Last Updated on December 22, 2018
The Mayflower and Leiden – The History of the Pilgrims in Holland:
Walking into the historic centre of Leiden is like stepping back into the 17th century. This classically beautiful Dutch city was a refuge for those now known as the Mayflower Pilgrims, separatists who fled from England in pursuit of religious freedom. For those following the Mayflower trail, Leiden is brimming with churches, museums and sights which are not much different now than they were when the Mayflower Pilgrims arrived in the early 1600s.
Table of Contents
The Separatist Movement – The Origins of the Pilgrims:
The Separatists were a group of religious farmers and traders many of whom lived around the village of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire while others came from other parts of southern England. They were Protestants who wished to separate from the Church of England and what they viewed as the retention of elements of the Roman Catholic Church. Distinct from those Puritans who preferred to remain within the Church of England in order to purify it, the Separatists wished to establish their own independent congregations where they would have the freedom to worship as they saw fit. Amongst other religious disagreements, they rejected the idea of a Common Prayer Book and preferred to pray in their own words. They rejected musical accompaniment to psalm singing. They rejected the liturgy of the Anglican church. They rejected all outward displays of devotion. At the time there was no separation between Church and State so the fact that the Separatists wanted to leave the Church of England laid them open to charges of treason. Persecuted for their beliefs by King James I, they sought refuge abroad. Ultimately, their trip to America on board the Mayflower caused them to be called the Mayflower Pilgrims.
The Pilgrims Arrive in Leiden:
Having decided to flee to Holland, the Pilgrims attempted to escape from England in 1607 but the ship captain betrayed them and they were arrested. They made another attempt a year later, led by their pastors John Robinson and Richard Clyfton and accompanied by their Elder, William Brewster, and arrived in Amsterdam in 1608. Even this trip was hazardous as not only did they endure severe storms crossing to Holland but the women and children were left behind and had to endure imprisonment before they were able to follow on later. Several groups of English religious dissenters were already living in Amsterdam where they managed to find fault with one another’s interpretations of religious doctrine. The group led by Robinson and Brewster decided to leave the city and travelled some 22 miles south to Holland’s second city, Leiden. They set foot on Leiden soil in front of the Weigh House, a 17th-century building where all goods arriving in Leiden had to be weighed. In front was a landing spot for the boat from Amsterdam to Leiden.
At that time Leiden was a fast expanding industrial city with large numbers of refugees many of whom had fled religious persecution. Many inhabitants were employed in the growing textile industry, one of the biggest in Europe. Increasing numbers of workers were being recruited and Robinson applied for permission to settle with some 100 followers on 12 February 1609. The permission was granted on condition that the group obeyed the city laws and caused no trouble. Director of Heritage Leiden, Ariela Netiv, told me that the permission is still kept in the Leiden archive today. The permission states that the city ‘refuses no honest people free entry to come live in the city, as long as they behave honestly and obey all the laws and ordinances, and under those conditions, the applicants’ arrival here would be pleasing and welcome.’ Although the English Ambassador objected to the welcome they received as banished people, the city authorities took no heed of such intervention.
Most of the group had previously worked in agriculture so it was quite different for them to be employed in the textile industry. Children could be employed from the age of 8. Although work was available, many of the workers were poor.
The Pilgrims Settle in Leiden:
Robinson’s group could not establish their own church because the Separatist movement was not a recognised denomination. They sometimes used other churches for baptisms, weddings and funerals. Some of those who understood Dutch attended occasional services at the Dutch Reformed Pieterskerk while those who understood French attended services at the Walloon Vrouwekerk.
This congregation was made up largely of Protestants who had fled from Belgium in the 1580s when it was taken over by Spain. Two members of the Walloon Church joined the Mayflower voyage. The Separatists also met as a group twice a week where they could listen to a sermon by their pastor, John Robinson and engage in Bible studies. These meetings took place across the street from the central Pieterskerk in a group of houses dubbed The English Close (De Engelse Poort).
