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Crab, Rogerfree

(c. 1616–1680)
  • Ariel Hessayon

Crab, Roger (c. 1616–1680), hermit, appears by his own account to have been 'begotten, and brought forth in the South-West of England' (Crab, Dagons-Downfall, 1). The names of his parents are as yet unknown. He was baptized by a clergyman with the customary two godfathers and a godmother in attendance. Crab was to claim that 'had not my natural Mother had twenty pounds a yeer, my Father and his Parents had not swopt; neither would they have agreed that they should have come together for generation' (ibid., 2). Elsewhere, he depicted himself as one of 'the lowest sort, and unlearned, being amongst day-labourers and journeymen' (Crab, English Hermite, 6–7). It was to be said of Crab that he served parliament 'seven years' in the civil wars. During the fighting his skull was apparently 'cloven to the braine' (ibid., 4).

In 1646 Crab's activities came to the attention of the heresiographer Thomas Edwards, who revealed that Samuel Fulcher 'an Egge man', had been 're-baptized by one Crab a Felt-maker'. According to Edwards, Crab of 'Southwark side' was:

a Dipper and a Preacher, who vents strange doctrines against the Immortality of the soul, & c. This man was complained of this summer to the Lord Major, for speaking words against the King, as that it was better to have a golden Calfe or an Asse set up.

Edwards, 2.9, 3.110

For proclaiming these opinions Crab was bound over to answer at the quarter sessions. He was convicted by Justice Bacon 'for scandalous words against the Kinges Ma[jes]tie' and fined 100 marks. On 26 March 1647 at the assize held at Southwark, Crab was ordered to remain in prison at the White Lion until he paid his fine and found sureties for his good behaviour. Towards the end of July he was still in confinement, his fine unpaid. In September Sir Thomas Fairfax wrote to William Lenthall, speaker of the House of Commons, requesting 'some inlargement' for Crab and several others 'committed meerly for speaking words against the King in time of War' (Humble Remonstrance, 1). Crab, however, seems not to have obtained his freedom, for he was to write that he endured 'two years imprisonment' at the hands of parliament (Crab, English Hermite, 4). It is suggestive that Crab was reportedly an agitator, one of the representatives of the rank-and-file on the general council of the New Model Army. This may explain his subsequent assertion that he was sentenced 'to death in the Field by my Lord Protector'; perhaps Crab played a prominent role in the unrest that engulfed parts of England in the spring of 1649 . If so, it is possible that he escaped execution (a military punishment usually meted out to the ringleaders of mutinies) by drawing lots or through an act of clemency. Thereafter, he may have been cashiered from the army.

Crab resurfaced as a civilian in Chesham, Buckinghamshire. Richard Baxter had earlier publicly disputed with 'some Sectaries of Chesham', recounting the 'abundance of Nonsense which they uttered that day' (Reliquiae Baxterianiae, ed. M. Sylvester, 1696, 1.56). In August 1652 a satirical letter purportedly written from Chesham related that: 'we have amongst us a Crabbed cavelling fellow, being both a Barber, Hors-Dr. and a Hat-maker, that disturbs and jeers at Ministers that come to preach with us' (Mercurius Democritus, 4–11 Aug 1652, 148–9). The allusion is unmistakably to Crab, who was to affirm that he had 'often disputed [with] all [sect and ministers] in most Counties of England' (Crab, English Hermite, 1). While at Chesham Crab was 'a Haberdasher of hats, and kept a shop' (ibid., foreword). It may be at this time that Crab experienced what he recalled as a conversion from darkness into light through the grace of 'that light which enlightneth every man that cometh into the world' [ John 1: 9] (ibid., 1). Looking upon the transgressions of his former life—pride, drunkenness, and gluttony—Crab resolved to relinquish his trade and sell his estate, giving all to the poor save 'a small matter' (ibid., foreword). He left for Ickenham near Uxbridge, Middlesex, while Thomas Godbold, curate of Uxbridge and vicar of Chesham, informed his friends that he was 'a Witch, and was run away, and would never come againe' (ibid., Dedication).

