The name “Barrett” is of French origin. The Battle Abbey Roll records that an ancestor came to England with the army of William the Conqueror and was present at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The family seems to have resided first in County Cambridge, where they are found in the Domesday Book (1085 A.D.) and later in Ragman’s Roll and the Roll of the Hundreds, but by the beginning of the seventeenth century they had spread throughout England, from Cornwall to Yorkshire. A more recent French connection for Mary Dyer is supported by a Dyer family legend that William Dyre had in-laws in France by the name of Delacourt.[1] The renewed attack upon French Protestants by the forces of Cardinal Richelieu, marked by the fall of La Rochelle in 1628, sent more Huguenots abroad. For their community in exile, the French had an active church on Threadneedle Street in London. Yet a check of the registers of the Threadneedle Street church and the Registers of Alien’s Living in London, while listing several Barretts and Delacourts, revealed none who qualify as candidates for Mary Barrett or her parents. Support for Mary’s French or Norman ancestry has also been mustered by an assertion that Mary spelled her name “marie dire,” a French spelling of that name.[2] However, in her single surviving autograph letter, Mary consistently substituted the letter “i” in the place of the letter “y”, with only a few regular exceptions. Thus, the spelling of her name as “dire” can easily be seen as nothing more than her habit of using almost no “y”s.

A persistent tradition holds that Mary Dyer was the daughter of Lady Arbella Stuart, cousin to the English King, James I, and William Seymour. Fearing Arbella’s claim to the English throne, and the claim of any children she might produce, James forbid Arbella to wed without his consent. Frustrated that James refused to offer or consent to a match, Arbella finally took matters into her own hands and in June 1610 secretly wed Seymour, himself a distant claimant to the throne. Thus angered, James confined the newlyweds to separate quarters in the Tower, from which both soon escaped. Seymour hurried safely to France but Arbella hesitated and was recaptured just outside the harbor of Calais. James then determined to isolate Arbella from family, friends, and supporters by remanding her to the custody of the Bishop of Durham and sending her to the far north of England. However, Arbella complained of ill-health, required several extended rests, and ten weeks later she was only as far away as the northern outskirts of London. At the beginning of June Arbella attempted another escape, was again captured, and again secured in the Tower, where she died in 1615. In January 1612 it was rumored that Arbella had given birth to a child while convalescing at Sir Thomas Parry’s house at Lambeth and that the child had been spirited abroad.[3] No matter that the child was understood to be male or that a vigorous inquiry turned up no substantive support to the rumor, about 1890 this tale was married to the mystery of Mary Dyer’s birth by Frederick N. Dyer and then published in 1944 by Ortiz and Boden.[4] [5] Several variations of the Arbella tale exist. One holds that Lady Arbella Stuart’s lady-in-waiting was a Barrett (in another version, a Dyer) and that Mary was raised by her. Another version, reported by Edward R. Dyer in 1915, held that Mary was born in the Tower and then raised by a close friend of Arbella—Amelia Dyer, the daughter of one Sir William Dyer, a knight of Herefordshire (sic).[6]

The attractiveness of the Arbella tale is understandable. With scant information about Mary’s early life, no record of her birth or parents, and a willingness to overlook available information about Arbella’s final confinement in the Tower, speculators were free to suggest the romantic tale. Certain parallels lent an air of plausibility to the story. Mary was certainly a well-educated gentlewoman, of good family and report. She was about the same age as her husband William, and 1611 is a good guess for the year of her birth. Confined to the Tower, Arbella reportedly slipped into madness until her death in 1615.[7] Mary Dyer’s repeated confrontation of the Massachusetts authorities unto her death led her husband to declare that she was “mad” when he pleaded for her life in 1660. Nevertheless, the Arbella tale can soundly be put to rest. The recent discovery of the probate administration of William Barrett, which notes that he is the natural brother of Mary Dyer, dismisses any notion that Mary might have been an only child or foundling.[8]

