The English Ancestry of Robert Seeley (1602-1666)

By Alan J. Phipps, M.A
Accredited Genealogist
March 1987
Alan J. Phipps
Alan J. Phipps

Genealogical research instigated by the Utah branch of the descendants of Robert Seeley (Winthrop Fleet passenger and first settler of Watertown. Massachusetts, and of Wethersfield and New Haven, Connecticut) into his ancestry has added many new details and changed still others to the account of his origin by Ralph M. Seeley, published in July 1962 in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register. The research has been conducted intermittently 1976-86 by myself, an Accredited Genealogist, using the microfilmed and printed records of the Genealogical Society of Utah and by personal visit to record repositories in London and Huntingdon, England. The national Seeley Genealogical Society has also funded part of the research.

Note: for the sake of uniformity surname is spelled “Seeley” in this report, except when quoting a particular document, when the actual spelling is used. Dates are quoted as listed in the source documents, which means that because of the Julian calendar in use in England and America before 1752, the year began on March 25th and ended the next March 24th. Events falling between January 1st and March 24th are therefore “doubledated” to show the year by both the Julian calendar and our present Gregorian calendar. Thus 23 Feb 1563/4 was 1563 according to the calendar then in use, but 1564 as we compute the year to calendar today.

Of the greatest significance among the new research findings was the discovery of Robert’s true parentage, his grand-parents, and possibly even his great-grandparents, taking the Seeley line to the beginning of parish registers in England or the mid 16th century. The attached pedigree chart shows these earlier generations and attempts to demonstrate the relationship between Robert and all his collateral relatives discovered as part of the research.

The 1962 article reported that, Robert Seely was baptized 22 August 1602 at Bluntisham cum Earith, about seven miles from Huntingdon, in the County of Huntingdon, son of William Seeley the elder, joiner, of the same place. Robert’s mother died and his father remarried 12 October 1614 Briget Hills, a widow with a daughter Anne who married a Fiske. William and Briget had a son William who married 14 January 1638 Margaret Branham and they had a daughter Margarett by 1641.

A check of the Bluntisham cum Earith parish registers, however, showed that the 22 August 1602 baptism reads, ” Ralphe ye sonne of Wm Stockley,” not by any stretch of the imagination Seeley or a variant spelling. The connection of Robert to Huntingdonshire remains undisputed, despite this finding, because of the apprenticeship record of Robert recorded in the Cordwainers Company records, now at the Guildhall Library in London (this transcription corrects several small errors of the version printed in 1962).

Investment of Apprentices

Robert Seley ye sonne of William Seley of Hunt in ye county of Hunt Joyner bound to John Plomer citt[izen] &c [= “and etcetera”] to serve from ye day &c for 7 yeeres dat 10 Mardj 1623 ij [2] s[hillingsl Ingresse Money of Freemen [between 1 Aug 1626 and 17 Jul 1627]

“Rec of Robert Seely late the Apprntice of &c being made free by redemption a white spone O 0

“Cordwainer” was a synonym for “shoemaker,” although originally it meant someone who worked with cordovan leather. The first item above is the entry showing Robert’s apprenticeship for seven years, the usual term of training. Since most apprentices were bound to their masters at the age of 14 or younger, we would not expect this Robert to be the same one who married in 1626 and had a son Nathaniel in 1627. The second entry, however, occurring probably just prior to the ancestral Robert’s 15 December 1626 marriage or less than three years later suggests that this Robert was older than the normal apprentice and therefore did not need to serve the entire term.

The entry states that he was made “free by redemption,” or in other words he bought his “freedom,” not by monetary payment (“0 0” ‘= zero shillings, zero pence) but by the symbolic presentation of a white, presumably silver, spoon to the company. Having thus achieved the freedom of the guild, he was also able to apply for freedom of London, which would give him the status of “citizen.” Other ways of entering a guild, though less common, were by patrimony (one’s father having been a member) or purchase. He likely came to London already skilled as a shoemaker, but unable to purchase directly the right to ply his trade, he served a short apprenticeship. All trade in London and in most towns was controlled by such craft guilds, which endeavored by these entrance requirements to insure the high skills of its members and to eliminate excessive competition.

