From religious nonconformists to kings and princes, exiles in the early modern period included people from various faiths, professions, and positions in society. The exile was defined by their metaphorical closeness to, and physical distance from, their homeland. From its earliest uses, the exile’s separation from the local and familiar highlighted the precariousness of their identity. As one fourteenth-century author described, an individual was ‘in gret periil To lese his londes and ben exil’. Writers recognised that exile involved physical as well as legal and emotional isolation through separation, with the ‘solitary place of myn exile’ being away from ‘native soil’ and ‘homeland’.
The early modern exile’s identity was founded in classical influences such as Ovid and Virgil, and biblical stories of Babylonian captivity. The pain of displacement found a literary echo in the works of the Roman poet Ovid, whose poems were widely translated in the seventeenth century. Metamorphoses, written around the time of Ovid’s own exile, sparked the imagination of early modern English audiences, where Ovid channels his own anguish at being exiled through the myths and stories of the classical world. Translations of Metamorphoses highlighted early modern responses to the social implications of exile, describing how when ‘Gods exile thee’ you become ‘most abhord’, with exile inducing an individual to feel ‘despis'd, and torne’. Similarly, puritans in the seventeenth century cherished the history of the Babylonian exile, as it reinforced that all human beings were exiles from Eden and through sin were distanced from God. However, God’s dealings with the tribes of Israel during the Babylonian captivity also reinforced the belief that he would eventually restore his faithful and return them home. By the seventeenth century this concept had a long history, having first occurred in medieval texts detailing that ‘[a]lle þe peple of it was in Babiloyne, and for-thy Jerusalem wepte and gretely sorowede here exile’. Whether an exile was voluntary or forced, the individual’s identity was defined by their separation, and occasionally with their achieved reunification with their ‘native soil’.
The boundaries between forced and voluntary exile were blurred during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at a time of profound socio-economic, religious, and political change in Europe. States could swiftly change from Protestant or Catholic due to the personal preferences of a monarch, putting subjects in positions of danger and crisis. At varying points between 1550 and 1700, English Catholics and Protestants moved to, or fled from, England, settling in Europe or further afield. William Allen reported those ‘afflicted and banished Catholikes of our nation’ who had sought and received shelter from the King of Spain by his ‘speciall compassion and Regall munificence principally supported in this their longe exile’. Even the Calvinist archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, wrote of the ‘many Noblemen, and worthy Gentlemen’ who were ‘most zealous in the Catholique Religion’ and who had lost their lands to live in ‘some exile.’ From the 1620s onwards, many English puritans fled to Europe and America as exiles, often establishing close-knit communities of ‘many faithfull Exiles’ in the Netherlands and eastern North America. As well as the individuals and communities that went into exile outside of England, there were also domestic exiles from and within England, cast out of their local communities over confessional divides. This included ‘[m]any godly and sweet Ministers’ ejected from their parishes or, as Isaac Ambrose pointed out, more specifically ‘exiled from Yorkshire’ and other counties by the Act of Uniformity. Many were subsequently banished by the Five Mile Act, which banned them from living near former congregations and parishes. This could be a profoundly unsettling experience, as much of a person’s sense of worth and identity in early modern England came from their parish communities.
Depending on where they placed their confessional and political identities the difference between ‘forced’ or ‘voluntary’ exile was therefore slim. Some were ‘forced to forsake their native country, & live in exile’ while others described choosing to ‘enter into Monasteries into voluntary exile’. The law seemingly only allowed for an individual to be a voluntary exile. For example, ‘no Fréeman’ could be ‘taken or imprisoned or disseised of his Fréehold or Liberties or Frée Customs, or be Outlawed or exiled’. However, forced or voluntary status of an exile was often blurred by the language of persecution or later changes in regimes. In a sermon to the House of Commons in 1641, the presbyterian Cornelius Burges evoked those ministers who ‘underwent voluntary exile’ during the ‘heat of the Marian persecution’. Similarly, one anonymous English author wrote of those who had ‘escaped the Devils paw’ as Philip IV of Spain ‘imprisons and executes with exquisite torments, all sorts of those he reckoned enemies or Protestants’, in which many chose to become ‘voluntary Exile[s]’. Even following his father’s defeat, authors would later call Charles II a ‘voluntary exile’, ignoring the fact that he and his siblings were effectively ejected by parliamentarian forces during the War of the Three Kingdoms. In these cases, and many more like them, the choice to become a voluntary exile was taken in the face of immense religious, political and physical persecution and crisis, raising the question of how ‘voluntary’ such exile really was.
