Robert Seely, 1602

BIRTH: 4 July 1602, Bluntisham-cum-Earith, Huntingdonshire, England

DEATH: 11 Oct 1668, New York City, New York, United States

Robert Seely’s London

by LeAnne Seely


(taken from JASFO Newsletter Volume XVI – November 2005 – Number 4)

Robert Seely lived in London from 1623 to 1630. To understand what London was like in the early 1600’s, let’s make a short review of the city and its environs from pre-history up to Robert’s arrival from his birthplace in Huntingdon, which is north of the London area.
Prehistoric research indicates there were a few farms along the north bank of that stretch of the Thames River where London sits today, but no real settlement or community until the Romans, in their quest to rule the world, clashed with the local tribesmen in the area around AD 43. They built a bridge across the Thames (pronounced “temz” and rhymes with gems) as part of the Roman road system. The bridge attracted settlers, and as the Thames was deep and within the tidal zone, it was a convenient place for ocean-going merchant ships to dock. The settlement came to be called Londinium, the Celtic name for the area.
The city flourished and contained many of the buildings normally associated with a provincial capital in the Roman empire-bathhouses, temples, forums, theatres, and a gladiatorial amphitheatre. By about AD 200, the city was large enough and important enough to be fortified with stone walls (several portions of which remain standing and can be seen today). But by about AD 400, the Roman Empire was crumbling badly and its borders shrinking rapidly. The Romans abandoned the city of Londinium and the province of Brittania altogether. Little is known about London and its happenings during the Dark Ages of the next several hundred years, but life for the common people went on.
The area was apparently occupied by the Saxons and was repeatedly attacked by Vikings and Danes well into the 800’s. By 818, King Alfred the Great had become King of all the English and re-established Lundenburgh as one of a system of burghs (chartered towns) around the country. Through the 900’s, the city became the most important commercial center in England, with exotic international trade by ship and much industry, particularly decorative metalwork and weaving.
Because of its prominence, royalty began to hold council in London and issue laws from the city, but it also had its own government with a council of eldermen as well as a popular assembly. Modern British Parliament is based on London City’s system of government.
Another great attack by the Danes in 1013 led to the pulling down of London Bridge, the only bridge across the Thames in the area, in order to stop the advance of the Danish garrison, giving rise, we may suppose, to the old rhyme “London Bridge is falling down . . .” The Danes were repulsed, and the bridge was rebuilt.
In 1042, King Edward the Confessor came to the throne, accomplishing, among other things, the building of the great abbey at Westminster, but leaving England without a clear heir upon his death in 1066. Two men came forward, each claiming Edward had promised him the succession. One was his brother-in-law, Harold, and the other was his cousin, William, Duke of Normandy. The famous Battle of Hastings was fought between these two men and their armies. The City of London sent a large force of men to fight for Harold; but of course it was the Duke of Normandy who came out victorious.
William the Conqueror, as he became known, wisely granted great latitude to the City of London to keep its established laws and system of government, even though they had fought for Harold. His actions were probably influenced by London’s importance to the economic stability of the country. King William built the Tower of London at the watergate on the western edge of the city wall not only to observe and intimidate the most important city in his new realm, but also to protect it. In later years, as the tower and its surrounding buildings were strengthened and fortified, it was said of the complex, “This tower is a citadel to defend or command the city, a royal palace for assemblies or treaties, a prison of state for the most dangerous offenders, the place of coinage for all England, the armoury, the treasury, and the general conserver of records.” The newfound stability of the city increased both trade and numbers as livelihoods became more secure.
As the medieval period progressed, the Corporation of the City of London and its unique position of political power evolved partly due to the monarchy’s attempts to avoid civil unrest in the largest and most influential city in the realm. The crowded city clustered along the northern riverbank of the Thames, with a small settlement across the river in Southwark (pronounced “suthick”). The south bank was quite marshy but began to be reclaimed as farm land.
To accommodate the growing population, much building was accomplished through the 1100’s, 1200’s, and 1300’s, such as the Round Church of the Knights Templar in 1189 and Gray’s Inn in 1370, notable to us because they are still standing today. But the most significant construction work was the replacement of the early wooden bridge by the magnificent stone London Bridge, completed in 1209. The bridge had a large gatehouse and drawbridge at each end and was covered the length with houses and shops, and even a chapel. It was so well populated, in fact, it even had power to elect an alderman to the city council. This bridge was used for over 600 years. It may seem strange to us that houses, shops, and even a chapel would have been built on a bridge, but we must understand that a bridge of that time period and on such a wide and swiftly-flowing river as the Thames, must have been massive. It would need to be wide and solidly built to withstand the river current, but because a horse and cart lane only takes up so much space, it would have been perfectly logical to use the rest of the width for buildings. (Many medieval bridges had buildings on them. A fine example still in existence is the Pultenay Bridge in Bath, England, though it is much smaller than the London Bridge would have been.)
