Winthrop, Margaret (c. 1591–1647)

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Winthrop, Margaret (c. 1591–1647)

English-born colonial, wife of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who was first lady for the colony's initial 16 years . Born Margaret Tyndal about 1591 in Great Maplestead, Essex County, England; died of uncertain causes in June 1647 in Boston, Massachusetts; daughter of Sir John Tyndal and Lady Anne Egerton Tyndal; married John Winthrop (Colonial governor), on April 24 or 29, 1618; children: eight, four of whom survived childhood, Stephen, Adam, Deane, and Samuel.

Information about Margaret Tyndal Winthrop's early life is not known. Her year of birth is estimated as 1591, which was based upon her husband's presumption that she was 56 at the time of her death. She was born in Chelmshey House, a country estate in Great Maplestead, Essex, England, the second daughter and fourth child of Sir John Tyndal and Lady Anne Egerton Tyndal . Lady Tyndal was the daughter of Suffolk's Thomas Egerton and the widow of William Deane of Deaneshall. Sir John was a master of chancery. Margaret was probably educated by tutors or governesses at home; her later letter writing suggests that she was a thoughtful and intelligent writer.

When she married attorney John Winthrop in 1618, her husband had already lost two previous wives to early death and had four sons. They moved into Groton Manor in Suffolk, his father's estate. Although John's father Adam was still master of the estate, Lucy Winthrop managed the household as the only unmarried daughter remaining at home. John's four sons ranged in age from three to twelve years old. Within three years, Margaret had the first two of her own children, Stephen and Adam. Life was complex at Groton Manor, with Margaret in charge of all the children and sharing household duties with Lucy. The manor was remote and had to be largely self-sufficient; journeys to markets, villages, and towns were rare. Although travel to and from the manor was only by horseback, the family entertained many visitors.

As an attorney with the Court of Wards and Liveries in London, John spent most of his time in chambers and seldom returned to Groton Manor. When plans to migrate to the New World became firm and the Massachusetts Bay Company, then still in England, elected him governor of their future colony in 1629, he was able to return less frequently. During these lengthy separations, Margaret wrote many letters to her husband which provide an important picture of her as an individual. Every letter begins and ends with commemoration of God's love; for both Margaret and John Winthrop, human love remained secondary to the love of God, and her letters provide dignified examples of this religious feeling. Edited by Joseph Hopkins Twichell and published in 1893 as Some Old Puritan Love Letters: John and Margaret Winthrop, 1618–1638, her letters imbue the Puritan way of life with personality and counteract many negative connotations.

John left Yarmouth, England, in March 1630, as part of the 700 original settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which matured into the city of Boston. Pregnant at the time, Margaret remained in England to give birth to her child and settle the family's estate. With correspondence impossible, the Winthrops relied on their spiritual strength to maintain a close bond during their two-year separation. In his last letter to Margaret before he sailed, John wrote, "Mondays and Fridays at five of the clock, we shall meet in spirit." John landed near Salem, Massachusetts, on June 12, 1630. Margaret, unable to join him in the New World until more than a year later, arrived on the ship Lyon in Boston Harbor on November 4, 1631. She was surprised by the welcome the ship received, but the Lyon carried a considerable cargo of supplies that the Colony needed for the winter. Anne, the child with whom Margaret had been pregnant when John sailed, had died at sea.

Margaret's responsibilities in England had prepared her well for her future duties in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Winthrops lived in a house on Beacon Hill in Boston which, although described as unpretentious, was large enough to accommodate their family as well as the governor's offices. John Winthrop was reelected as the colony's governor 12 times. Among the Winthrops' neighbors were the Brad-streets and the Hutchinsons, with whom they shared well water. Anne Bradstreet , a distinguished American colonial poet, was Margaret's friend. Anne Hutchinson , a religious reformer whom the Puritans came to believe was subverting the moral laws, was tried, found guilty, and banished from the colony. Although Margaret was dedicated to her husband, her journals suggest that she was troubled by the actions taken against Hutchinson. However, she stayed out of the controversy, holding that God's will had been done despite her personal resistance.

Margaret became ill in June 1647, probably with influenza, and died the following day. Less than a year after her death, John married again, then died two years later. Margaret's place of burial is not commemorated, although she is thought to rest next to her husband in Boston's King's Chapel Churchyard.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

suggested reading:

Earle, Alice Morse. Margaret Winthrop. NY: Scribner, 1895.

Gillian S. Holmes , freelance writer, Hayward, California

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Winthrop, Margaret (c. 1591–1647)

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