Anthony Hickman—The Unknown Separatist?

By Sue Allen

Seasoned tourists understand that where there is a person, or persons, of great historical note then there are bound to be places jostling to capitalize on any association with them. No matter how tenuous the evidence of such an association may be, there is money to be made out of tourism.

For example, if the owners of many historic places are to be believed, then by oral tradition alone the Mayflower Pilgrims must have visited dozens of different inns on their travels!

The trouble with oral tradition is that on the one hand it might be absolutely true - while on the other, it may be little more than fanciful myth.

One such tradition relates to a building on the Mayflower Trail in England - Gainsborough Old Hall in Lincolnshire. The Old Hall is a magnificent medieval manor house where King Henry VIII’s two visits are well documented and where it is also said that John Smyth’s Separatist congregation were hidden. (Some of Smyth’s original congregation were among those who later sailed on the Mayflower). And yet where is the evidence for this story one might ask?

I can vividly recall my first visit to Gainsborough Old Hall and how much in awe I was of the incredible age and simple beauty of this ancient house. Yet it was not the architecture that made the most lasting impression on me. Instead, it was a collection of dark and dingy-looking, four centuries old portraits of members of the Hickman family hung haphazardly on the far wall of the dimly lit Upper Great Chamber.

As I drew close to these, my heart inexplicably began to thump and I literally felt the hairs rising up on the back of my neck. Then I saw her. Lady Rose Hickman’s painted eyes caught me in their gaze; large, dark, all seeing eyes that forced me to stop and fix my own upon the rather stern-looking countenance of this obviously elderly Tudor woman. At seventy years of age, Lady Rose might well have been considered to be in her dotage at the time this picture was executed in 1596. Yet in it she looks like a woman still possessed of a razor sharp mind and not afraid to use it. Although I was immediately fascinated by her, at the time I did not know why. And I would not know why until much later and after she had already appeared, albeit fleetingly, in three of my novels.

On my way out of the Old Hall, I browsed amongst the books and souvenirs in the gift shop. I asked the assistant if she could tell me anything about Lady Rose Hickman’s life, to which she replied sadly that she could not. Instead she handed me a little booklet for sale that she said contained all that was known about Lady Rose. I purchased it but later read it at home with some disappointment. Although it was very informative about the Old Hall’s history it contained very little actual information about Lady Rose’s long life. Except, that is, to say that she and her eldest son, Sir William, were reputed to have allowed Separatists to meet at the Old Hall in secret.

I later discovered that in 1610, and at the age of 84, Lady Rose set out to write an account of her life. However, what survives of it today (housed in the British Library) is scant and appears to be incomplete and indeed she makes no mention at all of her time at Gainsborough Old Hall – even thought it was written there. Therefore evidence from Lady Rose’s own hand that the Separatists actually worshiped within the Hall does not exist. Yet, on reflection, is that not unsurprising considering the danger that such a confession might have put the remaining family in during on-going uncertain religious times in England?

Lady Rose’s memoirs, complete or not, gave me a firm foundation for seeking out more information about her. More than enough for me to start researching her life in earnest and, in particular, in trying to understand how likely it was that she and her family would have risked so much by allowing John Smyth’s Separatists to meet in her home at Gainsborough. Above all else, I wanted to know why she would defy King James by doing this? And how deeply she might have allowed the family to become involved in helping both this and the Scrooby congregation to escape to Holland in the face of their persecution?

It is the rediscovery of Rose’s hitherto little-known son, Anthony, that I have found the most exciting of all my research. In particular, I found letters relating to his later life and ‘troubles’ at Corpus Christi, Cambridge.

Anthony Hickman Junior was baptised on 17th November 1560 at St. Olave Old Jewry, in the City of London. At that time, Lady Rose and her husband, also named Anthony, lived in London at the heart of the Mercery[1]. Rose’s own father, Sir William Lok, was an early Evangelical Protestant and a favourite at the courts of both Henry VIII and Edward VI, as had been  Rose’s husband.

However, during the reign of Henry’s daughter, the Catholic Queen Mary, Lady Rose and Anthony pressed their ships and great wealth to good use by helping to smuggle wanted Protestants overseas- including family friends John Knox and John Foxe. As a result, Anthony Senior was held for a while in the stinking Fleet Prison and tortured before eventually escaping overseas himself.

The entry in  Alumni Cantabrigienses (Venn, J & Venn, JA , Cambridge 1924) reads: ‘Anthony Hickman matriculated, pensioner[2] from St. John’s Michaelmas 1575, migrated to Peterhouse, B.A., 1579-80; M.A. 1583 ; L.L.D. Fellow of Corpus Christi, 1583 -8, where he had a long dispute with the College. Adm., advocate, June 16th, 1583.’

