Hugh Peter - From Fowey to Harvard and a Grisly End
He was instrumental in founding one of the world’s leading universities, was Oliver Cromwell’s favourite chaplain, and paid for it with his life.
Hugh Peter was born in Fowey in 1598, to Martha Treffry of Place and a Dutch merchant, whose family had fled to the Cornish port to escape religious persecution in Holland.
The young Hugh would have attended St Fimbarrus church in Fowey before his education at Cambridge. He became a devout Puritan around 1620 and was later a curate at Rayleigh in Essex. His radical anti-Catholic beliefs led to his imprisonment for six months - an omen of things to come.
In 1635, the firebrand preacher sailed to New England where he became a minister at Salem, and one of the first governors of Harvard College.
Peter returned to England in 1641 as an agent of the Massachusetts government, and actively supported Parliament against King Charles I. As a chaplain in the New Model Army, his sermons inspired soldiers and drew many others to the cause, winning favour with Cromwell.
During the English Civil War, he acted as the Army’s spokesman at Westminster, which brought him many enemies within the Royalist ranks. He was too ill to attend the execution of the King, but his absence led to the persistent, though unfounded, rumour that it was Peter who was the masked executioner who had beheaded Charles I.
Cromwell later gave Peter the honorary rank of colonel and he was appointed governor of Milford Haven, responsible for transporting men and supplies during Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland.
He was made chaplain to the Council of State, and preached the sermon at Cromwell’s funeral in 1658.
With the restoration of the monarchy, Peter was universally reviled, and his name became the butt of jokes for the rest of the 17th century.
Because of Peter’s close association with Cromwell, Charles II ordered his arrest on the charge of treason, and he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Charing Cross on October 16, 1660.
Whilst awaiting his fate, he wrote ‘A Dying Father’s Last Legacy to an Only Child’ for his daughter, who had visited him every day in prison.