Nicholas Ferrar

Nicholas Ferrar

Christian History 102

Nicholas Ferrar was assumed to be born in 1592. I have found that his most
probable birth date was in February of 1593. This is due to the usual calendar
confusion: England was not at that time using the new calendar adopted in
October 1582. It was 1593 according to our modern calendar, but at the time the
new year in England began on the following March 25th. Nicholas Ferrar was one
of the more interesting figures in English history. His family was quite wealthy
and were heavily involved in the Virginia Company, which had a Royal Charter for
the plantation of Virginia. People like Sir Walter Raleigh were often visitors
to the family home in London. Ferrars’ niece was named Virginia, the first known
use of this name. Ferrar studied at Cambridge and would have gone further with
his studies but the damp air of the fens was bad for his health and he traveled
to Europe, spending time in the warmer climate of Italy.

On his return to England he found his family had fared badly. His brother John
had become over extended financially and the Virginia Company was in danger of
loosing its charter. Nicholas dedicated himself to saving the family fortune and
was successful. He served for a short time as Member of Parliament, where he
tried to promote the cause for the Virginia Company. His efforts were in vain
for the company lost their charter anyway.

Nicholas is given credit for founding a Christian community called the English
Protestant Nunnery at Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire, England. After Ferrar
was ordained as a deacon, he retired and started his little community. Ferrar
was given help and support with his semi-religious community by John Collet, as
well as Collet’s wife and fourteen children. They devoted themselves to a life
of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (Matthew 6:2,5,16).

The community was founded in 1626, when Nicholas was 34 years old. Banning
together, they restored an abandoned church that was being used as a barn. Being
of wealthy decent, Ferrar purchased the manor of Little Gidding, a village which
had been discarded since the Black Death (a major outbreak of the bubonic plague
in the 14th century), a few miles off the Great North Road, and probably
recommended by John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln whose palace was in the nearby
village of Buckden. About thirty people along with Mary Ferrar (Ferrars’ mother)
moved into the manor house. Nicholas became spiritual leader of the community.

The community was very strict under the supervision of Nicholas. They read daily
offices of the Book of Common Prayer, including the recital of the complete
Psalter. every day.

Day and night there was at least one member of the community kneeling in prayer
at the alter, that they were keeping the word, "Pray without ceasing". They
taught the neighborhood children, and looked after the health and well being of
the community. They fasted and in many ways embraced voluntary poverty so that
they might have as much money as possible for the relief of the poor. They wrote
books and stories dealing with various aspects of Christian faith and practice.
The memory of the community survived to inspire and influence later undertakings
of Christian communal living, and one of T.S. Eliots’ Four Quartets is called
"Little Gidding."

Nicholas was a bookbinder and he taught the community the craft as well as
gilding and the so-called pasting printing by means of a rolling press. The
members of the community produced the remarkable "Harmonies" of the scriptures,
one of which was produced by Mary Collet for King Charles I.. Some of the
bindings were in gold toothed leather, some were in velvet which had a
considerable amount of gold tooling. Some of the embroidered bindings of this
period have also been attributed to the so-called nuns of Little Gidding.

The community attracted much attention and was visited by the king, Charles I.
He was attracted by a gospel harmony they had produced. The king asked to borrow
it only to return it a few months later in exchange for a promise of a new
harmony to give his son, Charles, Prince of Wales. This the Ferrars did, and the
superbly produced and bound manuscript passed through the royal collection, and
is now on display at the British Library.

Nicholas Ferrar, who was never married, died in 1637, and was buried outside the
church in Little Gidding. Nicholas’s brother John assumed the leadership of the

John did his best to make the community thrive. He was visited by the king
several times. At one time the king