The England that John Winthrop was born into in 1588 was a nation wracked by generations of religious and social upheaval. Forty-four years before Winthrop's birth, King Henry VIII had broken off ties to the Catholic Church and confiscated the Church's property. In order to allow him to marry yet another wife, the king had replaced the Catholic Church with the new Church of England–and appointed himself head of the new church. The Church of England aligned itself against the Catholic Church and with the reformation-minded Protestants, and despite Henry's best efforts to eradicate Catholicism on the British Isles, England faced a growing divide between the two churches and their parishioners.
Despite his best efforts, Henry left no living male heir when he died. Thus, Elizabeth I, a protestant, found herself queen of England in 1558. Across the British Channel, Europe had fractured along the same ideological lines as England–with Italy, Spain, and most of France holding fast to the Catholic Church while the German states of the Holy Roman Empire broke away. Elizabeth found herself constantly fighting off assassination attempts and attempted coups–many backed with at least tacit papal approval–including most famously the Babington Plot, which ended with the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. The year Winthrop was born, King Philipof Spain launched an armada against the British hoping to end the Church of England once and for all, but it was beaten back with heavy losses on both sides. The move would mark the last serious attempt to recapture England for the Church.
Of course, many English had celebrated when Henry had ended Catholicism in England, but for some the celebration was strictly financial in nature. The land the Church had previously owned was auctioned off in the wake of Henry's announcement, thus Adam Winthrop, John Winthrop's grandfather had profited from Henry's move, buying up old monastery in Groton, England for 408 pounds and eleven shillings. This purchased transformed Adam Winthrop overnight from a simple cloth merchant to a land-owning noble. This sudden move up the social ladder by his grandfather opened the door to many of the opportunities John Winthrop would have growing up: studying at Trinity College and becoming a justice of the peace among others.
As Winthrop grew older he became increasingly worried about the state of continuing religious strife in his homeland and turned for guidance to the relatively new movement called Puritanism. Puritans believed that the Church of England needed to end the church hierarchy and be purged of the ceremonies carried over by the Catholic Church. More deeply, it left its believers with a complicated paradox, which said that a man should devote his entire self to seeking salvation with God, but, also, it said that man was predestined to do evil. This idea of predestination–that you were either good or evil from the very beginning–took a steep toll on many Puritans, especially as they watched England sink back into religious strife after Elizabeth died in 1603 and the Catholic King James I ascended to the throne.
Many Puritans believed that the only way to save England was to escape to the New World and begin a pure life anew, a life which might eventually allow them to migrate back to England and spread their word. It was with a heavy heart that Winthrop and several hundred of his fellow Puritans picked up and left for the New World in the spring of 1630.
The New World remained uncharted territory in the early seventeenth century. Two earlier settlements in Roanoke, Virginia had failed in the 1580s. A later settlement at Jamestown remained small and primitive. For the most part, Winthrop's new colony would share space only with a small settlement at Salem and the Pilgrims' colony at Plymouth, founded in 1620.
In fact, Winthrop's party of settlers would more than triple the population of New England. They would face much in their first years, including harsh winters, food shortages, Indian attacks, and hostile neighboring French colonies. But thanks in no small part to Winthrop–who secured permission to build forts and who paid to feed many hungry families–the colony would survive and thrive.
But even as the colony prospered, the religious strife they left behind in England was never far from the minds of the settlers. The year Winthrop died, 1649, Parliament tried Charles I and executed him, ending his long tyrannical rule.