Ariela Netiv took me to see the tiny street and courtyard in which these houses remain today. She pointed out that the houses now standing were rebuilt in 1683 as an almshouse named the Jean Pesijnhof. and are a bit larger than in the Pilgrims time when up to 10 people would have been crowded into each of the houses on the site. After arriving in Leiden, John Robinson and three others bought a large house called De Groene Poort (where John Robinson lived) and a parcel of land on the Kloksteeg. One of the group, William Jepson, was a carpenter, and he built 12 small houses on the land. Here Robinson and some of the members of his community lived. Others of his supporters, who could afford their own houses, lived in the surrounding area.
The first memorial to the Pilgrims in Leiden is to be found on the outside of the Jean Pesijnhof. It was installed in 1865 and reads ‘on this spot lived, taught and died John Robinson’. John Robinson never reached America. He stayed behind with members of his congregation in 1620 when others of the group travelled away on the Speedwell to meet up with the Mayflower in England. He had planned to emigrate on a later ship but died in 1625 while still in Leiden. He is buried in a chapel in the Pieterskerk across the street from where he lived in The English Close. On the outside of the baptistry, there is a bronze plaque and another inside in John Robinson’s memory. Another plaque on the outside of the baptistry records the names of members of the group who died in Leiden.
The Pieterskerk is a late gothic, Catholic church which was converted to a Protestant church, the first Protestant service being held there in late 1572. We were given a fascinating tour of the building and I recommend arranging this for a historical view of the changes that took place there in the 16th century. The Pieterskerk has an impressive organ, the oldest playable organ in the world. Some of the pipes are from the 1400s although the current organ is late 17th century. The Pilgrims would have been familiar with the organ and Ariela Netiv told me that John Robinson hated it, calling it ‘the devil’s bagpipes’ because music was considered too frivolous.
The chapel in the Pieterskerk where John Robinson is buried is home to a permanent exhibition about the life of the Mayflower Pilgrims in Leiden.
The Seige of Leiden, The University and Thanksgiving:
Although John Robinson only lived in Leiden from 1609 until his death in 1625, he was much involved in the intellectual life of the city. Leiden was a university town and remains so today. The first university in the Netherlands was established in Leiden in 1575 as a gift to the city for withstanding a siege by the Spanish that was lifted on 3 October 1574. Carrier pigeons were used to transport messages to and from the Dutch forces outside the city and an injunction still resides in the Archives from the 1570s decreeing that it is forbidden to shoot pigeons (lest one of the carrier pigeons be shot).
Directly linked to the lifting of the siege is the celebration of Thanksgiving which the Pilgrims are said to have introduced when they established the Plimouth Colony. The inhabitants of Leiden celebrated the lifting of the siege with an annual Thanksgiving service and distribution of food. The Pilgrims would have experienced this each year that they resided in Leiden. Ariela Nevis told me of a letter from a Pilgrim in which they described how the Pilgrims in Plimouth Colony celebrated in the same way as they had in Leiden. Thanksgiving has continued to be celebrated every year even during WWll. The only missing years were during the French occupation when the celebrations were banned. When the siege was lifted in 1574, half of the population had died of illness and starvation, the remaining inhabitants of Leiden finally received food – herring, white bread and cheese. To this day, free bread and herring are still distributed to the populace on 3 October each year.
Apparently, the inhabitants of Leiden were offered a choice of gift for enduring the siege – a university or tax relief. They chose a university. John Robinson bought quite a number of books for the University Library which was located just behind where he and his followers lived. As the university had only been established in 1575 the library was still being developed.
