To bring an Indian or a Cockney into the world: a letter from John Winthrop’s sister Lucy Downing

John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in its earliest years (most of the time between 1630 and 1649), kept up a correspondence with many people left behind in England. One of the more interesting of these correspondents was his sister Lucy Winthrop Downing. Lucy was married to Emmanuel Downing, a London lawyer, and she was a lively and intelligent woman whose repeated promises to join her brother in New England were unfulfilled until 1638, when she and her husband made the journey, only to return home when the English Civil War began in 1642. (Oddly, they lived in Salem rather than with John Winthrop in Boston.)

Lucy’s son George Downing is worth mentioning here. His mother wrote to her brother Governor Winthrop in 1636 to say the family was keen to move to New England but she worried that with no college there, her ambitious son George would have to stop his education: “and it would, I think, as we say, grieve me in my grave to know that his mind should be withdrawn from his book… for that were but the way to make him good at nothing.” In a great coincidence, in October 1636 the Massachusetts Bay Colony founded Harvard College, and this may have had something to do with the Downings’ decision to go to America at last in 1638. George was one of the nine graduates of Harvard College’s second class in October 1642, and returned to England with his parents to serve the Parliamentary government under Cromwell, but after the Restoration he neatly changed sides and served as Secretary of the Treasury under Charles II. George Downing was accused of betraying several of his former revolutionary colleagues, one of whom was executed. The jury is still out on Downing’s guilt there. He served both Cromwell and Charles II as Ambassador to the States General, and was recommended for the job by John Milton. He was the author of the Navigation Act of 1660, and served as an untiring diplomat.  Downing Street in London, the street where the Prime Minister’s official residence is located, is named after him.

Sir George Downing may have inherited his intelligence from his mother. Lucy Downing’s letters are at once thoughtful, loving, and full of slang (such as “grieve me in my grave”) that reverberates down the centuries to this day with life and humor. She is much more earthy and matter-of-fact than her elder brother John, and one gets the feeling (unverifiable by historical research) that he must have enjoyed her letters a great deal.

We will look here at Lucy’s letter of March 4, 1636, which has several interesting features. It is the letter referenced above, where she expressed her concern for young George having no college if they moved to New England. All spellings and usages are modernized.

“MY DEAR BROTHER I received your most kind Letter dated in October and your dainty fruits which indeed were as good as Old England itself affords in their kind, but coming from New England and from your self they were rarities indeed, and we then being at Graces I sent for them thither and Sir Harry and my Lady were much taken with them. Sir Harry professed it did much satisfy him that things did prosper so well with you.”

—What it is John sent her is unknown; it may have been actual fruit or it may have been some American commodity, but Lucy appreciates them mostly because they came from her brother. Her love for John comes through like this in all her letters. It becomes clear that Lucy lives in the world; she is in London with Sir Harry and my Lady and in most of her letters she makes mention of the passing things of this world that Puritans rejected in a very matter-of-fact way, with little or no judgment. But her love of God and her religion also shine through when she mentions the trials of plague and persecution visiting England, and it becomes clear that Lucy Downing’s faith in God and commitment to her religion never wavered, even as she lived the life of a London lady for the most part.

“Now to give you account of our proceedings since my last [letter] to you. We were in progress from after midsummer till part of January, half of which time we wear at Graces and in the other half at Groton… all well in health …except James [had] a few ague fits. Since my coming home myself and maids have had agues but I bless God for it it hath left me again and God hath hitherto most graciously preserved our family from the arrow of pestilence or any other such sad disasters as for our sins might most deservedly have have embittered our lives or deprived us of life and all comfort ere this and on the contrary hath He blest us with many contents.”

—The family has spent part of its time at their house in Groton (in the summer and fall) and part in London (Graces) over the winter. Her son James had an ague, or fever, and so did Lucy and her maids. How different a world is described here than her brother John was living in New England! Traveling from the summer house to the house in London, having maids, and living the life of a wealthy woman, Lucy is worlds away from life in Boston, which was only six years old when this letter was written and was a warren of mud alleys and 100 square foot wooden houses. But just when it seems that brother and sister have nothing in common, their shared piety is expressed by Lucy saying it is only through God’s grace that her family was not struck with the plague then terrorizing England, which would be what they all deserved for their sins, but God has been merciful to them.

“Now I know you wish us no less good than that these cords of love may unite us to the fountain of love in the firmest bands, but for the great cause most sudden and sad is the change in so short a time. I confess a heart very dead might have been much rapt with the gracious light in those parts all that time and in a way of admiration. God grant that it may prove a gleam before a storm rather than a lightening before the night of death. In this relation might I spend more time and spirits than my condition will now permit but I may spare. Ill news seldom wants messengers (in our climate) and what was then put in execution in those parts is at this instant called upon in Essex and but a month limited for answer which answer is feared will prove a very fearful silence these are days of trial. Pray that our faith fail not.”

—We’ll be honest; this passage is hard to understand. Lucy, like many other correspondents in England, is writing in code about political trouble in case her letter is intercepted by the government. Our interpretation is that she is saying that after a brief flowering of the true faith, persecution has cracked down on Puritans in England. She shouldn’t dwell on bad news, for two reasons: first, her condition (she is pregnant, as we will hear more about later) and she should not work herself into grief for the sake of her health; and second she is sure John is getting more than enough bad news from home (“ill news seldom wants messengers”). Persecution elsewhere is now happening in Essex, and Lucy begs John to pray that the English Puritans will hold firm.