At Ickenham Crab rented a 'small' rood of ground on which he built a 'mean' cottage. Adopting a 'Hermeticall kinde of life' he began to wage war on his 'Old man' (the body), for 'The law of the old man in my fleshly members rebelled against the law of my mind' [ Romans 7: 23–24] (Crab, English Hermite, foreword; p. 2). Crab now undertook something akin to a process of ritual purification, embarking on a programme of fasting and prayer in a manner consonant with scriptural practice. Depriving himself of beer, ale, or wine he drank only water and instead of roast mutton, rabbit, and 'other dainty dishes' he ate 'broth thickned with bran, and pudding made with bran, & Turnep leaves chop't together, and grass'. This diet made him so sick and weak that he almost died. Yet Crab survived, his humbled body filled with the 'love' of God (ibid., 2). Thereafter he subsisted on the produce of his small patch of earth, surviving on a vegetarian diet of corn, bread, bran, herbs, roots, dock leaves, mallows, and grass. His apparel was likewise of a 'meane' condition, for he wore a 'sackcloth frock' out of 'conscience' (ibid., foreword). Regarding himself as new born 'through the power of the eternal Creator' and looking upon himself as 'living in the new Life', Crab imagined himself to be 'above' gospel ordinances (Crab, Dagons-Downfall, 29; Crab, English Hermite, foreword). He claimed that God had 'enlightned' his understanding and with his new powers of spiritual discernment Crab forbore from eating flesh believing it to be 'an absolute enemy to pure nature' (cf. 1 Timothy 4: 1–3) (Crab, English Hermite, 2, 4). He also inveighed against the 'sinne of drunkennesse', observing that in times of dearth the same bushel of barley that yielded drink could provide bread sufficient for the weekly needs of two ordinary families (ibid., 7). Crab, moreover, now apprehended that his body was 'governed by the inclination of my Constitution from the starry heavens'. This new-found knowledge enabled him to 'administer physick to others', so that he had 'a hundred or sixe-score Patients at once' (ibid., 4). Such was Crab's interest in astrology that he consulted William Lilly on two or more occasions. Evidently Crab's fame began to spread for he attracted a follower of note—Captain Robert Norwood (c.1610–1654), who was to die of starvation after unsuccessfully attempting to imitate his master's strict regimen.

On 19 January 1654 the protectorate issued an ordinance declaring it a treasonable offence to write, print, proclaim, preach, or teach that the authority of the lord protector and the people assembled in parliament was tyrannical, usurped, or unlawful. About a year later, in the aftermath of the discovery of several serious plots against the government, Roger Crab was taken to London and apparently committed to the New Prison at Clerkenwell while awaiting trial 'before the Magistracy of this Nation'. At his trial Crab 'insisted much upon the Freedome of the Creature, and cleered himself of that particular, wherein they charged him with a reflection upon the Government by notion of Tyranny' (A Perfect Account, no. 210, 10–16 Jan 1655, 1680). After his release Crab seems to have lodged at the Golden Anchor in Whitecross Street with one Mr Carter, a glover (perhaps Gregory Carter, glover of St Giles's Cripplegate who in January 1641 had stood bail for Thomas Lambe, soapboiler, and other indicted conventiclers). Crab by now was a figure of curiosity, 'a gazing stock to the Nation, & a wonderment to many friends' and to clear his name from malicious imputations—that he opposed civil magistracy, was a leveller, Quaker, shaker, or ranter—he penned an account of his principles and conduct (Crab, English Hermite, 1). Entitled The English Hermite, or, Wonder of this Age, the work was printed in January 1655 and issued by a publisher who may have sought to profit from Crab's notoriety (the publisher's name was prudently omitted from the title-page).

Crab returned to his cottage at Ickenham only to again be brought before the courts. By his own account he appeared several times before justices of the peace on the charge of sabbath breaking (twice in the country and twice at the general sessions held at Hicks Hall). Once, having been put in the stocks 'by the heels' outside Ickenham church, he was moved to write some verse:

My body is but Serpents meat,And that thou wouldst destroy;Thy honour and glory's but a cheat,For all must vanish away.

Crab, Dagons-Downfall, 24, 25Afterwards Crab wrote a fuller vindication of his conduct—Dagons-Downfall, or, The Great IDOL Digged up Root and Branch (1657). Taking the Philistines' God as his provocative theme, Crab denounced the abominations committed upon the 'great' whore's 'Market-Day':

Now all the Serpents children, and the Whores worshippers have joyned together to deceive the simple and persecute the Righteous for denying the deceitful wickedness on her Idol Market-Day, where her Juglers cheat the people by setting up the high terms upon her two Idols, by calling the Stone House a Church; and the first day a Sabbath.

