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Mary and William Dyer: Quaker Light and Puritan Ambition

Mary and William Dyer: Quaker Light and Puritan Ambition

A bump in the road. I decided not to continue with my former publisher, asked to be released from our contract, and am now pursuing a new contract with another university press.

Mary Dyer’s story has been difficult to tell because the surviving records are sparse: there are long periods where she is lost from sight, and there is much that remains unknown about her. Nevertheless, this biography uncovers new material about Dyer, her husband, and their associates from a variety of little explored or previously unexplored sources.

It’s been a long haul and I am profoundly grateful for the many folks who have offered encouragement, support, and insight along the way. Special thanks to Jeremy Brecher, Beth Powning, David Hall, Larry Ingle, Francis Bremer, and the second, anonymous reader for the former university press. Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston in 1660 for civil disobedience and her husband held important offices in early Rhode Island.

A Measure of Light

Beth Powning’s A Measure of Light

In her most dramatic and ambitious novel yet, bestselling author Beth Powning re-imagines the life of Mary Dyer, a Quaker who defied death to champion religious freedom during America’s earliest years.

Set in 1600s New England, A Measure of Light tells the story of Mary Dyer, a Puritan who flees persecution in Jacobean England only to find the Puritan establishment in Massachusetts every bit as vicious as the one she has left behind. One of America’s first Quakers, and among the last to face the gallows for her convictions, Mary Dyer receives here in fiction the full-blooded treatment too long denied a figure of her stature: a woman caught between faith, family and the driving sense that she alone will put right a deep and cruel wrong in the world. This is gripping historical fiction about a courageous woman who chafed at the power of theocracies and the boundaries of her era, struggling against a backdrop of imminent apocalypse for women’s rights, liberty of conscience, intellectual freedom and justice.

Available 10 March 2015 from Knopf Canada. Hardcover, 336 pages.


BETH POWNING’s previous books include Seeds of Another Summer: Finding the Spirit of Home in Nature, a collection of lyrical prose and photographs that celebrates the natural beauty of her New Brunswick home. Shadow Child, shortlisted for the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction, is a memoir of coming to terms with the stillbirth of her first son. Edge Seasons, a Globe and Mail Best Book, is a personal memoir about transformation—about seasonal change within the natural world around her and in her life. Her previous novels are the bestsellers The Hatbox Letters and The Sea Captain’s Wife. In 2010, Beth was awarded New Brunswick’s Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for High Achievement in English-Language Literary Arts. She lives on a 300-acre farm near Sussex, New Brunswick, with her husband, the sculptor Peter Powning.

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Eliot Justifies the Execution of the Quakers

Eliot Justifies the Execution of the Quakers

The execution of four Quakers in Boston between 1659 and 1661 raised further concern and outrage in England that Massachusetts was acting with extreme severity and outside of English law. Thus Massachusetts sought to defend itself by publishing tracts, sending representatives to England, and writing exculpatory letters by apologists for the maverick colony. In January 1668, the Reverend John Eliot wrote to the prominent Presbyterian Richard Baxter in England a long letter discussing ecclesiastical matters. Writing in response to a query from Baxter, Eliot also expounded on New England’s justification for hanging the four Quakers.

The Quakers were apprehended, he explained, not because they were Quakers, not because the court wanted to impose anything against their own “light,” but because they had been “turbulent” and had failed to conduct themselves in “quietness, peace, and submission to order.” Moreover, Eliot asserted, the court had taken “much pains with them, with long patience, and proceeded with sundry steps and degrees against them.” Such was the reluctance of the court to execute the Quakers that after sentence had been passed, the Court offered the prisoners one more opportunity to leave Massachusetts for their own places, with the promise never to return without the Court’s permission. But, reported Eliot, the Quakers remained “presumptuously obstinate.”

Letter, John Eliot to Richard Baxter, 10 January 1667/8. Baxter Letters, volume 2:276a. Dr. Williams Library, London.