Another family tradition, recorded by Cornelia Joy-Dyer in 1884, held that William and Mary were cousins who came together from England to Boston on the Mayflower, about 1627 or 1629 with their parents. However, Boston wasn’t founded until 1630 and William Dyre was still in England in early 1635. The history of the Mayflower is another interesting digression. Already of dubious seaworthiness, it is said the Mayflower made only one more voyage after bringing the Pilgrims to the shores of Cape Cod Bay—a slaving venture to Africa. In 1624 it was sold to a Buckinghamshire farmer who dismantled it and used some of its timbers for the frame of his barn.[9] Another version of the “cousins” story states that King Charles II’s interest in Mary’s fate stemmed from her descent from Sir Lodovick Dyer, Baronet of Stoughton, Hampshire (sic).[10] Yet Sir Lodovick was a contemporary to Mary who died in 1670, leaving nothing in his will or other surviving records to support this notion.

Frederick Virkus cites a tale that Mary was raised by one George Dyer.[11] No further information is given as to who this George Dyer might be. There were several George Dyers who were related to William Dier, the supposed churchwarden of Kirkby Laythorp (see the William Dyre Ancestry section) and father of Mary’s husband. An intriguing template is presented in the story of Catherine Dyer, the daughter of James Dyer of Grove Park, Warwick, who, in turn, was brother to this William Dier. When James died, Catherine “was for a while brought upp with her uncle George Dyer and by him lefte in London and put up to service to such a Mis[tress]” who with a blow broke Catherine’s nose and therein dejected her “fortunes in marriage.” Eventually the disfigured Catherine did marry one John Willson, but the hardness of their labor and their failing health led her to petition her cousin Lord Francis Cottington in 1635 for assistance.[12] It is easy to see herein a template for Mary’s story. Mary’s parents may have died while she was very young and she was sent to live with her uncle George, who in turn sent her to London. There she received a superior education and through her relatives had connections to the Court. Her uncle George died sometime after 1623 and life became hard. She met William Dyre, an enterprising young milliner, and though she is above his station, consented to marry him as a way of escaping her difficult straits.

Mary has sometimes been described as being from London and, thus by extension, having been born in London. This is possible, but yet unproved. Barretts were parishioners at several London churches, with the largest number of their family baptisms, marriages, and burials recorded at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, St. Giles, Cripplegate, and St. Margaret, Westminster. All three parishes were in London’s rising West End and near the New Exchange. Several Barretts who appear on the records of Saint Martin’s might have been related to Mary Barrett. Sir Edward Barrett married Jane Carey in the parish in 1608. John Barrett was buried there in 1596, George Barrett in 1603, and Richard Barrett in 1611 (Boyd’s London Burials). If Richard was Mary’s father, his death in 1611 would support the notion that she was brought up outside her own family. A second Richard Barrett appears in the Saint Martin’s churchwardens’ accounts of 1632-33 and is listed as living in “Waterside,” the same side of the Strand on which William Dyre lived.[13] In 1630 Katherine Barrett married Michael Web at Saint Martin’s, and Phillip and Elizabeth Barrett baptized their daughter Ann. In 1632 the estate of Thomas Barrett of Saint Martin’s was assigned by probate administration to Mary, his relic.[14] In 1634 William and Margaret Barrett buried their son, William, in the parish. Although Mary is known to have had a brother, the elder William cannot be he since Mary’s brother remained a bachelor. Unfortunately, the various parish records are quite incomplete; it has been difficult enough to identify Barrett families for inclusion into a candidate pool, and still harder to eliminate them. None of these Barretts could be traced with sufficient detail to establish that they had a daughter Mary, no less a son William.

Another tale, more recently presented, asserts that Mary Dyer was of the “Barrett family of Quendon, Essex, but born in London.”[15] A check of the surviving baptismal records of every parish in London and Barrett wills and administrations identified a number of Mary or Marie Barretts born between 1605 and 1620. Only Mary, the daughter of Thomas Barrat, who was born in 1614 in the West End parish of Saint Giles, Cripplegate, is a fair match for the correct age. However, there is no indication that Mary of Saint Giles had a brother William and none of these Barrett families can be positively associated with Quendon.

