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On the Kalendar: Nicholas Ferrar, Deacon, Founder of the Little Gidding Community

Nicholas Ferrar was born in London in 1592. He took his BA at Clare Hall, Cambridge, in 1610, and obtained a position in the retinue of Princess Elizabeth, daughter of James I and wife of the Elector Frederick V. He travelled abroad with the Princess, but quickly set off on his own, visiting most of Europe, and learning to speak Dutch, German, Italian, and Spanish. The studied at Leipzig and at Padua, where he studied medicine.

December from Les Petites Heures d'Anne de Bretagne

“December”, kalendar page from Les Petites Heures d’Anne de Bretagne (The Little Hours of Queen Anne of Bretagne), by the Maître des Triomphes de Pétrarque. From Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris (France).

Ferrar’s family was heavily invested in the Virginia Company. One of Ferrar’s adversaries in Parliament, Sir Thomas Smythe, was a prominent member of the East India Company and treasurer of the Virginia Company. Smythe had encouraged the Virginia governor to end the evangelization of Native Americans and to expand tobacco culture. Ferrar criticized Smythe’s management, and accused him of skimming profits; Smythe remained unscathed, but the Virginia Company lost its charter in 1624.

Following the loss of the family fortune, the Ferrars left London for the largely deserted village of Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire. The restored an abandoned little church, and set up a household with the goal of living a Christian life. It wasn’t a formal Community: there was no Rule, no one took vows, and there was no enclosure. Instead, they lived in accordance with the Book of Common Prayer and High Church principles. The community gained widespread fame, and attracted many visitors, including King Charles I, who visited Little Gidding three times.

The final poem in T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece, Four Quartets, is titled “Little Gidding” in honor of Ferrar’s community.

Nicholas Ferrar is commemorated on December 4th.

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