FERRAR (FARRER), Nicholas (1593-1637), of St. Sithes Lane, London; later of Little Gidding, Hunts.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



Family and Education

b. 22 Feb. 1593,1 5th but 3rd surv. s. of Nicholas Ferrar, Skinner, of St. Sithes Lane and Mary, da. of Lawrence Woodnoth of Shavington, Cheshire; bro. of John*.2 educ. Enborne, Berks. (Robert Brooks) c.1601-6;3 Clare, Camb. 1606, BA 1610, MA 1613;4 travelled abroad (Low Countries, Germany, Italy, Spain) 1613-17.5 Ordained deacon 1626.6 unm. d. 4 Dec. 1637.7

Offices Held

Fell. of Clare 1610-31.8

Cttee. Virg. Co. 1621, dep. to treas. 1622-4.9

Commr. Virg. plantation 1631.10


Ferrar, a ‘lovely child, fair and of bright hair’, manifested from earliest childhood a deep piety and intellectual precocity that seemed to mark him out for an academic or ministerial career. However, at Cambridge his health broke down, and he was advised to go abroad to recuperate.11 Through the good offices of his tutor he travelled to Flushing in the train of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding party, and from thence toured Europe independently, studying at the universities of Leipzig, Prague and Padua. At Venice he stayed with (Sir) Dudley Carleton* before journeying to Rome. He mastered several languages and studied medicine, but his chief interest was in all aspects of religion. Already a total abstainer, a close brush with death in the Alps reinforced his desire to devote his life to God, and it may have been at this time that he resolved to remain celibate.12

On his return to England, Ferrar invested £50 in the Virginia Company, and was introduced to Sir Edwin Sandys*, with whom he became a life-long friend, and also to the earls of Southampton and Pembroke, who were greatly impressed by his ability and learning.13 On his father’s death in 1620 he was responsible, as his father’s executor, for a legacy of £300 to found a college in Virginia for the conversion of the Indians, that they ‘may be persuaded that it is not the intent of our nation to make their children slaves, but to bring them to a better manner of living in this world and to the way of eternal happiness in the life to come’.14 Ferrar from thenceforth devoted himself entirely to the Virginia Company’s affairs, and in 1622 succeeded his brother John as deputy to the treasurer. He was chosen to negotiate the Company’s tobacco contract the following year, beating the king’s candidate for this role by 103 votes to ten.15 The tobacco contract proved to be highly controversial and, at the same time, Ferrar’s part in procuring salaries for Company officials and provisioning of voyages attracted criticism from rival factions within the Company. Such errors as he may have made stemmed to some degree from ignorance of conditions in Virginia, one colonist commenting, ‘I often wish little Mr. Ferrar were here, that to his zeal he would add knowledge of this country’.16 When the king threatened to revoke the charter, Ferrar was one of the members summoned before the Privy Council to defend it on 10 Apr. 1623. On 13 May he and his brother were both placed under house arrest for allegedly slandering the earl of Warwick (Sir Robert Rich*) at a Company court, but a petition from their colleagues and his own apology secured their release eight days later.17 In November a quo warranto was issued against the Company, and Ferrar, foreseeing that its archives would be seized, put in train the transcription of the court book. The copy, the only one which survives, took seven months to complete and cost him £50.18

In the 1624 Parliament Southampton procured Ferrar’s return for Lymington in order to defend the Virginia Company’s charter.19 Ferrar kept a diary of the proceedings, which survives in fragmentary form, beginning with a list of all the Members of the Lower House. It comprises a fair copy, made from Ferrar’s original notes by one of Ferrar’s clerks, that has been occasionally annotated by Ferrar; the original notes themselves are extant only for the morning of 5 Mar. 1624. The surviving parts of the diary cover the first month of the session only, up to 8 March.20 However, the Ferrar archives also contain copies of speeches that Ferrar himself and others delivered concerning the Virginia Company on 28 Apr., and a sheaf of six petitions about trade. His brother, writing 20 years later, asserted that he was ‘in many things made of the committee, and often was chosen by the committee to make report of such and such things to the House’, but in fact he was appointed by name to only three committees, and is not recorded as ever having reported to the Commons.21 On 26 Apr. he delivered a petition from the Virginia Company, which despite the objections of (Sir) Nathaniel Rich* was referred to an open committee.22 Two days later, presumably in this committee, he recounted at length the tobacco contract negotiations, and accused lord treasurer Middlesex (Sir Lionel Cranfield*) of being the prime mover against the charter.23 According to his brother he spoke ‘long above an hour ... with that eloquence of speech, solid matter, and every way most pleasing substance, as many said, when he had ended, they wished he had as much more to say, so great contentment and delight he gave to their ears’.24 Middlesex himself testified to the length, if not the popularity, of the speech, informing the king that Ferrar and his colleagues ‘did yesterday make invective orations against me four hours together about the Virginia business’.25 The following day the Commons was informed that the king wished to settle the affairs of Virginia himself, and they resolved to deal with the matter no further.26 After Middlesex was impeached on charges of corruption, Ferrar was named to the committee for a bill to make his lands liable for the payment of his debts (19 May).27 At Sandys’s request, he was deputed to help draw up petitions on trade, alnage, tobacco, and clothworkers, and was among those ordered on 28 May to examine trade grievances.28

