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History & CommunityTales from the Vale 09/14

Tales from the Vale 09/14

In a corner of the Pole chapel in Colyton church small figurines of Lady Mary Pole and her nine surviving children kneel in prayer, her four sons to the fore, her five daughters behind. The family of Sir William Pole, historian, member of parliament, sheriff of Devon and squire of Shute house and Colcombe Castle, Colyton. He was an incorporator of the Virginia company so would have had a close association with the two local trans-Atlantic adventurers, Sir George Somers of Lyme Regis, Elizabethan privateer and pal of Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Thomas Gates, soldier of fortune from Colyford. Sir George Somers is remembered as the founder of the island of Bermuda, Sir Thomas Gates, Admiral of the Virginia Company, became governor of Virginia and was instrumental in the release of Pocahontas, a Virginian Powhatan Indian girl who later converted to Christianity, renamed herself Rebecca and married an Englishman thereby becoming the first recorded inter-racial marriage in North America. The whole affair was to provide a good storyline for Walt Disney in a later century.

Sir William Pole was knighted by James 1 in 1606, he died in 1635 leaving his estate to eldest son John. During the English civil war the Pole estate became the headquarters of the royalist forces under the command of Prince Maurice, nephew of King Charles 1. The young German prince, finding himself bogged down with the siege of Lyme, came into conflict with Sir Walter Erle, parliamentarian squire of Stedcombe House at Axmouth. The year was 1644 and during Royalist and Roundhead rampages throughout the Axe valley both Colcombe Castle and Stedcombe House became victim of tit-for-tat raids during which they were both raised to the ground by fire. During the 1960s renovations to ancient cottages in Axmouth exposed charred timbers suggesting that part of the village had been torched at the same time. One doleful record of the time was that of a Colyton weaver who complained that every time he draped his newly woven worsted over his hedge to dry passing troops of whatever side would help themselves to it as they rode past.

Sir William Pole was succeded by his eldest son, John, so it was he who suffered the destruction of Colcombe Castle wherein much of Sir William’s written historical records perished. Meanwhile his spinster sister, Elizabeth, one of those children kneeling in prayer behind him in Colyton church, appears to have switched sides having seriously adopted the Puritan faith. She had become an ardent follower of the Reverend William Hook, vicar of Rousdon and Axmouth, and dissenter of the Anglican Church. Hook’s wife was a first cousin of Oliver Cromwell and sister of Edward Whalley, one of Cromwell’s generals and one of the regicides who committed King Charles 1 to be be-headed. The Reverend’s firebrand declarations delivered during his sermons earned him disfavour and he was deprived of the vicarage of Axmouth church and obliged to travel to the new Plymouth colony in Massachusetts, New England in 1639, joining Elizabeth Pole who was already there having travelled there with her younger brother William and a company of other non-conformists from Taunton. Elizabeth, herself, had been a leading member of a committee of settlers had negotiated with the local Wampanoag Indian tribe for a parcel of land on the Tetticut river. The amusing and popular legend that the land was purchased from the Indians with a bag of beans and a jack-knife is dismissed as nonsense, ranking with the nonsensical tale that the 13 year old Pocahontas saved the life of Captain Smith by rushing between the descending club of her father and the head of his captive.

A description of the country at the time read, “The ground is very good on both sides of the river it being for the most part cleared. There is much good timber, oak, walnut, fir, beech and exceeding great chestnut trees. The country in respect of the lying of it is both open spaced and hilly, like many places in England.”

By the time of the arrival of Elizabeth Pole and her fellow English settlers in 1633, a treaty of friendship, “The Peace of Plymouth,” had already been established between early colonists and Indian chief Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag nation. To renew the treaty messengers laden with gifts were sent to enquire the health and welfare of “this greatest commander among the savages hereabouts”. Under the guidance of a friendly Indian, Squanto, who was later to instruct them in the Indian custom of fertilizing their corn crops with fish, the English settlers were taken to land where no white feet had trod before. They had felt obliged to move from the established settlement of Dorchester “feeling much straightened for want of room”. An agreement was reached with local chief, Ousamequin, to whom the settlers paid two shillings per acre. Elizabeth and her brother William set up their homestead of twenty acres. She was referred to in the records of Winthrop, Governor of the colony “she went late thither and endured much hardship and lost much cattle”.

Elizabeth Pole of Shute, founder of Taunton, Masschusetts, is commemorated with a statue and a school. The inscription on her gravestone reads “Here rest the remains of Elizabeth Pole, a native of Old England, of good family, friends and prospects, all which she left in the prime of life, to enjoy the religion of her conscience, in this distant wilderness, a great proprietor of the township of Taunton, a chief promoter of its settlement and its incorporation in 1639-40, about which time she settled near this spot, and having employed the opportunity of her virgin state in piety, liberality and sanctity of manners, died May 21, 1654, aged 65”.

The Reverend William Hook after having been instrumental, together with Elizabeth Pole in the founding of Taunton, Massachusetts, moved to New Haven, an Atlantic coastal settlement 100 miles to the south. Here he established an extreme and intolerant theocracy where other Christian beliefs, other than that of the Puritans, were absolutely disallowed.

Two years after the death of Elizabeth the reverend William Hook returned to England securing the living of Rousdon, the neighbouring parish to Axmouth, which he retained till 1665. He was also made chaplain to Oliver Cromwell. After the death of Cromwell and the restoration of the crown William Hook’s brother-in-law, Edward Whalley, one of Cromwell’s Major Generals and co-signatory of the death warrant of Charles1, was pursued across the Atlantic in 1661 by the new King’s forces. He took refuge in New Haven where he was hidden by the Governor, John Davenport, together with two other fleeing “regicides” in the wilderness of the West Rock hills to the north of the settlement.

In his final years William Hook left his tiny parish of Rousdon, near Lyme Regis, to become a preacher at Spittle Yard in London where he was left unmolested under the new King’s declaration that both Catholics and Puritans would be free to worship in their own way. He died in 1677 and was buried in Bunhill Fields, a Quaker burial ground in Islington.

And so it was that two religious malcontents from “hereabouts” in the West Country of old England travelled the perilous ocean to become greatly influential “yanghis”, as early colonists were referred to by Indians of the eastern seaboard, both making their historic mark in the very beginnings of the making of a mighty nation.

Derek Stevens is available for talks. Telephone 01297 553765 or 07525 354815, or email dereksko@yahoo.co.uk

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