Last Updated on March 2, 2019
Pilgrim Country – exploring the Mayflower Pilgrim Trail:
A visit to Pilgrim Country enables those following the Mayflower Pilgrim Trail to get back to the beginning of the story that culminated in the sailing to the New World in 1620. For it is in the towns and villages of Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire where the Separatist movement took root.
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Who were the Separatists?
The Separatists were a group of 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 Established Church, the Church of England. They rejected all outward displays of devotion.
While Queen Elizabeth was on the throne their dissenting views were tolerated to some extent but when James I took the throne in 1603 the Separatists were actively persecuted, the priests espousing their views lost their livings and the movement had to meet in secret. 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. Their religious activities, being illegal, resulted in their coming under scrutiny and persecution by those who enforced the laws of King James l. Some Separatists were able to escape religious persecution in England, fleeing to Holland in 1608 and onwards to the New World in 1620 on the Mayflower. However, many more stayed behind in England.
Travelling from village to village, I realised the importance of the geographical layout of the Separatist movement – the proximity of the villages where the congregations developed, facilitated communication and contact between the parishes and the congregants, a dissemination of doctrine across this small region. As with any movement – be it religious or political – it needed financial backers, visionaries, idealists and followers. It also needed a cause. The Separatist movement had all of these.
While up in Pilgrim Country I came to understand more about how the Separatist preachers found a living in their respective parishes in the region. Many of them were educated at Cambridge University which, during the late 16th century, was the centre for radical religious ideas. Moreover, many of these preachers were headhunted as potential vicars and financed by wealthy, local dissenting families to study at Cambridge then, on completion of their studies, were helped to find parish placements in the area. This is how the Separatist movement evolved and spread in influence in the region from around the 1570s.
In historian Adrian Gray’s newly published and very informative book From Here We Changed The World (published by Bookworm of Retford), there is a detailed description of the religious influences in the area and how the various movements developed. Gray writes about how the Puritan families across North Nottinghamshire and south and east Lincolnshire were not only well connected but had a strategy of identifying and placing young men into important churches. One of the families financing dissenting clergy was the Wray family. Christopher Wray was Lord Chief Justice of England when Elizabeth was on the throne and his son and two surviving daughters played an important part in the Puritan movement. Francis Wray and her brother, Sir William, hosted a summit meeting of Puritans in 1606 in Coventry where the decision was made by the Separatists to separate from the Church of England. The Wray family paid to send selected young men to Cambridge and then gave them a living in the local churches.
Gray also comments on the tolerance and ambivalence of some Church authorities which enabled the spread of Puritan ideas in the region. However, with a change of Archbishop in 1583, a tightening of control increased and by 1593 non-attendance at church became more enforced as did the idea of nonconformity. In 1604, King James I held a conference at Hampton Court which was attended by some Puritans who, like John Robinson, hoped that the King would help their cause. However, this was far from the outcome. James I declared that ‘If this be all that they have to say, I shall make them conform themselves, or I shall harry them out of the land, or else do worse’. By 1605/6, writes Gray, several clergy including Richard Clyfton, had lost their jobs. The Separatists formed themselves into two congregations – one in Gainsborough with John Smyth as pastor and the other at Babworth to begin with and later at Scrooby with Richard Clyfton as pastor. The Gainsborough and Scrooby Separatists began to plan their escape to Holland which was financed by a local landowner, Thomas Helwys. It was the Scrooby Separatists who settled in Leiden before some of the group set sail on the Mayflower.
Babworth – Birthplace of the Separatist Movement
I began my tour in Babworth on a freezing winter’s day when the snowdrops outside All Saint’s Church were just beginning to show themselves amongst the gravestones outside. It is suggested that the Separatist movement originated at Babworth under the Rectorship of Richard Clyfton (1586 – 1605) who, in the 1590s began to preach in favour of separation from the Church of England. He inspired other Separatists such as William Brewster, William Bradford and John Robinson who would all play a crucial role in the congregation’s life in Leiden and the decision to travel to the New World.
Richard Clyfton, born around 1553 in the area near Babworth, North Nottinghamshire, went on to study at Cambridge which at the time was a hotbed of dissenting theology. He became pastor at All Saint’s Church, Babworth in 1586 where he was able to get his living probably through the help of the Puritans. He had previously been at Marnham church nearby but he lost his living there because of political reasons. In 1608 he led a group of Separatists to Amsterdam where he died in 1616.
