The East of England has a long history with the United States of America, stretching all the way back to the Magna Carta and including a Founding Father, the tobacco farmer who created the original Special Relationship, and the lawyer who gave Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard their names.
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk – Magna Carta and the American Constitution
In November 1214, 26 barons met secretly at Bury St Edmunds Abbey, swearing an oath to compel King John to accept The Charter of Liberties, a proclamation of Henry I and precursor to the Magna Carta, on which the American Constitution is based.
The US-based National Society of Magna Carta Dames, who can trace their ancestry back to the barons, donated the Shields of the Barons carved around the walls of the quire and sanctuary at St Edmundsbury Cathedral.
Otley Hall, Otley, Suffolk – Jamestown founder Bartholomew Gosnold
Unchanged for 500 years and a fine example of late medieval architecture, Otley Hall is where Bartholomew Gosnold (1571-1607) planned two voyages that would result in the founding of Jamestown and the United States.
In March 1602 the Concord sailed from Falmouth for North Virginia, with Gosnold as nautical captain, pioneering a successful direct route to the New World. His was the first European expedition recorded and he named Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, the latter after his deceased infant daughter and the area’s wild grapes.
Otley Hall was used as a recruiting base for Gosnold’s second voyage, with The Godspeed setting sail in 1606, 14 years before the Mayflower left from Plymouth. This expedition established Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America and, ultimately, the United States of America.
In Bury St Edmunds, where Gosnold practised law, visitors can see a sculpture of his ship The Godspeed in the Refectory garden of St Edmunsbury Cathedral. Read more about his time in Bury St Edmunds here.
Heacham, Norfolk – John Rolfe and Pocahontas
It might seem incongruous to see a Native Indian princess depicted on a north Norfolk village sign, but then you need to know the story of her husband, John Rolfe (1585-1622), the man who saved Jamestown and without whom it’s likely residents of the USA might now be speaking Spanish, French or Dutch.
Rolfe created The Special Relationship by marrying Pocahontas in the first inter-racial marriage in the new colony. The couple had a son, Thomas, and travelled to England in 1616 where they visited Heacham. A mulberry bush Pocahontas is said to have planted is still alive and producing fruit at Heacham Manor Hotel.
Sadly, Pocahontas died in Gravesend prior to returning to Virginia, but Rolfe did go back, taking with him a new cash crop. The successful cultivation of tobacco saved the fledgling colony from starvation.
In St Mary the Virgin Church in Heacham where Rolfe was christened you’ll find a tablet memorial to Pocahontas, placed above plaques to her husband’s parents, John and Dorothy.
Harwich, Essex – Christopher Jones and The Mayflower
It’s believed the iconic Mayflower was built in Harwich and it’s certain that it was commanded and part-owned by Harwich resident Captain Christopher Jones (1570-1622).
Jones sailed the ship to Norway, the Mediterranean and France, exporting woollen cloth and importing wine, before agreeing to take the religious separatists known as the Pilgrims from Plymouth to the New World in 1620. The majority of passengers on the ship came from Norfolk and Suffolk.
Jones’ former home is still there today, on King’s Head Street, as is the church where he married, St Nicholas.
A sculpture depicting the Mayflower can be seen at Parkeston by the International Port.
Hingham, Norfolk – The Lincoln Family
The decision of Samuel Lincoln from Hingham to sail from Great Yarmouth to Salem in 1638 helped start the chain of events that led to his descendant, Abraham, becoming the 16th President of the United States. The Lincolns moved from Hingham, Massachusetts (named after the Norfolk village) to Pennsylvania, Virginia and then Kentucky, where Abraham was born.
He led the United States through the American Civil War, famously abolished slavery in American, and delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous speeches which began: ‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’.
There is an Abraham Lincoln memorial at St Andrews Church, Hingham (pictured).
Thetford, Norfolk – Founding Father Thomas Paine
Commemorated with a gilded bronze statue outside Thetford town hall, American Founding Father Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was educated at Thetford Grammar School and emigrated to America in 1774 with the help of Benjamin Franklin.
The statue was commissioned by American philanthropist Joseph Lewis, who believed Paine was the true author of the American Declaration of Independence. That may or may not be true, but his writing certainly saved the Revolutionary War from failure.
His famous pamphlet Common Sense, written in 1776, advocated colonial America’s complete independence from Britain, and helped rally support for this cause. It sold more than 100,000 copies in just a few months, and another Founding Father John Adams said that ‘without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.’
It’s also believed Paine was the man who came up with the name The United States of America for the newly-independent country.
Paine also spent time in Revolutionary France where he narrowly avoided an appointment with Madame Guillotine.
The statue in Thetford has Paine portrayed in wig and period dress, holding a quill and a copy of Rights of Man. It was sculpted by Charles Wheeler RA, unveiled in 1964, and bears the inscription: ‘World Citizen, Englishman by birth, French citizen by decree, American by adoption’.
The book in Paine’s hand is upside down because Wheeler thought it would get people talking about the statue. So… it worked!
If you’re in town, why not stay at the Thomas Paine Hotel.