ibid., 18

In January 1659 the Quaker Thomas Curtis wrote to George Fox relating the events of a 'very great and precious' meeting at Kimble, Buckinghamshire. Present were 'fish of all sorts', 'many of the world, some baptized, and some of Crab's company' (RS Friends, Lond., Swarthmore MS III, 87: T. Curtis to G. Fox, Reading, 5 Jan 1659). Crab's company seems to have amounted to little more than a handful of followers. Even so, they had a name for themselves—the Rationals. In 1659 Crab printed the 'Substance of a Letter given forth by the Rationals, to the Despised Remnant, and Seed of GOD, in the People called Quakers' (Crab, Tender Salutation, title-page). His epistle provoked a response from George Salter of Hedgerley Dean, Buckinghamshire, who pronounced that it was 'not the word of the Lord', but rather that there was 'much confusion in it'; Crab he likened to a 'corrupt bulk of Fog, who art like a quagmire that sucks up them that comes upon thee' (G. Salter, An Answer to Roger Crabs Printed Paper to the Quakers, 1659, 2, 5). Crab retorted with a Gentle Correction for the High-Flown Backslider (1659). His doctrines, however, did not escape the censure of another Quaker writer, who also denounced his teachings.

On 21 December 1663 licence was obtained for Roger Crab of St Bride's, London, a bachelor aged forty-seven or thereabouts, to marry Amy Markham, widow of St Andrew's, Holborn. The couple were married the following day in the parish of St Gregory by Paul's, London. It does not appear that this union produced any children. Crab's will, drawn up on 4 September 1680, began in unorthodox fashion:

A matter of Thirty and five yeares agoe I had like to I have departed this humane Life And according to Scripture I looked upon my Selfe to regenerated upon which account the Lord himselfe took my Soule into his custody Soe itt would bee ridiculous for me to pr[e]sume to take upon me to dispose of my Soule againe.

London, Guildhall, MS 9171/37, fols. 297v–298r

'Roger Crabb of Bethnall green Gent.' was buried at the church of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney, on 14 September 1680, where his tomb was afterwards known to local people as that of 'the pilgrim'. The inscription read 'Here remains all that was mortal of Mr. Roger Crab, who entered into eternity the 11th day of Septemb. 1680, in the 60 year of his age' (Caulfield, 2.156). Strype added that 'This Crab, they say, was a Philadelphian, or Sweet Singer' (Strype, vol. 2, appx, 99). No evidence has been found connecting Crab with either John Pordage or any of his immediate associates. It is suggestive, however, that Jane Lead, who in the 1690s established the Philadelphian Society on the foundations of Pordage's Behmenist community, received poor relief 'privately' at the Lady Mico's College in Stepney. Crab was survived by his wife, Amy, who married Benjamin Sweet of St Margaret's, Westminster, by licence in 1688.

Sources

  • A. Hessayon, ‘A crabbed cavelling fellow’: Roger Crab, the English hermit
  • R. Crab, The English hermite, or, Wonder of this age (1655)
  • R. Crab, Dagons-Downfall (1657)
  • R. Crab, A tender salutation (1659)
  • T. Edwards, Gangraena, 3 vols. (1646), vol. 2, p. 9; vol. 3, p. 110
  • A humble remonstrance from his excellency Sir Thomas Fairfax (1647)
  • Surrey assize roll, March 1647, TNA: PRO, ASSI35/88/8 mem. 1
  • will, GL, MS 9171/37, fols. 297v–298r
  • C. Hill, ‘The mad hutter’, Puritanism and revolution (1958), 314–22
  • J. Caulfield, Portraits, memoirs and characters of remarkable persons, from the reign of Edward the Third to the revolution, new edn, 2 (1813), 156
  • parish register, St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney, LMA, P93/DUN/279, 14 Sept 1680 [burial]
  • D. Lysons, The environs of London, 4 vols. (1792–6), vol. 3, p. 454
  • J. Stow, A survey of the cities of London and Westminster and the borough of Southwark, ed. J. Strype, new edn, 2 vols. (1720), vol. 2, appx 997
  • R. Roach, ‘Account of the size and progress of the Philadelphian Society’, Bodl. Oxf., MS Rawl. D. 833, fol. 82v

Likenesses

  • woodcut, 1655, BM, NPG; repro. in Crab, The English hermite
  • pen-and-ink drawing, NPG

Wealth at Death

see will, GL, MS 9171/37, fols. 297v–298r

Guildhall Library, London
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Bodleian Library, Oxford
London Metropolitan Archives