This ‘long dispute’ at Cambridge arose some time after Anthony had happily settled into life as a Fellow at Corpus Christi. However, a new incoming Master, named Doctor Copcot (who was vehemently opposed to Puritans) raised an objection relating to the highly unusual situation of Anthony Hickman having somehow obtained a dispensation, signed by Queen Elizabeth. This had ‘excused’ him from taking holy orders, an otherwise normal prerequisite prior to taking up a Fellowship. After this, Anthony found himself relentlessly victimized by Copcot and eventually being ejected.

I found original transcripts of portions of the correspondence relating to this matter amongst the Portland Papers held at Longleat House - including some written by Archbishop Whitgift and with others addressed to Lord Burghley- then the Chancellor of the University. In one, written in Anthony Hickman’s own hand, he competently states the legal case against his dismissal from the university. At this point I would very much like to acknowledge the generosity and kindness Dr. Jeremy Bangs of the American Pilgrim Museum in Leiden, for transcribing these papers from their original ( and difficult for me read) Tudor script and into meaningful English that I could!

I immediately wondered why Anthony had wanted to avoid taking orders; was it because he was a Puritan? I asked Dr. Bangs, who is extremely knowledgeable about the Separatists of that time, if this might be the case? His reply to me was that ‘Puritans had no objection to becoming ordained in the Church of England … some later broke away to become Separatists.’ This is born out by the careers of many well known Puritan clergymen.

Interestingly, William Brewster matriculated December 3rd, 1580 at Peterhouse (before entering the service of William Davidson in 1583). Robert ‘Troublechurch’ Browne was also resident at Cambridge at the same time as Anthony Hickman. Therefore this then led me to pose the question, to Dr. Elizabeth Leedham-Green of Corpus Christi, as to whether it was possible that Anthony Hickman’s refusal to take orders could mean that he too was a Separatist? She responded by saying that ‘it is certainly possible that Hickman should have resisted ordination on the grounds of disapproval of the Elizabethan Church settlement as the Presbyterians did.’

There is perhaps further evidence in support of this theory by way of a letter sent to Anthony’s aunt, Anne Vaughn-Locke[3]. It was written by John Knox while he was awaiting a homeward passage from Dieppe to Scotland and in it he sends salutations in the postscript to Anthony Hickman Senior, showing the closeness of his relationship to this particular family.

This letter outlined Knox’s judgment upon  ‘this bastard English religion now promoted by Elizabeth’ saying that ‘we ought not to justify with our presence such a mingle-mangle as was now commanded in our churches; for it was not the leaving off of the surplice, or the removing of external monuments of idolatry that purges a Church from superstition’. Performing services for appointed Saints’ Days, collects in remembrance of this or that Saint, not used by the Prophets or commanded by Christ, nor found in the prayers of the Apostles, nor received in any well reformed church were all in John Knox’s conscience, no small portion of papistical superstitions. In his opinion, nothing ought to be used in church services that ‘the Lord hath not sanctified, either by percept or by practice’. Further more, Knox could not prescribe to Anne Vaughan-Locke and the Hickmans how far to expose themselves to dangers for these imperfections in religion which they could not remedy; but therein they would be instructed by God’s Holy Spirit. They were words that these recipients must have taken to their hearts- and perhaps the younger Anthony Hickman more than most?

Although eventually reinstated at Corpus Christi, Anthony Hickman Junior, by now a qualified lawyer, suddenly left Cambridge some time after June 1591. (I have found a list of legal expenses in the National Archives regarding The Landbeach Suit at London submitted by Hickman whilst still at Cambridge at this date in time- but none later).

Interestingly, his departure from Cambridge happened at about the same time as active steps were being taken to curb Puritan influences from within the college. The History of Corpus Christi College states that ‘his (Hickman’s) being again suspended by a major part of the Fellows in Dr. John Jegon’s Mastership (Dr. Copcot having by then gone), within two years of his having been restored- this censure however was taken off upon his submission, and he left the College soon after.’ (Incidentally, the John Jegon mentioned here who had become the bane of Anthony’s final years at Cambridge later became the Bishop of Norwich and in turn deprived John Robinson of his living. Robinson was, of course, later Pastor to, and a leading figure of, the Separatists’ Congregation in Leiden).

