The Mayflower set sail on 16th September 1620 from Plymouth, UK, to voyage to America, known at the time as the New World. But its history and story start long before that.
Its passengers were in search of a new life of religious freedom. They would go on to influence the future of the United States of America in ways they could never have imagined.
The group, who would go on to be known as the Pilgrims, wanted to start a new way of life free of the Church of England's doctrine. More than 30 million people can trace their ancestry to the 102 passengers and approximately 30 crew who landed in Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts, in the harsh winter of 1620.
Their story begins many years before, beginning with a decision made by King Henry VIII of England that would change the course of world history forever.
When Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, only provided him with a daughter, he was well aware of the importance of having a son and heir. Henry wanted a divorce but he was unable to get one from the Pope and so decided to break away from the Roman Catholic Church.
He created his own church, with its own rules determined by him - called the Church of England. In doing this, Henry was expelled by the Pope and the reformation of the English churches had started.
Many believed that Henry’s new church was still too similar to the Pope’s and wanted even more changes. Some wanted to separate it from other churches by purifying it of all Catholic practices. They became known as the Puritans.
However, others believed that you could not change the church and that the only way to form a new group was to break away entirely. They became known as the Separatists.
Unfortunately, for the Separatists, if you did not follow the state religion, the Church of England as set out by King Henry VIII, you would be prosecuted.
The leading religious Separatists who voyaged to America in 1620 were originally from the Bassetlaw area of Nottinghamshire, where their beliefs were shaped.
Regarded as dangerous religious renegades who rejected fundamental principles of the State and the established Church of England, they worshipped in secret to avoid arrest and persecution.
Among them was William Brewster, who was brought up in Scrooby. Inspired by the radical words of Richard Clifton, the rector of nearby All Saints' Church, Babworth, Brewster is believed to have founded a Separatist Church in his family home - the (privately owned) manor house at Scrooby. He was fined for non-attendance at St. Wilfrid’s Church in Scrooby but was respected as an elder and spiritual guide, and played a significant role in the congregation’s later journeys.
Scrooby Manor House
Brewster strongly influenced William Bradford from Austerfield, near Doncaster. When the Separatists landed in America, Bradford went on to become Plymouth Colony’s Governor, serving the colony for more than 30 years. William Bradford’s journal, Of Plimoth Plantation, records everything that happened to the group, including how they had become so persecuted that they could no longer live peacefully.
Bradford was baptized St Helena's church where the original font can be seen today. Heavily influenced by leading Pilgrim William Brewster, he was a sickly young orphan when they first met, but grew into a passionate religious radical.
Some of the Separatists are thought to have worshipped clandestinely at Gainsborough Old Hall - now regarded as one of the best preserved medieval manor houses in Britain - with the permission of its sympathetic owner, merchant William Hickman.
Their preacher, John Smyth, was a strong influence on the Mayflower Pilgrims, and is generally considered to have later been a founder of the Baptist churches. Smyth had a large congregation of sixty or seventy people meeting secretly, thanks to the sympathies of William Hickman.
Inside Gainsborough Old Hall
In 1606, they formally separated from the state church. Two groups formed – one in Gainsborough and one in Scrooby, across the Trent, under the care of a like-minded preacher Richard Clifton, the former rector of Babworth.
Using the Bible as their guide the Gainsborough Separatists vowed:
It cost them much hardship and heartache and ultimately their homes and their homeland. As the authorities intensified their crackdown on the Separatists, Smyth and a number of his followers resolved to emigrate in pursuit of their religious freedom. They slipped away from Gainsborough in 1607-08, heading for Holland.
William Hickman’s mother Rose was a remarkable lady who wrote her life story in her own hand at the age of 85. Born Rose Locke in 1535 during Henry VIII’s reign, she grew up a committed Protestant. She married Anthony Hickman, a London based merchant adventurer who, with her brother Thomas Locke as partner voyaged to the far countries to the south and south east parts of the world. Their pioneering trading journeys were chronicled by the geographer Hakluyt.
