John Carver – Pilgrim Father

John Carver holds a special place in history as the man chosen to be the first governor of the separatist Pilgrim Fathers when they went to New England in 1620. That he lived only a short while should not reduce his importance, for he also played a key role in making the journey possible in the first place. In all the famous artistic recreations, Carver is there, often with his wife Catherine.

But unlike Brewster and Bradford, no-one has ever pinned down where Carver came from or how he got to be in the Netherlands in the first place. There have been suggestions that he was from ‘near Doncaster’ or the Norfolk/Suffolk border. Such claims are usually based on parish register evidence – and the registers have been combed for any likely  ‘John Carver.’ But what if he came from somewhere that doesn’t have surviving parish registers?

Intriguingly one such place without registers of the period is Sturton-le-Steeple, the home of John Robinson, John Smyth and the White family – one of whom married Robinson and one, Catherine, married Carver as her second husband. Just recently we paid a visit to Sturton and a doyen of the famous local Bartie family let us into the church and gave us a copy of a small book about the village written 30 years ago but largely based on the notebooks of Samuel Ingham, village schoolmaster in the late 1800s. Not usually the sort of book that yields a gem.

But on page 30-2 the booklet prints out the notes Ingham made from old Tudor documents. One of them is the certificate of musters of the ‘xxiiij daye Marche, the xxxth yere’ of Henry VIII. First on the list is George Lassells (great, a really important name!), then several people called Smyth (brilliant, another key name!), Legett (the family Catherine White married into), and indeed a Whyt. But two names have especial interest – John Corver and Richard Carver.

The booklet also gives a list of residents who contributed ‘benevolence’ to Henry six years later – rather shorter! Third is John Legatt and then comes a John Carver. Could this be the same family? It seems as likely as the other suggestions, although it is not clear how Carver came to be a wealthy man. But he was clearly trusted by Robinson and also married a Sturton widow – so it seems as likely as the other guesses!