Researching the Birth and Death of Roger Williams

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Q. When was Roger Williams born?

A. Many historians today believe his birthdate is December 21, 1603, but for sure between 1598-1607 and most likely either 1602 or 1603. 1602 is my best guess based on available records including the fact that his siblings are known to have been born in 1598, 1599, 1601, and 1604.

Q. When did Roger Williams die?

A. Early 1683 between Jan 27 and Mar.


RESEARCH PAPER: The story of Roger Williams is legendary. Let’s explore what we know about his birth and death:

Birth of Roger Williams

His birth records were burned up in the great London fire of 1666 so we have to rely on other information. In historical records, Roger Williams birth year varies from 1599-1606.

1599 By Tradition

For many years, the year 1599 was used, but we have little documentation and have to rely on the writings of Roger Williams and others to determine. The following clip demonstrates well the debate of his birth up through 1899. Starting in the 1800s, more documentation is becoming available so our understanding of the birth date of Roger Williams has evolved over time as more and more becomes available. For example, as recently as 2014 some new writings of Roger Williams were decrypted and published–more than 300 years after his death!

From page 5 of the “Publications of the Narragansett Club, Volume 1”, published 1866.

Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography Vol. 6

In Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography Vol. 6, by James Grant Wilson, published 1889, states Roger Williams was born in 1599 but no source is cited.

Possible 13 Apr 1600 Baptism Record

On Ancestry.com there is a baptism record for a Roger Williams with a father of James, but no picture and not enough information to know if this is our Roger Williams. Yet. More research is needed, but doubtful because Shropshire is 160 miles from London.

Here is the record:

Name: Roger Williams
Gender: Male
Record Type: Baptism
Baptism Date: 13 Apr 1600
Baptism Place: Shropshire, England
Father: James Williams

Source Citation

Extracted Church of England Parish Records; Title: Various publications of parish and probate records

Source Information

Ancestry.com. Shropshire, England, Extracted Church of England Parish Records, 1538-1812 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2017.

Original data: Electronic databases created from various publications of parish and probate records.

Description

This database is a collection of historical parish registers from Shropshire, England. The records in this collection can range in date from the early 1500s to the mid- to late-1800s. Parish records–primarily baptisms, marriages, and burials–provide the best sources of vital record information in the centuries before civil registration. Baptismal records generally list the date of the baptism, the name of the child being baptized, and the name of the father. Marriage records generally include the date of the marriage and the names of the bride and groom. Burial records generally list the date of the burial and the name of the deceased individual. Occasionally burial records will include other bits of information, such as where the individual was from or if he/she was a widow. 

Four Score Notes = likely born in 1602 or 1603

  • How old would someone likely be if they said they are “near to fourscore years of age”? The youngest you might imagine is 76, and the oldest 79.
  • If Roger Williams was born in 1599, he was at most 5 months away. If you were only a few months away in the same year, would you say that phrase? Maybe, but more likely not.
  • If I am right and he was born on December 21, 1602, he was 77 and only a few months away from 78. If the now accepted 1603 is correct, he was about 78. Both seem reasonable.

Under 24 in 1620 = born after 1596

We know Roger Williams was under age 24 in 1620 when his father died because his father left him some money to be paid when he turned 24.

At Father’s House Twenty Years

  • Written in 1632 that he was in and out of his father’s house for 20 years.
  • Most assume he meant his first 20 years. If so, let’s assume he was 20 when he left home.
  • If Roger was born in 1602, he was about 19 when his father died in 1621. If so, then the 1599 might make sense. But, also, the 1602 might make sense as well if Roger was nearly 20 years old when his father died. Meaning, the roughly first 20 years at home were rough until his father died when he was roughly 20. But, would Roger really speak of his father in this tone? If you think so, then this theory might hold value to you.
  • If Roger was born in 1603, he would be only 18. Would he really use the phrase “these twenty years” in that case? Maybe. But it seems to me unlikely.

…and upwards of 30

Regarding “persecuted in and out of fathers house these twenty years;” and “upwards of thirty years”

  • This writing definitely supports the 1599 date. But, it also supports the 1602 date if the letter was written after his birthday in 1632. In fact, being above 30 would be on his mind.
  • This writing puts doubt on the 1603 and after dates.