When Henry VIII’s daughter Mary I came to the throne in 1553 she reversed her father’s church reforms and forcibly reintroduced Catholicism. She looked once more to the Pope in Rome to head the English Church. Rose, Anthony and Thomas secretly helped the Protestant cause and gave shelter to hunted men, including the founder of the Presbyterian Church John Knox. Frightened by the men’s arrest and solitary confinement in London’s notorious Fleet Prison, Anthony escaped and fled to Antwerp on his release.
Rose was expecting her first child and could not travel with her husband. When the baby was born she stored all her household stuff in a friend’s house and took only the baby and a large feather bed which she laid in the bottom of the old hulk that took her to Antwerp. The master said of the ship:
“If it please God to speed us well in the voyage it should never go to sea again.”
The crossing took five days in rough seas.
Rose avoided a full Catholic baptism for her first child in England by substituting sugar for the salt she should have provided as part of the ritual. In Antwerp the Church was also Catholic but worship was in a large congregation in the Cathedral and they were not missed. When her second baby was born Rose again avoided Catholic baptism. Their house had two doors leading out onto separate streets and she implied to neighbours that she had left by the other door to go to the baptism.
There was a chapel for English merchants and their families but the governor of the small English community turned a blind eye to the Hickmans and he let them know that though he did bark, yet he did not bite.
During Queen Mary’s reign Rose often prayed earnestly to God to take either 'her or me' forth of the world. When Mary died in 1558, the Hickmans were able to return to England. Rose proudly claimed that during Mary’s reign, she never was present at any of the Popish masses or any other idolatrous service.
Rose was still vigorously alive during the years when the Separatist Church formed in Gainsborough and must surely have influenced her son’s attitude towards religious freedom. She was buried at the Parish Church in Gainsborough on 22nd November 1613.
William Hickman was a religious exile as a baby and the son of strong-minded free-thinking parents, William grew up valuing religious freedom. In 1596 the merchant class, to which William belonged, was rising buoyantly in England as trade in Europe and the newly developing colonies boomed. Many merchants found their wealth overtaking that of the traditional aristocracy whose incomes were fixed and whose lifestyles and commitments to the Queen and her armed forces were financially crippling.
Living in London at the time when Lord Burgh was negotiating with London moneylenders for loans, William was in an ideal position to acquire his own country house and estate as did many of his fellows.
The Gainsborough Separatists & John Smyth
John Smyth was a preacher in the city of Lincoln from 1600 to 1602, but after two years there he was deposed by the Bishop of Lincoln for his strange doctrines and forward preaching of his Puritan views that had been developing since his early days at Cambridge University.
He then came to Gainsborough as a preacher. His daughter Chara was baptised in Gainsborough Parish Church in 1603/4, followed by Sara in March 1605/6. Later that year he broke with the Church of England to join the Separatists.
It is thought that John Smyth enjoyed the freedom to preach in his own style at the Old Hall under the protection of the new lord of the manor William Hickman, who was far from worried about public opinion or harassment by the bishop.
Hopes of religious freedom were dashed for people like John Smyth and Richard Clyfton in 1604. The new monarch King James dreaded a church without bishops because he could see a time when there would be no bishops - and no king. He threatened “I will have bishops to govern the Church. I will make them conform themselves or I will harry them out of this land - or else do worse.” He banned private religious meetings and removed clergymen who refused to conform. The Separatists were under severe pressure.
By this time, John Smyth already had a large congregation of sixty or seventy people meeting secretly in Gainsborough. Members were drawn from the town and the surrounding country including the Isle of Axholme, Retford, Worksop, Broxtowe Hall, Scrooby, Sutton, Mattersey, Sturton le Steeple and North Wheatley.
In 1606, they formally separated from the state church. Later the same year the Gainsborough congregation split into two groups. One group now met nearer their homes across the River Trent under the care of a like-minded preacher Richard Clifton, the former rector of Babworth.
