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Edward Winslow and his Worcestershire heritage

Who was Edward Winslow and why was he living with the Separatists? How did he learn about their beliefs after spending 5 years being educated at King’s School Worcester?

Edward Winslow isn’t the most heralded of the Mayflower passengers. His skills in diplomacy, writing and politics don’t usually put him in the story books’ limelight. But his ability to forge friendships with the Native American community, battle in England’s corridors of power and help communicate the Mayflower’s legacy mean he is one of the story’s crucial figures.

Edward Winslow was born and raised in Droitwich Spa, Worcestershire, 18 October 1595. Just outside the town is a bronze statue of Edward Winslow, commemorating the moment he first set foot on land in America. The Vestry of St. Peter’s church, Droitwich Spa was built in 1973 and is also dedicated to the memory of Edward Winslow who was baptised there in 1595.

Winslow’s family were involved in the salt production trade and his father Edward Sr, was a Salt Merchant and Under-Sheriff of Droitwich Spa.  You can trace the Winslow family history and the long history of salt production at the town’s Heritage and Information Centre.

Between April 1606 and April 1611 (aged 10 to 15), Winslow studied at the King’s School then based at Worcester Cathedral. Winslow was one of ten students championed for a scholarship by the Dean of the Cathedral as he showed great promise. He would have studied Grammar, Latin and Greek, this education would mark Winslow out in the Pilgrims and be a factor in becoming a leader in their ranks.

His admission is listed in the cathedral library, which is also home to one of the country’s most important collections of medieval books, manuscripts and music. It has rare documents and books from around the time of the Mayflower Pilgrims leaving England.

Winslow didn’t continue his education at Kings College Oxford like a lot of his wealthier classmates did, but instead became a printer’s apprentice in London. But after a dispute, decided against fulfilling his contract and left England in 1617 to join the exiled English separatists in Leiden, Holland. These Separatists had fled persecution for their religious beliefs and would go on to plan the Mayflower’s historic sailing, in search of the New World and a new life. He married Elizabeth Barker in 1618, listed as a printer in the marriage records.

In the summer of 1620, Winslow was among the Pilgrims who sailed from Leiden on the Speedwell, arriving in Southampton to meet the Mayflower, with the intention of both ships sailing to America. It didn’t work out that way and after a stop in Dartmouth the passengers on the Speedwell transferred to the Mayflower at their last stop, Plymouth. It meant that with 102 passengers on board, the Atlantic crossing was extremely arduous and overcrowded.

Winslow travelled with his wife, brother Gilbert, a servant called George Soule, a youth named Elias Story and also in their care, was a girl called Elinor More – one of four children from the More family of Shipton in Shropshire who travelled with the Pilgrims.

The historic Mayflower Compact

They arrived in Cape Cod in November 1620, many miles from their intended destination. Recognising they needed something in law to allow them to settle in a place they had not expected to find, they drew up the Mayflower Compact – a document that pledged their allegiance to the crown and set out the basis of democracy in the new land. Edward Winslow was the third person to sign the compact beneath the Separatist leaders John Carver and William Brewster.

They eventually settled in Plymouth at the beginning of a bitter first winter that would claim more than half of the population. On March 24, despite surviving that harsh winter, Elizabeth died. Only a month and a half later, in May 1621 Edward became married Susanna White, they were the first to marry in the new land. The couple had three sons – Edward, John and Josiah, (who became the first native born governor of an American Colony) one daughter – Elizabeth, and one unknown child who died young.

During this tumultuous time, Winslow formed a positive relationship with Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag tribe whose land the Pilgrims had settled upon. It’s thought that his natural ability as a diplomat meant an alliance formed between the colonists and the Native Americans. His interest in the Wampanoag people was crucial and the Pilgrims received crucial help in learning how to survive in the new land.

When Massasoit first visited the Pilgrim colony, a haphazard settlement at best, Winslow was among the first to greet him. It’s believed he would also help nurse the chief back to health when he fell ill – reportedly using his renowned chicken soup to do it!

The two groups celebrated with a three-day Harvest Celebration event, in December 1621, which Americans now call Thanksgiving.

Edward Winslow became involved in defending the Plymouth and later Massachusetts Bay Colonies from their opponents and adversaries in England, and made several trips back and forth between England and Massachusetts,  in 1623/4, 1630, and 1634; on one occasion he was arrested and thrown into the Fleet Prison in London by his adversaries, on grounds that he had performed marriage ceremonies without being ordained. A family friend The Earl of Coventry (whose descendants built Croome Court) helped to lobby for his freedom from prison.

He won favour with Oliver Cromwell, who had overthrown the very monarchy and ideals that the Pilgrims had first fled and was appointed to parliamentary committees, including one overseeing the confiscation of property from royalty.

In 1655 Cromwell placed him on a military expedition to the West Indies with the aim of establishing new English settlements there. This would have been a high honour and a new colony for him as he was to be the Governor of Jamaica.

He would never see it though, as he died of yellow fever during the voyage. He died a god-fearing Pilgrim at heart and with him went a very special set of skills that built friendships, won negotiations and established a new way of life in a new land. Edward Winslow changed the world without ever knowing its long-term impact.