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Reference group
Little Gidding community (act. 1626–1657) was a religious community formed in the mid-1620s by Nicholas Ferrar and his extended family at the manor house of Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire.

A scholarly and devout young man, Nicholas Ferrar had been on the verge of a successful academic career at Cambridge University when doctors advised him to seek warmer climes to recover his failing health. Leaving England with deep regret, he travelled widely on the continent for several years, during which time he was deeply impressed by what he saw of different religious societies across the confessional spectrum, including Anabaptist communities in the Netherlands and the Catholic Congregation of the Oratory at Padua. On his return to England in 1618 he joined his brother John Ferrar at the Virginia Company, taking over from him as director in 1622. When the company had its charter revoked in the following year the Ferrars were plunged into a financial crisis from which it took Nicholas's every effort to extricate them. Withdrawal from political and commercial life came to seem not only prudent but—to Nicholas at least—highly desirable. In 1625 he broached the idea of forming a religious community with his mother, Mary Ferrar (1553/4–1634), and together they set about purchasing the dilapidated manor house at Little Gidding, drawing on her dower for capital. In order that he could serve the as yet unfounded community as its deacon, Nicholas was ordained on Trinity Sunday 1626.

As well as Mary, John, and Nicholas, the original members of the Little Gidding community were John's second wife, Bathsheba (bap. 1594, d. 1659), their son Nicholas (c.1619–1640), and the family of John and Nicholas's elder sister Susanna Collett (1582–1657), consisting of her husband, John Collett (1578–1650), and nine of their children. John and Bathsheba's daughter Virginia Ferrar [see under John Ferrar], who later played an important part in sustaining the community during the 1650s, was born at Little Gidding. Additional members of the community included three unmarried men who acted as schoolmasters, and four elderly widows in the community's care. From time to time the Ferrars also took in teenage boys to be educated alongside the family's own children. In some respects their practice ran parallel to that of other gentry households who received children to share their private tutors or dependent relatives, or to that of puritan clergymen in East Anglia whose homes also functioned as seminaries for young graduates who aspired to the ministry. However, the community at Little Gidding differed in its sense of permanence and of corporate life, and in the ways in which it resembled a medieval religious fraternity.

The extended Ferrar family proved remarkably united and resilient in their desire to make the community function harmoniously. Disagreements did occur, most frequently between Nicholas and his sister Susanna, who was not afraid to stand up to her brother's often authoritarian manner; but the only truly discontented member of the community was John Ferrar's wife, Bathsheba. She found life at Little Gidding monotonous and unacceptably impoverished, and objected intensely to her husband's deferential attitude to Nicholas. John seems to have endured his wife's complaints patiently, without ever wavering in his love and admiration for his younger brother. While Nicholas was undoubtedly the most important presence at Little Gidding in the early years, acting as its linchpin and guide, others began to take on more active and central roles after 1630, notably Mary Collett (c.1600–1680), the oldest of Susanna and John Collett's children. She and their second daughter, Anna, committed themselves to a life of chastity (though on Nicholas's advice neither actually took vows) and in 1632 Mary Collett became ‘mother’ to the community when Mary Ferrar had finally become too elderly and infirm to continue her taxing round of household and educational duties.

The first five years at Little Gidding were occupied with repairing the manor house and church. The latter, St John's, was in a state of considerable disrepair, having previously been used as a pigsty and farm building, and its restoration and beautification according to the ceremonialist ideals held by the Arminians, who had reached pre-eminent positions in the Church of England, was the family's priority. By the early 1630s the church had been decorated with wood panelling and tapestries, and a brass font and lectern had been installed, as well as an organ; fresh flowers and herbs from the garden were used to adorn the interior further. With the church and house in order, the family arranged for the conversion of the former dovecote into a schoolhouse (which was also open to local children) and set about creating a surgery to dispense medicines and perform basic medical services for neighbouring villagers. The restoration and building work was overseen largely by John and his mother, Mary, leaving Nicholas free to concentrate on shaping a daily devotional round for the community. Based on the Book of Common Prayer, the daily rule that was put in place consisted of three services heard in the church—morning prayer at 6.30 a.m., the litany at 10 a.m., and evening prayer at 4 p.m.—interspersed with brief hourly services in the house, said by three or four members of the family according to a rota. Sundays saw a more elaborate church service, including a sermon from a visiting preacher, and holy communion was observed on the first Sunday of every month. Other acts of worship later came to be fitted in and around this strict routine, notably a nightly vigil kept from 9 p.m. until 1 a.m. by members of the family and then usually continued by Nicholas from 1 a.m. until morning prayer. Other contemporary pious households held prayers and some used the prayer book, but the degree of conformity to this liturgical pattern was apparently unique.

