Saturday, August 20, 2016

Life sketch of Rev. Hugh Peter

© 2016 Christy K Robinson

Hugh Peter, a Puritan minister who did good things for New England, was one of the accusers of Anne Hutchinson at her 1637 and 1638 trials and pushed for her banishment. He would have been aware of Mary Dyer and her “monstrous” miscarriage.

His grandfather carried the name of a manor in Norfolk, England, called Dyckwoode, and it seems that for a time in the 16th century, the family lived in the Netherlands but moved to England for reasons of religious freedom. Hugh Peter (the surname his father changed from Dyckwoode) was born in Cornwall in 1598. He earned his MA at Cambridge University, which was favored by Puritans, and indeed, preaching became his career.

In 1625, he married a widow, Elizabeth Cooke Reade, who was 30 years older than Hugh and had adult children, one of whom married John Winthrop Jr. Elizabeth died in England in 1637.
Rev. Hugh Peter, portrait by

Gustavus Ellinthorpe Sintzenich

Hugh criticized Queen Henrietta Maria, the Catholic wife of Charles I, lost his preaching license, went back to the Netherlands for a few years and was a military chaplain, then (when he was trying to slide past the English military that were looking for him) was persuaded by friends to go to New England. It’s interesting that he mentions The Book of Sports, written by King James I and reissued by Charles I. Sports required the Puritans to play and enjoy themselves on Sunday afternoons, rather than sit in hours-long church services for the entire day. In other words, they had to break the sacredness of their Sabbath to do secular activities. Hugh said of his decision to emigrate, “And truly my reason for myself and others to go, was merely, not to offend Authority [King Charles I] in the difference of Judgment; and had not the Book for Encouragement of Sports on the Sabbath come forth, many [would have] staid [in England].”  (If you click the Book of Sports link, you'll see why 35,000 people moved to New England in the 1630s.)

So in 1635, Hugh emigrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony and was appointed minister of the church in Salem, which was a more religiously fundamental town than Boston or most other towns. He was admitted as a freeman at the same time as Henry Vane and William Dyer. He excommunicated Roger Williams and banished him—during the vicious winter—so that Williams had to flee to the Narragansett Indians, where he founded Providence Plantation (Rhode Island). As the stepfather of John Winthrop, Jr.'s wife, he helped to make Connecticut a colony through his connections with the Winthrops and Rev. Thomas Hooker, whom he'd known in England.Winthrop Junior was the Connecticut governor or deputy governor for many years.

While in the Bay Colony, he was placed on a commission to develop the fishing industry from a gaggle of independent fisherman sending cargoes of fish to Europe or the Caribbean at great expense, into a confederation of fishermen, with coordinated cargoes, canneries for preserving, coastal stations for resupplying the fishing fleet with tackle and rigging, and regulations for what to do with fish: valuable cod, bass, and halibut were not to be spread as “manure” on crops, but preserved for sale abroad. Gov. Winthrop mentioned Hugh Peter’s work as being helpful in the lean winters and springs before the crops came in: they had salt fish to keep them alive, and that Hugh organized funding to build a 150-ton ship to send Massachusetts goods to foreign markets.

In 1636, preaching at Boston, Rev. Peter urged several things of the church. Among them was that they would "take order for employment of people, (especially women and children, in winter time;) for he feared that idleness would be the ruin both of church and commonwealth." Winthrop's Journal, May 1636. (Remember this when in the 1640s he is involved in child trafficking from English slums.)
Mr. Peter was harshly critical of Anne Hutchinson's religious teaching and as one of her inquisitors, persuaded the General Court to banish her; he and other ministers visited Hutchinson while she was incarcerated at Joseph Weld's home and preached to her, tried to get her to recant, and took her answers as evidences against her in her excommunication trial. He was also one of the founding board members of Harvard College in 1638.

Two years after his much-older wife died in 1637, he married Deliverance Sheffield--unwillingly--because it seems that members of the Boston and Salem churches didn't like having a single man as their minister, and they considered the marriage arranged! Hugh wrote to Governor Winthrop, "If you shall amongst you advise mee to write to her, I shall forthwith, our towne lookes upon mee contracted, and soe I have sayd my selfe." Mrs. Deliverance Peter gave birth to Hugh's only daughter between 1639 and 1641, but it became evident that she was mentally ill. (With hindsight, one could see her scattered thoughts in her letters written before they married.) He left her in the colony when he moved back to England, and wrote from the old country, "Bee sure you never let my wife come away from thence without my leave [if] you love mee." 

In 1641, three men were needed to return to England to be agents for the colony: Rev. Thomas Weld (who soon after wrote the vicious introduction to Winthrop’s book about Hutchinson and Dyer), magistrate William Hibbins (whose wife would someday be hanged as a witch), and Rev. Hugh Peter. John Endecott stirred up the Salem church to deny permission for the hugely popular Hugh Peter to return to England, saying that he might never return. Charles Spencer, in Killers of the King, wrote that Rev. Peter had "extraordinarily infectious words, which could rouse men to fight with a courage reserved for those utterly confident in God's blessing."  However, he did go as an agent for the colony of Massachusetts Bay, and they were right: he never returned.

The three men were able to get Parliament to grant that the colony not pay customs or taxes on their natural resources like fish, timber, furs, or lumber. Sweet! That nifty patent stayed in effect for decades. And when another king, 140 years later, demanded customs and taxes, remember what happened? The Boston Tea Party.