Only one Barrett could be located in Quendon at a time that it might fit into Mary’s story. On 26 August 1598, William Barrett of Quendon took out a marriage license with the Bishop of London’s office. On the license he is described as a gentleman bachelor, age thirty. His betrothed is Margaret Killingworth, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of John Killingworth, a Quendon lawyer.[16] If, as is presumed, Mary Barrett Dyer was born about 1610, Margaret Barrett would still have been well within her child-bearing age. Unfortunately, although the name “William Barrett” appears in London and Middlesex records repeatedly during the next years, at different addresses and in different professions, none can be linked with certainty or even strong probability to William Barrett of Quendon. William of Quendon is last noted in 1602 in the will of his father, Nicholas,[17] and then he, his wife Margaret, and whatever progeny they might have borne, disappear in the transient throng of Greater London. So again we return to reasoned speculation and here six other points make this story tantalizing. First, we know that Mary had a brother William and, if he were the oldest son, he likely would have been named after his father. Second, the Killingworths had strong ties to London and London is where Mary can first be located with certainty. Third, if credence can be given to the tale that Mary spent some time at the Court, it is worthy of note that Margaret Barrett’s uncle, Richard Killingworth, was a “servant to his majesty” until his death in 1619.[18] Fourth, the Killingworths, were very much involved in the London haberdashery trade and therein likely to have done business with Walter Blackborne, with whom William Dyre did his apprenticeship. Fifth, Margaret Barrett’s brother, Gyles Killingworth, followed his father into the legal profession until his death in 1635 and therein may be an additional source of William Dyre’s interest in legal matters. Sixth, a William Barrett of “le Minorities” (a ward of London close to the Tower) appears in the Middlesex Quarter Court Sessions Records in 1616 as a goldsmith, closely affiliated with the Company of Clothworkers; if this is the same William Barrett, late of Quendon, here may be the source of Mary’s gold bodkin and the silk dress “with gold and silver thread.”

The will of George Barrett of All Hallows the Great, proved in 1638,[19] connects the families of Barrett and Dyer in London, but we cannot be certain that these are the families of Mary and William. In his testament, George calls one Mary Dyer his “goddaughter” and directs that her bequeath be given into the hands of her father, perhaps the Richard Dyer who signed the testament as a witness. Obviously, if Richard is Mary’s father, then it is safe to presume that this Mary was not a Barrett and was not yet married in 1638. Furthermore, placing the bequeath in the hands of Mary Dyer’s father may indicate that this Mary Dyer was underage, incompetent, or perhaps overseas. On the other hand, this Barrett family came from Compton Danbo, Somerset, just outside of Bristol, and near where may be the origin of William Dyre’s West Country family.

Yet another intriguing possibility. In the Library of the British Museum there is a memorandum noting the birth of two sisters, Marye Barrett on 4 March 1609/10 and Grace Barrett on 2 September 1611. No other identifying information is offered, neither the names of parents, the place of birth, or even the author of the memorandum. A check of the International Genealogical Index (IGI) turned up no Mary or Grace Barrett in London or Middlesex to match these dates. The only clues are contextual. The memorandum is contained in a book of medicinal and culinary recipes, written in two major hands (with additions in perhaps a few other hands) of the 16th and 17th centuries. Folio 4 lists several merchant corespondents in Bristol, although this page may have been part of a separate collection. Bristol is significant because it was a Quaker stronghold when Mary was in England again between 1651 and 1656, and it was from Bristol that she embarked for America on her return home. Folio 73 notes that “colours” can be had at an address in Newgate market and “gould” in Fleet Lane, both London addresses and suggesting that the recipe book has a London provenance. In further support of the London provenance, there are scattered references to recipes made “at the courte,” to expensive foods such as almonds, oranges, and lemons, to a preservative against the plague and another against the biting of a mad dog (plagues and dogs being more urban problems than rural problems), and allusions to persons of position: “most loving mistress” and “My ladies coffening powder.” The pen trial page, folio 5, twice spells the name “Barett,” suggesting that Barett was either the name of the author or at least significant to the author.

