Thursday, December 6, 2012

18: Nicholas Ferrar (1593-1637), inspiration for community living

Nicholas Ferrar, from a portrait by Cornelius Janssen in the Senior Fellows’ Common Room, Clare College, Cambridge

Patrick Comerford

Nicholas Ferrar (1593-1637) was the guiding light of one of the most remarkable experiments in Christian community living in the history of Anglicanism. An English academic, courtier and businessman, he gave up his successful careers, was ordained a deacon and retreated with his extended family to the manor of Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire (now Cambridgeshire), where they lived in community.

Nicholas Ferrar was born in London on 22 February 1593 and was baptised five days later. The Ferrar family claimed to be closely related to Robert Ferrar, Bishop of Saint Davids, who was burned at the stake in Carmarthen on 30 March 1555, in the reign of Mary I. Nicholas was the third son and fifth of six children of Nicholas Ferrar and his wife Mary (Woodnoth) Ferrar. The Ferrar family was wealthy and was deeply involved in the London Virginia Company, which had a Royal Charter for the plantation of the colony of Virginia. Nicholas Ferrar’s niece is said to be the first child to have been named Virginia. His family home was often visited by people like Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake.

At the age of four, Nicholas Ferrar was sent to school at Enborne, near Newbury, Berkshire, and is said to have been reading perfectly by the age of five. He was confirmed by the Bishop of London in 1598, contriving to have the bishop lay hands on him twice.

The chapel of Clare College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

In 1605, at the age of 13, he entered Clare Hall, now Clare College, Cambridge. He was elected a fellow-commoner at the end of his first year, took his BA in 1610 and was elected a fellow that year. While he was an undergraduate in Cambridge, he first met the priest-poet George Herbert.

He probably received the degree MA in Cambridge in 1613, and he may have been planning an academic career as a Cambridge don. But Nicholas Ferrar’s health had been weak since his childhood, and the damp air of the Fens was bad for his health. By the time of his graduation his health had become a cause for serious concern, and he was advised to travel to warmer climate of continental Europe, away from the damp air of Cambridge.

In 1613, Ferrar obtained a position in the retinue of the Queen of Bohemia, Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King James I and wife of the Elector Frederick V. He left England in April, but by May he had changed his mind and left the Court to travel alone. Over the next few years he visited Holland, German principalities, Austria, Bohemia, Italy and Spain, and learned to speak Dutch, German, Italian and Spanish.

He studied in Leipzig and in Padua, where he continued his medical studies, and he broadened his religious education through meetings with Anabaptists, Jesuits, Oratorians and Jews.

During this time, he recorded many adventures in his letters home to his family and friends. Finally in 1618 he is said to have had a vision that he was needed at home, and returned to England.

On his return to England, he was refused a Professorship at Gresham College, London. Meanwhile, he found that the family fortunes which had been invested primarily in Virginia were faring badly and were under threat. His brother John had become over-extended financially and the Virginia Company was in danger of losing its charter.

From 1619, Nicholas devoted much of his energies to the affairs of the troubled Virginia Company. In 1622, he succeeded his elder brother John as the company’s Deputy, becoming responsible for its day-to-day administration. In 1624 twin disasters struck – the company was dissolved and John faced a threat of bankruptcy.

In 1624, Ferrar was elected an MP for Lymington, Hampshire, and in Parliament he tried to promote the cause of the Virginia Company. He also worked closely in the Commons with Sir Edwin Sandys, and together they were part of the parliamentary faction known as the “country party” or “patriot party,” grouped around Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick, which seized control of the finances from a rival group, the “court faction,” grouped around Sir Thomas Smith, also a prominent member of the Virginia Company.

In a pamphlet, Sir Thomas Smith’s Misgovernment of the Virginia Company, Ferrar accused Smith and his son-in-law, Alderman Robert Johnson, of running a company within a company to skim off the profits from the shareholders. The argument ended with the London Virginia Company losing its charter following a court ruling in May 1624.