The most famous and significant written remains of Little Gidding are its concordances, or harmonies, of the four gospels, and the story books of the family study group known as the Little Academy. The concordances were produced by the Collett sisters and others, working under Nicholas's supervision, by carefully cutting up printed texts of the gospels and then sticking them neatly back together in a new blank volume to form a single, ‘harmonized’ account of the life of Christ. The original concordance was devised for use by members of the family in the short hourly services held in the manor house, but the project of compiling a unified gospel narrative soon attracted attention. Charles I asked to borrow the book, annotated its margins with suggested improvements (some of which he deleted, acknowledging that he was in error), and subsequently requested a volume for his own use. The concordance that was presented to Charles a year later was far more elaborate than the original, and featured illustrations painstakingly assembled from parts of woodcuts cut out of devotional books. A total of twelve concordances are known to survive, along with materials for a thirteenth; later recipients included the clergyman and poet George Herbert and (at his father's request) the future Charles II.

The Little Academy was a family study group that met in the early 1630s under the direction of Nicholas and Mary Ferrar, and the five bound manuscripts of story books are the records of their discussions or ‘conversations’. Members of the group were given loosely allegorical names—Anna Collett was the Patient, for example, and John Ferrar the Guardian—and took turns to introduce stories from ancient and modern history concerning the theory and practice of virtue; these would have been prepared in advance of the meetings, and were often assigned to them by Nicholas. The storytelling of the Little Academy was strongly influenced by Nicholas's interest in John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (which contained an account of the family's martyr, Bishop Robert Ferrar) and by other narratives of suffering, martyrdom, and Christian heroism. Selections from the story books were printed in the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, but there is no complete edition and they have received remarkably little attention from historians and literary scholars.

The community did not lack for sympathetic and remarkable friends among those who shared its particular churchmanship, not least Charles I, who visited it once in March 1642, barely five months before the outbreak of hostilities in the civil war, and again on 2 May 1646, this time alone and in search of refuge. John Ferrar hid him at a house in nearby Coppingford, but he was captured shortly afterwards. Earlier visitors included the poet Richard Crashaw, who was a student at Cambridge in the early 1630s, and who would often share in Nicholas Ferrar's night watches on his visits to Little Gidding. Crashaw was also a great admirer of Mary Collett, though their relationship seems to have been purely one of friendship; later, as a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, he acted as tutor to Mary's younger brother Ferrar Collett. The most significant literary visitor was George Herbert, an old friend of Nicholas from their Cambridge days, and from 1625 the deacon of Leighton Bromswold, only 4 miles south of the community; at Herbert's request Nicholas and John arranged for repair work to his church. Further evidence of Herbert's close relationship with Nicholas Ferrar and the community is found in Izaak Walton's Life of Mr George Herbert (1670), which describes how, on his deathbed, Herbert sent the manuscript of his sacred poems to Ferrar, requesting him to make it public ‘if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor Soul; … if not, let him burn it’ (Walton, 74). Ferrar not only prepared Herbert's poems for publication and arranged for Cambridge University Press to print them, but also probably provided them with the title The Temple, or, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations (1633).

