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Nicholas Ferrar

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Nicholas Ferrar
Nicholas Ferrar,
from a portrait by Cornelius Janssen
Born 22 February 1592, London
Died 4 December 1637, Little Gidding, Huntingdonshire
Venerated in Anglican Communion
Feast December 4 (Church of England), December 1, (Episcopal Church (United States))

Nicholas Ferrar (22 February 1592 - 4 December 1637) was an English scholar, courtier, businessman and man of religion. Ordained deacon in the Church of England, he retreated with his extended family to the manor of Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire, where he lived the rest of his life.[1]

Early life

Nicholas Ferrar was born in London,[2] the third son and fifth child (of six) of Nicholas Ferrar and his wife Mary (née Woodnoth). At the age of four he was sent to a nearby school, and is said to have been reading perfectly by the age of five. He was confirmed by the Bishop of London in 1598, contriving to have the bishop lay hands on him twice.[3] In 1600 he was sent away to boarding school in Berkshire, and in 1605, aged 13, he entered Clare Hall, Cambridge. He was elected a fellow-commoner at the end of his first year, took his B.A. in 1610 and elected a fellow the following year.[4] It was as a Cambridge undergraduate that he first met George Herbert. His health, weak since his childhood, now gave cause for serious concern and he was advised to travel to continental Europe, and away from the damp air of Cambridge.

Travels abroad

Ferrar obtained a position in the retinue of Princess Elizabeth, daughter of James I who married the Elector Frederick V. In April 1613 he left England, not returning until 1618. However, by May, he had changed his mind and left the Court to travel alone. Over the next few years he visited Holland, German principalities including Austria and Bohemia, Italy and Spain, learning to speak Dutch, German, Italian and Spanish. He studied at Leipzig and especially at Padua where he continued his medical studies. He met Anabaptists and Roman Catholics, including Jesuits and Oratorians, as well as Jews, broadening his religious education. During this time he recorded many adventures in his letters home to his family and friends. Finally in 1618 he is said to have had a vision that he was needed at home, and so he returned to England.[3]

The Virginia Company

The Ferrar family was deeply involved in the London Virginia Company. His niece is said to be the first woman to have received the name "Virginia". His family home was often visited by Sir Walter Raleigh, half-brother of Sir Humphrey Gilbert. Upon returning to London he found that the family fortunes, primarily invested in Virginia, were under threat.

Ferrar entered the Parliament of England and worked with Sir Edwin Sandys. They were part of the parliamentary faction (the "country party" or "patriot party") which was able to seize control of the finances from a rival group, the "court faction", grouped around Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick, on the one hand, and Sir Thomas Smith (or Smythe), also a prominent member of the East India Company, on the other hand.

Ferrar's pamphlet Sir Thomas Smith's Misgovernment of the Virginia Company was only published by the Roxburghe Club in 1990.[5] Here he lays charges that Smith and his son-in-law, Robert Johnson, were running a company within a company to skim off the profits from the shareholders. He also alleged that Dr. John Woodall had bought some Polish settlers as slaves, selling them on to Lord de La Warr. He claimed that Smith was trying to reduce other colonists to slavery by extending their period of indenture indefinitely beyond the seventh year.

The argument ended with the London Virginia Company losing its charter following a court decision in May, 1624.

At Little Gidding

St John's Church, Little Gidding

St John’s Church, Little Gidding, as it is today

In 1626 Nicholas Ferrar and his extended family left London and moved to the deserted village of Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire. The household was centred on the Ferrar family: Nicholas's mother, his brother John Ferrar (with his wife Bathsheba and their children), and his sister Susanna (and her husband John Collett and their children). They bought the manor of Little Gidding and restored the abandoned little church for their use. The household always had someone at prayer and had a strict routine. They tended to the health and education of local children, and Nicholas and his family produced harmonies of the gospels that survive today as some of the finest in Britain. Nicholas Ferrar died on 4 December 1637, but the family continued their way of life without him, and the religious life only ended in 1657 on the deaths, within a month, of John Ferrar and Susanna Collett.

The life of the Ferrar household was much criticised by Puritans, and they were denounced as Arminians, and their life attacked as a 'Protestant Nunnery'. However, the Ferrars never lived a formal religious life: there was no Rule, vows were not taken, and there was no enclosure. In this sense there was no 'community' at Little Gidding, but rather a family living a Christian life in accordance with the Book of Common Prayer according to High Church principles.

The fame of the Ferrar household was widespread, and they attracted many visitors. Among them was King Charles I, who visited Little Gidding three times, on the last of which he briefly took refuge after the Battle of Naseby (1645).


Nicholas Ferrar is commemorated in the calendar of the Church of England on 4 December, the date of his death. In the calendar of the Episcopal Church (in the USA) he is commemorated on 1 December.

George Herbert, on his deathbed, sent the manuscript of The Temple to Nicholas Ferrar, telling him to publish the poems if he thought they might "turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul", and otherwise, to burn them. In less than 50 years, The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations had gone through thirteen printings.

T. S. Eliot honoured Nicholas Ferrar in the Four Quartets, naming one of the quartets Little Gidding.

A new community was founded at Little Gidding in the 1970s, inspired by the example of Ferrar, calling itself the Community of Christ the Sower, but that community ended in 1998. The Friends of Little Gidding was founded in 1946 by Alan Maycock with the patronage of T. S. Eliot, to maintain and adorn the church at Little Gidding, and to honour the life of Nicholas Ferrar and his family and their life at Little Gidding. The Friends organize an annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Nicholas Ferrar each July, and celebrate Nicholas Ferrar Day on 4 December.


  1. Wilson, Colin (1957), Beyond The Outsider, Houghton And Mifflin.
  2. Maycock, A.L. (1938), Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding, SPCK.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Maycock, 1938.
  4. Ferrar, Nicholas in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  5. Sir Thomas Smith's Misgovernment of the Virginia Company. By Nicholas Ferrar. A Manuscript from the Devonshire Papers at Chatsworth House. Edited with an introduction by D. R Ransome. Roxburghe Club, 1990. Unpublished. Presented to the Members by the Duke of Devonshire. [Not seen]

Ted Hughes, former poet laureate of England and once husband to poet Sylvia Plath, was directly related to Nicholas Ferrar on his mother's side. Plath and Hughes named their son Nicholas Farrar. The family evidently used both spellings. Pg 284, Sylvia Plath Method and Madness by Edward Butscher (c) 1976 The Seabury Press, New York.

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