The turn of events convinced Nicholas and the family that they should renounce worldliness by leaving London and devoting themselves to a life of godliness. At the age of 33, Nicholas abandoned his successful political and commercial career to move to found a community of prayer. He retired from parliament in 1625 and bought the deserted manor and village of Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire, a few miles off the Great North Road, with the support of his mother, Mary Ferrar, and his brother John.

Little Gidding had been deserted since the Black Death in the 14th century. The Ferrar family probably found Little Gidding through a recommendation from John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln, whose palace was in the nearby village of Buckden.

On Trinity Sunday 1626, Nicholas Ferrar was ordained a deacon in Westminster Abbey by William Laud, the Bishop of Saint Davids and later Archbishop of Canterbury, although Nicholas made it clear that he would not proceed to the priesthood. When he had been ordained, Nicholas pledged: “I will also by the help of my God, set myself with more care and diligence than ever to serve our good Lord God, as is all our duties to do, in all we may.”

The first thing his widowed mother did at Little Gidding was to enter the church for prayer, ordering it to be cleaned and restored for worship before any attention was paid to the house. The poet Richard Crashaw described Mary in her “friar’s grey gown” as “the gentlest, kindest, most tender-hearted and liberal handed soul I think is to-day alive.”

Mary Ferrar and the extended family and household – about 30 to 40 people – moved into the manor house, and Nicholas became the leader and spiritual director of the community.

This was the only religious community in the Church of England between the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII and the revival of religious communities that came with the Oxford Movement. The household was centred on the Ferrar family: Nicholas’s mother Mary; his brother John Ferrar, his wife Bathsheba and their children; and his sister Susanna, her husband John Collett and their children.

They restored the abandoned little Church of Saint John the Evangelist for their use. The household always had someone at prayer and had a regular routine. They read the daily offices of the Book of Common Prayer and also read the complete Psalms each day. Day and night, there was always at least one member of the community kneeling in prayer before the altar so that they might keep the word, “Pray without ceasing.”

They fasted with great rigour, and in other ways embraced voluntary poverty, so that they might have as much money as possible for the relief of the poor. The life of the Ferrar household was strongly criticised by Puritans, and the community was condemned by William Prynne in a series of scurrilous pamphlets as “an Arminian Nunnery.” However, the family never lived a formal religious life at Little Gidding; instead, this was a family living a Christian life in accordance with the Book of Common Prayer and according to High Church principles.

The community members looked after the health and education of the local children, and Nicholas and his family produced harmonies of the Gospels. The community wrote books and stories on different aspects of Christian faith and practice, and many members of the family also learned the art of bookbinding from the daughter of a Cambridge bookbinder.

The community attracted much attention and was visited by King Charles I. He borrowed a Gospel harmony produced at Little Gidding and only returned it several months later in exchange for a promise of a new harmony to give to his son, the future Charles II. The Ferrars then produced a beautifully bound manuscript that passed through the royal collection and is now in the British Library.

The poet George Herbert (1593-1633), who had been a contemporary of Nicholas Ferrar at Cambridge, also became a friend of the community. At the time, Herbert was a deacon and held the prebend of Leighton Bromswold, four or five miles south of Little Gidding.

After being ordained priest, Herbert moved to Wiltshire. On his deathbed in 1633, Herbert sent the manuscript of The Temple to Nicholas Ferrar, asking him to publish the poems if he thought they might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul,” but otherwise, to burn them. Ferrar decided to publish them, and within half a century The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations had gone through 13 editions.

Nicholas Ferrar, who never married, died on 4 December 1637 at the age of 45. He was buried outside the west door of the church in Little Gidding. His papers are held at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

The leadership of the community at Little Gidding passed to his brother John Ferrar, and the Ferrar family continued its way of life and continued to attract many visitors. During a period of local unrest in the Civil Wars, John Ferrar and some of his family went to Holland in 1643, but they had returned to Little Gidding by 1646.