The Dyre Farm

The Dyer Farm

Newport prospered as one of the principal commercial centers of British North America, rivaling Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charlestown, South Carolina, and making fortunes in the trade of rum, molasses, spermaceti (whale oil), pineapples, and African slaves. Thus, at the outbreak of the American Revolution, the British sent a large force to occupy the town. Half the population, including most of its merchants, took what they could and fled the town. In need of firewood for cooking and warmth during their three-year stay, the British dismantled about five hundred houses, cut down almost all the trees, and destroyed most of the wharves. Those citizens who did not collaborate with the occupying forces further suffered routine plunder and extortion. When the French Fleet entered Newport harbor in the early autumn of 1779, the British took what little remained in town and hurried to New York. When the war was over, most merchants saw little reason to return to Newport. The British embargo during the War of 1812 dealt a second severe blow to any merchants who had attempted to revive their business. The town remained impoverished until the mid-nineteenth century, when it saw an economic and cultural revival as a fashionable resort for the wealthy.

The 121-acre Dyre farm remained in the possession of Captain Samuel Dyre, Mary’s grandson, until his death in 1767. Then it passed to his son, Samuel, whom the Reverend Ezra Stiles noted was an arch Tory. The southern boundary of the farm also marked the siege line that the British army established around Newport from December 1776 to October 1779. While laying siege to Newport, the British army took down one of Samuel Dyre’s houses and dismantled his joiner’s shop to use the materials for the Naval Hospital. Since Daniel Wheeler wrote in his journal of seeing “the site of the dwelling … place of Mary Dyer,” the original house must have been gone by 1839 and may well have been this house taken down by the British between 1777 and 1779.

When the British abandoned Newport, Dyre was taken on November 1, 1779 by order of General Gates and jailed. The following year he was tried for collusion with the enemy and found not guilty, but the rebel authorities suspected him of tampering with the jury, declared a mistrial, and obtained his conviction in a second trial. On October 5, 1781 his petition for release from prison was granted and on December 7 he was finally discharged.

Samuel Dyre’s extended incarceration and his consequent inability to manage the affairs of the farm led to his financial collapse. Moreover, as a Tory, he surely was ostracized and suffered as a social and economic outcast at the hands of his neighbors. In 1791, Dyre sold the southern-most 100 acres, soon after declared insolvency, and what remained of the farm devolved through a series of owners until it came to the City of Newport for unpaid taxes. The Navy next acquired the property and holds it today. The Dyre farm’s southern boundary was at Fort Greene, now Battery Park, just south of Newport Bridge on the water, ran northeast to Dyre’s Gate (where 3rd Street goes under the bridge), north to the rotary, west to the main gate to the Navy Base, and then back south along the water to the park. Third Street used to be the road to Dyer’s Farm. The Dyre house stood close to where the Navy Hospital now is and the cemetery lay just south of the house.

Massachusetts Apologizes for the Hanging of Mary Dyer

A Massachusetts Apology

In 1740 the Massachusetts legislature, being informed that Samuel Dyre was alive and living on the old family farm in Newport, sought to redress the execution of his grandmother. It sent a deputation to Newport to express its deep regret at the conduct of their ancestors and desired to know what compensation or satisfaction they could make. Samuel received them courteously but noted that, despite their good intentions, no compensation could be made; he could accept nothing as the price of blood; he stated “that their sense of the injury and injustice committed, exemplified by their acknowledgment, was sufficient; and he freely forgave them all the actors in that dismal catastrophe.”[1]

[1]From Thomas Shillitoe’s Scrap Book, noted in Friends Historical Society Journal, Volume XIV (1917), 43.

A Curious Case of Treason

A Curious Case of Treason

In late 1651 Roger Williams and John Clarke prepared to sail for England on behalf of Rhode Island’s effort to revoke William Coddington’s upstart 1651 charter and secure a confirmation of the earlier charter Williams had procured in 1644. With the Anglo-Dutch war heating up, Williams, who was still under a Massachusetts edict of banishment dating from 1635, could not sail from Dutch New Amsterdam and in October successfully petitioned the General Court to pass quietly through Boston.