Exiles could keep close links with home through private correspondence or friendship/ kin networks. The English Protestant community in Amsterdam was well known to puritans in England. The nonconformist clergyman and scholar Henry Ainsworth was referred to as the ‘teacher of the English exiled Church in Amsterdam’ whilst, in 1649, a Mr Woolsey wrote to the ‘exiled church’ there. The influential puritan divine John Cotton wrote in 1648 that allies and enemies alike in England had become ‘inquisitive into the cause’ of why so many had fled England into ‘voluntary exile.’ Some years later Samuel Mather wrote of this connection and support to Congregationalist in England describing those settled in Massachusetts as ‘Exiles for the same Cause.’ Similarly, Samuel’s brother, Increase Mather wrote how their ‘exile’ in New England was an opportunity to ‘vindicate our selves’, highlighting the success of their godly way of life and the ‘Congregationalist government’ that they had established in Massachusetts to their supporters and detractors in England.
Whether living in Northeast America or the cities of Northern Europe, exiles found themselves obsessed with the conditions of their exile and their hopes of returning home. Following the failed uprising against Elizabeth I in 1569, the Catholic noble Charles Neville, 6th Earl of Westmorland, first fled to Scotland and then after capture exiled himself to the low countries. In the early years of his exile Neville, hoping to return home to England, wrote to his wife from Louvain of his willingness ‘to accept of the Mediation’ from the Earl of Leicester ‘for his return from Exile’ going so far as to offer ‘to submit to any Pains her Majesty should inflict, saving his Life & Conscience in point of Religion.’ Westmorland’s attempts to return through mediation failed, but he would continue to seek to return to England, even using force by commanding a contingent of English fugitives during the Spanish Armada. Despite all these attempts, Westmorland failed to return from exile, dying penniless in Europe in 1601. In 1641, the Protestant residents of Antrium, Downe, Tyrone, and Ulster petitioned for religious sanctions to be lifted on their ministers so that they ‘may have leave to returne from exile’ and be ‘freed from the unjust censure imposed on them.’ For the veteran exile Robert Ferguson, the prospects of exiled Protestants returning to England was of vital importance not only to himself but also for the ‘Preservation of the Reformed Religion in Britain’. An exile, both locally, nationally and internationally, Ferguson had been ejected from churches in Scotland and England and then forced to escape to the Netherlands following his involvement in the failed Monmouth Rebellion. Aiding William III of Orange in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ not only offered him the opportunity to return to England, but he hoped it would ‘revive the hopes’ of many who had similarly fled their homeland by laying ‘a foundation for the Redemption and Restauration of persecuted and exiled Protestants’. Exiles like Ferguson saw their separation as making possible their desire to live the religious life they wished, but it was related to a continual hope to influence the home they departed, so that they might one day return.