Charles I returned to Little Gidding twice more. Once he came with the Prince of Wales and donated some money he had won from the prince in a game of cards the night before. On his last visit to Little Gidding on 2 May 1646, at the height of the English Civil War, King Charles I briefly took refuge after the Battle of Naseby as he fled north to try to enlist support from the Scots.

Huntingdonshire was loyal to Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who was born in Huntingdon. Cromwell had lived in Huntingdon, and nearby in St Ives and Ely, and was MP first for Huntingdon and then for Cambridge.

The community was forcibly broken up by the Puritan soldiers of Cromwell’s Parliamentary army in 1646, and the brass font from the church was thrown into the pond.

The last members of the community, John Ferrar and Susanna Collett, died within a month of each other in 1657. Little Gidding remained the property of the Ferrar family, however, and in 1714 John Ferrar renovated the church, shortening the nave by about two feet, installing wooden panelling and building the “dull façade,” as TS Eliot calls it.

Nicholas Ferrar … a window in the Chapel of Clare Chapel, Cambridge

TS Eliot and Little Gidding

TS Eliot honours Nicholas Ferrar in Little Gidding, his fourth poem in the Four Quartets.

Early in 1936, on one of his visits to the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham Hall in Nottinghamshire, Eliot was asked to read and criticise the manuscript of a verse play written by one of the members of this Anglican religious community, Brother George Every. The play, Stalemate – the King at Little Gidding, told the story of King Charles I’s visit in May 1646. Eliot was interested in the idea of Christian Community as the ideal of the Christian life, and had already read about the Ferrars – both the novel John Inglesant and Peckard’s Life were in Eliot’s library.

Eliot was an Honorary Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, where the Ferrar papers are held. He was brought to Little Gidding by the Dean of Magdalene, the Revd Hugh Fraser Stewart, and his wife, on Wednesday afternoon, 25 May 1936. They were accompanied by Virginia Woolf’s biographer Bernard Blackstone, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, whose Ferrar Papers was published 1938. Eliot may also have met Alan Maycock, who was about to publish his life of Ferrar.

The Four Quartets is a sequence of poetic reflections on the importance of time and intersections of timeless moments. After writing The Dry Salvages, Eliot wanted to complete what he now saw as a set of four poems, and quickly settled on Little Gidding, where he found one such “ intersection of the timeless moment” that spring afternoon.

Eliot wrote the final poem of his Four Quartets soon after. Little Gidding was published in 1942, Eliot published no more poetry afterwards, and he died in 1965.

The “place you would be likely to come from” is London and the blitz, or German air raids; the “route you would be likely to take” is straight up the A1 from London; Charles I is “a broken king.”

From Little Gidding by TS Eliot:

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull façade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfillment. There are other places
Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire
beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

The former Poet Laureate the late Ted Hughes claimed he was directly related to Nicholas Ferrar on his mother’s side and Hughes and Sylvia Plath named their son Nicholas Farrar after this Anglican saint.

Little Gidding today

The church in Little Gidding

The memory of the community survived to inspire and influence later experiments in Christian communal living, even after Little Gidding passed out of the hands of the Ferrar family.

The church was restored in the mid-19th century by William Hopkinson, who inserted four stained glass windows with the coats-of-arms of the Ferrar family (although this is incorrect), Charles I, Bishop Williams and Hopkinson himself. Hopkinson also discovered the vandalised font which had been dumped in a nearby pond by Puritans two centuries earlier and had it restored to the church. He also placed a magnificent 18th century chandelier in the church.

There was a revival of interest in Nicholas Ferrar and Little Gidding in the 19th and 20th centuries, typified by the historical novel John Inglesant (1881) by Joseph Henry Shorthouse. The eponymous hero is an Anglican courtier who spends some time at Little Gidding and fights at the battles of Edgehill and Naseby. After he takes part in negotiations on the king’s behalf in Ireland, he is tried and condemned for treason, but escapes execution. This once-popular book paints an intimate picture of daily life in the Ferrar family, of personalities, appearances and habits, as well as the daily routine of worship at Little Gidding.

