Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ferrar, Nicholas
FERRAR, NICHOLAS (1592–1637), theologian, was the third son of Nicholas Ferrar, a London merchant, by his wife Mary, daughter of Laurence Wodenoth of Savington Hall, Cheshire. His father ranked high among the merchants of London, and was interested in the adventures of Hawkins, Drake, and Raleigh; his mother was a woman of fervent piety, who regulated her household well, and undertook the education of her children. He was brought up to read the Bible and ‘Foxe's Book of Martyrs,’ and from the age of five gave signs of a deeply religious disposition. At the age of six he was sent to the school of one Mr. Brooks, at Enborne, near Newbury, Berkshire, whence at the age of fourteen he proceeded to Clare Hall, Cambridge. His tutor, Augustine Lindsell, was a man of a refined and pious mind, whose influence contributed much towards fortifying Ferrar's character. In 1610 he took the degree of B.A., and was elected fellow of his college, the subject which he was chosen especially to study being medicine. His residence at Cambridge was made the more agreeable to him as his favourite sister was married to a country gentleman named Collet, who lived at Bourn, near Cambridge.
Ferrar's health, however, was so bad that he needed all his own medical knowledge and his sister's care. He suffered from ague, and in 1612 was advised to travel. The new master of Clare Hall, Dr. Robert Scot, was the king's sub-almoner, and introduced Ferrar to James I's daughter Elizabeth, who had just begun her luckless career by marrying the elector palatine. In attendance upon her Ferrar set out for Holland in April 1613, having previously received from his university the degree of M.A., though he was not yet of the requisite standing. At Amsterdam he parted from the suite of the elector, preferring to visit North Germany, where he passed from Hamburg to Leipzig, and thence to Prague, studying the literature and history of Germany. He next visited Italy, where Venice was his headquarters, though he went as far as Rome. At Marseilles he nearly died from a severe fever (April 1616), and after his recovery set out for Spain, which he traversed mostly on foot. He returned to England in 1618. His travels had so far established his health that he was now able to turn to business. His own desire was to return to Cambridge, but his father was old, and the business concerns of the firm were more than his elder brother could manage by himself. The Ferrar family was closely connected with the business of the Virginia Company, to which Nicholas now devoted himself. His reputation was so great as a man of science that in 1619 he was offered the post of reader of geometry at Gresham College, which he declined. The affairs of the Virginia Company gave him sufficient employment, as its patent was threatened by the king, and frequent attempts were made by the council to override it. Ferrar was the chief adviser of the Earl of Southampton and Sir Edwin Sandys in withstanding these attempts; but his efforts were in vain, and the company was deprived of its patent in 1623.
Ferrar was now a well-known man in political circles. He was elected to parliament in 1624, and took part in the impeachment of the lord treasurer, the Earl of Middlesex, who had been foremost in the dissolution of the Virginia Company. But this was the last act of Ferrar's public life. He had seen enough of the world and its ways. He shrank from the struggle which he saw would soon break out between Charles I and parliament, and fell back upon an old design of spending his days in religious retirement and in the practices of devotion. He had been offered one of the greatest heiresses in London for his wife, but declined, saying that he had determined to lead a single life. The animosities of public life caused him remorseful feelings, and he set to work to wind up his business concerns that he might withdraw from London. In this intention he was warmly seconded by his mother; and as his father had died in 1620 there was nothing to prevent him from carrying out his wishes.
First he looked out for a suitable place, and was attracted by Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire, of which the manor was for sale. Mrs. Ferrar bought it in 1624, and next year the outbreak of a plague in London hastened the preparations for the departure of the family. The village of Little Gidding had shrunk into one shepherd's hut, a ruined manorhouse, and a church which was used as a barn. When Mrs. Ferrar arrived and found workmen engaged in preparing the house for her use, she refused to enter till the church had been cleansed from its desecration. The church was soon repaired, and a neighbouring priest was employed to say daily service. On Trinity Sunday 1626 Ferrar was ordained deacon by Bishop Laud, and returned to Little Gidding, which he never again quitted.
