The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth


Sir Fernando Gorges


Gorges, Sir Ferdinando was an army officer and promoter of colonization in America. He was the second son of Edward Gorges (d. 1568) and Cicely Lygon of Wraxall, Somerset. The year of his birth was estimated for some time at 1566, but it appears to be reasonably certain that he was born between 31 May and 23 July 1568 at the family's suburban London home in Clerkenwell, where his father died shortly afterward. Little is known of his early upbringing, though there is some evidence that he may have attended as a youth in Elizabeth's court. By the age of eighteen or nineteen he had begun a military career. In 1587 he served as a gentleman volunteer with an English contingent in the defence of the Dutch seaport of Sluis against Spanish forces. Although the city was eventually lost and Gorges taken prisoner, the young officer was cited by the English commander Sir Roger Williams as having behaved 'most valiantly'. He was among those exchanged late in 1588 for Spanish prisoners from the Armada. On 24 February 1589 he married Ann Bell (d. 1620), daughter of a wealthy landowner of Essex. He would be married thrice more: on 21 December 1621 to Mary Achim (d. 1622); in 1627 to Elizabeth Gorges (d. 1627); and on 21 September 1629 to Elizabeth Smyth, nee Gorges. His first marriage led to his acquiring the means to settle down as a country gentleman, but instead he served for the next two years in the armies sent by Elizabeth in aid of the then protestant Henri IV of France. In 1591 he fought under Williams at St Saens and in the siege of Noyon, where he was badly wounded. Soon afterward, at Rouen, he was knighted in the field by the earl of Essex.

After commanding a garrison in the Low Countries for several years, Gorges was assigned to take charge of expanding the harbour defences at Plymouth, on Essex's recommendation. With the completion of the job in 1596, he was named captain and commander of the fort, a position he held except for a brief interlude until 1629. The appointment of Gorges, who gave priority to the place of Plymouth Sound in a system of national defences over the immediate defence of the town, represented a transfer of control from the town to the royal government and the subordination of local to national interests. The resulting local tensions complicated his efforts to put the channel defences in order during a period of renewed danger from Spain. When it appeared that the Spanish danger was past and the queen's attention was transferred to an uprising in Ireland, he tried unsuccessfully to secure orders to accompany his former patron the earl of Essex in the effort to put down the rebellion. After Essex failed and was recalled in 1599, he enlisted Gorges in his plot against the queen. Gorges at length withdrew from the conspiracy and testified against Essex in his treason trial, but was imprisoned on the basis of his earlier implication in the design. In prison he composed his 'Brief answer to certayne false, slanderous, and idle objections made agaynst Sir Ferd. Gorges, knight'. He was pardoned in 1601 through the offices of his new patron, Sir Robert Cecil. Upon the accession of James I in 1603 Cecil secured Gorges' restoration to his command in Plymouth.

It was now peacetime, and Gorges was soon caught up in the English enthusiasm for overseas trade and discovery. His life reached a turning point in 1605 with the still unexplained gift to him of three of the five kidnapped Native Americans that Captain George Waymouth brought back from a voyage of exploration. From that moment on his one great passion was to sponsor colonies in the place described to him in broken English by his captives. He collaborated with the lord chief justice, Sir John Popham, whose interest in America had likewise been aroused by Waymouth's voyage, in securing a royal charter, issued in 1606, for the London and Plymouth companies of Virginia. The death of Popham soon after the Plymouth Company had dispatched the colonizing expedition to Sagadahoc in 1607 thrust Gorges into the role of its chief spokesman and advocate, and so its failure was a personal defeat for him, only one of many such disappointments that marked his career of colonial enterprise. Several more efforts by Gorges and the Plymouth Company to settle the coast of 'New England', as Captain John Smith named that part of America in 1614, also failed, and the company was dissolved in 1619.

Gorges and several of his Plymouth Company associates next formed the Council for New England, which by royal patent of 3 November 1620 was granted the territory between 40 and 48 degrees north, roughly from modern Philadelphia in the south to St John's, Newfoundland, in the north. Among the earliest of the council's many sub-grants was one in 1622 made jointly to Gorges and Captain John Mason called the province of Maine, between the Merrimac and Kennebec rivers. The anonymous A Briefe Relation of the Discovery and Plantation of New England (1622) is generally accepted as Gorges' work, and as such reflected his ideas on colonial government, including the feudalistic organization of his province of Maine. After a delay in pursuing their project because of new hostilities with France and Spain, the partners agreed in 1629, the same year that Gorges resigned the command of Plymouth fort, to divide their territory. Mason took the piece between the Merrimac and the Piscataqua, which he called New Hampshire, and Gorges that from the Piscataqua to the Kennebec, which he continued to call the province of Maine. Ironically, in view of Gorges' neo-feudal and decidedly royalist American vision, it was also in 1629 that the Council for New England made what turned out to be its most significant grant of all to the Massachusetts Bay Company, whose overbearing puritan influence in the region Gorges spent his last years trying unsuccessfully to resist. Gorges and Mason also tried briefly to exploit two other joint grants from the council, the Laconia patent of 1629 and the Pascataqua patent of 1631, both of which overlapped the partners' provinces already granted but were nevertheless instrumental in bringing in settlers.

Gorges began slowly to develop his province of Maine by issuing land grants, which encouraged a small stream of settlers, and financing a few fishing stations. His main goal, however, was to establish a royal government for all of New England. It was mainly towards that end that in 1635 he instigated the dissolution of the Council for New England and his appointment by Charles I as governor-general of New England. The ship that was to have taken him and an elaborate retinue of office-holders to take charge of his dominion was wrecked in the launching, and John Mason, who had become his chief associate and was to be vice-admiral of New England, died soon afterwards. Frustrated once more and now nearly bankrupt from his various failed ventures, he lacked the resources to implement the grand scheme again. He did, however, try to realize a smaller version of his vision in his province of Maine, for which he received a royal charter in 1639. He sent as deputy governor a distant cousin, Thomas Gorges, who was moderately successful in setting up a rudimentary government.

Sir Ferdinando Gorges still nursed hopes of travelling to America himself, but even if he could have found the means, he soon became caught up in the deteriorating political situation at home, and in 1642, at the age of seventy-four, first raised a cavalry troop in support of the royalist cause and later took part in several actions of the civil war. Meanwhile, contacts between him and his province of Maine seem to have ceased, and Thomas Gorges returned home in 1643 to serve on the parliamentarian side. During the 1650s the province was entirely absorbed by Massachusetts. Sir Ferdinando died, disappointed and impoverished, on 24 May 1647 at the estate of his fourth wife, Elizabeth, in Ashton Phillips, Somerset, where he had lived since his marriage in 1629. She survived him. His A briefe narration of the original undertaking of the advancement of plantations into the parts of America was published in 1658.

By C Clark


Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article | Significant Individuals




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