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Was Myles Standish a Manxman?

Interest in the problem of Myles Standish is likely to occur with the regularity of Halley's Comet at the centenaries of the voyage of the "Mayflower" and the birth of Myles himself. Recently in the Island a particular question has kept popping up like King Charles' head: was he a Manxman born at Ellanbane? It is a nice thought. Too often the question is answered with a facile affirmative in the mood of: "My mind is made up. Don't give me facts, they only confuse me." When in Heritage year, however, statements appear in our Press (as in the 1986 Tynwald Week Examiner) affirming facts about his schooling and his wedding, and linking him with Ellanbane in a context of making it a museum and memorial to him; and when all this is given the imprimatur of an issue of Manx postage stamps in his honour, then it seems that facts ought to be looked into and perhaps King Charles' head be exorcised. Who has a surer duty to see this done than our Natural History and Antiquarian Society?

I thought the matter might start with me, since in researching my own family, I had found our name associated with the Standishes in Lezayre as frequent partners in intacks throughout the 16th century, as adversaries in a law-suit in 1583, as witnesses of deeds they executed from time to time, in a 17th century deed described as "loving friends and kinsmen", and in 1634 "presented" with them for the highly improbable sin of "taking up too much room in church". So I set to work on a piece of human archaeology, unearthing and piecing together allusions to the Standishes out of the fragmentary documents relating to landholding and litigation in those centuries, so as to build up a profile of the family. There were of course no relevant registers of baptisms, marriages or burials for that period. Nor can I claim that my dredging has been exhaustive, but I have trawled the ground fairly thoroughly, and offer it for what it is. My object is primarily to present facts and lay out the problem.

Interest in Myles has grown alongside American self-consciousness. The Civil War was a great stimulus. Longfellow contributed to it through narrative poems that form a series of literary frescoes to popularise the national heritage, and among them is his Wooing of Myles Standish. More precise historical studies can be traced back to Bellknap (1797), and then through Nathaniel Morton (1820), Alexander Young (1824), E.J.A. Boyle (1896), Edward Arber (1897) to publications preceding the tercentenary of the "Mayflower" in 1920. Of these last the outstandingly valuable one is that of Thomas Crudas Porteus, vicar of Coppul, Lancs. His Captain Myles Standish, his Lost Lands and Lancashire Connections was published by Manchester University Press in 1920, but a full article by him had already appeared in the October number of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register of 1914. [1]

A more recent American book Saints and Stranger, by Geo. F. Willison (1945, reissued 1964) admits that Myles' life is "virtually a blank page to the day when he and his wife Rose stepped on the deck of the Mayflower". But from his New England days we gather than he acquired the pejorative nick-name of "Captain Shrimpe" because he was short in stature, with red hair, and a florid complexion which flamed to crimson when he flew into a rage, which was often. "A little chimney is quickly fired", people would say. American tradition makes him left early an orphan, enlisting as a teenager for the Netherlands war in the English contingent that was disbanded in 1609. In Holland he must have met John Robinson and impressed him with his military competence. Tradition also speaks of his commission as Lieutenant over the name of Queen Elizabeth, but this cannot now be located. [2] Comment has been passed on the fact that the Pilgrim State never elected him Governor, and that he alone of all the Leaders was never a Church-member, a remarkable thing with their theocratic constitution. The two facts may well be related. Yet he was Assistant Governor most of his life, and Treasurer to the Colony. It has been speculated that he might have been a Catholic. Certainly the Standishes of Standish firmly retained their Catholicism when the other Lancashire branches adopted Protestantism. Myles' library records show it contained anti-catholic literature. At any rate when the Colony had to express its mind on Religious Toleration in 1646, Myles was in favour of it.

Whatever the origin of the tradition that both Myles' wives were Manx, Willison records that nothing is known of Rose's family, and of Barbara only that she was Rose's sister and came out on the "Anne" in 1623 to marry Myles. It seems that the fact that her name is entered as Standish on her land-settlement deed, where her maiden name would have been expected, has prompted the notion of blood-relationship with Myles too.

In contrast with this shadowy picture, the words of Myls' Will, dated 1655, stand out in remarkable precision in what they reveal of him:

I give unto my son and heir-apparent, Alexander, all my lands as heir-apparent by lawful descent in Ormstick, Borscough, Wrightington, Maudsley, Newborrow, Crawston and the Isle of Man, and given to me as right heir by lawful descent, but surruptiously detained from me my great-grandfather being a second or younger brother from the house of Standish of Standish.

This clause acted like a map of buried treasure on his American descendants, and for generations they have pursued the Lancashire claims. In the process they have pieced together a genealogy of remarkable length and distinction. [3]. Yet their search for Myles himself in it has led only to a page in the baptismal register of Chorley parish church for 1584, which they found had been rendered illegible with pumice-stone just at the place where the registration of Myles' baptism might conceivably have been. Equally negative have been all their legal efforts to recover lost lands in Lancashire. [4].

But what of Myles' Manx inheritance?

The earliest record of any suggestion that Myles might be a Manxman appears in a letter from William Cubbon to the I.O.M. Examiner of June 27, 1914. This was in a reply to a letter to that paper from Porteus asking for word of Standish connections with the Island. Already in 1900 A.W. Moore had researched the subject for his Manx Worthies, but it is of Rose and Barbara that he writes, as putative wives of Myles, "whose connection with Lezayre, or at least with the Isle of Man was generally acknowledged". [5]. He clearly himself assumes that Myles was from Lancashire, and in reference to the claims in the Will, suggests that possibly these derived through the wives.