It is worthwhile to note that at this time there was a concerted effort being undertaken by Archbishop Whitgift to destroy illegal ‘dissident’ congregations in and around London with such Separatist notables as Henry Barrow and John Greenwood, among others, being held in prison under questionable legal circumstances. A trained lawyer, like Anthony, could no doubt have been useful to the Separatist cause at that time as their cases were being argued. And perhaps it was no small coincidence that Anthony can be found living within a few minute’s walking distance of both the Fleet Prison (where Barrow and Greenwood were incarcerated) and the house where Greenwood’s London Separatist congregation were known to meet. Barrow and Greenwood were eventually executed on the sixth of April, 1593 after twice receiving a temporary stay of execution as Lord Burghley himself frantically tried to intervene against Archbishop Whitgift’s determined prosecution of the men.

In that same year, the passing of the Act Against Puritans henceforth made it illegal for any man; woman or child to absent themselves, without good cause, from Queen Elizabeth’s proscribed church service for a period of more than one month on pain of punishment. Not only that, but it criminalized any one who encouraged others to stay away from the established state church - be that in either word or deed.

By 1596, the widowed Lady Rose and her son, William Hickman, had purchased Gainsborough Old Hall and moved away from London and the increasing pressure being exerted against Puritans to conform there. One year later Anthony Hickman died, unmarried, in London on December 13th 1597. He was buried in the Church of St. Bennet, Paul’s Wharf which was destroyed in the great fire of London in 1666.

There is a portrait of an Anthony Hickman, held in a private collection and currently on loan to Gainsborough Old Hall. The sitter bears a striking family resemblance to that of Lady Rose, and William Hickman and from the costume and style appears to be contemporary to their 1596 portraits. The inscription states that the sitter is in his 36th year and is dated 1605 However it is known that many of the Hickman paintings, including Lady Rose’s and William’s, were re-inscribed, and in many cases over their original lettering, in a similar way some time after their original execution. Also having recently had the opportunity to examine the portrait close up for myself, I have discovered the outlines of an earlier date of 1596 still visible beneath the newer, gold numbering. If this is indeed Anthony, then we are able to look into the face of a man who undoubtedly knew many of the leading Separatists of his time, if not also at least one of the leading Mayflower Pilgrims.

Also, there may be a clue in the subject of the painting itself to bear out my belief that this is indeed Lady Rose’s son. The gentleman in this portrait is sporting an extremely long beard. Previous zealous Protestants, when breaking with the ‘old church’ had grown long beards as an outward symbol of this. (Most famously Archbishop Cranmer had done so on leaving behind the old unreformed English Church for the reforming one under Edward VI). Bearing in mind that Anthony may possibly have been a Separatist himself, perhaps he too had grown his beard as an outward sign of this.

Perhaps we may never be able to say categorically that Anthony Hickman was indeed a Separatist. However, coupled with Lady Rose’s own earlier experiences during persecution in the reign of Queen Mary, it would explain why Anthony Hickman’s mother and brother, William, should have risked so much to help the Separatist congregation at Gainsborough. After all, what loving mother could have turned her back on contemporaries of her own dead son when they came knocking upon her door for help in the wake of their own persecution?

Then the question is raised of who might have aided the Scrooby sect to escape in the spring of 1608? John Smyth’s Gainsborough congregation was the first to escape abroad first and are likely to have sailed on sea going ships from the then busy port of Gainsborough over which the Hickman’s had control. If so, then it is likely that in their wake the authorities would have placed a watch on that place to deter other would be fugitives seeking similar escape. This would explain the choice of far away Boston as the destination for the Scrooby congregation’s first escape attempt in the fall of 1607.

William Bradford writes in ‘Of Plymouth Plantation’  about that first attempt to leave England and says that their party was stripped of their money and valuables by the sailors and catchpoll officers. There is no mention of these items being later returned to their rightful owners. So, if the congregation had already paid over a large sum of money by way of a bribe to a ship’s master to carry them to Holland, and the rest of their money having subsequently been lost, then who financed the second attempt from the Humber? Perhaps it was the Hickmans-and for Lady Rose, even a case of history repeating itself?

At the end of writing my latest novel, Tudor Rose, (the life of Lady Rose Hickman and her family based upon her own writings) in which all of my research is more fully covered, I now understand my previously inexplicable fascination with Lady Rose Hickman. For through a bazaar series of coincidences dating far back into my childhood, I discovered that Lady Rose and I share a very real connection indeed. But then that is another story…

Sue Allan is Senior Historical Guide for Christian Pilgrim Tours of Worksop, UK. Her latest publications are the novel ‘Tudor Rose’- based upon the writings of Lady Rose Hickman - and a companion non-fiction book ‘Lady Rose Hickman – her life and family’ (including family portraits). Also pending release in the winter of 2009 is ‘Steps along the Mayflower Trail’- an illustrated guide to the sites and villages known to the Scrooby congregation. All are available, shipped worldwide, from