According to the Ralph Seeley article. New Haven, Connecticut records show Robert’s occupation as a shoemaker on 7 Dec 1647, 6 Jun 1648, 5 Dec 1648, and 12 Nov 1649 (he is also called a surveyor 11 Nov 1644). He is further linked to London by his marriage to the widow Mary Mason 15 Dec 1626 and the baptism of his son Nathaniel 16 September 1627 at the parish church of St. Stephen Coleman Street in the old City of London.

The article reports the search of tax records for St. Stephen’s, which show clearly that the property which Robert Seeley was listed as occupying from 1627 to 1630 was starting in 1630 occupied by a William Potter. The ancestral Robert sailed with the Winthrop Fleet which came to America in 1630.

Still further corroboration that we have found the correct Robert in the London and Huntingdonshire records comes from the fact that John Davenport, who was vicar of St. Stephen Coleman Street from 1624 to 1633, fled England in 1633 for the Netherlands to escape the persecutions of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Rev. Davenport was one of the English Puritans, whose attempts at reform within the Church of England were seen as efforts to form “separatist” churches and therefore were heavily persecuted. When the Dutch authorities ruled that the English churches there either had to conform to the Church of England or to their own Dutch Reformed Church, most of those Puritans turned to New England as their last place of refuge. Davenport sailed in 1637 with some of his former Coleman Street parishioners and in 1632 founded the colony of New Haven (Michael R. Watts, The Dissenters, 1978, p.64).

Robert Seeley sold his land in Watertown, Massachusetts, and moved to New Haven to join his former pastor in the fall of 1638, clearly linking this Robert with the one in the registers of St. Stephen in the late 1620s. We can probably never know whether Robert came to London from Huntingdonshire about 1623 primarily to establish himself in shoemaking or whether he already had Puritan leanings at age 21 and wished to join one of the Puritan congregations existing then in London. The St. Stephen Coleman Street congregation was not a separatist group but operated within the Church of England. Puritanism had begun as a movement in the reign of Henry VIII and aimed to purify some of the aspects of its worship. Puritans wanted simpler, less Catholic rites and vestments and believed in the Bible as their sole authority. Those who attempted to meet outside of the parish churches to expound the scriptures in groups called “prophesyings” and “conventicles” were starting in 1583 to be persecutions by then Archbishop Whitgift. Some were fined and others imprisoned, all of which stiffened the Puritans’ dislike of an episcopalian form of church organization, resulting in the abolition of bishops in the Church of England in 1646, when the Puritans had attained political supremacy. Episcopacy was returned as the government of the Church when the monarchy was restored in 1660. Puritan ministers who refused to conform were ousted from Church of England livings and a series of parliamentary acts passed limiting the rights of “dissenters,” which were not fully repealed until the 19th century.

Robert’s ties to London being established beyond reasonable doubt, we return to a study of his pre-emigration life and ancestry.

When Robert married on 15 Dec 1626, he was 24 and probably a bachelor, but his bride, Mary Mason, was twice Widowed and had been a mother since about 1608, when Robert was six years old. Assuming that Obadiah, the supposed second son of Robert, was born as late as 1630 (his first child was born at Stamford, Connecticut, in 1648, according to “Descendants of Robert Seeley,” Volume 1, compiled by Esther Houtz of the Seeley Genealogical Society), and that Mary was age 45 at the oldest at the time, she was born as early as 1585. And at the other extreme, if she was 14 in 1608 when her first child was probably born, she was born as late as 1594. Most likely she was born about 1590 and was, 36 when Robert married her. (See 2009 Note at end of article.)

A 12-year difference between their ages seems rather large, but as a new freeman of the Company of Cordwainers, Robert was probably considered lucky to have a house and shop awaiting him. Most likely he and Mary shared the same Puritan religious beliefs.