R.W. 30 on February 5, 1631 = born in 1601 or 1062

Regarding Roger’s arrival at Boston on February 5, 1631, the historian Bancroft said, “He was then, but little more than thirty years of age.” If that’s true, then Roger was born in 1601 or 1602. The problem is I have no idea why historian Bancroft said that! (Research needed.)

George Fox digg’d Out of his Burrowes: “childhood, now about three score years”

In Roger Williams’ last published work, “George Fox digg’d out of his Burrowes,” he says,

“From my childhood, now about three score years, the father of lights and mercies touched my soul with a love to himself, to his only begotten, the true Lord Jesus, to his holy Scriptures”. –Roger Williams, March 10, 1672/3 (an English Double Date1)

A score is 20 so three score years is 60 years which represents 1612 (1672 – 60 = 1612). This does not help much because one’s childhood is a range of years.

Date Note: March 10th for Roger Williams was the 1st month of the year starting on March 25. So, on March 10, 1672/3 it was sill 1672 in Williams’ mind for another 15 days. This still doesn’t help much though! Ugh!

Age of Mom at Birth

Not super helpful, but the following analysis might help.

We know Alice Pemberton, Roger’s mom, was born in 1564. We know she had two children before Roger. She had her first child Catherine at about age 34 in 1598, and her second child Sydrich the next year in 1599.

  • If Roger was born in 1599, she would have been about 35.
  • If Roger was born in 1602, she would have been about 38.
  • If Roger was born in 1603, she would have been about 39.

We know her last child Robert was born in 1604 making her about 40 when she birthed her last baby.

Sutton’s Hospital — Charterhouse (known date)

“That Roger Williams was elected a scholar of that Institution June 25, 1621, and that he obtained an Exhibition July 9, 1624.”

In modern times, the Charterhouse takes students from 13 to 18 years old. However, at the time they allowed ONLY ages 10 to 14. So, if Roger Williams was 14, that would mean he was born in 1607. However, other evidence strongly suggests that just is not the case. Tradition says Sir Edward Coke, who was a governor of the school and their legal adviser, disregarded the rule for the talented Roger Williams.

So,

  • if Roger williams was 13 when he entered in 1621, then he was born around 1608, but we know that’s not right.
  • if he was born in 1599, he was about 22 years old when he entered.
  • if he was born in 1602, he was about 19, 1603 he would be about 18.

December 21 Birthday

How do we know his birthday is December 21st? Is there any evidence at all?


Death of Roger Williams

???

Jan-Mar 1683.

??? 1682 Letter

??? (English Double Date1)

Jan 27, Likely Alive

On 27 Jan 1683, a R.W. bond was discussed and it seems they at least think he is alive.

1683 01 27 RW bond-from pages 121-122, Early Providence Records, vol 8. Notice the use of a double date in which you only need to look at the last number indicated 1683.

April 1, 1683

A common death date used for Roger Williams is April 1, 1683. Most historians put his death between Jan 10 and Mar 14. I think April 1 might be because of the following entry from page 104, “The Early History of Narragansett” by Elisha Potter Jr. published in “Collections of the Rhode Island Historical Society, volume 3”, 1835.

“April, 1683. Roger Williams dies at Providence.”

The problem is that I do not know where this entry came from! The author of the book Elisha Potter, Jr. says this is contemporaneous information, but does not attribute this entry. More research needed!

 

 

 

Footnotes:
1Before 1752 the first day of the year was 25 March. So, days of the year that fell from Jan 1 - Mar 25 were notated using the previous year, or double dating. So, both Jan 1, 1600 and the double date Jan 1, 1600/1 matches our Jan 1 in the year 1601. This applies to any English dates from 1752 back in time that fall from Jan 1 through Mar 25. You might see (O.S.) for old style, or (N.S.) for new style added. For double dates, just remember the later date matches our modern historical date. From 1752 back in time, if you see an English date from 1 Jan through 25 Mar, just remember that is toward the end of their year so the actual "year" is the next year unless marked (N.S.).  
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