William Dyre went with Williams and Clarke, mixing personal and business matters. On the personal side, this was an opportunity to go to England and persuade his wife, Mary, to return home. On the business side, he surely conceived that some benefit would accrue to himself by way of his affiliation with the charter efforts and the outcome bears this out.

He may even have gone in some official capacity, when in the few weeks before his departure, acting as the Rhode Island attorney general, he petitioned the Massachusetts Bay for permission to convey unnamed prisoners to be tried in England for treason. The petition was granted on November 21, 1651.

But this is a thoroughly curious petition. Since treason was a capital crime, one would expect to find a considerable legal paper trail in colony, town and personal records. Yet there is a remarkable void in both the Rhode Island and Massachusetts records. (Many early Rhode Island records were lost, especially with the burning of Providence in King Phillip’s War and with the looting of Newport records by the British during the American Revolution. Nevertheless, such a complete erasure  of such an historical event is itself remarkable.) Despite severe turbulence and even acts that might rise to the charge of treason, there is no other record of any formal charge of treason prior to Hugh Bewitt in December 1652.

And furthermore, I have never seen note of this petition and its meaning anywhere else. It doesn’t even appear in the quite complete records of the Massachusetts General Court. I would appreciate hearing from anyone who has insight into this petition that can be bolstered with historical evidence.

The petition is in William Dyre’s hand and is damaged at the top edge, so there is some loss of information. The petitioners are William Dyre, likely acting as attorney general, John [hole, but possibly Clarke], and James Badcock, likely acting as constable and warden.

Dyre was in Boston as late as December 4, when he witnessed a bill of sale. The ship named in the petition was the [Johns] Adventure, owned by Dyre’s business partner, William Brenton. This is the ship that Williams, Clarke, and Dyre almost certainly took to England.

A transcription follows.

21 November 1651. Petition on behalf of Rhode Island asking for safe conduct through Massachusetts for prisoners to be tried in England for treason. Granted. In William Dyre’s handwriting.

Massachusetts Archives, vol. 2 (Colonial, 1638-1720), 7a.

(Illegible text at top of letter, much torn away)

The humble peticon of Willm Dyre John [hole] & James Badcock in the behalf of the inhabitants of [Rho]ad Island.

 Sheweth that wheras by our ingagmt lately taken unto the Stat

of England, & that by the Charter & Commission, we are to be

governed according to the Laws of England and wheras ther

are now residing upon the Iland, such who have been, & are

accused Indicted & arrested of High Treason, & misprision of

treason, & that according to the Law of the Parlemt mad in the

yeare 1649 treasons are to be tried according to the Laws

in the case Provided: And wheras the Statute of the 35: H:

8 [ blank]1Doth order that facte of the nature being Comitted

out of the Land, shal be tried in the Land here yor Peticoners

Doth humbly Desire yor favors to grant unto the Inhabitants

of the Iland safe Conduct threw yor Jurisdicon, for such

person or persons to be Conveyed or kept in durance, till

the ship cal’d the Adventure shal go for England, Promis

ing that no charg shall at all accrew to the Contry therby

only because we have no shipping nor any other way

then wtt is Presented to Performe our bounded duty and

faithfull Allegance, To the Highe & mighty State and

Parlemt of Eng: and the most renowned & Honble the

Keepers of the Libty therof so shall yor Peticoners

For ever acknowledge yor goodness & be bound dayly

To pray for yor worshipps Happiness ./.

This petition is granted by the County

Courte 21th 9th mo 1651  Incr: Nowell

[1] Statute of 35: H: 8 = 35 Henry 8 or 1543. “all offences made or declared, or hereafter made or declared treasons, misprisions of treason, and concealments of treason, committed out of the realm of England, shall be inquired of, heard, and determined, either in the king’s bench or before commissioners in such shire as shall be assigned by the king.

Welcome to the new site


Welcome to the update of my site about Mary Dyer. This is still a work in progress. I hope to have more frequent updates soon.

For those who have been following my research, yes, I have a manuscript nearly complete and have begun looking for a publisher. It is a research- and fact-based biography of Mary Dyer and her husband William that breaks significant new ground. More to follow.

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