Mary must have been a remarkable woman. From the St. Stephen Coleman Street registers we learn that she was living in the parish as early as 1610, when her son Ambrose was baptized. Her first child was probably Rebecca, who was buried in 1623. Since no baptism for Rebecca occurred at St. Stephen’s, it is likely she was the first child and was baptized in the same parish where Mary and her first husband, William Heath, a weaver, were married. They had at least seven children before his death in 1620, one of them a stillbirth. One other child died before the father. While a widow, her children Judith and Ambrose Heath were buried, reducing her surviving children to three. About 1621 she married Walter Mason, also a weaver. Neither of her first two marriages took place at St. Stephen’s and otherwise have not been found despite many searches.

To Walter she bore at least three more children. While married to Walter, two more Heath children, Rebecca and Phillip, died, plus one of Walter’s, and then on 1 Sep 1625, Mary attended the burial of not only Walter her husband but two more of her children, one a Heath and one a Mason. The number of burials each month at St. Stephen’s Coleman Street in 1625 tells the story more completely: 16 in January, 3 in February, 11 March, 10 April, 5 May, 9 June, 78 July, 256 August, 93 September, 8 October, 8 November, and 6 December. Mary’s family had been nearly wiped out by the plague. She was left with a single child, Elizabeth Mason, who was baptized 2 May 1624, but who also was buried at St. Stephen’s 14 Mar 1625/6.

Thus when Mary married Robert Seeley on 15 Dee 1626, although she had given birth to at least ten children, she was childless. But nine months and one day after the marriage, she gave birth to her eleventh child, Nathaniel, who was baptized 16 September 1627. This Nathaniel did not die in infancy and did not have a brother Nathaniel baptized at St. Stephen’s 1 May 1629 as erroneously first reported in “The American Genealogist” of January 1946, volume 22, page 94, which states under “Notes,”

We are informed by Mrs. J. Harry Baker of Berkeley, California, that a correspondent of hers who personally examined the registers of St. Stephen’s Church found the baptism therein of a second Nathaniel, son of Robert and Mary Seeley, on 1 May 1629.lf that is correct, the first Nathaniel died in infancy. and the second Nathaniel was the settler in Fairfield, Conn.

The baptism on that date in the St. Stephen’s registers is clearly of “Nathaniel soone of Robert and Mary Hoskins.” The writing, typical for the time and therefore mostly undecipherable to the uninitiated, is nonetheless unambiguously Hoskins. It is unfortunate that a prestigious American periodical chose to repeat what was hearsay evidence at best, and although the editor wisely qualified his reporting of the information, the warning was ignored. Even Ralph Seeley’s article repeats the misinformation.

No record in England has been found of Obadiah Seeley as the son of Robert and Mary. It has been speculated that he was born during the voyage to America or after arrival. If the dates given for the births of his children and ownership of land are correct, then it is likely that he was born no later than 1630. It is unlikely that he was the son of Mary by one of her first two husbands; her ten children born to them are spaced so closely together than an eleventh child, although technically possible, would break the pattern of children spaced about every two years, and Obadiah’s surname was Seeley, not Heath or Mason. Nor does it seem likely that Robert had married before 1626. An apprentice could not marry without his master’s permission. There is time for him to have been born in England before departure in 1628 or 1629, which seems to be the most likely possibility. The recording of baptisms in the parish registers was not always complete. It is also possible that Robert and Mary had since the baptism of Nathaniel decided to make a complete break with the Church of England, meeting secretly with a separatist congregation with no record kept of baptisms. Evidence of Obadiah’s ties to Robert must come from American records. (See 2009 Note at end of article.)

Since the Cordwainers records describe Robert’s father as of the town of Huntingdon, the registers of the parishes there should have been checked for Robert’s baptism but apparently had been overlooked. Huntingdon had four parish churches, two of which were destroyed about 1645 during the English Civil War. At the time of my visit in 1980, the registers of all four parishes were housed in the two remaining churches (but they are now at the County Record Office and have been microfilmed). I examined all four sets of registers and found Seeley entries only in one parish, St. John’s, including the baptism of Robert:

  • chr 4 Jul 1602 Robt son of William Seley and Grace his wife.