This university provided a place to educate Protestants and became a focus of religious debate. One of the most famous of these was between two professors of the Theology Faculty who clashed on the question of predestination and free will. The debate between Jacobus Arminius and Franciscus Gomarus was not confined to the University. There was a split in the population of Leiden on this issue. Some believed in a modicum of free will while the majority were stricter in believing that everything is predestined. This debate – in which John Robinson participated – led to civil unrest in Leiden in 1617. The city authorities were on the minority side who believed in a modicum of free will and ended up having to fortify the City Hall so as to keep the people out. The debate extended to the question of whether church or municipal councils should appoint clergy.
Printing and the Pilgrim Press:
Another sign of the intellectual and industrial life of Leiden during the 16th and 17th centuries was the establishment of a printing and publishing industry in the town. Within this context two of the Leiden separatists set up a printing press. In 1617, William Brewster (an elder of the church) and Thomas Brewer ( who gave financial support) set up a printing press which has come to be referred to as the Pilgrim Press. They distributed material promoting Separatist theology, some of which was smuggled into England which brought them into conflict with King James. The English ambassador tracked them down and the printing press was disbanded in 1619. Brewster went into hiding until emerging to emigrate on the Mayflower. As the only university educated member of the Plimouth Colony and elder to John Robinson, he became the spiritual leader of the group. Brewer took refuge in the University which had independent jurisdiction. The alley where Brewster lived can still be visited. It is very close to the Pieterskerk and is called William Brewstersteeg.
The Mayflower Pilgrims and the Origin of Civil Marriage:
The Mayflower pilgrims are said to have taken the practice of civil marriage with them to the Plimouth colony. This practice has its roots in Leiden itself. By the time the Separatists lived in Leiden only Calvinists could have a church marriage. However, Leiden had a large Catholic minority and also other Protestant denominations that were not following the official line. As Ariela Netiv explained, ‘you can’t tell half the population they can’t have legal kids, transfer their property legally, so they have to be married but couldn’t be included in the church marriage. So they invented civil marriage. You go to the town hall and get registered, and then what you do in your own little church as long as it isn’t very visible, nobody cares’. When the Mayflower pilgrims left without their pastor, John Robinson, they had nobody to marry them so they kept the civil marriage going.
The Leiden town hall on Breestraat was where the civil marriages were carried out when the Separatists lived in Leiden. Although the building was destroyed by a fire in 1929, the Renaissance facade from the 1600s was saved and a new building erected behind it. I visited the town hall and imagined the scene of people going in to be married in the early 1600s. Nowadays the only commitment I needed to make there was to a rather tasty dish of antipasti in the Italian restaurant that now occupies part of this historic venue.
Exploring the City – the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum:
Leiden has benefited from its preservation as the city where the Mayflower pilgrims settled before migrating to the New World. Because the historic centre escaped bombing during World War ll – a fate that destroyed nearby Rotterdam’s historic centre – visitors can now get a real sense of what life in Pilgrim times was like. What is striking on visiting the historic centre of Leiden is how small the area is. Therefore, as Ariela Netiv observed, they must have all encountered each other going about their daily lives. Rembrandt, born in Leiden in 1606, was educated in the city and took art classes in the area. The Separatist community might well have passed him in the street as they went about their daily lives.
While only one dwelling survives in Leiden where one of the Mayflower group lived, visitors to Leiden can get a good feel for what their houses might have looked like by spending some time at the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum. This is a privately – run museum and its Director, Dr Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs is a world authority on the Pilgrims. He has written comprehensively about the Pilgrims in Plymouth with many volumes including an 800-page history entitled Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation. I was very fortunate to meet Dr Bangs at the museum which is an essential part of the Pilgrim tour of the city. The museum, opened in 1997, is nothing like the sort of place where exhibits are displayed behind glass or on plinths. This property at Beschuitsteeg 9 was built between 1367 – 1370. The upstairs of the building is occupied while the museum is located on the ground floor.
When I arrived, it was lit by candlelight and Dr Bangs was seated amongst the collection of period furniture and artefacts. The only modern items were copies of some of the books he has written on the subject of the Pilgrims as well as a display of information about the Pilgrims. Those with interest in this subject will benefit from a visit to the website (www.leidenamericanpilgrimmuseum.org) where much of the information available in the museum is published.
The museum is located in a house built in 1370. On entering the small museum I found myself in a room packed with artefacts and fascinating items of the time which Dr Bangs has collected over the years. There are kitchen implements, old books, clothing, toys, a lovely old bed built into an alcove, and beautiful Delft tiles around the fireplace. Dr Bangs has collected a number of old books that were also owned by the pilgrims as is known from inventories from the Plimouth Colony.
Later Dr Bangs took me next door to a second room with a separate entrance that has a fireplace and floor preserved from the 14th century when it was occupied by Catholic priests. This section of the museum was equally full of antiques dating from the period when the pilgrims lived in the city. Once inside the museum it is easy to forget about the 21st century outside the front door.
While about half of the Separatist group in Leiden found employment in the textile industry, Dr Bangs lists a number of other industries where they worked. In the Pieterskerk I had seen some of the boards of the Guilds that existed in Leiden such as the Weavers Guild. Dr Bangs points out in his booklet, Pilgrim Life in Leiden, that members of guilds in Leiden were allowed to hire non-members to help in their work. At the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum there is a list of the work that members of John Robinson’s group were employed in. This includes the following: tailor, hatmaker, glover, hosierer, shoemaker, carpenter, black and tackle maker, twinemaker, leather-worker, cooper, cabinetmaker, brewer’s employee, mason, watchmaker, mirror maker, tobacco seller, tobacco-pipe maker, midwife and merchant. The museum has some beautiful prints of people at work in the 17th century. It has a collection of large posters which provide a wealth of details about pilgrim life in Leiden. This is also available to read online on the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum site
The Hortus Botanicus – Medicinal Plants in Leiden:
Another feature of University life in the time the pilgrims lived in Leiden was the Hortus Botanicus. I was fortunate to have a tour of the gardens although heavy rain limited us to the indoor sections. There are several hothouses so there was a great deal to see. The Hortus Botanicus was established as part of Leiden University in 1590. This was part of the Department of Medicine as plants were needed to create medicines. I looked at the area known as the Clusius Garden, named after Carolus Clusius, the first director of the Hortus Botanicus. The garden was laid out in quarters with different species clustered together. In those days botanists clustered together species that looked the same and also considered their medicinal value. If plants shared the characteristic of curing fever, for example, they were clustered together. I was interested to see this garden because while at the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, I read that one of the pilgrims, Deacon Samuel Fuller, who was renowned in New England as the Pilgrim’s physician, may have in fact attended lectures at the Hortus Botanicus. These lectures were open not only to students but also to amateurs and he might have heard lectures on the medicinal uses of plants. This knowledge would have been most important for the new colonies.
The Civil Infrastructure of Leiden – Inspiration for the Mayflower Pilgrims:
Knowledge of electing local government was another feature of Leiden life that the pilgrims are thought to have taken with them. Ariela Netiv explained that Leiden residents elected their own representatives who made a lot of local arrangements such as burial and fire-fighting. These would be arranged on local street level. When they set up the Plimouth Colony there was no official government so this knowledge would have helped them organise their community. The election of civil administrators as set out in the Mayflower Compact they signed on the ship, can be traced back to this system as well as the election of church officials.
The small group of pilgrims have an illustrious list of descendants including 9 US Presidents: father and son Adams, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, James A. Garfield, Franklin D. Roosevelt, father and son Bush, and Barack Obama. George Bush visited Leiden in 1989. The Bushes and Obama share the same descendent. This does not mean that they all are descended from the Mayflower pilgrims, however. To be considered a descendant means either the Mayflower or a list of ships that left afterwards. This results in some 25 million descendants.
