and were adamantly opposed to Vassall's freedom of religion policy.

Edward Winslow, in his letters to Gov. Winthrop, often expressed his feelings against democratic tendencies in both colonies, Plymouth and Bay Colony. In 1645, following the abortive Vassall attempt to obtain more civil and religious freedom, Winslow wrote Gov. Winthrop, "I utterly abhorred it," and he added that if such a change came about, he would move from Plymouth to Massachusetts (Bay colony), "I trust that we shall finde (I speake for many of us that groane under these things) a resting place amongst you for the soules of our Feet".[22]

Return to England[edit]

In 1646, after several years of religious controversy, he found that his religious beliefs were not compatible with those of others in his community. He returned to England to make his grievances known with a petition to parliament to expose his perception of the Massachusetts Puritan leaders' political corruption, religious intolerance and abuse of power. He never returned to New England.[23][24][25] While in England, Vassall's intention was to petition for the rights of non-Puritans in that very religious community - a petition which failed. This process ended his friendship with Edward Winslow, a Mayflower Pilgrim of 1620, and a diplomat representing Plymouth Colony's interests in England, who was much against Vassall's efforts. The two men had been friends, as Winslow was the step-father-in-law of Vassall's daughter Judith, wife of Resolved White. During his time in England, Vassall was known to be friend of trans-Atlantic merchant Isaac Allerton, another Mayflower Pilgrim of 1620. Vassall was a member of the London merchant group Merchant-Adventurers, which had provided funding for the 1620 Mayflower voyage, and Allerton was an associate of this group. William Vassall had property in Rotherhithe on the Thames, across from where the Mayflower had boarded its passengers. Being a wealthy man, Vassall was known to businessmen throughout Europe. He was the owner of the ship "Lion" (Lyon) which he offered to Isaac Allerton, who put it to much use in his trans-Atlantic trading business. Both Vassall and Allerton were close associates of Matthew Craddock, who had been the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company.[3][26]

In Barbados, West Indies[edit]

About 1648, after two years in England, Vassall sailed for Barbados in the West Indies where he settled at St. Michael's Parish purchasing land and remained there for the rest of his life.[3][27]

Marriage and children[edit]

William Vassall married at Cold Norton, Essex, England in June 1613, Anna King (Kinge), born about 1593. She was a daughter of George Kinge and Joane Lorran of Woodham Mortimer, Essex.[27]

Children of William and Anna Vassall:

  • Anna, born September 6, 1614 at Cold Norton, Essex - buried September 22, 1614.
  • Judith, born about 1619. Buried April 3, 1670. Married November 5, 1640 to Mayflower passenger Resolved White, son of Pilgrim William White (Mayflower passenger). Eight children.
  • Frances, born about 1623. Married Jul 16, 1637 at Scituate, Mass. to James Adams, son of John Adams.
  • Samuel, (twin), born June 22, 1624 - buried November 16, 1624.
  • Mary (twin), born June 22, 1624 - died before 1634.
  • John, born about 1625. Married Anna Lewis, daughter of John Lewis, and English resident of Genoa, Italy. He became quite wealthy acquiring large tracts of land in Jamaica after the 1655-57 British capture of Jamaica from the Spanish. He died between August 10, 1684 and July 6, 1688 at Jamaica, West Indies.
  • William, baptized February 2, 1627 at Little Baddow, Essex. No further record.
  • Anna, baptized April 20, 1628 at Little Baddow, Essex. Married before 1655 Nicholas Ware.
  • Margaret, born about 1633. Married April 25, 1656 at St. Michael's Parish, Barbados, Joshua Hubbard (Hobart). She died prob. in Barbados, West Indies.
  • Mary, born 1634 - died unmarried in 1657, prob. in Barbados, West Indies.[3][27]

Will of William Vassall[edit]

Barbadoes. William Vassall, now resident of this Island, Esq., 31 July 1655, proved 12 June 1657. Son in law Nicholas Ware and his wife Anna, my daughter. My two other daughters, Margaret and Mary Vassall. All now here with me. My estate in this Island, New England, or any other part or place in the world. To my daughters, Judith, wife of Resolved White, Frances, the wife of James Adams, Anna, the wife of Nicholas Ware, and Margaret and Mary Vassall, the other two thirds, to be equally divided among them, to each a fifth. My son John not being now in the island, my son in law Nicholas Ware to act and manage for him and he and his wife, child and family, to remain, abide and dwell on my plantation until my said executor's arrival, or an order from him concerning same.

