That country was Robin Hood country: ninety square miles of reluctant land just north of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, which Bunker provocatively calls the “Pilgrim Quadrilateral.” Many of the Mayflower pilgrims came, in fact, from East Anglia, but the leaders of the expedition—and several significant Separatist leaders who did not make the voyage—hailed from dissident Nottinghamshire, and it is a central contention of Making Haste that the nature of that landscape and its people was imprinted on the character and outcome of the New England experiment.
The Quadrilateral was a vestige of “old, feral England,” Bunker observes, not yet domesticated and very far from urbane—dotted with small villages and beset by familiar episodes of rural turmoil. Poaching was endemic, and farmers and landowners competed with bands of hunters and gatherers, and quarreled themselves over rank and status in what Bunker calls, memorably, “the foggy mezzanine between the lower reaches of the gentry and the upper ranks of the yeomanry.” Personal vendettas were common, and often grew into elaborate provincial feuds, including a pitched 1593 battle between rivals armed with swords and pikes on the banks of the Trent. The region was “a frontier of sort,” Bunker writes, “where life was arduous and the rewards were small.”
Income was indeed erratic, and prosperity seemed insecure even when attained. (Between 1500 and 1620—the long century that contained the entire history of Calvinist separatism in England—the income of the average English laborer fell by more than half, while in the Quadrilateral farm rents increased by a third in the single decade after 1594.) Sickness was a constant scourge, and in the parishes of the Quadrilateral, the Separatist John Smythe wrote, were found “infinite sorts of sinners…adulterers, Theeves, Murtherers, Witches, Conjurers, Usurers, Atheists, Swaggerers, Drunkards, Blasphemers.” It was indeed an ungodly community, Bunker agrees, suggesting that the Puritans left perhaps less because they felt persecuted by a hostile monarchy than because they were disgusted by the behavior of their neighbors—and their countrymen. They weren’t fleeing England, they were repudiating it.
And yet they carried with them, Bunker points out, a very British sense of merchant superiority. Those who led the Mayflower expedition were not the lowly farmers of shabby Nottinghamshire, scratching out a meager living from unforgiving land, but those who looked down on them with newfound disdain—the “self-employed craftsmen and shopkeepers,” the small landowners and proto-industrialists, “the nouveaux riches of rural England.” They did not thrive in wide-open America because their theology implied entrepreneurial acumen, but because they arrived there as entrepreneurs already. Though Bunker acknowledges that “Calvinist zeal was far more important than any other single factor in bringing about the creation of New England,” the success of the colony once established, he argues, was the result of more terrestrial factors. By the time the Puritans reached American shores, their theology was much less important than their enterprising character.