“Every life writes its own Work of Fiction“
1602 ELIZABETH (I)
The regret is that so little is known about his wife Elizabeth who remained at his side through all of these hard years, bearing and rearing his children and enduring the hardships of those pioneer times with him. Not one word is written about her trials and activities that this writer has seen. She died March 16, 1686 at the age of 84 leaving a family, the descendants of whom in the next three hundred years, were to swarm over the land producing worthy citizens and many distinguished ones, all Christian and God fearing. Lieut. Samuel Smith, his children and one line of descendants (“Lieut. Samuel Smith, his children and one line of descendants.” James W. Hook, 1884-1957)
This, you see, is the problem. The kind Mr. Hook, whom I quote above, after having written a book of some 350 pages of which more than 13 whole pages were dedicated to the life of her husband and the following to the life of one of her sons (the daughters are mentioned with their pertinent dates: birth, death, marriage [to whom] and children born), could not include even one scrap of information about Elizabeth, my 10th Great Grandmother, other than her year of birth, the date she died and the names and birthdates of her children. Even today, women do not make history: they make babies, they make dinner, they make the beds, they make prattle and –according to men- they make no sense… but most of the time, history passes them by with nothing more than a mere mention when and if they were lucky enough to marry someone who did make ‘history’ no matter how small or personal.
There is, however, one correction I should make to Mr. Hook’s statement that Elizabeth’s descendants produced citizens that were “Christian and God fearing”. That is not true, but then –of course- Mr. Hook did not know all of Elizabeth’s descendants. About her life, however, he is in the right: we know little more than that she survived until the age of 84, which is the age that my own mother swore was the age when all the women in our family died. She lived to 91, but she had senile dementia so, naturally, she did not notice when she passed the 84 mark.
So of Elizabeth’s childhood we know next to nothing, not even the names of her parents apart from a wild guess. We can suppose that, while all around her The General Crisis whirled, she had and got over her share of childhood diseases, cured her scraped knees and elbows, learned to read and write by studying the Bible (something all Puritan children were taught), fought with her brothers and sisters and obeyed or disobeyed her parents as much as any other little one might.
She could have been a first child or a fifth; she might have suffered or wished for the death of a sibling or two; she might have, in turn, loved or hated her parents as most children do; she might have been named for her Queen as no doubt many girls were in those days, or for the Biblical mother of John the Baptist or for her own mother whose name we ignore, a distant aunt or for no one in particular. Perhaps she was called Bess or
Beth when she was being cute and good, and Elizabeth! when a scolding was warranted. No doubt she pricked her finger more than once while darning her brother’s socks, or fell asleep on the family bible while studying. We can know none of this. Neither can we know if she was bright, although proof that she was brave would definitely come later and so forcibly that it must have been built up from a very early age.
We know she was born in 1602 because, unless she lied about her age, she declared herself to be 32 years old in 1634 on a document that has outlived the paper it was written on thanks to internet, so that today, some 414 years from when Elizabeth first opened eyes on the world, anyone interested can access it. We also know that the year following Elizabeth’s birth was a difficult one for England during which 30,000 people in London died from the plague, and Queen Elizabeth I passed away after 44 years at the helm of the country (a woman who did make history).
However, in spite of this overwhelming abundance of ignorance, we do know a few things: Elizabeth’s last name was Smyth (the old spelling of Smith). The town where Elizabeth Smyth was born, Hadleigh, is today little more than a two-hour drive from London, a forty-minute drive from the sea and a twenty-minute drive from the nearest train station, and even back then, when getting there might have been a bit more difficult, it was a place where people gathered and gossiped, for Hadleigh was a market town in Suffolk County. As the charter stating this had been issued in the 13th century, by the time Elizabeth was born Hadleigh was a veritable center of information on every market day. Apart from its outstanding (for size) church, Hadleigh also had a local pub
officially known as The Kings Arms, but locally called “The Old Monkey”, where the townsfolk –especially the men- would gather after work or during market day.
At the time of Elizabeth’s birth, Hadleigh had a population of about 3,000 and a history of protestant radicalism that was to determine her future in no uncertain way. The town, apparently, was remarkable for its knowledge of the word of God, and was referred to as ‘more a university of the learned than a towne of cloth-making people’.
The supreme example of Hadleigh’s radicalism lies in the story of Rowland Taylor, that Elizabeth must have heard over and over much to the horror of her little heart. Rowland Taylor (an ancestor of Elizabeth Taylor, by the way) was appointed Rector of St. Mary’s Church in Hadleigh the 16th of April, 1544; he had been ordained a priest in 1541 in spite of the fact that he was married, because the English Reformation had lifted the requirement of celibacy for the clergy. Taylor’s wife, Margaret Tyndale, had seen her father burned at the stake in 1536 for his ‘heretical’ translation of the English Bible so it was no surprise she married a man called to martyrdom. In Hadleigh, Taylor had used his post to disband Catholic religious guilds, sell their possessions and use the proceeds to help the poor, a chore for which he had a passion. He was known to press the rich cloth merchants of the town for generous donations to be invested in aiding those less fortunate. These charitable deeds endeared him to the hearts of his parishioners who found in their rector a gentle kindness, coupled with unaffected cheerfulness. It seems that ‘cheerfulness was a prominent feature in his character’ and he was remembered as ‘smiling constantly’ and having had the ‘merriest and pleasantest wit’. Taylor was outspoken about his opposition to the Roman Catholic Church and its “popist” rules.