In his 1957 booklet, The Mayflower Story, Edmund Jessup, Rector of Babworth (1950-1984), argues that the translation of the Bible into English was of huge significance in the Elizabethan age. He paints a picture of families gathering around in their homes to read from the Bible and the development of family prayers as a form of worship. This simple tradition was accessible to all and was approved of by many country clergy at the time. One of the clergy was Richard Clyfton who favoured the Geneva Bible – a version of the bible that had been translated into English by Protestant scholars in Geneva. It had all sorts of annotations and was easier to read. The Geneva Bible became known as the Breeches Bible because of the translation of ‘aprons’ in Genesis 3, verse 7 as ‘breeches’ when Adam and Eve made themselves a covering when realising they were naked.
It is assumed that Richard Clyfton was a very charismatic preacher as people came from all around the area to hear him preach. He, along with his fellow Separatists did not approve of the Common Book of Prayer which had been brought in by Elizabeth l to standardise and bring conformity to the services. Richard Clyfton followed his own path. He read from the early scriptures which he preferred and he prophesied (a form of open prayer), he refused to wear the white surplice required of preachers. He disapproved of the sacraments, disliked the marriage and baptism services, refused to make the sign of the cross at baptism, did not believe in wedding rings. He did not approve of church music, the organ pipes were referred to as the devil’s bagpipes.
Although the Separatists had their pastor at Babworth All Saint’s Church, they also met in secret at the Rectory alongside for prayer meetings. This was not allowed as it was forbidden by law to hold private services outside of the Church of England. The Rectory where Richard Clyfton lived can still be seen today.
The church receives many visitors from America who come to trace their ancestry. I was able to look at the visitor’s book in which people have written the name of their ancestors who travelled on the Mayflower. The church is home to a number of items of memorabilia relating to the Pilgrims, some donated by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants.
A special feature of this lovely church is a set of eight tiny mice that are carved into and onto some of the church furniture. Children love to seek them out and the mice are very endearing. Fortunately, I was shown where they all were, or I might have searched all day! The mice were carved by furniture maker Robert ‘Mousey’ Thompson in the Late Victorian era. The story goes that while he was carving furniture, one of his workmen commented on being as poor as church mice. And so the mice were born, many of which can be found on ecclesiastical furniture in English churches.
All Saint’s Church underwent repairs in the 1950s at which point a hidden chalice was found in the crypt underneath the floor. It is an Elizabethan chalice and is thought to have been used by Richard Clyfton and hidden during the Civil War when both Royalist and Cromwellian forces were looting church silverware which they exchanged for arms.
Artworks from prisoners at local Ranby prison are moving testament to the way in which the Pilgrim story is owned by people who live in the area. A model of the Mayflower made from 14 000 matchsticks occupies a glass case while nearby hangs a striking painting of puritans returning from All Saint’s Babworth. This was painted in the 1960s by a prisoner on a blackboard which went missing in the prison and was clearly put to good use.
A lovely stained-glass window tells the story of Edmund Jessup, Rector of Babworth, who brought the Pilgrim’s story to public knowledge. Local people had heard very little about the Pilgrims until he wrote his booklet. The Mayflower Story a well-written booklet. I found the section on The Pilgrim Mothers particularly fascinating. Those who travelled on the Mayflower are often referred to as the Pilgrim Fathers so it is important to recognise the role played by women who gave up their homes, faced arrest before succeeding in fleeing to Holland, and then raised their children in the most perilous circumstances, many of them dying in Plymouth Colony once they reached the New World.
Two men who regularly attended Richard Clyfton’s services at Babworth were William Brewster and William Bradford. They were to play a central role in the group that fled to Holland and eventually travelled on the Mayflower. Brewster would walk on Sundays to Babworth where the service would last many hours and then walk back to Scrooby where he would share Richard Clyfton’s teachings.
At the time, churchwardens kept lists of parishioners who did not attend Sunday service so any absence from church was noted in the attendance book. Gadding about – worshipping at another parish – was illegal and was a further contravention of the law committed on a regular basis by those who wished to hear Separatist preachers at a neighbouring church. The churchwardens were very powerful people who reported any transgressions – including extramarital affairs – and could get people fined. Anyone who did not attend a Church of England service for a period of forty days or was found to have attended a private service could be imprisoned.