The Oratory of the Good Shepherd, an Anglican religious community, was established at a meeting at Little Gidding in 1913.

The Friends of Little Gidding was founded in 1946 by Alan Maycock with the patronage of TS Eliot, to maintain and adorn the church at Little Gidding, and to honour the life of Nicholas Ferrar and his family.

Maycock’s interest in Nicholas Ferrar had been stirred while he was an undergraduate at Clare College, Cambridge. After World War II, Alan and Edith Maycock visited Little Gidding in 1946. They found the church in poor condition in July 1946 formed the Friends of Little Gidding, with the Bishop of Ely as president and TS Eliot as a vice-president.

The Community of Christ the Sower, inspired by the example of Nicholas Ferrar, was founded at Little Gidding in the 1970s. The Revd Robert van de Weyer, a lecturer in economics at Cambridge University and a descendant of George Herbert’s patron at Leighton Bromswold, founded a trust a lecturer in the 1970s to buy the farmhouse for a new community and as a place of retreat. He was the Warden of the Little Gidding Community from 1977 to 1998, and the NSM priest-in-charge of Great with Little Gidding and Steeple Gidding until 1993. The Community of Christ the Sower came to an end in 1998.

The Society of the Friends of Little Gidding was re-founded in 2004, and Tony and Judith Hodgson returned to Little Gidding the following year as the Wardens of Ferrar House, appointed by the Little Gidding Trust. The church continues in the care of the Giddings Parochial Church Council.

The Friends have organised renovations and repairs to the church. They continue to organise an annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Nicholas Ferrar each July, and they celebrate Nicholas Ferrar Day each year on a day close to 4 December.

The Feast of Nicholas Ferrar is celebrated on 1 December in the calendar of the Episopal Church (TEC) in the US and was celebrated on 2 December in the calendar of the Alternative Service Book of the Church of England. However, it is debated whether Nicholas Ferrar died on Monday 4 December 1637, the day after the First Sunday of Advent, or on 4 December, the day on which he is now remembered in the calendar of Common Worship of the Church of England.

His commemoration may have been moved to 1 and 2 December because Saint John of Damascus is commemorated on 4 December. In Common Worship, Charles de Foucauld, Hermit in the Sahara (1916), is now commemorated on 1 December.

Ferrar House offers quiet days and accommodation in Little Gidding, Cambridgeshire, and is adjacent to the original site where Nicholas Ferrar and his household came in 1625 and next to Little Gidding Church, which they restored to daily use: Ferrar House, Little Gidding, Cambridgeshire, PE28 5RJ.


The remembrance of death is very powerful to restrain us from sinning. For he should well consider the day will come (and he knoweth not how soon) … no more Suns will rise and set upon him; … no more seeing, no more hearing, no more speaking, no more touching, no more tasting, no more fancying, no more understanding, no more remembering, no more desiring, no more loving, no more delights of any sort to be enjoyed by him...let any man duly and daily ponder these things, and how can it be that he should dare …

Select bibliography:

Bernard Blackstone (ed), The Ferrar Papers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938).
JFM Carter, TT Carter, Nicholas Ferrar: His Household and His Friends (London: Longmans, Green & Co 1893).
Simon Kershaw (ed), Exciting Holiness (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 3rd ed, 1997, 2007).
Simon Kershaw, ‘Nicholas Ferrar,’
AL Maycock, Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding (London: SPCK, 1938).
Peter Peckard, Memoirs of the life of Mr. Nicholas Ferrar (Cambridge: J Archdeacon, 1790).
J Venn and JA Venn ( eds), Alumni Cantabrigienses (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958).

To join the Friends of Little Gidding contact: Membership Secretary, Friends of Little Gidding, Ferrar House, Little Gidding, Cambridgeshire, PE28 5RJ.

The Friends of Little Gidding website:

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral. Another version of this essay was first published on 1 December 2012 in the series ‘With the Saints through Advent’ on 1 December 2012 on