Nicholas Ferrar was the son of a London merchant who was an early member of the Virginia Company, the group which established the American colony in 1607. In 1622 Nicholas succeeded his elder brother John as the company’s Deputy, becoming responsible for its day-to-day administration. In 1624 twin disasters struck; the company was dissolved and John faced a threat of bankruptcy. This turn of events convinced Nicholas and the family that they should renounce worldliness by leaving London and devoting themselves to a life of godliness. Nicholas and John’s widowed mother, Mary, purchased the manor of Little Gidding as part of a deal to rescue John from debt. An outbreak of plague in London in 1625 caused the family to move to Little Gidding more promptly than they had intended. On arrival they found the church used as a barn and the house, uninhabited for 60 years, in need of extensive repair.
Establishment of a community
Old Mrs. Ferrar’s first action was to enter the church for prayer, ordering it to be cleaned and restored before any attention was paid to the house. Mrs. Ferrar’s daughter Susanna, with her husband John Collet and their many children soon joined the household from Bourne in Cambridgeshire. The household numbered about 40 persons from babies to septuagenarian Mary. A school was established for the children of kinsmen and friends as well as family though not for the local children, who were offered a copy of the psalter from which they could learn the psalms. One wing of the house became an almshouse for four elderly and infirm women. A dispensary was set up in the house to provide broth and medicines to the local people.
Establishment of a regular round of prayer
In 1626 William Laud, then Bishop of St. David’s but later Archbishop of Canterbury, ordained Nicholas a deacon though Nicholas made clear that he would not proceed to the priesthood. He and the family soon established on weekdays a regular round of prayer based on Archbishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. The family processed to the church for these services of matins, the litany, and evensong, which were led by Nicholas. On Sundays Nicholas led the customary matins to which the local children came and afterwards recited the psalms they had learned, for each of which they received a penny. After the recitations were completed, all returned to the church where the Vicar of Great Gidding (Little Gidding’s rector being an absentee) led another service that included a sermon and, once a month, Holy Communion. The psalm children then went back with the family to the house where the family, including old Mrs. Ferrar herself, helped to serve them lunch. When the family had in turn finished their lunch, they walked over the fields to Steeple Gidding for evensong.
Nicholas also began a round of hourly devotions in the house that combined recitation of psalms and readings from the gospels led by members of the family. These were later augmented by nightly vigils in which participants again repeated the psalms.
To instruct the younger members of the extended family in the gospel story and to develop their manual dexterity, Nicholas devised a Harmony of the four gospels. This Harmony provided the narrative for the hourly gospel readings. To create it, individual lines were cut from the four gospel narratives and pasted together on the page to make one continuous text. The pages were also illustrated with engravings, some of which Nicholas may have brought back from his continental travels many years earlier.
When King Charles heard of the Harmony’s existence, he sent to borrow it, returning it only when the family agreed to make another for him. The family also made others for absent family and friends as well as for other royals and members of the nobility. The poet George Herbert, who received one, returned the family his thanks that ‘he had lived now to see women’s scissors brought to so rare a use as to serve at God’s altar.’ Fifteen such volumes are known to survive, four of them in the British Library.
Death of Nicholas
In the autumn of 1637 Nicholas sickened, dying on the day after Advent Sunday at 1 am, the hour at which he had always risen to begin his prayers. He was buried in the table tomb outside the church, leaving space for his brother John to be buried closer to the church door. The anniversary of the Feast of Nicholas Ferrar is now commemorated on 4th December though he actually died on the 2nd.
King Charles seeks refuge
In the Civil War Huntingdonshire was largely on the side of Parliament. As Royalists, therefore, the Ferrars found it safer to leave home, spending two years in Holland and returning to Little Gidding in late 1645 or early 1646. Within months, as King Charles secretly made his way north from Oxford to the Scots, he sought refuge on 2 May 1646 at Little Gidding (which he had previously visited in the spring of 1642). John Ferrar feared, however, that his house was no safe shelter for the king and led him to a safer bed at nearby Coppingford Lodge.
After the king’s visit the Ferrars lived quietly at Little Gidding until a flu epidemic in the autumn of 1657 carried off both John and his sister Susanna Collet. John’s descendants continued to live at the manor until the mid-18th century when the immediate male line died out and the manor was sold, the manor house being demolished in the early 19th century.
The Ferrar household was an example of a godly family, neither unique nor monastic, but firmly committed to the established Church of England and its Prayer Book and determined to follow Christ’s commands to forswear worldliness and devote themselves to God’s service. Their pattern of life placed them in a middle way that was neither Roman Catholicism, which founds its authority not only on scripture but also on church tradition, nor Genevan Protestantism, with its dependence only on scripture. The church at Little Gidding, with its reading desk and pulpit carefully placed at equal heights on either side of the church, expressed their vision of an appropriate balance of liturgy and preaching, a balance of tradition and scripture, interpreted by reason, that remains the heritage of the present Church of England.