When visiting the All Saint’s Church, which is also known as the Church in the Woodland, I found it very moving to walk around the Norman church where some of the Separatists had walked about themselves. Although some features have been added – such as the stained-glass which is Victorian, the old stones and wooden beams are original. It is easy to imagine the heavy wooden doors opening and William Brewster and William Bradford striding in, relieved to have arrived after their ten mile walk from Austerfield and about seven miles from Scrooby.
William Brewster and Scrooby
Our tour took us next to Scrooby, a village nearby to Babworth. As my gloveless hands turned red from the icy cold, I thought about the long distances that William Bradford and William Brewster would have walked to hear Richard Clyfton preach at Babworth before returning to their homes at Scrooby and Austerfield. Fortunately, we had a warm car and an even warmer welcome from our tour guide from Pilgrims and Prophets, Maggy Watkins and her husband, Chris, who kindly transported us around.
The history of Scrooby and the North was described to me as a rich tapestry. It is an area of great diversity because it lies on the borderline between Mersea, going back to Anglo Saxon times, and Northumbria. Sometimes the area lay in Mersea and other times in Northumbria. The difference being that Northumbria was Christian and Mersea was pagan. The area had a reputation for being rather individual. And continued to be.
Scrooby was home to William Brewster who was born around 1566. One of the most famous of the Pilgrims, he was a central member of the Scrooby Separatists congregation and once in Holland he became Elder to the congregation. He continued to hold this position in Plymouth Colony. At 54 he was the oldest passenger on the Mayflower. His father, also William Brewster, held an important position as Master of the Queen’s Post. This meant that he was responsible for the safe delivery of messages and official persons to Queen Elizabeth over a certain geographical area. He was also a bailiff and provided hospitality and stabling of horses for those travelling on the Queen’s business at the Archbishop of York’s Manor – Scrooby Manor was the Archbishop’s northern residence. Hence, William Brewster, the son, grew up at Scrooby Manor and his father earned enough to send him to Cambridge University where he studied at Peterhouse College from 1580. At Cambridge, the young William Brewster came into contact with the debates about theology that were so important to the dissident Separatists. At Cambridge preachers were defying the church authorities and called for reform of public worship and arguing for more freedom in how scriptures could be interpreted.
After his time at Cambridge, William Brewster got a job with William Davison who was one of the Queen’s chief ministers at court. As part of his employment ,he accompanied Davison to Holland on a secret mission, enabling him to make contacts there that would come in handy decades later when he led a group of Separatists to Holland in 1608. When his father died, the young William Brewster was appointed Master of Posts at Scrooby where he worked from the age of twenty-three to forty when he had to resign his post after he was fined for religious disobedience in 1607.
During these years Brewster was a regular attendant not only at Babworth but also at Gainsborough where John Smyth – who had studied at Christ’s College Cambridge – had established a Separatist congregation in 1602. When John Smyth led his congregation to Holland in 1608 the Separatists in that area continued to meet at Scrooby Manor where a second Separatist congregation had been formally established in 1606. By this time, Richard Clyfton had been deprived of the living at Babworth after being accused of non-conformity in 1605 by the Archbishop’s Chancery Court. He was then offered a place at Scrooby by William Brewster. The Separatist church had Richard Clyfton as pastor and William Brewster as presiding elder. John Robinson joined the Scrooby group as a preacher.
John Robinson was born in nearby Sturton Le Steeple and studied at Corpus Christi, Cambridge. Despite being ordained as a priest in the Church of England in 1598, his exposure to Puritan ideas at Cambridge influenced his beliefs. He espoused the Separatist cause while preaching in Norfolk which brought him to the attention of the church authorities, and he was suspended. He returned to his childhood roots in the area and in 1607 joined the Scrooby congregation. When Richard Clyfton left for Amsterdam with some of his congregation in August 1608, Robinson became the pastor of the Scrooby congregation and accompanied them to Holland later in that year and eventually to Leiden in 1609. He did not get to travel on the Mayflower in 1620 although he had meant to follow later. He died in Leiden before he achieved that goal.