Casual visitors to Little Gidding were not encouraged, and when they did come they were entertained only to light refreshment and not asked to stay for a meal. A letter describing a visit in 1634 by one Edward Lenton, a barrister, later formed the basis of an anonymous attack on the community in The Arminian Nunnery (1641), a pamphlet in which Little Gidding was caricatured as a hotbed of superstitious and papist activity. The pamphlet reprints a long inscription written by Mary Ferrar and engraved above the fireplace in the parlour, setting out the community's attitude to visitors. On the one hand there were ‘Angel[s] of God’ who supported the community, and ‘Christian Friend[s]’ who approved of their aims; on the other hand there were those who sought to ‘divert or disturb’ the community's way of life, and hypocrites who seemed to show approval but would then ‘fault … us in absence’ (p. 5). Probably the secretiveness of the community was both the product and the cause of extreme reactions in a context of increasing religious tension, as William Laud, from 1633 archbishop of Canterbury, pushed forward his controversial programme of increased episcopal control, more narrowly defined conformity, and heightened ceremonial, against a backdrop of events on the continent that made a hidden Romanizing agenda seem credible to many.

After the deaths of Mary Ferrar in 1634 and Nicholas in 1637 the community continued under John's direction. In 1643, perhaps suspected of aiding the transfer of plate to the king by some Cambridge colleges, he left England for the Netherlands, where he remained for two years with his son, daughter, and niece (but not his wife). Recent research has cast doubt on the idea that Little Gidding was sacked by parliamentary soldiers in the years following their return; surviving family papers show no record of the sorts of repair work that would have usually followed such an event. John, Virginia, and Mary continued to run the community together over the next ten years, continuing the production of concordances and bookbinding that had begun under Nicholas, and expanding their operations into new fields, including the keeping of silkworms. The end of the community can perhaps be best dated by the deaths in 1657 of John Ferrar and Susanna Collett, both victims of an influenza epidemic. Virginia found herself the preferred heir—John overlooked not only Bathsheba, who died in 1659, but also his son—and she lived quietly at Little Gidding, financially secure and unmarried, until her death in 1688.

St John's Church was restored in the mid-nineteenth century by William Hopkinson, who installed stained-glass windows featuring (alongside his own) the coats of arms of Nicholas Ferrar, Charles I, and John Williams, archbishop of York, who was described as being an admirer of Ferrar in Peter Peckard's Memoirs of the Life of Mr Nicholas Ferrar (1790). More widespread interest in Little Gidding began in 1881 with the second edition of Joseph Shorthouse's novel John Inglesant, which describes in detail the hero's visit to the community in 1637, the year of Nicholas Ferrar's death. Academic interest in Little Gidding was already gathering in the 1930s—Bernard Blackstone's selection, The Ferrar Papers, appeared in 1938—but it was T. S. Eliot's visit in May 1936 that led to wider public attention after the appearance of his poem ‘Little Gidding’ in 1942, and again in 1944 as the last part of Four Quartets. In 1947 the Friends of Little Gidding was founded to look after necessary renovations and repairs and to organize annual pilgrimages to the church. A community was successfully revived at Little Gidding in the 1970s, and the Community of Christ the Sower maintained a presence there until 1998 when it disbanded. The church is now in the care of the Giddings parochial church council.

Philip West

Sources  

The Arminian nunnery (1641) · B. Blackstone, ed., The Ferrar papers: containing a life of Nicolas Ferrar … a selection of family letters (1938) · T. S. Eliot, Four quartets (1944) · J. Ferrar, Nicholas Ferrar: two lives by his brother John and by Doctor Jebb (1855), vol. 1 of Cambridge in the seventeenth century, ed. J. E. B. Mayor, 3 vols. (1855–71) · L. R. Muir and J. A. White, eds., Materials for the life of Nicholas Ferrar (1996) · J. H. Shorthouse, John Inglesant, 2 vols. (1881) · I. Walton, The lives of Dr John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Mr Richard Hooker, Mr George Herbert (1670) · A. W. Williams, ed., Conversations at Little Gidding (1970) · R. Barbour, ‘The Caroline church heroic: the reconstruction of epic religion in three seventeenth-century communities’, Renaissance Quarterly, 50 (1997), 771–818 · C. L. Craig, ‘The earliest Little Gidding concordance’, Harvard Library Bulletin, 1 (1947), 311–41 · A. L. Maycock, Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding (1938) · R. van der Weyer, ‘Nicholas Ferrar and Little Gidding: a reappraisal’, For Veronica Wedgwood, ed. R. Ollard and P. Tudor-Craig (1986)