Robert’s was the only Seeley baptism in all of the town of Huntingdon from the very beginning of the registers (All Saints 1558, St. Benedict 1574, SI. John 1585, and St. Mary 1596) till 1640 (81. John and All Saints) or till 1615 (St. Mary and St. Benedict). No Seeley marriages are recorded for these periods, but there were two Seeley burials, however, which also took place at St. John’s:

  • bur 24 Mar 1603/4 Mary Seley
  • bur 1 Apr 1604 Andrew Seley

From a contemporary copy of these registers, the bishop’s transcripts, we learn that Andrew was “the son of William Seley.” Since Mary and Andrew were buried just eight days apart (see note about the Julian calendar), it seems likely that there was a common cause of their deaths and, that Mary too was William’s child.

Just these three entries at Huntingdon and all occurring in just a three-year period suggests that the association of the Seeley family with Huntingdon was brief. As the chief town of the county, there would have been economic and perhaps other reasons for moving there. The Ralph Seeley article lists extracts from the Huntingdonshire parish of Bluntisham cum Earith, just eight or nine miles from the town of Huntingdon, as well as a will abstract for a Seeley Earith resident, and suggests a relationship with Robert, although based initially on the erroneous baptism of William Stockley, as cited above. My further examination of the Bluntisham parish registers and the 1646 will does prove a relationship but substantially different than that suggested by the article.

Bluntisham and Earith were two separate, adjacent Villages served by the same parish church, which was in Bluntisham. The Seeley family appears to have lived at Earith, but all the following events took place in the church at Bluntisham.

Discounting a 1550 baptism entry for a “John Sale” as not a Seeley variant, the first Seeley entries in the Bluntisham registers occurred in 1595:

  • chr 13 Jul 1595 Willm son of Wilim Seely
  • bur 20 Sep 1595 Elizabeth Seely

These are, I propose, the brother and sister of Robert. Then there is a space of nineteen years during which no Seeley entries appear, and this is of course the period when Robert was born at Huntingdon. Starting in 1614 there is evidence of continual residence in Earith for at least the next fifty years, beginning with the burial of William Seeley, who was probably Robert’s father:

  • bur 5 Jun 1614 Will Seley

Next is the marriage of William, Robert’s brother, followed by the baptisms of his a children:

  • md 12 Oct 1614 Will Seley & Brigit ‘Lills
  • chr 20 Oct 1616 Will son of Will Seley
  • chr 18 Jun 1620 Grace daughter of Will Seley

The next two entries are harder to identify; both may be other siblings of Robert, or a brother and his wife:

  • bur 28 Dec 1622 Elizabeth Selly
  • bur 13 Mar 1631 James Selle

The next burial could apply to either Robert’s mother or his niece, but it is more likely the former since she would have had little reason to move from Earith, with her husband buried there and a married son and grandchildren in the parish:

  • bur 15 Nov 1635 Grace Seele

And the last three entries before a gap in the parish registers stretching from 1651 through 1709 are:

  • md 14Jan 1638/9 Willyam Seeley and Margit Brenham
  • chr 20 Dec 1639 Margit daughter of Willyam Seeley
  • chr 20 Nov 1649Willm son of William Seely

This William marrying Margaret Brenham was the one born in 1616 and was therefore Robert’s nephew.

Instead of the relationships I have given, Ralph Seeley theorized that the 1614 marriage was of Robert’s father to a second wife and that this William lived till 1646, when his will was proved in the Archdeaconry Court of Huntingdon. A complete transcript of that will now follows, which corrects some minor transcription errors in the Register article:

William Seeley Sen. nup [late] de [of] Earethe Januaij the 15 daie Anno Dom. 1641

