Marnham, a tiny hamlet on the River Trent a few miles south east of Retford, is not normally on anyone’s ‘Mayflower Trail’ which usually follows the obvious path from Babworth to Scrooby and Austerfield. Indeed, Marnham is a forgotten place in the ‘Mayflower’ Pilgrims story. But arguably the ‘Mayflower’ route should start here, because it is where we first come across the spiritual leader of the Scrooby separatists, Richard Clyfton. Intriguingly, it is also a place where we know John Smyth, the first Baptist, also came.
Indeed this small Trentside village had a succession of radical priests. Richard Clyfton, the later leader of the ‘Brewster congregation,’ ministered here in 1586 (his first known appointment), although he took up the post at Babworth only a few months after arriving at Marnham.
Across the river from Marnham by ferry were the twin settlements of North and South Clifton. In August 1603 John Smyth, ‘a painful preacher of God’s word’, was identified as curate at North Clifton and a few months later recorded as a clerk of South Clifton. It is highly likely that this was indeed the famous John Smyth, arguably the driving force behind the move to separation from the Church of England. We know he was there because during 1604 Henry Aldred and John Herring seem to have begun a dispute over the living of Marnham which resulted in court appearances at Newark and Retford for several clergymen – including also John Smyth. Smyth in fact stood surety for Herring and was later one of those accused of ‘riot’. Also involved was Richard Jackson, possibly the vicar of Norwell, but perhaps the future separatist associated with Brewster at Scrooby although this seems less likely. Herring lost and went to Basford in 1605, close to where Thomas Helwys lived – Helwys was clearly Smyth’s great friend; Smyth and Herring preached without a licence at Greasley – another puritan stronghold where John Robinson had recently been married. He’d married one of the White family, who had moved there from Sturton-le-Steeple – and of course both Smyth and Robinson were from Sturton themselves.
In February 1607 Herring was admonished for allowing John Smyth to preach at Basford in an act which historian Stephen Wright considers to indicate his firm decision in favour of separation after an important conference in 1606. Wright also considers that Clyfton followed, ‘having been converted by Smyth;’ of course by this time Clyfton had been removed from Babworth. Just over a year later, most of these individuals had gone to the Netherlands.
Despite this dispute, Marnham clearly continued to be a centre of puritanism. In 1608 had Mr Edwards, clerk, was preaching there without a licence and by 1619 Marnham had Robert Hargreaves, also without a licence, who was cited for not using the sign of the cross in baptism, not using a ring in a wedding, nor wearing a surplice. By 1621 Hargreaves had been ordained priest and the following year was reportedly ‘reader’ at Kneesall – generally a puritan role. Hargreaves and Ash, the vicar of Marnham, were cited for holding ‘private religious exercises’ at Ash’s vicarage. Ash died in 1627.
Tracking on a hundred years or more, the local landed family were the Cartwrights. Their ancestors are said to have included the sister of Thomas Cranmer, who was born in south Nottinghamshire. This was the age of the ‘gentleman parson’ but perhaps few were as extraordinary as Edmund Cartwright, who was born at Marnham in 1743. An academic and a poet, he found enough time between his duties as a clergyman in to study medicine as well, despite holding benefices in four places. From 1771 to 1779 he was also vicar of his birthplace village. In 1784 he became interested in the mechanisation of weaving and patented a powered loom the following year and then a series of other inventions. However Cartwright was not a businessman, and attempts to set up his own factories in Doncaster and Retford failed whilst other entrepreneurs piloted his designs. Eventually he was rewarded by a Parliamentary grant of £10,000 in 1809.
His brothers took a different path – one became the radical politician ‘Major Cartwright’ who campaigned against many things including slavery. Another, George ‘Labrador’ Cartwright, became an explorer; in 1770 he brought five Inuits to stay at Marnham. Edmund Cartwright’s daughter Elizabeth became the famous writer Mrs Markham who was married to the parson at nearby Fledborough. Mrs Markham wrote a children’s history book that is thought to have been the best-selling history book of the entire nineteenth century!
The church is a large one for such a small village and is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, who do a wonderful job. On our visit we were intrigued by the apparent image of a ‘drowning man’ – in fact the result of a rather botched restoration job in the past….look out for him, he is perhaps Marnham’s equivalent of the Lincoln Imp! Now, who’d like to make up a legend?
Read an historical guide to this church here.