Mary Brewster, Matriarch of the Mayflower

The execution of Mary Queen of Scots played a role in the life of Mary Brewster. Allow me to introduce you to this remarkable, though less famous, Mary. I consider her the Matriarch of the Mayflower. Being in her early 50s when she sailed, she was one of the older passengers. She devoted her entire adult life to taking care of others.

Early Years

Mary Brewster grew up in in Northern England. Though genealogists have not yet confirmed who she was before becoming Mrs. William Brewster, according to records filed when she and William moved to Holland, she was born in Nottinghamshire in 1567 – the year Mary Queen of Scots was removed from her throne. The queen was beheaded in 1587, four years before Mary married William. Two main theories have emerged regarding her family of origin. One theory is that she is the daughter of Thomas Wentworth, the Bailiff at Scrooby Manor until he died and Mary’s future father-in-law assumed that position. The other theory is that she was the daughter of Thomas Wyrall, which would eventually link her family to the Brewsters not only through marriage, but also because men in both families were implicated in the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.

When she married William in 1591 she sealed her destiny as the future Matriarch of the Mayflower. Before they married, William served on the staff of England’s Secretary of State – William Davison. Davison was Queen Elizabeth’s ambassador to Holland and served on her Privy Council. It fell to him to get Protestant Queen Elizabeth to sign the death warrant for her cousin, Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. The Privy council feared Queen Elizabeth’s life was in danger as long as her cousin lived. However, ordering the death of another monarch, even if they did bitterly disagree on matters of religion, was a politically precarious position.

Betrayal at Court

Davison got Queen Elizabeth to sign the death warrant and, as she instructed him to do, took it to be sealed and delivered to the executioners. The next day the queen came down with a bad case signer’s remorse. She demanded to know why Davison had delivered the warrant, claiming she never told him to do so. She tossed him in the Tower of London and blamed him for the execution of the Catholic queen. Without a job, William returned home to Scrooby.

Where he picked up his childhood network of acquaintances – including Mary whose-last-name-is-yet-to-be proven. Would he have returned home had Queen Elizabeth not betrayed Davison? Would he and Mary have married anyway?

Life in the Manor

The newlyweds settled in Scrooby Manor. Pilgrim Brewster spent his later childhood years at the Manor because his father, also William, was the bailiff and postmaster. When he died, the younger William assumed the post.

In the 1500s the Manor was an elegant haven for those traveling the North Road connecting Edinburg and London. Royalty and bishops found shelter there, as well as riders delivering messages and mail between the two cities.

Mary became the mistress of the Manor. They started their family in August 1593 with the birth of Jonathan. The family grew by two daughters when Patience was born in 1600 and Fear in 1603. Two more sons, Love and Wrestling, joined the family after they emigrated to Holland in 1608.

What’s in a Name?

Perhaps you find the names of the Brewster children a bit strange. I am speculating, but their names make sense as we follow Mary’s progression through the years.

Jonathan. It’s a Biblical name that is not William. I imagine the new parents wanted a name that wasn’t already quite as common as William. His father was a William. His former employer was a William. The name William was well used among Brewster family and friends.

Patience. With a gap of seven years between Jonathan and Patience, I wonder if her name refers to the amount of patience required waiting for her arrival.

Fear. By the time Fear was born, William was deeply involved in the controversial Separatist movement, a group focused on recreating a first century Christian community. Her name refers to their fear of the Lord, as in awe, or profound respect.

Love. Love was born after they moved to Leiden, where they were surrounded by other like-minded people who became as dear to them as their own family. He was named for the love they experienced in their beloved community.

Wrestling. When Wrestling was born the community was debating whether to stay in Holland or strike out for the New World. He may have been named for how they wrestled with that decision.

Hard Decisions

The Leiden Separatists community decided to send a small delegation of around forty  men, women and children, including the Brewster family, to the New World to establish their own religious settlement. The rest would remain behind, including the three older Brewster children. If the settlement succeeded, the others would travel on later ships. If the venture failed, as Roanoke had and Jamestown almost did, the first group could return to Holland. Their pastor John Robinson stayed in Holland.

William Brewster assumed the role of spiritual leader, earning the title of Elder. Mary, by virtue of being his wife, likely became an unofficial associate lay pastor. I imagine she provided pastoral care to the women and children in their small community.

Foster Mother

While living in Leiden William assumed responsibility for two young relatives back in England who’d been orphaned. He arranged for them to join the family in Leiden. Mary cared for them along with her own children. They didn’t travel with the couple on the Mayflower. Perhaps others in the beloved community took care of them. Or perhaps they were old enough to work as servants for one of the other families.

However, before she boarded the ship, she assumed responsibility for two other children. Those financing the trip insisted the Separatists accept others who were not part of the Separatist movement, telling them they’d either accept these strangers or lose their financing. The new group included four More children. History is unclear as to whether they were orphaned or abandoned. In any case, two of them were assigned to the Brewster’s. Leaving Jonathan, Patience and Fear behind, Mary sailed with William, her younger sons and the More children.

Nurse and Mentor

The trip left later than planned, took longer than anticipated, and arrived in winter. The extreme deprivations took a toll on the community. About half the group died during the first few months in their new settlement. Mary nursed others back to health and looked after several of the very young adults whose parents died.

Her sacrifices and leadership lead me to think of her as her the Matriarch of the Mayflower. She followed William wherever he went, even when doing so included serious trouble with the English authorities. She gave up life as the Mistress of the Manor to spend months living in the cramped 58 x 25-foot living area of the ship. She provided a home for the future Plymouth Governor William Bradford before he married and again when he became a young widower. She cared for her own five children; for a while two orphaned relatives, and then the two More children foisted on her just as they prepared to sail.


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I’m pleased to announce Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale or Two Cultures is scheduled for release in October. Here are three places available for pre-orders. Others will be available in the weeks to come.

Bookshop.org (Supporting local Indie Bookshops)
Amazon.com/Mayflower-Chronicles-Tale-Two-Cultures/
In Houston:
Blue Willow on Memorial at Dairy Ashford https://www.bluewillowbookshop.com
Barnes & Noble in River Oaks at W. Gray

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