Myles Standish, the Catholic Pilgrim

Amid an otherwise estimable analysis of the Pilgrims’ early years and legacy, Christopher Caldwell makes a common mistake in the Claremont Review of Books, describing Myles Standish not just as “brave, erudite, underhanded, and so diminutive that he was known (though not to his face) as Captain Shrimp”—all true—but as “a secular mercenary” to boot.

Standish was a mercenary, yes, and hardly a true believer in the Pilgrims’ puritanical cause. But the man cannot rightly be called secular. Quite the contrary: four hundred years ago this month, when Myles Standish first set foot on the sands of Plymouth Beach, the British-born soldier of fortune became the first American Catholic.

To this label are immediately raised a number of frantic objections. The more reasonable is to point out that a number of Catholics can be found in the New World years before the Pilgrims’ fateful journey. Squanto, the Plymouth group’s first Indian ally—who had been kidnapped by Englishmen, freed by Spanish friars, baptized, and returned years later to his native land—was one. In 1565, two decades before Standish was even born and another three and more before he crossed the ocean, Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales had offered the first Holy Mass on Floridian soil, at the thoroughly Catholic outpost of San Agustín.

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But Caldwell and others are correct in assigning unique value to the Pilgrims’ English patrimony as the seed of American identity. Though the Spanish, the Wampanoag, and any number of other groups (including Englishmen in short stints) had inhabited the continent, they could not rightly be called American or proto-American by our modern understanding of the word. That assignation originates with the permanent meeting of an English tradition with a terra incognita. For better or worse, America was born at Plymouth.

It is fair to say, then, that none of the New World Catholics before 1620 were yet American Catholics, in the sense of the infant American nation. Still, how can we claim that a Mayflower passenger was? The Pilgrims’ fierce detestation of popery is hardly a secret. It seems rather odd that a swashbuckling recusant might have been welcomed on their ship—and trusted with command of their militia, no less.

And this is the greater objection, the one that has reigned for centuries in the WASP academies of the land the Pilgrims settled. Myles Standish cannot have been a Catholic, for the simple reason that no Catholics can have been at Plymouth. It muddies the pure Protestantism of the project.

For this reason, historians have gone to great lengths to convince themselves that Standish was, in fact, a Protestant. But it requires acrobatics. That there is any ambiguity is owed to the fact that, while we know a good deal about the Standish family—a family of fairly substantial nobility, another trait setting the militia captain apart from his companions—we know very little about Myles himself, especially concerning his early years.

In the late sixteenth century, when Myles was born, the Standishes (like England) were a house divided. By the decade of Myles’s birth, a number had apparently converted to Anglicanism, especially the branch who held Duxbury Hall in Lancashire. But a number of the family—the older branch, as well as perhaps a few holdouts from Duxbury—had kept the Faith, headquartered six miles to the south of Duxbury at Standish Hall, which housed a Catholic chapel. A number of prominent English martyrs ministered at Standish Hall, including Laurence Vaux and, briefly, while traveling through England just a few years before Myles’s birth, the great Saint Edmund Campion.

The easiest way to settle the question of Myles’s creed may be simply to determine whether he was a Standish of Standish Hall or a Standish of Duxbury Hall. For this we need only take the man at his word. In his last will and testament, Myles refers to lands “given to me as right heire by lawful Decent but Surruptuously Detained from mee my great G[ran]dfather being a 2cond or younger brother from the house of Standish of Standish.”

The evidence to the contrary is hardly as compelling as an explicit statement. When the Pilgrims branched out from their initial village at Plymouth in 1627, one new town directly to the north—settled by Standish, John Alden, and others—was named Duxbury. It is commonly assumed that it was Standish who chose this name, in honor of the Standish manor sharing it in England. It can hardly be coincidence, but from this clue it is not a foregone conclusion that Myles was in fact a Standish of the Duxbury Hall branch.

It is just as plausible that, born six miles south, Myles still had some cause for affection for his family’s holdings nearby. It is even possible, depending on the degree of animosity between these particular Catholic and Anglican Standishes—and the details and timeline, still unclear, of the Duxbury branch’s apostasy—that he might have visited cousins there in his youth, or even been born there, as many mainstream scholars suggest.

Two more coincidences of naming, however, point more strongly toward Standish Hall rather than Duxbury. Myles’s heir—his second-born son, but first to survive to adulthood—was named Alexander. This seems to have been a family name, as three Alexanders were lords of the manor at Standish between 1434 and 1539, and the second ever lord of the manor at Standish was another Alexander as early as 1220. Given the timing, it’s possible that the great-grandfather mentioned in Myles’s will may have been the second son of the Alexander who held Standish Hall from 1468 to 1507, and perhaps even the same Alexander who was briefly lord of the manor from 1538 to 1539, after the thirty-one-year intervening tenure of one Ralph Standish, probably the firstborn son of the elder Alexander.