As the city grew, it became a major center for the importing and distributing of goods to other parts of the country. In order to improve their industries, the tradesmen and craftsmen of the city organized themselves into guilds. The early companies were the medieval equivalent of trading standards departments, checking quality and applying weights and measures. Over 100 guilds exist today, though their role in modern times is more like that of a benevolent fraternity, supporting charities and educational institutions. Some of the guilds are: the Apothecaries, the Fishmongers, the Haberdashers, the Masons, the Tallowchandlers, the Woolmen, and (not least!) The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, whose mission statement today reads, “We are dedicated to the support of education and training in the design and production of footwear and associated leather accessories and the promotion of the footwear industry.” Our Robert was a member of the Cordwainers Guild.
The advent of the Tudor dynasty had a great impact on the architecture of London. Many buildings from this period survive today, including the Palace of Whitehall, Greenwich Palace, and Hampton Court Palace.
In social, economic, and architectural terms, the Reformation was to be the defining event of the Tudor period. The Reformation is so-called because it was an era in which many groups and individuals attempted to reform Christianity so it was more in line with their own interpretations of God’s word. All across Europe, the doctrines, traditions, and official positions of the Catholic Church were questioned and debated, in some cases to the extent that an entirely new branch of Christianity was invented. The new branches were called Protestant churches because they were started in protest to some doctrine or interpretation of Catholicism. In a simplified manner of speaking, the Church of England came about, as you know, because Henry VIII protested the pope’s refusal to grant him a divorce. But divorce was not the only doctrine to be redefined by the Church of England. Among other things, they also reformed the nature of the sacrament, claiming that the doctrine of transubstantiation was a superstition. Clergy in the Church of England were not required to be celibate, and monasteries and abbeys were deemed unnecessary.
Besides the turmoil of religious shifts, the monarchy was anything but stable in terms of succession. Henry VIII’s will declared the throne should pass to his son Edward (about 14 years old at the time of Henry’s death), even though he had two daughters older than Edward. These were Mary and Elizabeth, but they were from wives who had fallen out of favor and so were bypassed in the succession. Only in the case of Edward’s untimely death were they to be considered.
Henry’s son Edward only reigned from 1547 to 1553, about six years. He was a sickly youth and was not expected to live long, so his advisors, attempting to keep the throne away from Mary, who had been raised Catholic in exile with her mother in Spain, manipulated Edward into making a will naming his young cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as next in line to the throne. This he did, but Queen Jane only ruled 9 days, as her supporters fled in the face of Mary’s arrival from Spain to assert her claim to the monarchy. She of course demanded all protestants renounce the church her father had started, and earned herself the nickname Bloody Mary because of the martyrs she put to death as heretics. She reigned for five years but was overthrown by Elizabeth who reverted the state religion once again to Anglicanism.
Elizabeth ruled from 1558 to 1603, an era of 44 years, and her reign brought a good measure of stability and prosperity to the country. She was the monarch when Robert’s parents were growing up and starting their family in Bluntisham. A person is inclined to wonder what the common people like the Seelys thought about spirituality during the religious upheavals of the time. They had to keep changing religions at least for political reasons, but what did they really feel about it all? Did they think King Henry was a heretic or justified in changing the Church? Did they feel compelled to examine themselves and make a personal decision one way or another? Or did they simply try to follow the crowd and avoid making a stand that might later get them killed?
Though Elizabeth’s long reign brought stability and prosperity to the kingdom as a whole and to London in particular, the religious turmoil was far from over. In the next hundred years, England would suffer a major civil war over religion, a dissolution and then restoration of the institution of monarchy, and would spawn a group of colonies in the New World capable of breaking with royalty altogether. But that’s way ahead of our story! In the latter part of the 16th century, Elizabeth benignly looked after the solidification and expansion of her realm. She was fond of the theatre and other entertainments, luckily for our friend Mr. Shakespeare, who became the most notable playwright of the time, or indeed ever.
Now, a little geography. Remember, although London was the largest city in England, it still covered only about 30 square miles and had a population of only about 100,000 in 1550. Most of the city was on the North bank of the Thames. The river was about twice as wide as we see it now, and the south side was marshy with many small islands. In the area of the London Bridge, the south bank was progressively drained and built up with farms, houses, and inns catering to travelers. Markets sprang up to take advantage of the trading hub, and many craftsmen had their shops in that area of the city. Because it was across the river, it was out of the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor of London City itself, and was not subject to some of the more civilized constraints of morals, so businesses that were elsewhere prohibited flourished there, such as animal baiting, brothels, and theatre.