In 1553, Edward VI died and Mary I (later known as ‘Bloody’ Mary for her persecution of Protestants), along with her very Catholic husband, King Phillip of Spain, tried to sink England back into “the one true faith” and the sphere of the Holy Roman Empire. Taylor, at that moment spiritual leader of Hadleigh, was a staunch resister of any back-stepping, believing (and preaching) that clerics should be allowed to marry and that the story of ‘transubstantiation’ (the conversion of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ) was a lot of hogwash. Mary –true to her faith- had him promptly arrested. He was tried, excommunicated and sentenced to death. Before his execution, he was taken back to Hadleigh where his wife awaited him so they might have the allowed ‘last supper’ at home together. The following day, a cold one in February, he was more than warmed up at the stake in Aldham Common near Hadleigh, while his wife, two daughters, his son and a large crowd of Hadleighens looked on. According to an eyewitness, his last words to his son were:
“My son, see that thou fear God always. Fly from all sin and wicked living. Be virtuous, serve God daily with prayer, and apply thy boke. In anywise see thou be obedient to thy mother, love her, and serve her. (…) Beware of lewd company of young men, that fear not God, but followeth their lewd lusts and vain appetites. Flee from whoredom, and hate all filthy lying, remembering that I they father do die in the defense of holy marriage”
This happened in 1555. Rowland Taylor became Hadleigh’s favorite martyr never to be forgotten, and there is little doubt that Elizabeth, born some 47 years after he had gone up in smoke, heard the story not once but over and over again, each time enhanced by its retelling. She too was taught to flee from whoredom and hate all filthy lying, to serve God and obey her mother for those lessons would be repeated each time the end of Hadleigh’s martyr was retold. And every repetition that Elizabeth heard of Rowland Taylor’s death undoubtedly would make her shiver down to her woolen socks, imagining the flames frying not his skin but her own, much the same way her mother toasted bacon in the skillet until it shriveled up and became crisp. Thus she was primed from a very early age in right behavior and a rabid hatred of Roman Catholicism, and in the virtues of charity and unselfishness that the good man had preached. Whether or not she carried these admirable traits throughout her life is anyone’s guess, but considering the fate that befell anyone not adhering to the Puritan ethic, we can presume she did her best.
Sometimes the talk of the past was overshadowed by the radical changes taking place in the present. The only son of Mary Queen of Scots, James VI of Scotland, became James I of England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I; less than a year later, to great rejoicing, he ended the 19-year-old conflict with Spain (during which both the Spanish Armada first and then the English Armada were defeated), by signing a peace treaty with Philip III, the new king. All this and more would have been part of the general conversation weaving in and out of Elizabeth’s childhood.
But she would have been most caught up by the tales of the New World and the fate of the excursions sent there in an attempt to colonize that pristine land. There were stories of ships gone astray and breaking up on perilous rocks; of starvation and freezing in the small groups that managed to land; of Indians that ravaged and burned settlements with all their occupants. Elizabeth was only two when the French managed to establish a settlement on Saint Croix Island in what is now Maine, but a harsh winter killed nearly all the settlers and the remainder moved out of New England up to Nova Scotia. It was commented that King James certainly wouldn’t want to be bettered by the French so there was no surprise when he issued competing royal charters to both the Plymouth Company and the London Company in order to establish a permanent settlement that would claim what rightfully belonged to England.
In 1607 Elizabeth was barely 5 years old; she probably wouldn’t be playing with a real doll as the ones made then were very expensive, but perhaps her mother had made her a rag doll with the face painted on the cloth, or maybe she played “dolls” using the newest brother or sister that had arrived in the family. In the meantime, the London Company was playing ‘house’ in a more serious way; it had established a foothold known as Popham Colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River in the Gulf of Maine. Unfortunately, its colonists faced an incredibly harsh winter, worsened by a fire in the storehouse that wiped out their supplies. When one of their leaders died and the other abandoned the New World, the colonists en mass abandoned the project and headed for home. Their stories, like the sailors returning, would drift into Hadleigh and end up in the pub or in the homes as tales to put your hair on end.
Yet, England did not give up. The same year as the Popham disaster, the English set up Jamestown in Virginia, first as a fort and then little by little as a town. As Elizabeth grew, Hadleigh dwellers watched the first permanent settlement in America grow. Of course, news did not travel fast then; snatches of information would arrive along with the vagabonds and returning sailors that came around on market days, and everyone would repeat the stories of Jamestown’s population starving, or how its settlers had fled, or that a shipload of slaves had arrived there, or that the Germans (troublesome people that they were) who had disembarked on Virginia’s coast had promptly allied themselves with the natives and supplied the Indians with weapons later used against the settlers. There could be no doubt in anybody’s mind that the going was tough, but go they did, first in a trickle and later… well, we will come to that when the moment arrives.
As she grew, Elizabeth would hear these stories about the wilds of America that sounded as forbidding as the flames that had consumed Rowland Taylor. For a time, she was too young to imagine what ‘across the ocean’ meant or to understand that Indians could be any different from the Spanish and the Catholics whom she knew were enemies. Perhaps one day she was shown a map that only made everything look so small it seemed as if ‘crossing the ocean’ was no more than a hop-skip. Perhaps she even dreamed that one day she herself would cross the ocean. Perhaps…
Then, when she was 13, something happened across another,smaller body of water, something she would never, never know about, care about or imagine, but something that has very much to do with this story.