Cubbon's letter makes no attempt to argue his case, and indeed the weight of the letter is the surprise of his querying the assumption of Porteus that Myles' was born about 1584. His birth, he contends, cannot be fixed within a period of nineteen years. He suggests there was no reason for 1584 other than the fact that this is the year that has suffered erasion in the Chorley registers. He speaks of 1565 as the date American historians seem to favour, justifying it from a statement in The Exploits of Myles Standish, which he regards as originating directly from Governor Bradford, that Myles died "very ancient and full of dolorous pains". Could a man of 72 be called "very ancient"? Whereas a lifespan of 1565-1656 might. Cubbon also believed that Myles received his commission in London when aged eighteen, and returned to the Island after the siege of Ostend to be married. He speaks categorically of Ellanbane as his birthplace, on the strength of a stray page from the first Computus (Abbeyland Rent-roll) for Lezayre following the sequestration of the monasteries, dated 1540, where "Huan Standish is set down as holding the lands of Ellanbane on the Sulby river". [6].

However in the paper which Cubbon read to this Society in December 1919 [7] , and which he states to be the first serious claim "that Myles was of Manx parenthood as were also his parents", he makes no demur about Myle's birth year as 1584/5, presumably on the second thoughts that though seventy two might be young to be called very ancient, fifty five was rather too old to be taken on as military commander for a virgin colony in the New World.

The 1919 paper relies heavily on Porteus' article of October 1914, The Ancestry of Myles Standish, (in which incidentally, Porteus was perhaps influenced by Cubbon to say that Myles was born either in Lancashire or the Isle of Man). Porteus had fully documented the fortunes of the Ormskirk branch of the Standishes and their property situation following the marriage of Robert Standish to Margaret Croft, as far as a deed of 1540, dealing with precisely that same group of Lancashire estates listed in Myles' will. It defined the "remainders" of the succession among the heirs of Robert and Margaret, their three sons, Thomas, John and Huan. Basically it was to follow Thomas' male heirs, and when they failed, to pass to John and his; if these failed, to Huan's line. Both John and Huan had connections with the Isle of Man. Indeed Huan appears on the Computus in the very year of the instrument.

Cubbon appends his speculative genealogical table, and repeats:

It is presumably from Huan of Ellanbane that Myles was descended, for that is the only estate on the Island to which a Standish is set down in the records. If Myles was right in his claim to Manx real-estate, he must have claimed by virtue of descent from Huan of Ellanbane. (ibid p 290) [8].

Cubbon assigns a son, Gilbert, to Huan, and then suggests that Myles was his son. [9]. But it is only in recent years that the claim that Myles was a Manxman born at Ellanbane has been argued in depth, in G.V.C. Young's monograph Pilgrim Myles Standish, First Manx American, and its addendum The Pilgrims in the Netherlands. [10]. As would be expected from one who at the time was serving the Manx Legislature as a draftsman, and had access to archives, Young's ample documentation shows a research more exhaustive than Cubbon's seventy years before. Moreover Young had carried his enquiries into the Netherlands, enlisting the support of Dr. Jeremy Bangs who had researched the Pilgrim Fathers' history in the Leiden Archives. Young had also discovered on the Island two documents of prime importance seemingly unknown to either Cubbon or Porteus, which throw considerable light onto the structure of the Manx Standish family. These and the full documentation of Porteus on the Lancashire Standishes are fully set out in the appendices of PMS, pp37-48.

The first of Young's two finds is a commission over the hand of the Earl of Derby himself in 1587, whoby these presents do give and grant unto John Standish the Elder and to John Standish the Younger, son of the said John of my said Isle, the room and place of the Clerkship of Kirk Andrews within the said Isle.....for and during the natural life or lives of the said John Standish the father and John Standish the son, and to the longer liver of either of them [11]

The other is the Will of John Standish the Father (as we shall normally call him), dated June 16, 1602. From it we learn that his wife was Mallie Moore, and that he had a brother Gilbert, a son William, a "basse-boy", and several daughters, of whom three are named: Keatryne Knayle, Joney and Margaret. He also alludes to "my sonne John his towe sonnes". These last two with his son William and his wife are to be his executors.

So we have a clear picture of the family structurein 1600. In the first generation there is John the Father with a brother Gilbert; in the next, a son William, daughters, and an illegitimate son, still living, and an eldest son deceased, obviously John the Son; in the third, the two sons of this last. The absence of any names for John's two sons and the "base-boy" in this Will bewitches the quest for Myles like the pumiced page in the Chorley registers. These three would be roughly of an age, although the base-boy would be uncle to the others, yet the youngest. He had still to reach "years of discretion" (fourteen), while the others were not "of age" (i.e. under twenty-one).

If Myles were indeed born in 1584, and if he were indeed of Manx birth, he would have been of an age with them, and surely one of them. In fact we shall find that the hunt for a Manx Myles will become the task of identifying and tracing these three anonymous lads through 17th century Lezayre. However one of them can easily be identified. In 1604 a William Standish gave evidence [12] and declared his age as "18 or thereabouts". His story can easily be traced. He becomes the William jr. of Ellanbane, well documented until his death about 1660.. Born in 1586, he would presumably be the younger of "my sonne John his Towe Sonnes".