Saga Of The Pilgrims
New England Takes Root
By John Harris
Copyright 1983, Globe Newspaper Co.
Reprinted online by permission
"There was a large company of them purposed
to get passage at Boston in Lincolnshire, and for that end
had hired a ship wholly to themselves and made agreement with
the master to be ready at a certain day..."
An eyewitness and participant, William Bradford, then 17 years
of age, described in those words the beginning of the Pilgrims'
first, heartbreaking attempted emigration from the Midlands
of England that would eventually lead--by chance--to the first
permanent colony in a faraway land yet to be called New England.
The time: mid-autumn, 1607.
Why had these people, these farmers--Bradford said that they
"had only been used to plain country life and the innocent
trade of husbandry [farming]--engaged a shipmaster to take
them out of a land beloved alike to generations of their ancestors
and to themselves? Because they were being persecuted by their
new sovereign, James I, recently arrived from the kingdom
Like his predecessor, Elizabeth I, King James was an absolute
monarch who combined in his crown and person control of both
church and state. Not long after his coronation as England's
king, he called the nation's highest civil and ecclesiastical
authorities to his Hampton Court Palace outside London, and
there proclaimed that he would make all his subjects conform
to his state religion or hound them out of the realm.
"There was no hope," said Bradford, that this small band of
dissenters--these people about to become self-exiles--could
stay in their remote Midland area, the village of Scrooby
and its surrounding hamlets at the northern tip of Nottinghamshire
where it borders so closely on Yorkshire to the north and
Lincolnshire to the east. Moreover, said Bradford, they had
heard that in Holland, across the North Sea from Boston in
Lincolnshire, they could enjoy a hope denied them in England:
"freedom of religion for all men."
Some years would pass before these English husbandmen and
their wives and children would become known as Pilgrims. To
the authorities they were something worse than dissenters;
they were separatists, people eschewing the state church altogether
despite brutally harsh penalties that might be imposed upon
them. Brownists. That was the name by which they were known,
a name derived from that of a leading Separatist of the 1580's,
Rev. Robert Browne, and conceived in derision by their critics.
According to Bradford's account, when it became known that
these religious rebels believed that they should make their
own covenant with God, should reject the "courts, canons and
ceremonies" of the state church and try to live a simple,
biblical life as in the time of Christ and His apostles, "they
were scoffed and scorned by the profane multitude."
When he wrote of the "profane multitude," Bradford was referring
to a nationwide reaction against the nonconformists. Despite
that reaction--and the fact that the very name "Puritan" had
originally been devised by maligners "to cast contempt"--the
number of Pilgrims had been steadily growing. Puritans did
desire to remain within the state church, but sought to purify
its practices in ways described in the New Testament.
The Pilgrims, relatively few in number, were also Puritans.
But they were extremists, who felt that they could pursue
a biblical life only by separating from the state church.
Clergymen all over England whose consciences drew them toward
nonconformity were being forced by their bishops to take oaths
of conformity, or else face being silenced and deprived of
their religious posts.
"And poor people were so vexed with apparitors and pursuivants
(officers enforcing conformity) and commissary (church) courts,
as truly their affliction was not small. Which, notwithstanding,
they bore sundry years with much patience...[John James, pastor
of the (Sabbatarian) Church of God in the mid 1600's, was
beheaded, drawn and quartered, with his head placed on a post
across from his church building! England wasn't nice to nonconformists
of any persuasion.]
Early Brownists, in the days of Queen Elizabeth, had seen
many of their clergy hanged--martyred for their conscientious
refusal to conform.
For the later Brownists of Scrooby, the most perilous times
came about a year before they resolved on emigration, when
they began "exercising the worship of God amongst themselves,
notwithstanding all the diligence and malice of their adversaries..."
Bradford told how "they could not long continue in any peaceable
condition, but were hunted and persecuted on every side, so
as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison
of those which now came upon them.
"For some were taken and clapped up in prison, others had
their houses beset and watched night and day, and hardly escaped
their [pursuers'] hands; and the most were fain to flee and
leave their houses and habitations, and the means of their
With these Brownists, and serving as their chosen pastor and
teacher, respectively, were two clergymen whose nonconformity
had deprived them of their livings. One was Rev. Richard Clyfton
from the neighboring hamlet of Babworth; the other, Rev. John
Robinson from Norwich, the center of Puritanism in East Anglia.
For the Brownists of Scrooby the most threatening development
of all in the months before they departed was that punitive
legal action was in progress against the mainstay of their
group, the man most responsible for their religious inspiration
and fellowship, the man who made his purse cheerfully available
even though it was "sometimes above his ability," the foremost
citizen of Scrooby, William Brewster--a man who would later
become a principal founder of New England. [That's my ancestor!
Brewsters had lived in this part of England for many generations.
William Brewster was probably born in or near Scrooby
in 1566, although the customary parish records that
might verify this are simply not to be found.
As was true of his father, also named William, Brewster's
financial position and importance were solidly based on his
being in the employ of the very highest authorities in the
realm, the archbishop of York and the crown itself. Elizabeth
I and later James I.
The archbishop of York had named Brewster senior his receiver
and bailiff for life in Scrooby. This provided him with the
finest residence for miles around: Scrooby Manor. An occasional
residence of the archbishop and host to many members of the
clergy, Scrooby Manor had sheltered royalty of the realm on
many resplendent occasions . Throughout the area of Scrooby
were the farms of tenants and yeomen to whom Brewster was
rent-gatherer and manorial magistrate.
The Great North Road, 350 miles from London to Edinburgh,
then ran directly through Scrooby. Here was located the twelfth
station along the royal post route between the two capitals.
And Brewster earned his second income by serving as its postmaster--a
direct agent of the king and Privy Council. Most of the messages
sent were government dispatches and Brewster had to be prepared
at all times to see royal couriers speedily on their way.
Moreover, the postmaster also maintained an inn within the
manor to provide for the personal needs of official travelers.
The employment of the crown and archbishop brought the Brewsters
substantial advantages. Young Brewster, when 15 years of age,
traveled through Sherwood Forest to Cambridge University,
about 100 miles away, and entered Peterhouse College. He was
a pensioner, which meant he could afford to pay for his lodgings,
keep and education.
By 1580, Cambridge was already the main British center of
nonconformist, Puritan thinking. Of the men then at the university,
a number would later be imprisoned, exiled, or martyred on
the scaffold for following their religious convictions. Young
Brewster, a studious, serious youth, learned to speak Latin
and understood some Greek. At Peterhouse, Bible clerks read
Scripture aloud during meals.
Like many sons of the gentry whose economic futures were secure,
Brewster left the university before graduation, and in 1583
went to the center of the realm, London, to join the staff
and household of a man who would shortly become one of the
highest officials in England, William Davison. Bradford called
Davison "religious and godly." Davison was a skilled diplomat--one
of the best serving the ever-devious queen--and also a Puritan.
Davison handled missions of the highest importance. He traveled
to Scotland to block its alliance with France. He went often
to the Low Countries during Queen Elizabeth's on-again-off-again
effort to help the Dutch in their long, uphill war of liberation
On an emergency mission to Holland in 1586, after Spain had
overwhelmed the Low Country stronghold of Antwerp and had
imperiled the Dutch cities to the north, Davison went to Leyden
to arrange to provide an English army for the Dutch. In return
the Dutch pawned three of their towns to pinch-penny Queen
Elizabeth "as gates (security) for her expenses."
Brewster, then 20 years old, accompanied his mentor and for
the first time saw the city of Leyden, located a few miles
from The Hague. Leyden would in later years become the chief
haven for the Pilgrims during their stay in Holland. The city
was already famous for withstanding a long Spanish siege and,
as a reward, being chosen by the great Dutch liberator, William
the Silent, as the site of a celebrated university--an institution
that would one day help the Pilgrims resist the persecutions
of James I.
So trusted was Brewster that Davison gave him the care of
the keys to the three so-called "cautionary" Dutch towns that
were in pledge to Queen Elizabeth. Brewster, said Bradford,
slept with the keys "under his pillow."
After Davison, his skills recognized by the queen, had been
elevated to the Privy Council and the exalted office of secretary
of state, his public career was wrecked by the duplicity of
the queen. She made him a scapegoat for her ordering, in 1587,
the beheading of her second cousin and closest relative, Mary
Queen of Scots. She sent letters to Mary's son James, then
sitting on the throne of Scotland as James VI, telling him
that the execution was a "lamentable accident...I had not
so much as a thought of."
The principal culprit in Mary's death, the queen suggested,
was Davison. To support her royal pretense, Queen Elizabeth,
lacing her words with her invariable rough oaths, ordered
Davison imprisoned in the Tower of London. The queen even
had the Star Chamber--the notorious royal judicial body--impose
a ruinous fine of 10,000 pounds on him.
For two years, while Davison was unjustly confined to the
tower, Brewster stayed near, and according to Bradford did
the ailing Davison "many faithful offices of service in the
times of his troubles."
William Brewster senior become ill in 1589, his son returned
to Scrooby Manor to assume his father's manorial and postal
duties. The following year Brewster senior died. In the heart
of Scrooby, a short way from Scrooby Manor, still stands the
Anglican parish church, St. Wilfred's, with its beautiful
spire, much as in Brewster's day. He was a communicant there.
And soon after his return to Scrooby he was married there
"He did much good in the country," said Bradford, "in promoting
and furthering religion, not only by his practice and example...but
by procuring good preachers to the places there-about and
drawing on of others to assist and help forward in such a
BREWSTER STARTED INTRODUCING OUTSIDE preachers to Scrooby
and the neighboring hamlets--a widespread Puritan practice.
The queen and her bishops were inflexibly set against preaching.
Yet Brewster, said Bradford, for many years "walked according
to the light he saw till the Lord revealed further unto him."
Bradford referred here to a revelation that would come in
time to all Separatists and would convince them that remaining
in the state church could endanger their souls, meaning that
they must form a separate church. After his return to Scrooby,
that moment came to Brewster.
