When John Winthrop and other members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony first settled in Boston in 1630, they soon discovered in the back woods an English nobleman already in residence – Sir Christopher Gardiner.
Gardiner lived in what is now North Quincy on the Neponset River. Moreover, he had company. He had household servants and a much younger woman with him, ‘a comely young woman whom he called his cousin, but it was suspected she (after the Italian manner) was his concubine,’ Bradford wrote.
Sir Christopher Gardiner
Bradford and Winthrop, his fellow governor to the north, both had suspicions of Sir Christopher Gardiner. They took no immediate action against him, however, or his companion Mary Grove.
Gardiner explained his presence by saying he had simply tired of life in England and wanted to live peacefully in the New England wilderness. How he arrived was something of a mystery, as no ships had sailed for New England in 1630 that would account for his presence.
Historians reckon he came over on a fishing vessel and arrived via Maine. At this time, the ownership of Massachusetts was very much in dispute. The Massachusetts Bay Company had an official charter, but so did Robert Gorges, son of Ferdinando Gorges. He couldn’t accomplish much by way of settling the land, though, and his brother was still pursuing it.
If Winthrop and Bradford suspected Gardiner was in New England snooping to see what was happening on behalf of Gorges, they would have been correct. Both Gardiner and Thomas Morton, living near Gardiner at his Merrymount enclave, were agents of Gorges. Morton was actively feuding with the Pilgrims, who despised his close connections with the Native Americans and his morals, which were judged too loose for the times.
Truce and Consequences
In late 1630, however, word arrived from England shedding more light on Gardiner’s background. It turned out he had a good reason for not wanting to be in England. Not only was he consorting with Mary Grove, he had two wives waiting for him in London. The first said he had married her and abandoned her years earlier in Paris. The second said they married far more recently, and he had not only left, but stolen from her as part of the bargain.
The first Lady Gardiner wanted Christopher Gardiner returned to England. The second wanted him dead. Armed with this new intelligence, the magistrates in March of 1631 ordered Gardiner be returned to England on the Lyon setting sail in April. (The Lyon had brought Roger Williams to the colony.)
When the magistrates tried to enforce the order, however, they found Gardiner had fled into the woods with his sword, his gun and a dagger. He left Mary behind.
All the Puritans could learn from Mary was that Sir Christopher was a knight and that he claimed to have been married, but divorced. She also confessed that the two had been Catholics.
The divorce claim has a ring of some historical truth. Gardiner was from the English family of Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, who was instrumental in obtaining a divorce from the Catholic Church for King Henry VIII.
After he fled, Christopher Gardiner prepared to live off the land. His first thought was to flee to the Dutch Colony in New York. He soon abandoned the idea, however, and was living in the woods near Taunton, Mass. Members of the Pokanoket tribe visited Bradford and asked what they should do about Sir Christopher Gardiner. As Gardiner was armed, the Pokanokets were inclined to kill him.
Bradford told them, however, that if they captured him he would pay them.
The Pokanokets waited for their opportunity. When they caught Sir Christopher Gardiner separated from his sword and gun, they confronted him. He threatened them with a knife, so his pursuers subdued him by beating him with sticks.
Once handed over to Bradford, Sir Christopher Gardiner was well-treated and returned to Boston. It was now well known that he was an agent of Gorges, and Gardiner was at something of a standoff with the Boston leaders. But it didn’t last long.
In the summer of 1631, Thomas Purchase of Maine had traveled to Boston on business. While the scandalous history of Mary Grove no doubt was well known, women were in short supply and Purchase fell in love with and married her.
When the two married, Sir Christopher apparently came along as part of the deal. Purchase and his new wife went back to Maine, and Sir Christopher went with them. He remained there for another year before returning to England. There he joined in a case against the Puritans, trying to force them to yield their claims in New England to Gorges.
A Bitter Poem by Sir Christopher Gardiner
Unsuccessful, Sir Christopher Gardiner contributed a bitter poem about New Englanders to Morton’s book, New England Canaan, in which the two blasted the Puritans. They blamed them for settling of New England, branding them wolves in sheep’s clothing. Gardiner’s poem read:
Wolves in sheep’s clothing, why will ye
Think to deceive God that doth see
Your simulated sanctity?
For my part, I do wish you could
Your own infirmities behold,
For then you would not be so bold.
Like Sophists, why will you dispute
With wisdom so?—You do confute
None but yourselves. For shame, be mute!
Lest great Jehovah, with his power,
Do come upon you in an hour
When you least think, and you devour.
Mary Grove apparently lived happily with Thomas Purchase until she died in 1656. Gardiner’s story has been retold and fictionalized many times, most famously in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, The Rhyme of Sir Christopher. An interesting factual account was published in Harper’s Monthly.
This story about Sir Christopher Gardiner was updated in 2022.