As soon as it was known that Ferrar had taken orders he was offered preferment by many of his influential friends. But this was far from his mind, nor would he ever consent to proceed to priest's orders. His object was to lead a religious life in accordance with the principles of the Anglican church, and the other members of his family joined in his plan with astonishing unanimity. His brother John and his brother-in-law, John Collet, transferred their families to Little Gidding. As the Collet family numbered fourteen children, and John Ferrar had at least three children, the entire household comprised some thirty persons. For them Nicholas Ferrar laid down a rule of daily devotion, and himself acted as chaplain of a religious community. The church was restored, and was provided with everything necessary for that decency of divine worship which Laud was striving to introduce into the English church. Matins and evensong were said in the church; the rest of the canonical hours were said in the house. Two of the number watched and prayed the first half of the night, when they were succeeded by two others, so that the voice of prayer and praise might never be silent. The children of the two families were carefully educated, and the neighbouring children were welcomed to share in their instruction. Little Gidding was the school, the dispensary and infirmary of the district round about. On Sunday mornings the rustic children were invited to Little Gidding Church, and received each a penny and their Sunday dinner if they could repeat one of the psalms by heart. Within the house itself everything was arranged by rule, and there was a definite occupation for every hour. It was one of Ferrar's principles that every one should learn a trade, and the trade practised at Little Gidding was that of bookbinding. ‘An ingenious bookbinder was entertained to instruct the whole family in the art of binding, gilding, lettering, and pasting-printing by the use of the rolling-press.’ Visitors were welcomed if they chose to come, but nothing was allowed to interrupt the regular course of daily life within the house itself.
Naturally such an institution caused many comments, and the rising puritanism looked scornfully on this ‘protestant nunnery.’ But Bishop Williams of Lincoln found nothing to object to. There was no rule of celibacy or any attempt to bring it about; of the eight daughters of Mrs. Collet, six married and left Gidding. Many who were at first scandalised changed their opinion after a visit: ‘I find them full of humanity and humility’ is the testimony of one who was not disposed in their favour to begin with. To a visitor, Edward Lenton, Ferrar gave a reason for his retirement: ‘They had found divers perplexities, distractions, and almost utter ruin in their callings: if others knew what comfort God had ministered to them since their sequestration, they might take the like course’ (Mayor, Letter of Lenton, xxix.) In fact the institution at Little Gidding did not profess to be the beginning of an order; it aimed at nothing but the organisation of a family life on the basis of putting devotion in the first place among practical duties. Ferrar had no special mission to mankind, nor passion for influencing others. He was not even desirous of doing much literary work, but contented himself with framing a harmony of the gospels and of the history of the Books of Kings and Chronicles. Besides this he translated the ‘Divine Considerations’ of Valdez and Lessio ‘On Temperance,’ works which he submitted to his friend George Herbert for approval and amendment.
The quiet life at Little Gidding continued without any greater interruption than a visit from Bishop Williams or from Charles I in 1633 (Rushworth, ii. 178), or the questionings of a scandalised protestant, or the request of Charles I for a copy of Ferrar's ‘Concordance,’ till the beginning of November 1637, when Ferrar's feeble constitution began to give way before the austerities of his life. He gradually grew weaker, and died on 4 Dec. His death did not break up the community established at Little Gidding, where John Ferrar and his son Nicholas continued to live according to the same rule. But the increase of religious differences which preceded the outbreak of the civil war brought Little Gidding into greater prominence, and in 1641 a pamphlet was issued, addressed to parliament, ‘The Arminian Nunnery, or a Brief Description and Relation of the newly erected Monasticall Place called the Arminian Nunnery at Little Gidding’ (reprinted by Hearne; appendix to pref. to Peter Langtoft, cxxv, &c.). This pamphlet was a defamatory garbling of a letter written in 1634 by Edward Lenton of Notley, near Thame, to Sir Thomas Hatley; and Lenton, when his attention was called to the pamphlet, indignantly protested against the construction put upon his letter (Mayor, pref. xxiii, &c., from Hearne, Caii Vindiciæ, ii. 702, &c.). In 1640 young Nicholas Ferrar died at the early age of twenty-one, and the life of the inmates of Little Gidding was disturbed by the increase of civil strife. In 1642 Charles I solaced himself by a hurried visit to the settlement, and said, ‘Truly, this is worthy of the sight. I did not think to have seen a thing in this kind that so well pleaseth me. God's blessing be upon the founders of it.’