Keep in mind that in early medieval times, theatre was used as an educational tool to reinforce knowledge of Bible stories. As playwrights and attendees began to view theatre as entertainment and as moneymaking ventures, the Church began to view it as immoral and dangerous. By Elizabethan times, theatre was well-established as a form of entertainment, and people of all ranks and classes rubbed elbows at the crowded playhouses, though acting was still classed as a low-grade and questionable profession. When the Globe theatre was built in 1599, London’s population had doubled in the previous fifty years to about 200,000 and was to double again in the next fifty years. Policing was a major problem for the Lord Mayor, and although the city was for the most part orderly, the administrators were always worried, especially by big crowds drawn to see plays and other forms of entertainments. Richer neighborhoods protested the playhouses because of the noise and the throngs. One written protest claimed that a proposed playhouse would be “a generall inconvenience to all the inhabitants by reason of the great gathering together of all manner of vagrant and lewde persons that will come thither and worke all manner of mischeefe.” City administrators hated plays because they took apprentices and workmen away from their jobs, since they were performed in daylight each afternoon, and they were thought to be profane and ungodly. But the Queen’s Privy Council protected playhouses because the Queen enjoyed being entertained by plays at Christmas and needed well-practiced players on hand. Queen Elizabeth was even known to have brought the French ambassador across the river by barge to watch the bear baiting. She diplomatically suggested that she did not disapprove of “such plays as were fitted to yield honest recreation and no example of evil.” The playhouses attracted a range of society, according to one journalist in 1624, “old and young, rich and poor, master and servants, papists and puritans.” Was our Robert perhaps among these?
Between 1600 and 1650, London experienced great growth in commerce and influence as more country people gravitated to the city economy, providing as it did, opportunities for a change of career and an improved lifestyle. Not that there was anything wrong with country life, it simply did not provide a living for as many people, so the extras had to go elsewhere for employment. That’s the way it was in the 1600s, and it’s still that way in 2005.
In 1603, the great Queen Elizabeth died, and King James VI of Scotland acquired the throne, becoming King James I of England. (This is the King James who commissioned a group of scholars to make a new English translation of the Bible to clarify certain questions of doctrinal interpretation.)
This brings us culturally, socially, economically, and geographically to the time of Robert Seely in London. We know very little about his early years, except the bare facts that his parents had, by 1602, moved to Huntingdon, where Robert was christened on the 4th of July of that year. We assume he was educated in Huntingdon and that he was apprenticed to his father as a joiner or carpenter there. Then, on 25 March 1623, he became an apprentice to John Plomer, a cordwainer in London. We don’t really have any concrete evidence of why Robert left his country roots and migrated to the city. He was already over 20 years old and had completed an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships of the time could last up to seven years, so most young men were journeymen by the time they were in their early twenties, and they looked to settle down with a nice young lady to build a family.
For whatever reason (a row with his father? jilted by his childhood sweetheart? religious discontent? simply a restless spirit?) he set himself up in London. After three years with Mr. Plomer, he bought his apprenticeship, got married, and moved into #7 Coleman Street, right at the heart of things. London’s Guidhall (the equivalent of the town hall) was a three-minute walk. The Thames was a ten-minute walk, and on a fine Sunday, with little commercial traffic, Westminster Abbey was a brisk half hour away. Of course, in a city where the Reformation was in full swing, a chapel could be found within five minutes in any direction, and young tradesman eager to make a good impression had better make use of them!
Much political and religious strife formed the undercurrents of everyday life in London while Robert and his family lived there. Charles I came to the throne in 1625. The Puritan and Separatist movements gained strength, and after living in London fewer than ten years, Robert took his family to the New World, part of the Puritan group of settlers forming the Winthrop Fleet and landing at Salem, Massachusetts, on 12 June 1630. Civil War broke out in England shortly thereafter, and the colonists no doubt followed the events in the news reports they received abroad. Did they keep in touch with their parents or any friends in London? I’m sure they were mortified by the news of the great plague outbreak in 1665 and then the Great Fire of London in 1666. Did they ever return to the British Isles for a visit? Did they ever regret leaving or doubt their faith in the Puritan cause?
London in Robert’s time was populated by roughly 200,000 people. Today it covers 600 square miles and is home to 7,000,000 people. It is still the center of the British economy and the hub of social and political activity. Though it is 400 years since he lived there, Robert would still find a few familiar places if he were to visit London today.

This entry was posted in Family. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *