John Traske is one of the most confusing and complex radical theologians of early seventeenth century England. Interesting enough as an example of early Antinomianism, it was not his Antinomian theological viewpoints which landed him in most severe trouble.

Traske may have been born in the village of East Coker, near Yeovil – indeed, that is what is traditionally assumed. Between 1560 and 1600 there were at least five births of a John Traske in East Coker that I have identified:

  • 1564;
  • 1575;
  • 1585;
  • 1588 (this one seems to die in 1590);
  • 1598.

It might have seemed most logical that he was the one born 1585, son of Lionel Traske and Anne Dribble and this is the birth argued for by Leon J. Lyell. However, this identification is far from guaranteed. Indeed, this John is supposed to have died in New England in 1634 – although the accuracy of any of this secondary research cannot be guaranteed. For limited further details on Traske’s identification see Como’s ‘Blown by the Spirit’.

Initially Traske seems to have been posted to Chilton Cantelo, a two cell thirteenth century church – now Grade 1 listed. Originally the place was called Cantilupe and is near to Sherborne in Dorset. By 1610 he was active in Frome (Somerset). Escaping from Somerset into Devon, Traske took up residence with Sir John Drake (who died 1636) just outside Axminster, very possibly as Drake’s own chaplain. So it should be no surprise to find that he was preaching in both Axminster and Honiton in 1613.

But by May 1614 he had turned up preaching at Littleport on the Isle of Ely (some six miles north of the ‘city’ of Ely itself). The Isle was a den of very radical Non-Conformism and infested with the Family of Love, followers of Hendrik Niclaes’ perfectist sect which had been forced to operate underground in England since Elizabeth I’s declaration against them in 1580. It may be that Traske absorbed Antinomian leanings somewhere in the Ely area.

Whether Traske consistently carried the Antinomian strain is unclear. Henry Phillips gives this aspect of his teachings no attention until the end of his life when, shortly before his death in 1636, he “became an Antinomian”. Although that would appear to be the year in which he died, the interpretation that there was no ‘Antinomian’ element in his positions until shortly before then would seem to be fundamentally misguided. ‘A Pearl for a Prince, or a Princely Pearl – as it was delivered in 2 sermons’ was written in 1615 and heralded what was to come. Traske’s position on viewing repentance as nothing more than a stepping stone is outlined in a separate text, ‘Heavens joy, or, Heaven begun upon Earth’ (1616). ‘Heavens joy’ also focuses on Hebrews 12 to justify Heaven being in this life and not tied to any geographical place or particular group of people – an awkwardly ‘Familistic’ position. However, it is most unlikely that Traske had ever been directly involved with the Family since key elements in his teachings seem to run directly counter to some of the more allegorical elements of Niclaesianism, especially around the Last Judgement.

We also know that Traske was at some point influenced by the ‘first’ Antinomian, John Eaton, author of the ‘Honey-Combe’ and ‘Dead Faith’, both unpublished in his lifetime, awaiting the enthusiasm of Samuel Crisp and Robert Lancaster. By 1630 we know that both Traske and Towne were within the Eatonist circle. Robert Towne fled London for Lancashire at much the same time as Peter Shaw and may well have derived many of his ideas from early contact with Brierley in Northern England. Rice Boye, who arrived in the capital in the first half of the 1630s, was involved in a series of acrimonious disputes with the Puritan, Edward Norice. Although Norice never explicitly accused him of Antinomianism, some of Boye’s comments about Norice suggest that that was his position. Furthermore, in 1636 he was responsible for having Traske’s, ‘The True Gospel Vindicated’ published – the only overtly Antinomian text published before the abolition of censorship in 1641.

Como points out that in the case of most Antinomians there is not enough documentation to get the full picture of the development of the theology. Traske is the single possible exception. On 19th June 1618 – less than a year after Brierley had been released and cleared in York – the Court of the Star Chamber in London sentenced Traske to be fined, whipped, pilloried, branded, to have his ears nailed to the pillory and then to be thrown into gaol.

But it was not for his Antinomian leanings…

On arrival in London Traske seems to have come into almost immediate contact with the ‘Judaiser heresy’ – very possibly through Hamlet Jackson who would later be ordained one of his four evangelists. It is conceivable – but far from certain – that Hamlet Jackson may have been born in Manchester around 1590. If so, then he may be a link between London and Lancashire in early Antinomianism.

Jackson claimed that he had experienced a fiery vision concerning God’s Law and Katz suggests that it is likely that it was Jackson who pushed Traske into the support of Judaic practices. It does seem to be the case that Traske took on Judaic behavioural forms shortly after first encountering Jackson. There were other associates too though – amongst them, Returne Hepden. Hepden – from a strongly Puritan community that flourished in Burwash, Sussex during the seventeenth century – rejected both wealth and family. The latter may not have been entirely down to a clash of values but more connected with a general propensity towards communalism amongst Traske’s followers and particularly in the ideology of Hepden. We should also be aware of the risk that we may be lumping a string of rather different theologies together and labelling the whole lot, ‘Traskism’.

It is not directly obvious whether, as Phillips claims, Theophilus Bradburne, the East Anglian minister, came into contact with Philo-Judaic themes via the Traske group or independently. It is true that, at a later point, he does seem to have been in association with Mary Chester, initially Traske’s follower. But this is a very different position to that followed by Como decades later. Chester was convinced into making a recantation by William Gouge, then minister of St. Anne’s, Blackfriars. The High Commission permitted her release from Bridewell prison but a year later she was reported to have lapsed into her strange beliefs.

Traske’s wife was as controversial as he was. Dorothy Coome was actually Traske’s second wife although she was a spinster aged around thirty four at the time of marriage. Traske had presumably married his first wife back in the West Country. Only two obvious marriages appear in local records – both at East Coker; the only possible candidate in 1606 to a Jane Witherel. Unfortunately I cannot yet trace a death for Jane and there is no real reason to presume that Traske’s wife was also from East Coker. The marriage would most probably have taken place in her parish.

Coome worked as a schoolteacher and taught children about a Saturday Sabbath. She was originally locked up in Maiden Lane prison but when this was closed by the Long Parliament, she was transferred to the Gatehouse. Maiden Lane (or the ‘New’ Prison) was exceptional in being entirely for the incarceration of religious prisoners and, with the drift towards ‘Arminianism’ it became especially associated with the holding of the radical Puritan fringe: Traske and Dorothy, the Sabbatarian Bradburne, Richard Lane or Leane – the Familist of some description (whose investigation by the authorities is recorded on microfilm at Kew National Archives – another blog post will deal with him) and the Antinomian minister, John Eachard.

Most reports would seem to indicate that the Traskites not only abstained from the eating of swine flesh but also from blood. Coome found things from which to abstain not even mentioned in the Pentateuch. Reports from prison also suggest that they observed ritual, seasonal eating patterns such as white, unleavened bread after the ‘14th March moone’ (presumably Nisan 14 or ‘Passover – the day only beginning at dusk in the Jewish tradition). They also seemed to follow Jewish Law in terms of clothing and – at least at some stage – would not even walk in the streets or the market place “for fear of touching others that observed not those Laws, and so were unclean”.

Dorothy retained her ‘Traskite’ views long after Traske himself had formally recanted his own in 1620 by publishing ‘A treatise on Libertie from Judaisme’. She was probably partly responsible for keeping some sort of Traskite movement alive. Jackson ended up as a converted Jew in Amsterdam.