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Alleged ransacking of Little Gidding church 1646

Recent researches by Trevor Cooper, David Ransome and Joyce Ransome have independently concluded that there was no such ransacking of the Ferrar properties or of the church by the Puritans in 1646, as has been alleged by all writers about Little Gidding since the time of Peckard onwards. This exciting event found its origin in Peckard’s Life of Nicholas Ferrar published in 1790, written by the then Master of Magdalene College Cambridge, on the basis of his scanning previous manuscripts and some of the thousands of letters in the Ferrar papers which he had inherited from his father-in-law, Edward Ferrar II. Edward was the last of the line of Little Gidding Ferrars, and his daughter Martha married Dr Peckard.

Peckard also drew upon the memoir of John Hacket recording the Life of Bishop Williams ‘Scrinia Reserata’, published 1693. All subsequent historians of Little Gidding have repeated this allegation, based on a misreading of a letter from John Ferrar to his son, and by these and other reports of damage to properties in England at that turbulent time.

Closer examination of the Ferrar papers, with the absence of any reference to this event, has led to the conclusion that it did not happen. The only contemporary references to life at that time come from this undated letter of John Ferrar to his son, and the charge he made upon his son to continue his father’s monthly almsgiving – possibly in the early 1650s.

David Ransome sums up:

"In August 1642 hostilities began…..in 1643 John with his son John, his daughter Virginia and niece Mary Collett (but without his wife) left Gidding and spent the next two years in Holland.

It has often been stated that Little Gidding was sacked during the Civil wars, but there is no contemporary evidence that this happened and some indications that it did not. The family papers survived (we have them still). The family itself returned to the manor in late 1645 or early 1646 and no surviving estate documents or letters refer to destruction or the need for repairs. There was an attempt at sequestration but John visited London in the winter of 1647 – 48 and secured its removal. During his absence parliamentary troops came to the house demanding shelter but a payment of money persuaded them to go elsewhere."

John Ferrar of Little Gidding, by D R Ransome. Records of Huntingdonshire Vol.3 No.8(2000)

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The ransacking of Little Gidding Church

Letter from John Ferrar

This letter was transcribed by Bernard Blackstone in ‘The Ferrar papers’ and is given here: in John’s handwriting and the transcription.

"…the present sad and turbulent condition…a general deluge of consumptions of estates fell upon the whole land for our great sins…this last judgment of God an universal and unheard of punishment fell upon all for all had sinned; and in our particular estate we were scourged…we were fain to submit to a long sequestration for then the wars raged horribly but that was not all: to save our consciences from what was imposed that that might not ruin also we rather resolved to leave our native country and so I took you and my VF (Virginia) and went beyond sea…there being so many open wide throats gaping to devour Little Gidding."
The Ferrar Papers, edited by B. Blackstone. Cambridge, University Press, 1938

In it John refers to his having left Gidding and gone overseas to Holland. John’s wife Bathsheba did not go with her family to Holland but stayed with relatives in Essex and returned to Gidding to collect the rents during their absence. The estate was briefly sequestered during the Commonwealth, and perhaps some deterioration came about as a consequence of neglect, but there is no mention of deliberate destruction, nor of the font being thrown into the pond. Indeed when the font was examined and restored by metallurgists at English Heritage in 1993 no evidence of immersion in water was found.

Peckard also alleges that the church organ was torn down and made into a fire upon which sheep were roasted: there is no evidence that there was an organ in the church, although there was certainly one in the Manor House.

Possible sources for the allegations:
The narrative given by Muir and White in their ‘Materials for the life of Nicholas Ferrar’ includes the notes written by John Ferrar for the eventual writing up of this life by an unidentified Historian. John Ferrar describes the scene at Nicholas’ deathbed when Nicholas commanded that his books be gathered together and burned on the place he had marked for his grave, and ‘a great smoke and bonfire and flame they made. And it being upon a hill, the towns round about and men in the fields came running up to the house, supposing some great fire had happened at Little Gidding….in a few days, it was by rumour spread all the country over at market towns that Mr Nicholas Ferrar lay a-dying, but he could not die till he had burned all his conjuring books and made a great fire of them upon the grave that he would be buried in.’ (p110 para 185)

Later, referring to the pamphlet The Arminian Nunnery published four years after Nicholas’ death (1641), and its allegations of Catholic practices, John writes that ‘although it was most easy to have been confuted’…’soldiers then raised, that came out of Essex to pass towards the north way to Gidding, intelligence was given them at Gidding, from good hands, that these books was given to many of them, and that they were hired and animated...to have offered violence to the family and house. But God Almighty, in his special providence, did turn away their fury at that time and it then passed over.’ (p111 para 187)

Muir, LR and White, JA editors. Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, Literary and Historical Section, Vol. XXIV, Part IV, pp. 263 – 428, December 1996

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The ransacking of Little Gidding Church
Letter from John Ferrar
The Ferrars
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The Ferrars
Printed version of letter from John Ferrar
The Ferrars
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The Ferrars
The ransacking of Little Gidding Church
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