In 1647 the house and church of Little Gidding were spoiled by some adherents of the parliament, and the little community was broken up. In 1853 the church of Little Gidding was carefully restored, and some of the furniture placed there by Ferrar has been recovered. Many elaborate volumes—‘harmonies’ of scripture—prepared by members of the Gidding household, and elaborately bound in leather or velvet, are still extant. Two harmonies of the gospels made by Ferrar himself are in the British Museum, Bibl. Reg. C. 23, e 3, 4, one dated 1635 having been made for the king; there is also in the same collection a ‘History of the Israelites,’ by Ferrar, presented to the king in 1637. Another copy of Ferrar's ‘Harmony of the Gospels,’ illustrated throughout, belongs to Captain Acland Troyte of Huntsham Court, Bampton, Devonshire; a fourth copy, made by Ferrar's nieces (1640), is the property of Miss Heming, Hillingdon Hill, Uxbridge; a fifth, illustrated throughout, is the property of Lord Arthur Hervey, bishop of Bath and Wells; a sixth, entitled ‘Monotessaron,’ belongs to Lord Normanton; and a seventh, bound in purple velvet and stamped gold, to Lord Salisbury. A harmony of the Mosaic Law, made for Archbishop Laud, is among the manuscripts of St. John's College, Oxford. A splendidly bound copy of the Pentateuch belongs to Captain Gaussen, Brookman's Park, Hatfield. A portrait of Nicholas Ferrar, by Janssen, is in the master's lodge, Magdalene College, Cambridge.[The Life of Nicholas Ferrar was written by his brother John, perhaps in more than one form. The manuscript passed into the hands of the Rev. Peter Peckard, master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, by whom it was lost, but not before the publication of Memoirs of the Life of Mr. Nicholas Ferrar, by G. P. Peckard, Cambridge, 1790. It was clear that Peckard had taken liberties with his original, and his text was edited, with notes and omissions, by Wordsworth, Ecclesiastical Biography, vol. iv. There was another reprint, A Life of Nicholas Ferrar, London, 1852; but a new edition was given by Mayor, Nicholas Ferrar, Two Lives, Cambridge, 1855, from the Baker MS. in the Cambridge University Library; Baker had transcribed in full all that related to the settlement at Little Gidding, and summarised the earlier part. The second Life, which in many parts is identical with that written by John Ferrar, was attributed to Turner, bishop of Ely, and was first published in extracts in the Christian Magazine (1761), afterwards as Brief Memoirs of Nicholas Ferrar, collected from a narrative by Right Rev. Dr. Turner, formerly bishop of Ely, Bristol, 1829, and afterwards edited by Macdonogh, London, 1837. This also has been re-edited by Mayor in his Two Lives, from a manuscript in which it is headed Life of Nicholas Ferrar, by Dr. Jebb. See also The Story-books of Little Gidding, ed. E. C. Sharland, 1899; Carter's Nicholas Ferrar, his household and friends, 1892; Emma Marshall's Haunt of Ancient Peace, 1897. Mentions of Ferrar are in Oley's preface to Herbert's Country Parson, Hacket's Life of Williams, Hearne's Caii Vindiciæ. ii. 684, &c.; Gardiner's History. In Archæologia, 2nd ser. 1888, i. 188–204, Captain Acland Troyte has collected much information respecting Ferrar's harmonies and bookbinding work.]