In 1625 Rev. Hooker, a 1608 graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, was appointed “town lecturer” for a monthly sermon series founded by churchwarden Thomas Williamson (d. 1614). Williamson, whose extant monument lies on a pillar close to St. Cedd’s chapel, was concerned at the “indiscipline” of the people of Chelmsford (“habitual topers who stayed away from church to drink rowdily...and play unlawful games such as backgammon or shove groat”), and left money for sermons on May Day, Holymas and ten market days.
Hooker’s dramatic preaching style provided entertainment as well as spiritual comfort, and the crowds he drew were good for local trade; but his views became an embarrassment to church authorities such as William Laud, later Archbishop of Canterbury, who in 1628 became Bishop of London and attempted to silence non-conformists. A local minister wrote Laud’s chancellor, Mr. Duck, that “peoples palates grow so out of taste that no food contents them but of Mr. Hooker’s dressing.” The views of the Essex clergy were divided - 49 wrote to Duck saying they esteemed Hooker as honest and orthodox in doctrine, but 41 urged Laud “to force irregulars to conform.” Despite Hooker’s popularity he was silenced in 1630; the lectureship went vacant and “the spiritual court sitting at Chelmsford bound Hooker in the sum of £50 to appear before the High Commission.” Hooker retired to Cuckoos Farm at nearby Little Baddow, and friends (who subscribed to reimburse the £50) persuaded him to escape. Avoiding the commission’s agents he fled to Holland. Williamson’s lectures apparently were not given after 1632.
Finding the state of religion in Holland “wonderftilly ticklish and miserable” Rev. Hooker clandestinely returned to settle his affairs and in 1633 embarked on the eight-week voyage to Boston aboard the Griffin He settled in Newtowne (now Cambridge) for two years before religious differences and the restiveness of his congregation drove him to lead an exodus from Cambridge through 100 miles of wilderness to found Hartford, Connecticut, where he died in 1647. A bronze statue in Hartford’s Hooker Square bears a quotation from a 1638 sermon: “The foundation of authority is laid firstly in the free consent of the people.”
When Rev. Hooker arrived in New England there was ample company from Essex to receive him. Not all, however, had fled England to escape religious persecution. Alexander Knight, for example, was charged with baking “fraudulant loaves,” using false weights, and “putting his hogs to feed in the churchyard.” Other Chelmsford area immigrants came later - William and John Fuller by 1637, and three daughters of Walter Kelway/Kellaway (Margaret Montague of Cape Porpoise and Milcas/Milcah Snow and Mary Lane of Boston), whose husbands or children appear in New England records in 1635, 1638 and 1651/2 respectively (and who were themselves named in Walter’s 1650 will [Register 47(1893):414]). In 1653, settlers in Woburn and Concord, Mass. were granted a six-mile square plot 25 miles from Boston (“a Very Comfortible place to acomidate A company of God’s people Upon”) between the converging Merrimack and Concord Rivers. Some 15 families there founded the town of Chelmsford, one of several dozen New England towns named for counterparts in Essex.
In 1632 Archbishop Laud installed Rev. Lawrence Washington (a former fellow and lecturer at Brasenose College, Oxford, and a proctor of the University) as rector of Purleigh parish, some ten miles from Chelmsford. Sequestered from the living in 1643, he was accused by parliamentarians of “daily tippling and beastly vices” but esteemed by fellow clergy. Sons John and Lawrence (both d. ca. 1677) immigrated to Virginia. The former was the great-grandfather of George Washington.
In recent years many Americans have visited Chelmsford Cathedral and Cuckoos Farm. Many have been Hooker descendants (William Howard Taft, 27th U.S. president, was descended from Hooker’s daughter Sarah; two Hooker nephews, Leonard Chester of Wethersfield, Conn. and John Alcock of Roxbury, Mass., were ancestors of Presidents Calvin Coolidge and F.D. Roosevelt, respectively). Rev. Hooker is less known in the United Kingdom. In 1986 commemorative plaques were unveiled in the town and at Cuckoos Farm. The organ at the Cathedral will, we hope, provide a fitting memorial for one of our greatest native sons and an American “founding father”.
The Very Reverend Dr. John Moses is Provost of Chelmsford Cathedral. Interested readers may send donations (or inquire about American trust arrangements for tax purposes) to The Cathedral Office, Guy Harlings. New Street, Chelmsford, England CM1 1NG, (international: telephone 011-44-245-2 63660, FAX 011-44-245-496802).