“Now I confess could a wish transport me to you, I think as big as I am I should rather wish to bring an Indian than a Cockney into the world. But I cannot see that God hath yet freed us for that journey, yet I doubt not but if He call us to it we shall discern Providence clearly therein, and I see more probability of the concurrence of things that way now than formerly I ever did, both for generals and particulars, if God please to spare our lives…”

—If she had her way, Lucy would fly to New England this moment, heavily pregnant, and bring an “Indian” into the world rather than a London Cockney. This lighthearted and fairly sassy statement is typical of Lucy, yet so untypical of her brother. For a lady in high circles, Lucy has a pretty relaxed attitude. Yet when it comes to religion, again, she is more serious, and says that God has not yet freed her family to make the journey in reality. When she says “if He call us to it” Lucy reveals a deeply felt worry: that God has not made a way for them to go to New England because God does not (yet) see them as worthy of the journey, worthy to join the saints in America. This is the typical Puritan sense of anxiety about one’s state of grace. Lucy is hopeful, however, that they will be called, for she “sees more probability” of it than before, in the big picture and in the details (details following below in the PS).

“…but may it not be more seasonable for one in my condition to breathe my gratefulness to so faithful a brother as yourself for all your surpassing affections both to me and mine, and to desire the continuance of your brotherly care of their best education, which is a very importunate suit of mine to you, whether I live or die, but especially if God should prevent my endeavors therein.”

—Lucy’s many references to dying are not just about God suddenly swooping in to deliver his judgment on sinners. She is in the last stages of pregnancy at age 35, and in the back of her mind she knows she may not survive this delivery. So she changes tack here, to thank John for his past goodness to her and her children, and to ask him to continue to help them in their education if she dies. Clearly John Winthrop had done something to aid in the education of the Downing children, whether it was giving money or books or using his influence to get the older ones into good schools, perhaps before he left England.

“George and his father comply most cordially for New England, but poor boy, I fear the journey would not be so prosperous for him as I could wish, in respect [that] you have yet no societies [in New England], nor means in that kind for the education of youths in learning, …and it would, I think, as we say, grieve me in my grave to know that his mind should be withdrawn from his book by other sports or employments, for that were but the way to make him good at nothing. It’s true the colleges here are much corrupted, yet not so [much] I hope but good friends may yet find a fitting tutor for him, and if it may be with any hopes of his well doing here.”

—Lucy’s husband and her eldest son George are eager to go to America when it becomes possible, but she worries that if they go to New England, which has no colleges or societies, George’s education will come to an abrupt end. It is odd that Lucy fears George might waste his time in sports if that happens (the Puritans having banned all sports); that is referenced again below. Staying in corrupt England isn’t great, but her Puritan friends could find George a reliably religious and learned tutor, both of which she fears are lacking in New England.

“Knowing your prevalence with my husband and the hazard the boy is in by reason both of his father’s and his own strong inclination to the plantation sports, I am bold to present this solicitous suit of mine with all earnestness to you and my nephew Winthrop that you will not condescend to his going over till he hath either attained to perfection in the arts here or that there be sufficient means for to perfect him therein with you, which I should be most glad to hear of. It would make me go far nimbler to New England if God should call me to it than otherwise I should, and I believe a college would put no small life into the plantation.”

—Lucy asks that her brother and her nephew, John Winthrop, Jr., already a leader in New England and governor of the Saybrook settlement in Connecticut, use their influence (“prevalence”) with her husband to persuade him that the Downings should not go to America until such time as George Downing has finished his education in England or a college has been founded in New England. She would be much more willing (“far nimbler”) to go if she knew George could get an education there. And she reveals that her husband has a fatal weakness that he has passed on to George: “plantation sports”. Again, we’re not sure exactly what this is referring to, but it could simply mean the distractions of the frontier. Whatever it is, it must be countered by devoting one’s time to school. Plus, a college would “put life” into the colony. We have a sneaking suspicion that by this Mrs. Downing means not only intellectual debate and the life of young minds but the pranks and mischief traditionally associated to college students, another unorthodox affection of this Puritan lady.

“[Were] my [letter-writing] answerable to my desires of discourse with you, I should be as tedious to you as I am to myself. But in good manners I forbear your further trouble at present, and desiring your prosperity and prayers for me and mine and a happy meeting either in this or a better life, [I am]

Your sister to command,


—If writing to her brother satisfied her desire to see him and be with him, Lucy would write so often and so long that she would drive him crazy. She would be “as tedious to you as I am to myself”, a nice piece of self-deprecation and humor. She signs off for now, and her wish for a happy meeting with her brother “either in this or a better life” is, once again, not just a pious catchphrase but indicative of deep affection and some anxiety about her approaching childbearing.

“I forget to tell you how forward we are for New England; George his jointure and mine is sold and but 320 pounds would it afford us and 2 years delay for payment but the truth is I saw them so unwilling to do me right in the assurance that I feared payment would be more hardly drawn from them and something may be better than nothing.”

—Their desire to go to New England is so strong that Lucy sold her jointure, the estate settled on her to provide her an income if she is widowed, and which her eldest son will inherit on her death. This estate was likely provided for her by her father at the time of her marriage. She sold it at a loss (for just £320) to be paid after two years, which is fishy, but whoever “they” are whom she sold it to were so unwilling to give her a better deal that she just took it, hoping to get at least some part of that money to help them pay for the journey to America, as “something may be better than nothing.” This is indeed a sacrifice of her own and her son’s financial security in the name of joining the saints in America. it’s also one of a few examples of phrases we use today appearing in a 17th-century letter (in another she uses the phrase “what can I say?”).

Lucy Downing leaps off the pages of her letters; her vitality shines through and is unexpectedly affecting centuries later. You will be glad to know she survived this pregnancy and lived to an old age. We’ll be hearing more from her in the future, and, like John Winthrop, we will await her letters with great impatience.