Saundby’s a unique place in Mayflower Pilgrim Fathers and Baptist history is often overlooked – just like its hidden church. The chances are that you won’t have heard of Saundby, and even people who live in ‘Mayflower Pilgrim Roots Country’ are barely aware of its existence as it is no more than a few houses at the roadside and a church that is hidden away behind a farmyard. However if you want to get off the main Pilgrim Fathers tourist route, and especially if you are interested in the Baptist history strand that developed from our local separatists from 1606, then it is a great place to stop for half an hour.
Saundby was a manor held by Sir Gervase Helwys, a cousin of Thomas Helwys who was pivotal in the escape to the Netherlands in 1607-8. Thomas Helwys himself lived at Broxtowe Hall, 30 miles away on the edge of Nottingham, but was associated with John Smyth and John Murton who formed the separatist Gainsborough congregation just three miles from Saundby. It is likely therefore that Thomas Helwys would have stayed at Saundby on many occasions and they probably both also often visited Askham, another local village, where their family had endowed almshouses and where Gervase at least was baptised – and possibly Thomas was born.
Thomas was close enough in links to Gervase that when he hired a boat for the escape from Gainsborough he was able to do so under cover of it being to transport goods for his cousin. The women and children then escaped downriver from Gainsborough, Thomas travelling overland to Stallingborough where he was arrested. Thomas Helwys returned to England a few years later to create the first organised Baptist church since the Reformation, but was arrested and died in prison after writing a book about religious tolerance. Thus Saundby played roles in both Mayflower Pilgrim Fathers and Baptist history.
It was also a bad time for Sir Gervase, who made a mistake by buying himself the job of Lieutenant of the Tower of London in 1613. It all went horribly wrong for him when Thomas Overbury, one of the prisoners, was poisoned and Sir Gervase was unable to prove he had nothing to do with the murder. He was executed in 1615: a bad year for the Helwys family as this is when Thomas most likely also died. Sir Gervase died a good puritan death, although he did confess to being addicted to gambling – the Tower job being perhaps his worst bet! Sir Gervase also left behind a memorial to the Helwys family in the church, though the figures from this have long gone.
The church living of Saundby also played a role in the bitter dispute between the separating and non-separating wings of the local puritan movement. When Richard Bernard of Worksop decided to renounce his own separation and commit to the Church of England, his former friends like Smyth and John Robinson accused him of being a ‘chameleon’ but also of ‘coveting’ the well-rewarded position of Rector which became available in 1606. Sir Gervase was the patron, but he instead chose Jerome Phillips. This was the same man whose absence from his previous pulpit in Gainsborough was the apparent excuse for John Smyth’s illegal activity in the parish church there. Saundby was clearly a strongly puritan parish and in the 1620s the curate was Ephraim Tuke, from a significant Lincolnshire family of radical clerics.
As Saundby has a unique place in Mayflower Pilgrim Fathers and Baptist history we hope you will want to visit it. The church at Saundby is now managed by the Churches Conservation Trust. Access to it is only via the farmyard off the main road, which is generally locked at weekends. It is one of the places that we occasionally visit on our Pilgrims & Prophets Christian Heritage tours – on one occasion leading to an American Baptist being almost overcome with emotion on seeing the Helwys family memorial. Next door is the splendid house called the Grove, but is in fact the Nineteenth century Rectory – testament to what a rich living Saundby must have been! The Helwys house has vanished – though Saundby Park can still be traced across the fields to the west.
Café and toilets are available at the nearby garden centre: https://www.retfordgainsboroughgardencentre.co.uk/
Architecture of the church: http://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=1045083&resourceID=5
Book one of our tours to Saundby: https://www.pilgrimsandprophets.co.uk/tours/
Churches Conservation Trust: https://www.visitchurches.org.uk/visit/church-listing/st-martin-saundby.html
Detailed guide to the church building: here