Under legibility enhancing ultra-violet light, the following heading can be seen faintly in a large, careful, italic hand:
The yr of our Lord 1602
By me Grace
Fowell my
The appearance of the name Grace in two successive generations suggests that Grace Fowell began this recipe book in 1602, sometime afterwards married a Barrett, and then gave her daughter born in 1611 her own name. And indeed Grace Fowell was the daughter of Arthur Fowell of Ugborough, Devon, born in 1583, and married to Richard Barrett of Tregarthen, Cornwall on 11 September 1603.[20] The Fowells were a prominent south Devon family, many of whom were knighted.[21] Richard and Grace removed to Saint Mabyn, Cornwall, where they had two daughters, Mary, baptised on 11 March 1610 and Grace, baptised on 9 September 1611 (IGI). In both cases, the baptismal dates fall on the first Sunday following the days which the British Museum memorandum gives for the birth dates for Mary and Grace. Richard Barrett died about 1612 and seven years later, Grace Barrett married Sir Richard Carnsew of Carnsew, Cornwall.[22] Thomas Westcote, writing in 1630, gives a brief genealogy of the Fowell family, in which he notes only Mary and Grace as the issue of Richard and Grace and describes the two sisters as “heirs” to Richard.[23]

Grace Barrett, spinster, was still alive and living in Saint Mabyn in 1656. The IGI notes the marriage of a Mary Barrett to Richard Prideaux in Saint Mabyn on 31 December 1634. Obviously, if this is the daughter of Grace Fowell, this Mary Barrett cannot have been the same who married William Dyre in London in 1633. However, in Saint Mabyn there were at least three other male Barretts contemporary to Richard who might have had a daughter named Mary—and who later became the bride of Richard Prideaux. More research might clarify this possibility.


[1]Personal communications with Reverend Jones.
[2]Personal communications with Polly Lee.
[3]B[lanche] C[hristabel] Hardy. Arbella Stuart: A Biography. London: Constable, 1913, 322; Star Chamber proceedings against Mary Talbot, 26 June 1618, University of London, Senate House, ULL MS 20, ff. 145-50; Sara Jayne Steen, editor. The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, 105.
[4]New England Historical and Genealogical Register, January 1944, 25-28.
[6]Monograph in author’s files.
[7]For a convincing argument that Arbella suffered not from classic dementia but rather porphyria, see The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart, edited by Sara Jayne Steen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, introduction, 83-100.
[8]Index Library, 100:25.
[9]Prince Georges County Genealogical Society Bulletin, Vol. 14, No. 10, June 1983; NY Times, 2 March 1986.
[10]Joy-Dyer, Cornelia. Some Records of the Dyer Family, New York, Thomas Whittaker, 1884, 33; Newport Daily News, 14 November 1924.
[11]Frederick Virkus. Compendium of American Genealogy, 5:516, “1-Stinaff, Charles Henry”.
[12]Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, Vol. CCX, p. 71.
[13]Churchwardens’ Accounts, Saint Martin’s-in-the-Fields, F 359, City of Westminster Archives.
[14] Index Record 100:25.
[15]Polly Lee, quoted in Hugh Barbour and Arthur Roberts, Early Quaker Writings, Grand Rapids, 1973.
[16]Joseph Foster (ed.). London Marriage Licenses, 1521-1869, London,1887, 86.
[17]Suffolk Wills, W1/60/99.
[18]PCC Wills, Prob 11/134, 113 Parker.
[19]PCC 58 Lee.
[20]IGI; Thomas Westcote, A View of Devonshire in MDCXXX, 1845, 521-22.
[21]Visitations of Devon 1:368-71.
[22]IGI; Westcote, 522.
[23]Westcote, 522.