We visited St Wilfred’s church at Scrooby where it is thought that William Brewster was baptised. The church was, in fact, a chapel of ease to Sutton Cum Lound. This means that it was a church set up for the convenience of parishioners who lived too far away from the parish church (in Sutton cum Lound in this case). It, therefore, had a curate and not a rector. Fortunately, the curate at St Wilfred’s was a relative of William Brewster and they were allowed to get away with a lot more than Separatists in other parish churches. In effect, they established a Separatist congregation within an Anglican church. In addition, the Rector at the parish church of Sutton cum Lound was none other than William Brewster’s brother, James Brewster, affording further protection to the Separatists at Scrooby. Even so, before they left for Holland, the church authorities were after Brewster for not attending church at Scrooby. And the churchwardens also got into trouble because they were supposed to regularly report their absence. In fact, by 1607 Brewster was fined 20 pounds for disobedience in manners of religion. This may have further encouraged him to flee to Holland as colleagues had already been imprisoned and sentenced to death for religious disobedience. By the time he led the Separatist congregation to Holland in 1608, there was a warrant for his arrest and he had gone into hiding.
Visiting St Wilfred’s Church I was told that it would have looked a little different in Brewster’s day as there would not have been any pews. In those days the congregation would stand during services. When either the Puritans or the Separatists came in to hold services, they would have just had a table and the church would have been stripped of all adornments. They used the church to hold prayer meetings where they would read the Bible and discuss it. Despite the Separatists not having used pews, Brewster has a pair of pews named after him. These were part of the church furnishings when Brewster and his family attended the church (probably part of a medieval rood screen).
A few minutes’ walk from St Wilfred’s church is Scrooby Manor. Now privately owned, a part of the original Scrooby Manor remains. This was the home of William Brewster until he lost his job in 1607. Another Mayflower passenger who lived at Scrooby Manor was Susanna White-Winslow. Her father, Richard Jackson, was bailiff and along with William Brewster, was a wanted man after failing to appear at court for religious misdemeanours in 1807 shortly before the Separatist congregation escaped to Holland. In 1620, Susanna was one of three pregnant women to travel on the Mayflower and her son, Peregrine, was the first baby to be born after they arrived in the New World.
Austerfield, the Home of William Bradford
To follow the pilgrim trail, we travelled next to Austerfield which is a few miles from Scrooby. This was home to William Bradford who travelled on the Mayflower, drafted the Mayflower compact, went on to have a career as the Governor of Plymouth Colony and became an important historian of the Pilgrims through his journals published as Of Plimouth Plantation.
We began at St Helen’s Church at Austerfield, another charming Norman church dating back to 1080 although there was already a church on the site in 702 when a Synod was held to settle a dispute about the date of Easter. A chapel of ease, St Helen’s had a curate, not a Rector. The churchwarden was William Bradford’s uncle. He was to play a large part in the young William’s life when, orphaned by the age of 7, William was sent to live with his uncles. William Bradford suffered a long illness during his childhood during which time he spent time reading literature and the Bible. Perhaps this experience of ill-health and early exposure to the Bible developed his interest in theology. By the age of 12, he had heard Richard Clyfton preach and continued to attend his services at Babworth despite being forbidden to do so by his uncles. This is how he encountered the much older William Brewster who lived 4 miles away from Austerfield at Scrooby Manor. William Brewster seems to have taken the teenager under his wing. They walked together on Sundays to hear Richard Clyfton preach at Babworth and Bradford eventually moved into Scrooby Manor to live with the Brewster family as he later did in Leiden. By the time the Separatist group decided to flee England for Holland, William Bradford was still only 18 years old. In years to come, he was to write a wonderful chapter on William Brewster in Of Plimouth Plantation.
I was particularly keen to see the stone font in which William Bradford was baptised on 19 March 1589. Remarkably, having been removed from the church it was later found in a local farmyard where it was in use as a water trough! On the 400th anniversary of his baptism, a stained-glass window was installed where three beautiful panels depict Bradford outside the church, on the Mayflower, and lastly as Governor of Plymouth Colony. Ironically, Bradford is commemorated in stained-glass, something of which the Separatists disapproved.
A few minutes’ walk from St Helena’s is the spot where William Bradford lived when he moved to Austerfield at the age of one. While there is still a house on the spot where Austerfield Manor once stood, all that remains of the original dwelling is one large wooden beam.