He was, said Bradford, "a special stay and help unto them...after
they were joined together in communion." These Brownists of
Scrooby, these Pilgrims, "made a covenant together," added
Bradford--who though hailing from Austerfield 2 1/2 miles
north of Scrooby, was one of them.
"They ordinarily met at his (Brewster's) house on the Lord's
Day, which was a manor of the bishop's, and with great love
he entertained them when they came, making provision for them
to his great charge (expense) and continued to do so whilst
they could stay in England. And when they came to remove out
of the country he was one of the first in all adventures,
and forwardest in any charge."
The gathering menace of the ecclesiastical court (the bishops'
High Court of Commission), already ordering arrests, was not
the Pilgrims' only imminent danger.
On Sept. 30, 1607, Brewster's postermastership was terminated
when he suddenly resigned and a successor was named. The crown
also had clearly become aware of Brewster's persistent noncomformist
Escaping to Holland confronted the Pilgrims with difficulties
that deeply troubled but did not dismay these resolute souls.
"Though they could not stay," said Bradford, "yet were they
not suffered to go; but the ports and havens were shut against
them, so they were fain to seek secret means of conveyance,
and to bribe and fee (pay) the mariners, and give extraordinary
rates for their passages." Thus they became a chapter in the
pathetic annals of humankind's cruelty to refugees whose consciences
force them to differ.
King James would have then out of his kingdom. But to leave
required permits, and to seek permits meant self-incrimination.
Penalties could be severe, and England then swarmed with spies
and informers eager for the bounty available for turning nonconforming
neighbors in, whether to bishops' High Court of Commission
for Ecclesiastical Causes or to the Privy Council.
There was also the problem that Holland was still in a state
of war with Spain. And these religious refugees had another
profound concern, thus described Bradford:
"To go into a country they knew not but by hearsay, where
they must learn a new language and get their livings they
knew not how, it being a dear (expensive) place and subject
to the miseries of war, it was by many thought an adventure
almost desperate, a case intolerable and misery worse than
There is much about the flight from
Scrooby we do not know. Precisely how many Pilgrims there
were (most likely fewer than 100), when they left, and how
they got to the east coast port of Boston, 65 miles to the
southeast of Scrooby, Bradford left untold. Nor did he record
the date of that "certain day" when they were to meet the
shipmaster and board his vessel, though he did say the rendezvou
was after dark.
The date Brewster gave up his postermastership may well have
coincided with his completing arrangements for the ship to
meet them at Boston. The "certain day" would then have been
in October. By then they would had to have disposed of all
belongings save those that could be carried--a constraint
made more poignant by the fact that some were transporting
babies. Among these were Brewster's wife Mary, who carried
their third child, a girl strangely--or revealingly--named
They probably went, as they did to their secret services in
the chapel at Scooby Manor, in small groups, inconspicuously,
with the ringing of bells. Wheeled vehicles were uncommon;
most of the roads between villages were little better than
bridle paths. This was true even of large stretches of the
Great North Road. To cross streams meant wading; bridges in
rural areas were few.
Thirty miles southwest of Scrooby, in the direction of Boston,
lies Lincoln, a shire town (county seat) renowned for its
cathedral, which is one of England's largest and was built
by William the Conqueror. If they had boats, the Pilgrims
might well have gone from Lincoln down the Witham River to
the remote creek below Boston where they were to board their
hired ship. But whether by boat or afoot, they finally reached
the creek on the Witham, in an area of flat fenlands that
offered views of great expanses of sky--an area very like
the Dutch coastland on the opposite side of the North Sea.
The surprise outcome of the Pilgrims' herculean attempt to
flee has been recounted by Bradford. Recalling what the villainous
English shipmaster did after subjecting them to "long waiting
and large expenses," Bradford wrote:
"When he had them and their goods aboard, he betrayed them,
having before hand complotted with the searchers and other
officers so to do, who took them, and put them into open boats,
and there rifled and ransacked them, searching their shirts
for money, yes even the women further than became modesty;
and then carried them back into the town and made them a spectacle
and wonder to the multitude which came flocking on all sides
to behold them."
After they had been "rifled and stripped of their money, book
and much other goods" by the catchpoll officers they were
presented to the local magistrates, and messengers were sent
to London to inform the lords of the Privy Counsil. Then the
Pilgrims "were committed to ward"--that is, placed under guard.
A few steps east of Boston's marketplace is the old Guildhall,
or town hall. The cells in its basement were where some of
the Pilgrims were held. The cells were too few for this "large
company," however, so most of the Pilgrims had to be placed
in houses around the town.
A few steps on the opposite side of the marketplace, facing
a bank of the Witham, is St. Botolph's Church, one of the
largest parish churches in England. Its 272 foot tower--"the
Stump" to local residents--can be seen in these lowlands for
miles around as well as from far out on the North Sea. This
church would a few years later be the scene of the Puritan
preaching and influence of Rev. John Cotton, until he was
forced to flee to the New World, where he would become the
"Patriarch of Massachusetts."
The spirit of Puritanism, already growing among the parishioners
of St. Botolph's Church, would be prodigiously helpful in
the plight now confronting these unfortunate Pilgrims.