Stephen Hopkins: The Incredible Life of a Mayflower Passenger

Stephen Hopkins: The Incredible Life of a Mayflower Passenger

Let’s face it, some people are just more interesting than the rest of us, Teddy Roosevelt, Brian Blessed, Forest Gump (ok, he’s not real, but still…). Their exploits are what fill history books and propel our world forward.

One of the most interesting people in early American history is someone you’ve probably never heard of. Yet you may have heard whispers of his existence in great literature and maybe your school governance classes. He rubbed shoulders with famous people, sailed on famous ships and signed a very famous document. He is one of America’s great pilgrim fathers, Stephen Hopkins.

Hopkins was born in Hampshire, England during the reign of Elizabeth I. His early life seemed to be fairly uneventful, he married, had children and worked as a ministerial clerk. In 1609, Hopkins was given the opportunity to sail to the Jamestown Colony in the new world. He left his wife and children and sailed out on the Sea Venture in June of that year. His fellow passengers included John Rolfe (future husband of Pocahontas) and Thomas Gates, the new governor of Jamestown.


Two months into the voyage, the Sea Venture was was hit by a storm, strayed off course and ended up shipwrecked in the Bahamas. The survivors, of whom there were many, managed to land on a tropical paradise with plenty to eat. The group built new ships to sail the rest of the way to Jamestown. Some opted to stay and form a new colony. I mean, why wouldn’t you?

Before they set sail, Hopkins voiced his dislike of Thomas Gates’s leadership and was arrested for mutiny and sentenced to death. However, it seems that the other castaways liked Hopkins and pleaded his case thus winning his release. Hopkins, along with several other men sailed for Jamestown.

News of the shipwreck and the attempted mutiny eventually reached England. It is believed that the story may have inspired William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. The character Stephano, a drunken fool, may have been a thinly veiled nod to Stephen Hopkins.


When they arrived in Jamestown, they found the inhabitants starving and the settlement near collapse. In truth, Jamestown had been colonised by a group of upper-class privileged dandies who considered the manual labour required for survival beneath them. Luckily, a supply ship followed soon after and, with the colony saved from starvation, Hopkins and his fellow shipmates stayed.

During his time in Jamestown, Hopkins learned the ways of the Native American including their language, a skill which would come in handy in years to come. It is believed that Hopkins probably met Pocahontas not long before she married his fellow Sea Venture castaway, John Rolfe.

Four years after arriving in Jamestown, news reached the colony that Hopkins’s wife had died. He immediately travelled back to England to be with his three children. He stayed in England for several years and eventually remarried. However, the lure of the new world never left him.


In 1620, Hopkins learned of a new venture led by a group of Separatists to create a new settlement in the colony of Massachusetts. Hopkins took his wife and children and they boarded The Mayflower, on their way to the new world. Along the gruelling two month journey across the sea, his wife gave birth to a baby boy, Oceanus, the only baby born during the journey.

Once they arrived in Massachusetts, Stephen Hopkins was one of 41 men to sign The Mayflower Compact, one of the most important documents in early American history. This was the first time anyone had written down a framework of governance in the colonies and is sometimes referred to as the world’s first constitution.

Stephen Hopkins and his family settled into their new home in Plymouth Colony. Because of his earlier experience with Native Americans in the Jamestown colony, Hopkins was used as an expert when dealing with the local tribes. The first meeting between the settlers and the natives was held at the Hopkins family home. Over the years his understanding of native languages proved useful and he was sent to accompany the pilgrims on visits to meet with the natives, including the great Wampanoag leader Massasoit.


Years later, Stephen Hopkins opened a tavern. While the community allowed him to sell alcohol, he had to obey their strict laws. This is where he began to run afoul of the authorities. During his time as an innkeeper, he seriously wounded someone in a fight, was fined for serving alcohol and allowing shuffleboard on a Sunday, he was charged with selling beer at double the price and for allowing people to drink excessively in his house.

The real trouble came in 1638 after his maidservant Dorothy Temple fell pregnant by a man named Arthur Peach. Peach was a highwayman who was caught and hanged after the murder of a Native American. Plymouth Court ruled that Hopkins was financially responsible for Dorothy and her child for the two years remaining on her terms of service. Hopkins refused and was found in contempt of court, landing him in custody. Another man stepped in and agreed to support Dorothy and her child thus releasing Hopkins of his obligations.

Hopkins continued to run his tavern until his death in 1644. In his will he requested to be buried alongside his wife.

From a possible Shakespearean muse, to a pilgrim father, to town troublemaker, Stephen Hopkins lived a life filled with more adventure than most people could ever dream. His spirit embodies the toughness and perseverance required to survive in the early days of America.

For more information about Stephen Hopkins, the Pilgrim Hopkins Heritage Society have their own website here:

Magna Carta’s Little Brother

Magna Carta's Little Brother: The Forest Charter

The Magna Carta, one of the world’s most influential documents, was signed in a field near the English town of Runnymede in 1215 by King John. After a bitter dispute with his barons over rising taxes, John was forced to sign a charter calling for more rights for the noble class. This was the first time that the divine right of a king had been challenged and John had no intention of following its authority. The Pope sided with the king and had the original version of the Magna Carta annulled.

While the king and the barons bickered, common folk were suffering from a different type of royal excess. Their rights to the fair use of forests were being abused, making life very difficult for the poor.

A forest in medieval terms was any land officially set aside for hunting purposes. This could include fields, villages and heathland as well as woodland. During the reigns of Henry II and his sons Richard and John, royal forests were greatly expanded. They took up nearly 1/3 of the land in England with a large population of the country living within them. People who needed access to these forests faced strict regulations with penalties including heavy fines or even death. In a time when use of the land was vital for daily survival, forest laws were oppressive.

A year after the death of King John, his son Henry III signed a new version of the Magna Carta. This one was accompanied by a second smaller document, The Forest Charter. While the Magna Carta was for the benefit of the barons, the Forest Charter held up the rights of the land for all other freemen. The two documents would forever be linked in English Law.

The Forest Charter was made up of sixteen articles, far fewer than the 63 in the Magna Carta. However, its rules eased the living conditions of a much larger percentage of the population. It put the boundaries of royal forests back to where they were before Henry II, freeing many people from any regulations for land use. It also allowed people to farm pigs, collect timber or charcoal, build structures such as mills and hunt on the land. Most importantly, the penalties for poaching were reduced. After the Forest Charter, poaching was no longer punishable by death.

Over the centuries, The Forest Charter was ignored by some kings and used for political advantage by others. Early Parliaments used the Charter to set up private game parks and aid in the production of timber. In the 20th century, as the country moved away from an agricultural economy, the public used The Forest Charter as a right to use the countryside for recreational purposes.

The Forest Charter was repealed in the 1970’s. By then, most of its original articles were imbedded in different aspects of English Law, a testament to the importance of public access to the countryside. Today, societies such as The Woodland Trust are calling for a new Forest Charter as a means to protect the environment.

The Forest Charter gives us a glimpse into the lives of Medieval commoners. For people who survived by living off the land, the countryside served a vital purpose. Henry II, Richard and John had put many lives at risk by taking away their right to use the land freely. Their misuse of such an important resource sparked a countryside revolution with the implications lasting centuries.

If you’d like to see an original copy of The Magna Carta and The Forest Charter, take a trip to Lincoln Castle. You can find out more information at

Outside of the UK, the best place to see these documents is on The British Library’s website