In the name of God Amen I Willia’ Seeley the elder of Eareth in the Countie of Huntindon Joiner doe make & ordaine this my last will & testament in man’er & forme followinge vizt First I bequeath my soule into the handes of Almightie God hopinge assuredly through the only merritts of Jesus Christ my Redeemer to have everlastinge salvation. My body I com’itt to the earthe. And as for the worldly goodes that God in his goodnesse hath lent me I bequeath as followethe viz: Item I give unto Ann Fiske [or Fishe] my wifes daughter the sum’e of Fortie shillings to be paid to hir one yeare next after the decease of my wife. Item I give unto my sonne Willia’ Seeley all my bookes & mathematicall instruments whatsoever. Item I give unto Margarett Seeley my grand-childe my sithren (a musical instrument). Item my will and intent is that all the Wainscott (fine, oak furniture) and benches in all & every of the roomes of the messuage wherein I nowe dwell shall stande be & remaine with the said messuage forever. All the rest of my moveable goods whatsoever I give unto Bregitt my wyfe towards the payment of my debtts- & legasies & funerall expenses & the rest of my goods left after my debts legacies & funerall expenses beinge paid for her to injoy for & during the term of hir naturall life. And afterwarde to be to my sonne William Seeley. And I make Bregitt my wife sole Executrixe of this my last will & testament. In testimonie whereof I have hereunto sett my hande & seale the daye & yeere first above written. By me Willia’ Seely. Sealed & published in the pr’sence of us Sign[ed] Willia’ Mason Signed Daniell Bodger Sign[ed] Henrye Clarke (will proved 4 April 1646)

A further William Seeley will was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. The testator was “William Seeley of Earith, Huntingdon[shire], yeoman.” He made his will 7 0ct 1663, and it was proved 20 Feb 1663/4. It mentions his wife Margarett and four children, William, Margarett, Katherine, and Grace. William and Margaret’s baptisms are recorded in the Bluntisham registers, as quoted above, but ,the baptisms of Katherine and Grace must have occurred in the 1640s, when the registers are incomplete due to the Civil War.

These two wills help put the four Williams in the Bluntisham registers in their proper place. Comparing the wills with the Bluntisham Seeley entries extracted above it is apparent that the William who wrote his will in 1641 was the father of the William who made his will in 1663. Both lived at Earlth and both mention the same grand-daughter/daughter, Margaret. The elder William did not mention the other grand-children simply because they were not yet born. It is reasonable to assume that the younger William was the one baptized in 1616, the son of William and Bridget, thus making him 22 at his marriage in 1638 and 47 at his death. His father, if born in 1595, the son of William and Grace, was 19 at his marriage and 51 at his death. Although it is technically possible that Robert’s father is the one who remarried in 1614, that leaves us with a 1614 burial of an unknown William and no possible burial for the first wife, Grace, before that time. The new analysis also makes it easier to explain why the 1641 will fails to mention Robert-Robert was the brother, not the son. Had the William who died in 1614 left a will the pedigree might have been made firmer, but it seems clear enough.

One slight problem with the reconstructed pedigree is raised by Robert’s apprenticeship record of 1623, which describes his father as “William Seley of Hunt in ye county of Hunt Joyner.” According to the reanalysis, the father William had been dead nine years as of 1623 and was buried at Bluntisham, not Huntingdon. We would be more comfortable with “son of Grace Seeley, widow, or Earith.” But Robert was already 21 in 1623, so reference to his father was more for identity than to indicate guardianship, and it is likely that his father left Earith for good sometime between 1595 and 1602 for Huntingdon and returned to Blut1tisham cum Earith in 1614 only for his final illness or even after his death for burial only.

The earlier history of Robert’s parents sheds further light on the pedigree. William and Grace were married at Great Gransden, Huntingdonshire, some 13 miles southwest of Earith:

  • md 30 sap 1584 Willm Seelie & Grace Pratt

This marriage is accepted as ancestral only on the basis of the names, the time period, and the absence of any further information on this William and Grace in the registers of Great Gransden. But given the relative uncommonness of the name Seeley and of the Christian name Grace, this circumstantial evidence is strong. Their whereabouts between their marriage in 1584 and their first mention in the Bluntisham registers 11 years later is unknown.

There are approximately 75 parishes in the combined area within just five miles from the parishes of Bluntfsham cum Earith, Huntingdon, and Great Gransden, covering parts of three counties – Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, and Bedfordshire. Of the 93 Huntingdonshire parishes in existence in 1538 when parish registers first began, only 8.5% have registers dating that early. A total of 17% go back to at least the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I in 1558. In all 57% have registers which now begin in the 17th century (1536-1600). Searches to date have covered two-thirds of all parishes within five miles of the three ancestral places. About thirty-three more parishes need to be searched”… but if the 1585-1594 children were christened/baptized more than five miles away or were baptized in a parish whose registers are part of the 43% which no longer are extant for the 16th century, then we will search in vain.

