Lady Arbella

Certainly one of the most romanticized women in Salem’s history is Lady Arbella Johnson, who died here in the late summer of 1630, not long after she arrived on these shores in the flagstaff ship of the Winthrop fleet named after her, thus remaining ever young and beautiful. She was a Puritan martyr to Cotton Mather, “Coming from a paradise of plenty and pleasure in the family of a noble Earl into a wilderness of want, and unable to stem the tide of these many adversities of her outward condition, she died at Salem……and took New England on her way to heaven.” Her nobility is always noted: she was the daughter Thomas Fiennes-Clinton, the third Earl of Lincoln, and sister of Theophilus, the fourth earl. So there is a strong sense of sacrifice attached to her, as Mather’s assessment illustrates. Then there is her husband, Isaac Johnson, young, articulate, wealthy, committed to the cause, and apparently very much in love with the fair Arbella: he followed her to the grave a month later. They were both snuffed out before they could make their mark, leaving the field to their shipmates and fellow Lincolnshire Puritans: John Winthrop, Samuel Skelton, Anne Bradstreet, Simon Bradstreet.

Two prints by Moseley Isaac Danforth based on a painting by Charles Robert Leslie, 1837, British Museum and Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts. 

After Mather, I don’t think anyone really cared about Lady Arbella, until she was resurrected in the nineteenth century: of course Hawthorne had to write about her, as he was always mining Salem’s colonial past and her story was right up his alley. She is the tragic first owner of Grandfather’s Chair, which bore the Lincoln arms and in which she sat in the summer of 1630, “fading away, like a pale English flower, in the shadow of the forest” which her husband away in Boston and her growing realization that “none should be here but those who can struggle with the wild beasts and wild men, and can toil in the heat or cold, and can keep their hearts firm against all difficulties and dangers.” This new world was not for her. The less-deft Romantic author Lydia Sigourney went even further in the tragic direction with Arbella, who is plucked right out of the Lincoln castle, Tattershall (where she never lived) and set upon a difficult voyage towards an inevitable death.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Grandfather’s Chair. A History for Youth, first published in Boston in 1840; Lydia Huntley Sigourney, Myrtis: With other etchings and sketchings. New York, 1846.

Lady Arbella remained a subject of interest after the Centennial: the Johnson’s short landing in Salem provided a tragic counterpart to the happier story of John and Priscilla Alden’s foothold on the South Shore. There is a particular emphasis in the later nineteenth-century stories on the graveless Arbella, a wandering ghost as she was buried in some unmarked “Potter’s Field” off present-day Bridge Street (near the present-day Arbella Street) in Salem: this angle makes her even more tragic, of course, and even more interesting. With the “recreation” of Pioneer Village and the Arbella for the Massachusetts Tercentenary of 1930, Lady Arbella gained a twentieth-century notoriety which is still (somewhat) alive today: the ship is no longer with us, but the Village is, though there are plans to move it to Salem Willows, perhaps in time for Salem’s 400th anniversary.

Postcards from the 1930s-1950s of the Arbella and what was originally called The Pioneer’s Village at the time, including a very healthy-looking Lady Arbella in front of “her” house.


Lady Arbella was one of eighteen children, and consequently her mother was considered an expert on childbirth: she was actually the first English woman author of an instructive book for women, The Countess of Lincoln’s Nursery, published in 1622. (I was just writing about this book for my book when I began this post!) A brother and two sisters also made it to the New World, and former Lincoln steward (and father of Anne Bradstreet) Thomas Dudley’s letter to Bridget, the Fourth Countess of Lincoln, remains an absolutely essential source for the early settlement of Massachusetts. The Sempringham-Salem connection consisted of multiple strands, and is best viewed in an Atlantic perspective, as this was the lived experience of both those who made the crossing, and those who stayed behind.

Appendix #2: I’m giving a lecture on ALL (or most) of my #SalemSuffrageSaturday ladies for the Pickering House tomorrow (September 20) at 5pm on Zoom: more details here.




5 responses to “Lady Arbella

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Thanks for reminding us of the tragic story of Lady Arbella, so aptly described by Hawthorne as “”fading away, like a pale English flower, in the shadow of the forest.”

    I can almost see the shadow of Hester Prynne passing by, sympathizing with the fate of her more delicate sister…

  • fairlynch

    Thanks Donna. Lady Arbella is on my list of future blog posts, and I had gathered loads more references as an iconic feminist figure. Comparisons with Pocohantas and in the 19th century UK, with Grace Darling. But what really intrigued me was the link between her family in Lincolnshire, and the local landowning Clinton family here in Devon. The bare details are: The Your Arbella (1595-1630) was the aunt of Arabella (c.1625-67), daughter of the 4th Earl of Lincoln, Theophilus Clinton (1599-1667). She married Robert Rolle (c.1622-60). And the name of Rolle is very big here here in Devon. See the history section of The Lincolnshire and Devon families union was natural because both were Puritan (I hadn’t realised how strongly entrenched Puritanism was among the Devon landowners of that time; my feeling is that it goes back partly to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and Henry VIII’s cronies, including the Earl of Bedford, of the Russell family. Which leads through the Whigs to people like Bertrand Russell. (Sorry I am muddling up things here!)

    • daseger

      I wasn’t aware of the Devon connection so thank you very much; I started going back through her Lincolnshire family, and there so many tangents I just decided to cut them all off, but you’re right, there’s a lot more to say about Lady Arbella than has been said.

  • Terrence M Vaughan

    While Lady Arbella’s Salem resting place is unknown, Gov. Hutchinson revealed in his history of the MB colony that her husband, Isaac, was buried on his own land in 1630. This land became known as the King’s Chapel Burial Ground in latter years since the settlers, as they died, wanted to be buried around a man they so revered and loved. No stone was ever found to corroborate this. However, as a result of the work done by Daniel and Jessie Farber, a most intriguing stone was discovered at Newport, RI. A stone memorializing one, Walter Newberry d.1690, was lifted from the ground to reset it. Lo and behold, not only does the names of John Wilson, first pastor of the First Church, Charlestown 1629 and his wife Elizabeth appear on the horizontal inscription below, but that same inscription indicates they are interred near the “plat” of Mr. Isaac Johnson, Esq.!

    The stone itself is attributed to the early stonecutter, William Mumford of Boston. Stonecutters often used stones that had been rejected for one reason or another to create new stones. I’ll include the link from the Farber Collection so that you can see the “cross outs” for yourself.

    In any case, here’s a transliteration of the text:


    Your piece on Lady Arbella is most touching and deserves Salem’s fondest attention. Thanks for doing it. I feel lucky to have an old postcard that depicts the NE Life mural of the Arbella’s landing at Salem.

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