Leaving Leiden – the Mayflower Pilgrims set sail for America:
With everything we know about pilgrim life in Leiden, the question remains why they decided to leave for the great unknown of a new world? Several reasons are well noted as Ariela Netiv explained.
One of the reasons for leaving Holland was the concern amongst the group that their children were becoming too Dutch. They spoke the language and their parents were concerned that they were losing their identity. The group leaders were concerned that the community would lose its religious and cultural identity as they integrated more into Leiden society.
Being mostly agricultural people originally, many of the group struggled to make money in the industries in which they found employment. Although there were wealthier members of the group, many were subsisting. Setting up a colony would not only allow the group to practice their faith unaffected by external pressures but would also involve a lot of agricultural labour.
Politics of the Netherlands also played its part. In 1621 the Twelve Year Truce that the Netherlands had with Spain was due to end. This put the group at risk as the protection of England was sought by the Dutch in the event of a resurgence of war with Spain. King James’ help was conditional on gaining control over the English religious congregations in Holland. Therefore the religious freedom the Separatists had enjoyed since fleeing England would have been threatened. They would have had to choose to either join the Church of England or the Dutch Reformed Church in Holland.
And so it was that plans were made for a group of pilgrims from Leiden to journey across the seas. They had to make financial arrangements for this. After much negotiation and internal politics, the Plymouth Colony in England financed the trip to establish a new colony in exchange for fish, fur and timber which would be shipped back to England. The Leiden community decided to send the younger and stronger members on the first expedition. Those who did not travel on the Mayflower were supposed to come on later. But time passed and some people, such as John Robinson, died before they could make the trip.
One of the few times I got to sit down on a very busy trip to Leiden was on a canal boat tour of the city with Rederij Rembrandt. We sailed past the spot on the Vliet River where the pilgrims left for their journey to Delfshaven where they were to board the Speedwell that met up with the Mayflower in England. Visitors to this spot on the Vliet will now find a commemorative statue on which the names of the Mayflower pilgrims are listed.
The trip along the canal took 7 hours before they reached Delfshaven which is where the next part of the Mayflower story continues.
Leiden in 2020 – the Mayflower400 anniversary:
Visiting Leiden for the Mayflower400 celebrations will be a treat. The Museum of Ethnography is planning an exhibition on 17th century Native Americans. Ariela Netiv explains: ‘The focus will be on freedom. While the pilgrims found some measure of freedom in Leiden and found more freedom in America, that impinged on someone else’s freedom. So in 2020, the idea is really to get to all parts of the story and to have a discussion about why do we migrate, what is freedom?’
The Leiden American Pilgrim Museum and Museum De Lakenhal will jointly curate an exhibition on the intellectual life of the pilgrims. Entitled Intellectual Baggage, it will look at the books that the pilgrims took with them on their voyage and the ideas and works that influenced them.
Heritage Leiden will open a Meet Your Pilgrim Ancestor booth where descendants will be able to hold the actual documents of their families. Not all those who travelled on the Mayflower were fleeing religious persecution. There were those who joined the voyage to make the expedition financially viable and they came directly from England, not from Leiden. Many British people are related to the pilgrims.
With sincere thanks to Ariela Netiv and Adrian Young who provided a tour of the Pieterskerk and the Pilgrim exhibition and shared much information with me. Thanks also to Dr Jeremy Bangs at the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum and to Leiden Marketing for arranging the trip. Thanks also to the guide at the Hortus Botanicus for her comprehensive tour of the hothouses on a rainy day. I have used a variety of sources in researching this article. Most useful was a booklet entitled The Pilgrim Fathers in Holland, published by the Stichting Oude Hollandse Kerken. The website of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum is hugely informative about the lives of the Pilgrims. This information is published in a booklet available from the museum and entitled Pilgrim Life in Leiden, written by Dr Jeremy Bangs.
Join us as we explore the Mayflower Story, in time for Mayflower400, the 400 year anniversary of the Mayflower sailing to America.
And, why not pin this post for later