Despite this gap in our knowledge of William after his marriage, it is likely that we have found his baptism at Great Gransden:

  • chr 23 Feb 1564 Willm Seelie

Parent’s names are not given in the Great Gransden baptism registers before 1594, but this is the only Seeley baptism at Great Gransden, and the only marriage is:

  • md 3 Nov 1560 Thomas Seelie & Elizabeth Mitchell

There are several Seeley burials at Great Gransden:

  • bur 6 Sep 1560 Elizabeth Sely
  • bur 24 Feb 1564 Elizabeth Seelie
  • bur 8 Dee 1565 Willm Seelie
  • bur 8 Apr 1566 Willm Seely
  • bur 6 Oct 1579 Thomas Seelie

The pieces of the puzzle are very few, but it would appear from the above that the William baptized in 1564 was the son of Thomas and Elizabeth, who married in 1560. This Elizabeth appears to have died in childbirth, for she was buried the day after her son was baptized. There are therefore no more children baptized. Whom the other burials pertain to is perhaps impossible to say with certainty, but it makes sense to believe that the burial of Elizabeth in 1560 was Thomas’ mother, and that one of the 1565 and 1566 William burials was Thomas’ father and one his brother. Of course one of the Williams could have been the child baptized in 1564, but one William had to survive to 1584 to marry Grace Pratt. See the pedigree chart for this tentative grouping.

Remarriage was extremely common in this period following the death of a spouse, and there are several candidates for further children of Thomas’ although none at Great Gransden. A Thomas Seely had a daughter Joanna in 1577 at Langstowe, which is adjacent to Great Gransden. Other Thomas Seeleys were at villages ten to eighteen miles distant, according to the International Genealogical Index (IGI), but there are also many closer parishes not yet indexed by the IGI or which have not been checked by me.

If the 1679 burial applies to this Thomas, William’s father, then any second wife must have remarried or been buried elsewhere.

There is no possibility for Thomas’s baptism at Great Gransden, but it is more than likely that he was born before 3 Nov 1538, the date the registers begin. His wife’s baptism, however, does appear at Great Gransden and is in fact on the first page of the register:

  • chr 11 Jul 1539 Elizabeth Michell

As with her son William in 1564, no parents are mentioned at the baptism. A younger sister was baptized in 1541, apparently the last of the family, but we have learned the names of some of the brothers and sisters born before the registers were kept from the marriage registers. See the pedigree chart.

As for Grace Pratt’s ancestry, no baptism has been found for her, but it is likely that she was part of the Pratt family at Hilton, which was six miles north of Great Gransden or halfway to Earith. The Hilton registers are partly illegible, 1559-73, probably due to some water damage, and this is precisely the period when someone who married in 1584 could have been baptized. A Richard Pratt who died in 1540 and requested burial at Hilton names sons Robert and George, either of whom could have been Grace’s father. A possible brother, Robert, was baptized in 1575 and four sisters are perhaps identified by marriage and burial entries at Hilton (see the pedigree). Although not unusual, Robert was not one of the more common names in this period, and it is not unlikely that Grace named her son Robert after her father and brother.

Further searches in wills, estate records, manor court rolls, tax lists, deeds, and other early records could extend our knowledge of the Seeley, Pratt, and Mitchell families to generations which lived before the parish registers begin in 1538. There are contemporary Seeley families in other parts of England, and further research could show a link between these groups.

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2009 NOTE: For many years the Seeley Genealogical Society thought immigrant Obadiah Seeley was related to immigrant Robert Seeley who apparently arrived in New England with the Winthrop Fleet in 1630. However, DNA analysis of descendants of both Obadiah Seeley and Robert Seeley’s son, Nathaniel Seeley, indicate Obadiah and Robert were not closely related.