The Samson Church: St. Mary the Virgin Church, Henlow, Bedfordshire

By Stacy B. C. Wood, Jr.

St. Mary the Virgin Church is located in Henlow, Bedfordshire, along side of the river Ivel. It is a farming area. The church is thought to date from the 11th or early 12th century. Its impressive and massive tower dates from the late 15th century.

St. Mary the Virgin Church

The church belongs to what is referred to as the Church of England. American readers should know that for centuries throughout Great Britain and Europe, church and state were one. No other Christian faiths except that of the king or queen were tolerated. Having decided that they could not in good conscience remain in that faith, finally left England in 1608. This was followed by a dozen years in Holland. There they temporarily found freedom to practice their religious beliefs before making the voyage to New England on the “Mayflower” in 1620.

The parish records of St. Mary’s reveal that a number of Pilgrims were baptized and or married there. Henry Samson was one of them. However, the best known is Elizabeth Tilley, who eventually married Pilgrim John Howland of Fenstanton, Huntingdonshire. She met John on the voyage. Her parents, “Mayflower” passengers John and Joan Hurst (the widow Rogers*) were married there on 20 September 1596. Both John Tilley and Joan Hurst had been baptized there: he on 19 December 1571 and she, a daughter of William and (probably Rose) Hurst of Henlow, on 13 March 1568 (N.S.). In addition to daughter Elizabeth who was baptized there on 30 August 1607, their four other children, Rose (died young), John, Rose, and Robert, were baptized there between 23 Oct 1597 and 25 November 1604. None of the other children accompanied their parents on the “Mayflower.” With the exception of Robert, who married Mary Hawkins and has living descendants in Bedfordshire, the fate of the others is unknown. Joan’s daughter Joan Rogers was also baptized in St. Mary’s on 26 May 1594. Elizabeth and her parents are memorialized by a slate plaque placed there in 1989 by the Pilgrim John Howland Society. Other Tilley’s with ties to the church were John’s younger brother Edward and his wife Ann Cooper (a sister of Henry Samson’s mother Martha): Edward was baptized there on 27 May 1588 and Ann on 7 November 1585. They were then married there on 20 Jun 1614. It was they who brought their sixteen-year old nephew Henry Samson along with them on the “Mayflower.”

Henry’s parents, James and Martha (Cooper) Samson, were married in St. Mary’s on 20 May 1599. Records indicate that James had been baptized in nearby Campton in 1574. He apparently settled in Henlow after his marriage there. In addition to our Pilgrim Henry, the eldest of his children, there were four more sons (Joseph, Humphrey, James, and John) and four daughters (Mary, Dorothy, Mirioll, and Mary) baptized in St. Mary’s between 1605 and 1618. James, the father, is buried there.

Another Henlow Plymouth related baptism was that of John Dunham, Jr., who was baptized in St. Mary’s on 19 Feb 1614 (N.S.). He was a son of a later arrival in Plymouth (between 1628 and 1632), John Dunham and his first wife Susan Kaino/Cainehoe. John, the father, may have been the one of the same name who lived in Langford, a couple of miles to the north of Henlow, where St. Mary’s sister church, St. Andrew’s is located. John Masterson, a Separatist who never made it to Plymouth and remained in Leiden, Holland, was also originally of Henlow.

Elizabeth Tilley
Memorial Plaque

To see the memorial plaque for Elizabeth Tilley, visit the St. Mary the Virgin Church Website at and click on “St. Mary,” then “Virtual Tour,” and finally “Inside.” You will note that the ground floor room of the tower has been named the “Elizabeth Tilley Room” in appreciation of the Pilgrim John Howland Society’s contributions to St. Mary’s restoration over the years. St. Mary’s church council has, in turn, contributed toward restoration of Elizabeth’s gravestone in Rhode Island.

St. Mary’s bells have their own page on their Website and if you visit Henlow you should plan to be there during the ringers’ practice on Tuesday evenings between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. There is even an e-mail link to the head ringer so you can ensure that a ringing will be taking place! For those who have never experienced “change ringing,” you can’t imagine what you have missed! You can hear a sample on that page as they ring “Grandsire Triples.” Their ringers take part in competitions organized by the Bedfordshire Association of Church Bell Ringers. The earliest bell was cast in 1628 while the latest two were cast in 1979.

Our Kindred is taking steps to raise funds to place a memorial plaque for Pilgrim Henry Samson in St. Mary’s.

* Joan Hurst’s first husband was Thomas Rogers. He was not the Thomas Rogers of Watford, Northampton, who was a “Mayflower” passenger and married to Alice Cosford.

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