Perhaps even more interesting, though, is that in 1627, Myles’s firstborn son, who died in childhood, was named Charles. Two years earlier, at the end of 1625, Myles had traveled to London for business soon after the coronation of King Charles I. Charles, of course, was a strong-handed monarch with Catholic sympathies. Among other affronts to the anti-Catholic Parliamentarians, Charles’s marriage in that same year to a Catholic princess was particularly egregious.

By 1635, England was well on the way to civil war over Protestant distaste for Charles. Yet Myles again gave a son the same name as the king, after his firstborn had died. The name surely sets Myles apart not just from his Pilgrim companions, but from his cousins at Duxbury, all but one of whom were devoted Roundheads. That one exception was a royalist colonel who happened to bear the old family name Alexander and would die in battle in 1648.

The Standishes of Standish Hall, meanwhile, were royalists to the very last. Even a generation later, when Charles’s son James converted at last to the Catholic Faith and the Parliament repaid him with war, the Standishes remained steadfast. In 1694, five years after James’s crown was usurped by the Protestant William of Orange, eight gentleman of Lancashire were tried for treason against William’s government but were not convicted. Centuries later, in 1934, ciphered papers recovered from Standish Hall were decoded, showing that there was, in fact, a conspiracy at the manor to restore James to the throne. At least two Standishes, William and Ralph—nephews or cousins of some degree to Myles, who had died twenty-eight years before and an ocean away—were among the leaders of the underground alliance for the Catholic king.

With all this and more, the evidence is compelling that Captain Myles Standish was born a Catholic at Standish Hall and that he shared few of the convictions of his fellow travelers in the New World. The question must be asked, still, whether he retained the convictions of his birth. For this, an 1876 article in The Catholic World makes a simple and compelling case: had he not remained a committed Catholic, there is absolutely no good reason why Myles would not have become a Protestant. For instance, had Myles emerged as a Protestant claimant to the lands mentioned above, which he felt were unjustly denied him, the Protestant government’s favor for him would have been immense in any dispute. Yet he didn’t. He didn’t even remain in the now-Protestant land of his fathers.

But neither did he conform to the even harsher Protestantism of the new home he forged at Plymouth. The one detail for which the apologists of a Protestant Standish have never been able to provide an explanation is that he never joined the church at Plymouth. One of the foremost leaders of the colony said that Standish’s refusal to conform to the Nonconformists was downright bizarre. It can only have been a matter, not of apathy, but of conviction.

Though a step short of certainty, we can hold a reasonable belief that this Pilgrim Father was a lifelong subject of Rome. But the implications of this heritage are not so joyous for American Catholics as we might hope.

Without Standish as a forebear, our story in America is actually more pleasant: from a Puritan seed, America grew and, as it grew, became diverse. Catholic communities—both of new immigrants and old colonists, as at San Agustín and in Maryland—were eventually brought into the fold. After long years of struggle and change, these Catholic communities were finally welcomed as true Americans, equal heirs of the Plymouth legacy. Now, after those four centuries of change, no tension remains between the dual identities of an American Catholic.

But to lay claim to Myles Standish is as much a blow as anything. It suggests, beyond the happy implication that we have been here since the beginning, the rather unhappy one that we have not come so far as we might think. If Myles Standish was, in fact, a Catholic, he was a Catholic resigned to a private faith, a Catholic in a land where his creed was not welcome in the public square. As suggested in The Catholic World a century and a half ago, he would not have been deprived of opportunities to receive the sacraments, coming in somewhat frequent contact with Capuchin priests at trading outposts in Maine.

He would not have been (as far as we can tell) a Catholic manifestly oppressed, though, of course, his friends maintained harsh animosity against his Faith. And yet he was a Catholic in a land that was not.

The Faith of his fathers—the true Faith—was not preserved for his sons, just as his lands had not been preserved for him. Four hundred years later, we are left asking whether the man was even Catholic at all, and unable ever to secure an answer. His lot sounds very much like ours, a stranger in a strange land.

Yet, despite his failure to profess the new American creed, Standish—renowned for valor, skill, and goodness among a people to whom he did not quite belong—became a kind of icon after the nation’s independence. In 1858, the consummate American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published the epic poem The Courtship of Miles Standish, in which the militia captain figures as a sort of tragic hero. Part V opens with a stirring scene of our Catholic Pilgrim leading his men to battle:

Just in the gray of the dawn, as the mists uprose from the meadows,
There was a stir and a sound in the slumbering village of Plymouth;
Clanging and clicking of arms, and the order imperative, “Forward!”
Given in tone suppressed, a tramp of feet, and then silence.
Figures ten, in the mist, marched slowly out of the village.
Standish the stalwart it was, with eight of his valorous army,
Led by their Indian guide, by Hobomok, friend of the white men,
Northward marching to quell the sudden revolt of the savage.
Giants they seemed in the mist, or the mighty men of King David;
Giants in heart they were, who believed in God and the Bible…

A giant in heart, who believed in God and the Bible—we cannot know for sure. But for his sake, and ours, we can hope that this is in fact what Myles Standish was, though the odds were great against him.

[Image: Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert W. Weir]


  • Declan Leary

    Mr. Leary is associate editor of The American Conservative.

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