A short drive brought us to Bawtry where we visited St Nicholas Church which was unfortunately locked. Sadly, theft from churches has forced churches to be locked outside of hours of service. This church was preached in illegally by John Robinson and Richard Clyfton. In order to preach, they would have had to have permission which they did not have. It is thought that William Bradford might have first heard Richard Clyfton preach here. One can only imagine the effect this would have had on the young man.
The geographical features of the area we visited were important not only because the villages described are all close to one another. They were also to be found along or close by to the Great North Road which was the main road linking London to Scotland. It runs like an artery from South to North and was the road used by William Brewster and William Bradford to hear Richard Clyfton preach at Babworth. It was also the road used by government spies and informers as they travelled around the country. As the Separatist communities of Pilgrim Country were located in such proximity to the road they might have been easier to keep an eye on. Their activities became known to the church authorities and in 1607 the High Court of the Ecclesiastical Commission decided to clamp down on the activities of the Separatists congregations at Gainsborough and Scrooby. But the geographical particularities also provided a means of escape as the villages were located alongside rivers and waterways that led to the East coast of England from where the Pilgrims boarded ships for Holland and a new life that they hoped would allow them to escape persecution and provide the religious freedom they desired.
Pilgim Country and the Mayflower 400 Celebrations
The towns and villages of Pilgrim Country have many activities planned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage. Of particular interest is the opening of the Pilgrim Museum in Retford which takes place in May 2019. The Pilgrim Trail will be updated too. Other activities in the region will begin from Illuminate in November 2019 which is a festival of light that celebrates the American Thanksgiving and which has been taken up in Pilgrim Country since 2015. The celebrations, tours and special local events will run throughout 2020. There is much information to be had on the website www.pilgrimroots.org which will provide updated local information for activities in each location.
Pilgrims and Prophets offer a range of tailor-made tours of Pilgrim Country for groups and individuals. They can be contacted via their website.
Where to Stay in Pilgrim Country
Browns is a 5* rated Bed and Breakfast – the only one in the area – situated in the hamlet of Holbeck on the Welbeck Country Estate. It is run by Joan Brown who is the friendliest and most helpful host you could wish to find. Nothing was too much trouble and she organised our restaurant bookings, re-arrangements and more. The three en-suite garden bedrooms all have four-poster beds.
Our extra-large bed was both vast and very comfortable and the room was warm despite the sub-zero temperature outdoors. The tea-making facilities and biscuits were most welcome. There is a lovely garden to explore in warmer weather. Breakfast is served in the main house dating from 1730 which is filled with display cases of model vintage cars. There is a substantial hot breakfast menu which Joan prepares using locally sourced products. From the Full English to scrambled eggs with smoked salmon or even a simple bowl of creamy porridge with fresh berries – there is something to suit everyone. A Bed and Breakfast experience relies a lot on the personality of the host. At Browns, even an early morning start was enhanced by a nutritious breakfast and Joan’s good cheer.
T: 01909 720659
Where to Eat in Pilgrim Country
We so enjoyed the food and the warm welcome at The Elm Tree that we ate there twice. Located in the village of Elmton, this country pub is understandably popular offering a good selection of wines and food to match. Using local ingredients, the chef prepares a British menu including game in season. As it was indeed game season we chose both rabbit and partridge as well as pigeon breast. The menu, however, also includes all the pub classics such as fish and chips, liver and bacon, sausage and mash, gammon and egg, burgers and steaks. There are also vegan and dairy free options.
Rabbit pie was packed with very tender pulled meat served with thick, hand cut chips and roast vegetables. The roast pheasant was moist and served with a delicious potato dauphinoise.
Very hearty portions left little space for dessert, but we shared a sticky toffee pudding with a scoop of stem ginger ice cream. The Elm Tree not only serves well-executed dishes, but mention must be made of the excellent service which further enhanced two relaxing, and very filling, evenings.
T: 01909 721261
Visiting Pilgrim Country – Useful Facts
Because of the rural setting, the Pilgrim Trail is best experienced as part of a self-drive or guided tour. About three hours from London, Scrooby is on the A638 connecting to the M18 North and A614/A1 South. Babworth is on the B6420 connecting to the A1/M18 North and A1 South.
The nearest station is Retford, around an hour and a half from London.
For more information please check here
For more information about Mayflower 400 celebrations, in general, please see the Mayflower400 website
We’ve been gradually covering all the Mayflower 400 destinations in the UK and the Netherlands. Here are a few more features you may find of interest.