The collapse of the Virginia Company left Ferrar without occupation. He was unsuccessfully nominated for Lymington at the next election, possibly without his knowledge.29 To avoid the plague in London he and his mother Mary retreated to the Huntingdonshire manor of Little Gidding, which Mary had bought on 30 May 1625.30 A year later, on 11 June 1626, Ferrar was ordained deacon by William Laud at Westminster abbey, but he refused all offers of preferment, and retired to Little Gidding where the family established a community devoted to the service of God. The extensive charitable works of the household included the maintenance of four almswomen, a soup kitchen and a dispensary. The quasi-monastic regime, the ceremonial observance of the liturgy, and the decision of two of his nieces to remain unmarried earned the household the epithet ‘the Arminian nunnery’, but a contemporary affirmed that they were ‘orthodox, regular, puritan Protestants’.31 George Herbert*, Sir John Danvers*, Dr. Thomas Jackson, Richard Crashaw, and John Williams, bishop of Lincoln, were among their many close friends and correspondents. During his time at Little Gidding, Ferrar produced various devotional works, including an edition of Herbert’s Temple which was published anonymously. King Charles, who visited in 1633, commissioned an edition of Ferrar’s concordance of the gospels.32 On his mother’s death in 1634 Ferrar inherited the Little Gidding estate.33 He himself died intestate on 4 Dec. 1637 and was buried in Little Gidding churchyard.34 Although the religious community did not survive the turmoil of the 1640s, the account of it and of Ferrar’s Life, recorded by his brother John, earned him the posthumous reputation of an Anglican saint. His portrait, by Cornelius Johnson, and surviving papers are now held at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: Virginia C.D. Moseley / Rosemary Sgroi


  • 1. Ferrar Pprs. ed. B. Blackstone, 9.
  • 2. A.L. Maycock, Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding, ped.
  • 3. Ferrar Pprs. 10.
  • 4. Al. Cant.
  • 5. Ferrar Pprs. 12-20.
  • 6. Ibid. 26.
  • 7. The Gen. n.s. xxvi. 69.
  • 8. W.J. Harrison and A.H. Lloyd, Fellows of Clare, 27.
  • 9. Recs. Virg. Co. ed. S.M. Kingsbury, i. 467; ii. 29, 535.
  • 10. T. Rymer, Foedera, viii. pt. 3, p. 192.
  • 11. Ferrar Pprs. 10, 12-3.
  • 12. Ibid. 12-20.
  • 13. P. Peckard, Mems. of Nicholas Ferrar, 90.
  • 14. PROB 11/135, f. 255v; Recs. Virg. Co. iii. 324.
  • 15. PROB 11/135, f. 255v.
  • 16. Recs. Virg. Co. iv. 237; HMC 8th Rep. ii. 42-3, 45.
  • 17. Recs. Virg. Co. ii. 433; APC, 1621-3, p. 498.
  • 18. Recs. Virg. Co. iv. 542.
  • 19. R. Ruigh, Parl. of 1624, pp. 124, 319.
  • 20. Ferrar 1624, p. 7.
  • 21. Ferrar Pprs. 22.
  • 22. CJ, i. 775b, ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 177v-8.
  • 23. Ferrar 1624, pp. 71-82.
  • 24. Ferrar Pprs. 23.
  • 25. M. Prestwich, Cranfield, 437.
  • 26. ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 183; CJ, i. 694a.
  • 27. CJ, i. 705b.
  • 28. ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 211; CJ, i. 706b, 707b, 709b, 710a, 711a, 714a; Ferrar 1624, pp. 89-98.
  • 29. Hants RO, 27M74A/DBC1, p. 137.
  • 30. Peckard, 176-8.
  • 31. Anon., The Arminian Nunnery (1641), WingA3966; Ferrar Pprs. 74.
  • 32. Peckard, 209, 220-3.
  • 33. PROB 11/166, f. 53v.
  • 34. A.L. Maycock, Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding, 300-1.