Religious difference was not the only impetus; related to this, political upheavals led to the exile of individuals and families. Over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, England hosted multiple exiled nobles, princes and monarchs, including the Douglas Archibald, Earl of Angus and Prince Rupert, Prince and count Palatine of the Rhine, both forced into exile due to conflict and internal political struggles in their own countries. In the case of political exiles, the English court often hosted nobles providing they swore allegiance to the crown. In harbouring them, English leaders saw an opportunity to undermine the authority of their enemies in their own country. After fleeing Scotland in 1529, the Earl of Angus was granted permission to remain at the court as a guest of Henry VIII if ‘the Earl swear allegiance to him as supreme lord of Scotland, to pay him yearly 1,000l. until he has been restored to his lands in Scotland.’ Unlike these beneficial political exiles from other countries, the English viewed their own political exiles in a somewhat different light. Following the defeat of their father, the future monarchs Charles II and James II were forced to flee, which one contemporary described as being ‘exiled as Traytors’. James II was forced to flee again to France after a brief reign, living ‘in exile, banished his Kingdoms by his own Children and Subjects’ following the events of 1688. He became known as a ‘Prince that would not hear the Counsel of the Wise, but embraced the Advice of Fools’ and ‘expected by his Exile, when he left his People, to return Triumphantly an absolute Monarch.’ James II’s exile highlighted the possibility of exile as a permanent state of being. In 1696, one contemporary celebrated the ‘universal Joy and Satisfaction throughout the Realm’ at the failure of James’ ‘[r]eturn of an Exile.’
In America, exile took an a different conceptual resonance for settlers, who often saw their migration across the Atlantic as a form of either voluntary or forced exile. For George Sandys, who translated several books of Metamorphoses while in Jamestown in the 1620s, Ovid took on a more personal meaning, where Sandys focused on the condition of Ovid’s own banishment. ‘The cause of this his cruell and deplored exile is rather conjectured than certainly knowne’, wrote Sandys, though many writers attributed it to poet offending the tyrannical emperor Augustus. Similarly settlers who ventured to America used Virgilian language of being ‘expell’d and exil’d’ to describe their migration. Divided into twelve chapters, ‘The brief proceedings of the English colonies in Virginia’ in John Smith’s Map of Virginia echoes the twelve chapters of the Aeneid. Many years later Benjamin Thompson, the poet and tutor of Cotton Mather, compared the protection and deliverance of colonists in Massachusetts to ‘Aeneas in his cloak of mist’.
During the upheavals of the 1630s until after the Restoration, English writers used Ovid to articulate the loss that accompanied exile and a sense of placelessness. ‘Ovid weepes English now’, wrote the minister Zachary Catlin in 1639, ‘I had lost Ovid, and in Extasie/ Wept for your Exile, and thought you were here’. Plays in the later seventeenth century projected exile as something comparable to death, confirming recent studies that have highlighted that royalists, and not just puritan supporters of the parliamentarian cause, came to terms with their identities through the lens of ‘exile’. ‘Admire only you have found me breathing,/ After so many years here in Exilement’, spoke Ovid of the cavalier Sir Aston Cockayne, who spent time in exile with Charles II, in The Tragedy of Ovid. Similarly, the exiled religious communities that moved to America over this period understood and developed their identities in complex, often hybrid ways, feeling a strong connection to England while also adapting to their new environments. As Christopher D’Addario has suggested, those religious exiles who settled in Massachusetts ‘developed and displayed a specific notion of their endeavor in the New World that at once engages with their homeland and their particular relationship with that homeland’. Despite relocating themselves across the ocean into ‘voluntary exile’, the men and women who settled in Massachusetts through familial, legal and cultural ties ‘maintained a strong sense of their identity as Englishmen’. Furthermore, they perceived almost simultaneously to be both forced and voluntary exiles, whose religious beliefs had caused them to set out from England to establish a godly republic for both themselves and for England.
A variety of different and often conflicting facets comprised the identity of early modern exiles. From the biblical language to the Babylonian captivity to resonances of Ovid and political exile, whether a king or yeoman, the exile was defined by their very separation and distance from the land they called home. However, for many, departure from their homeland did not mean a complete separation. Rather, they developed a complex relationship with their homes, retaining simultaneous identities as both English and exiles. The blurred distinctions between forced and voluntary exile highlight how early modern exiles considered themselves both passive and active agents in their own fate, affected by their own actions as well as events beyond their control. For many, the connection between the exile and his or her homeland operated as a two-way mirror, serving to remind them why they had left, and admonishing those who remained.