Meanwhile, Rev. Weld was having less success with his efforts, so he created a Narragansett patent and took it around the Council of State and other leaders for signatures. The patent said Massachusetts Bay Colony owned the northwesterly parts of Rhode Island. His fraud was discovered, and he was recalled to Massachusetts for disciplinary action, but he never returned, having conveniently found an English parish church to preach in up north. In the 1650s, he wrote tracts refuting the Quakers' radical theology.

Weld and Peter had another lucrative business in England: they took children and teens, orphans or the fatherless, from parish poor rolls and kept them in a camp until a ship could be made ready to transport them as “servants” (or slaves) to America. An epidemic killed a large number of the camp inmates. When the children were put on ships, it was without minders or nurses—just the rough ship’s crew were in charge for eight to twelve weeks. The human trafficking enlarged as the English Civil Wars raged in the 1640s and people were separated from families by death or displacement. Peter went with the Cromwell army to Ireland, too, so it’s possible that he took part in or suggested the deportation of Irish slaves to America and the Caribbean.

Hugh Peter was the chaplain for Oliver Cromwell and the General Fairfax's army during the Civil Wars, and  he counseled the Parliamentary politicians to try and execute King Charles. Several diarists of the day wrote that Peter was theatrical, melodramatic, and absurd in the pulpit, with facial expressions and shruggings of shoulders.

Rev. Peter was critical of the Anglo-Dutch war (in which William Dyer sought and was given the commission of Commander-in-Chief-Upon-the-Seas), saying to the Council of State that the two Protestant powers should work together, and not blow one another apart on the seas.

He led the procession of the king from Windsor to London for his trial. When the execution came to pass in early 1649 (meanwhile, back in Boston, Winthrop was in his final illness), rumor had it that Hugh Peter was the other man, besides the headsman and the unfortunate king, there on the platform at Charing Cross. They said they recognized his voice, though his face was obscured like the headsman’s.

At the Restoration (of Charles II to the throne) in 1660, those who took part in Charles I's execution or the conspiracy to execute were called regicides. Most of them were caught and tried. At his trial, one of his colleagues said that Rev. Peter had boasted of another reason beside colony business, that he was sent to England in 1641, and that was that the colonial agents were to stir up war against the King of England. If that was true and not just a scurrilous accusation, Hugh Peter and his colleagues were successful. After his trial, Hugh Peter was given the traitor’s death: hanged but taken down, emasculated, his organs drawn out while he was alive, and then dismembered, with his head set on a pike and his limbs sent around the country.

Hugh Peter was the butt of satirical songs and articles accusing him of drunkenness, adultery against his mad wife back in Massachusetts (a capital offense in the colony), embezzlement, and inappropriate jocularity against the king. He denied them; historian C.H. Firth, at the end of the 19th century, said that Hugh Peter didn’t do those things, and that on the contrary, Hugh was honest and upright. In light of the many reports we can assemble in the 21st century, I'm of the opinion that Firth was a tad optimistic about Hugh's character.
1647: Another side of Rev. Hugh Peter. 
 In the Dictionary of National Biography, the historian Burnet characterized him as "an enthusiastical buffoon preacher, though a very vicious man, who had been of great use to Cromwell, and had been very outrageous in pressing the king's death with the cruelty and rudeness of an inquisitor."
It looks like Hugh is peering through a keyhole, but one writer suggested that Hugh had a reputation for womanizing, and that in this satirical cartoon from 1647, he was reaching under the door for a key when his fingers were caught in a mousetrap. When the husband startles awake, the duplicitous wife assures him that what he heard was the mousetrap. “The Rat is catch’t,” she says. Hugh Peter mourns, “Oh, my fingers.”
The cartoon is 370 years old, and I can’t stop laughing at it.


Christy K Robinson is the author of three books on William and Mary Barrett Dyer and their culture, friends, and enemies, all meticulously researched over years. Find them here:


  1. Comment from Rose A Doherty, president of the Partnership of the Historic Bostons (PHP):
    I sent your recent post to the PHB board. Frank Bremer was kind enough to respond with his thoughts. I thought you would like to see them.

    "The best biography of Peter remains Raymond Phineas Stearns, The Strenuous Puritan: Hugh Peter, 1598-1660 (1954). He played an important role in the development of Congregationalism as pastor of an English congregation in Rotterdam before coming to America. I have written about him (a chapter focusing on his published letter to his daughter as he awaited execution) in First Founders: American Puritans and Puritanism in an Atlantic World (2012)." --Dr. Francis J. Bremer

  2. This has been absolutely fascinating to read. I've recently discovered that my ancestor was a teenage girl indentured to Hugh Peters when he made that crossing to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She would have been in the household in Salem, probably cared for his first wife and been at home with the 'mad wife' during their marriage and after he left for England. After 9 years indentured, a young man was able to pay her indenture off for her and they were married :) his name was Peter Folger and they went on to have 9 children....the youngest named Abiah, who was Benjamin Franklin's mother! I cant help but think how trying it must have been for my ancestor to be this man's servant and in his home for nearly a decade. Im so glad she could make her escape!

    1. Hi!! I am also a descendant. I can not find this ship with these people listed. Have you found it? I've looked for Hugh/Hughs/Folger/Faulger/Morrell/Morrill/etc.


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