The Testator made his mark in the presence of Humphrey Davenport, Humphrey Kent and Lion Hill. The will was proved by John Vassall, sole executor.[28]

Death of William Vassall[edit]

William Vassall died in Barbados between July 1655 and June 1657 in the Parish of St. Michael. It is believed that Vassall's wife Anna died, location unknown, before his will was written in 1655 as she is not named. His grave no longer exists and his wife's is unknown.[3][29][30]

In 1657 Resolved White and his wife Judith of Scituate in New Plymouth of this island (Barbados), Esq. sold to Nicholas Ware of St. Michael's, merchant, his one fifth of two thirds of William Vassal's plantation in St Michael's.[31]

In May 1657 Mary Vassall sold her share of William Vassall's plantation in St. Michael's to her brother-in-law Nicholas Ware.[31]

Vassall family and the Mayflower[edit]

There is information, largely unsourced, that states that John Vassall or the Vassall family was the builder of the ship Mayflower that came to Plymouth in 1620. There is no documented evidence of Vassall ownership of the Mayflower of 1620 Plymouth fame, but Marsden does note on page 675 'a Mayflower' of London of 250 tons, owned by John Vassall and others, fitted out by Londoners for the queen in 1588, and mentioned in documents until 1594.[32]

As a result of his Armada service, the Queen authorized him to bear arms and use an English family coat of arms in place of his French one, with his name and services commemorated on a memorial erected in 1888 in Portsmouth, England. In 1609 John Vassall was recorded as a shareholder on the Second Charter of The Virginia Company. Anne Russell was John Vassall's second of three wives and with her had five children, William being the youngest.[10]

The GSMD (Mayflower Society) states that the building date and original owner of the ship Mayflower that came to Plymouth in 1620 is unknown. Additionally, the Society states that Mayflower was a common ship's name in the period and that the Mayflower captained by Christopher Jones from about 1609 has never been adequately researched prior to his time as ship's captain.


  1. ^ Charter of Massachusetts Bay Colony
  2. ^ a b c d AGG Harry P. Folger 3rd Assistant Editor, The Mayflower Quarterly, Sept. 2010, p. 256
  3. ^ a b c d e Eugene Aubrey Stratton. Plymouth Colony Its History & People 1620-1691 (Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing, 1986), p. 365
  4. ^ Leslie Stephen & Sidney Lee, The Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 20, Ubaldini-Whewell (London, England: Oxford University Press, 1922), 155-156.
  5. ^ William Vassal: A Biography
  6. ^ Dorothy Carpenter, William Vassall and dissent in early Massachusetts: Another Look at the Founding of Massachusetts with special emphasis on a forgotten dissenter, William Vassall (2004) p. 14
  7. ^ Dictionary of National Biography, pp 155-156.
  8. ^ R. G. Marsden, "The Mayflower", English Historical Review (19 October 1904), p. 675.
  9. ^ Moseley, Brian (March 2011). "National Armada Memorial". The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History. Plymouth Data. Archived from the original on 12 May 2012. Retrieved 15 February 2015.
  10. ^ a b AGG Harry P. Folger, The Mayflower Quarterly (Sept. 2010), pp. 255-256
  11. ^ Charter of Massachusetts Bay Company
  12. ^ William Vassal: A Biographical Sketch William Vassall: A Biographical Sketch
  13. ^ The Cambridge Agreement
  14. ^ a b Winthrope Society
  15. ^ NEHGR 17:56; Deane, Scituate, p. 366; Pope
  16. ^ Manifest of the Blessing 1635
  17. ^ Eugene Aubrey Stratton, Plymouth Colony Its History & People 1620-1691 (Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing, 1986), p. 79-80
  18. ^ Eugene Aubrey Stratton, Plymouth Colony Its History & People 1620-1691 (Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing, 1986), pp. 80, 87
  19. ^ Eugene Aubrey Stratton, Plymouth Colony Its History & People 1620-1691 (Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing, 1986), p. 81
  20. ^ Eugene Aubrey Stratton, Plymouth Colony Its History & People 1620-1691 (Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing, 1986), p. 155
  21. ^ Eugene Aubrey Stratton, Plymouth Colony Its History & People 1620-1691 (Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing, 1986), pp. 86, 87
  22. ^ Eugene Aubrey Stratton, Plymouth Colony Its History & People 1620-1691 (Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing, 1986), p. 137
  23. ^ AGG Harry P. Folger, The Mayflower Quarterly (Sept. 2010), pp. 256-257
  24. ^ AGG Harry P. Folger, The Mayflower Quarterly (Sept. 2010), p. 365
  25. ^ Memorial William Vassall
  26. ^ David Lindsay, PhD., Mayflower Bastard: A Stranger amongst the Pilgrims (New York: St. Martins Press, 2002), pp. 85, 88, 227-15
  27. ^ a b c AGG Harry P. Folger 3rd Assistant Editor. The Mayflower Quarterly (Sept. 2010), p. 257
  28. ^ The New England Historical and Genealogical Register (Boston 1857) Vol. LI (51) p.286 )
  29. ^ AGG Harry P. Folger 3rd Assistant Editor. The Mayflower Quarterly (Sept. 2010), pp. 256-257
  30. ^ Memorial of the Vassals
  31. ^ a b Ruth Wilder Sherman, CG, FASG and Robert Moody Sherman, CG, FASG, Re-edited by Robert S. Wakefield, FASG. Mayflower Families who landed at Plymought, Mass., Dec. 1620 3rd Ed. William White (Pub General Society of Mayflower Descendants, 2006), vol. 13, p. 6
  32. ^ R. G. Marsden, "The Mayflower", English Historical Review (19 October 1904) pp. 669-680.