Last Updated on November 4, 2018
The Mayflower Discovery Trail:
The year 2020 marks the 400 year anniversary of the Mayflower’s journey from England to America. It was in 1620 that an intrepid group of dissenters set sail across the Atlantic on what was then an incredibly dangerous journey. Underlying their journey was a belief that the reformation of English churches by Henry VIII and the creation of the Protestant Church of England was half-hearted and had resulted in something far too close to the original Catholic church, albeit with rules that suited the King and allowed him to divorce his wife in order to remarry. More about the resulting Separatist movement will be covered in later features – this piece is simply to provide an outline of the events which lead to the Mayflower, the travellers who are sometimes known as ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ or ‘Mayflower Pilgrims’ and subsequent journeys to America.There were pockets of Separatists across England and even in Leiden in the Netherlands, where some from Scrooby, Southwark and Gainsborough had escaped. But, at that time the attraction of a new world, one where they could settle and establish communities with their own values, was overwhelming and so, despite the danger, they decided to emigrate.
Commercial sponsorship from the Virginia Trading Company was set up to help raise the funds needed to hire ships. The Mayflower, built in Harwich and docked in Rotherhithe, was hired by the congregation still back in England, along with the Master and part owner Captain Christopher Jones and his crew of around 30 men. The Speedwell was bought by the Separatists who had escaped to Leiden – and both ships met up in Southampton, with the aim of travelling together. Sadly, The Speedwell leaked badly and before the pilgrims had travelled more than 300 miles from Land’s End, they were forced to return to Plymouth. Ultimately the Speedwell was declared unfit – and while some of the Pilgrims dropped out, others crowded onto The Mayflower.
The ship, with around 102 passengers, set sail on 16th September from Plymouth. Just under half of those on board were separatists, the remainder were skilled tradespeople who had been sent by the investors to help build the new colony.
With the onset of winter, it’s perhaps not surprising that the ship eventually landed, well off course, in Cape Harbour on 21st November 1620. There they wrote and signed what is known as the Mayflower Compact, an agreement on the way the colony would be run, with constitutional law and majority rule (although women neither signed the Compact nor had an entitlement to vote). Cape Harbour (now known as Provincetown, Cape Cod) proved to be particularly challenging and the colonists moved further around the coast to Plymouth Bay Massachusetts, where they settled.
Although over half of the crew and passengers died in the first winter, the next year was more successful – partly at least due to the support of the Wampanoag Indians who helped the colony learn how to hunt and grow crops. Their first successful harvest, in the Autumn of 1621 was marked with three days of prayers – and is known as the first Thanksgiving.
What seems remarkable to me is that the original separatists came from across England. Yet, there were enough of them to fill a sailing ship converged at Plymouth – and there were subsequent migrations in the 1630’s. These people were often educated and challenging – unwilling to accept the status quo. Their impact on the early history of America includes the establishment of what became Harvard University and the Mayflower Compact is regarded as a significant precursor of the American Constitution, the idea of laws made by the people that lies at the heart of democracy.
So, over the next months, we will be exploring more of the places in England where the original separatists came from and trying to understand the drivers behind their hearts and minds. And, we will share the journey with you so that, as the 400 year anniversary approaches you can travel around the Country yourself and see for yourself.
So far we have visited London and Harwich. It’s just the start of the story. Harwich, where the Mayflower is believed to have been built and where Captain Christopher Jones was born, has a shipbuilding heritage and even today is a port. Madeleine even had lunch in the Alma Pub, the same building where Christopher Jones’s first wife was born. London, specifically Rotherhithe, was Christopher Jones’s home. And, it’s where the Mayflower initially set sail – although it always planned to meet up with the Speedwell further round the coast. But, there are more connections to the Mayflower in Southwark London – the prison where some of the Mayflower Pilgrims were incarcerated is now a museum and open to the public. And, Southwark Cathedral is home to the John Harvard chapel – Harvard, one of the founders of the great American University, was a later separatist and traveller to the USA, though born and raised in Borough.
Meanwhile, if you’d like to find out more about Mayflower400 do check the website
Update: We’ve now visited Dartmouth – arguably the port from where the Mayflower set sail to the USA and certainly full of Mayflower heritage. Find out more about the Dartmouth Mayflower Heritage and we’ve been to Lincolnshire, to Boston, Gainsborough and Lincoln the area where most of the separatists originated.