By 1606, Scrooby had Richard Clifton as Preacher, John Robinson as Teacher and William Brewster as Elder. The large congregation, including William Bradford, met secretly in Scrooby Manor House where Brewster entertained them with great love.
They continued to meet there during the spring and summer of 1607, but their activities were reported and in September Brewster lost his government job as master of the post. The congregation was then 'hunted and persecuted on every side'. Brewster and three others were also harassed by the Archbishop of York, the owner of Scrooby Manor, and they were imprisoned and fined in York. 'Some were taken and clapped in prison, others had their houses beset and watched day and night and most were fain to fly and leave their houses and habitations and their means of livelihood'. At that, both the Scrooby and the Gainsborough Separatists decided to leave England and they began to sell their belongings.
Escape to Holland: The Gainsborough Congregation’s Escape
The Separatists were being pushed to conform. Sir William Hickman found himself under pressure from the Bishop of Lincoln for permitting John Smyth to preach. Unable to emigrate legally without permits and unable to obtain permits, John Smyth and at least forty of his Gainsborough followers slipped quietly away and disappeared from Gainsborough in late 1607 or early 1608.
How they went is not known but it would be relatively easy to slip aboard a river barge at the town docks and travel to Hull and then to sail from there on a merchant ship. They are next heard of in Amsterdam where they joined some 300 other English Separatists in exile. At the time of their escape John Smyth’s two daughters, recently baptised at the Parish Church, were still babies.
One night in the autumn of 1607, a passionate and determined group of men, women and children secretly met a boat on the edge of ‘The Wash’ at Scotia Creek, Fishtoft, near Boston. They planned to defy the authority of the English church and escape across the North Sea to Holland to live in religious freedom. They had walked 60 miles from Scrooby and were hoping for a new life.
They had arranged to travel with the captain of a ship; instead he betrayed them and the local militia seized the group and took their money, books and personal possessions. Stripped of their belongings and hope, the group were brought by boat back to Boston and held and tried at the Guildhall, home to the local law court and cells. After a month, most were sent back “from whence they came”, but seven ringleaders were ordered to the higher Assizes court of Lincoln.
Today, you can visit Boston Guildhall and see the cells where they were held. Nearby is the Pilgrim Fathers memorial marking the point at Scotia Creek from where they made their attempt to escape.
The year following that of the trial of the Scrooby congregation at Boston Guildhall, the Pilgrims make another - this time successful - attempt to escape.
In 1608 the Separatists secured the services of a Dutch boat and her captain to take them to Holland. One of the group, Francis Hawkins fell ill - his body is buried in St. Andrews Church graveyard. The Dutch captain set sail from Immingham Creek with only the men - the women and children were to later join them in Holland - their journey no doubt full of perilous challenges.
At the age of 10 Edward Winslow, who would go on to become a senior figure in the Pilgrims' ranks, was championed for a scholarship by the Dean of Worcester Cathedral. THe later became an apprentice contracted for eight years but after an apparent legal dispute Winslow apparently did not fulfill his contract with Beale as about two years later, in 1617, he moved to Leiden, Holland to join the Separatist church.
Leiden in Holland was a city of free-thinkers, relative religious tolerance, and a long tradition of offering shelter to the dispossessed. Following their escape from England, the Mayflower Pilgrims carved new lives here, bought land near Pieterskerk and built houses that became known as the Engelse poort (English Alley).
Living here for 12 years, Leiden had a profound influence on the lives of the Pilgrims - even after their departure. 'Civil marriage' was one innovation that the Pilgrims took with them to the new world.
Led by John Robinson, the group of refugees were granted leave to settle in the city - the request was answered with... “No honest persons will be refused free and unconstrained entry to the city to take up residence”.
From 1620 some of the Pilgrim community emigrated from Leiden. The freedom of religion was limited in the Netherlands too. On top of that the threat of war loomed large, because of the end of the Twelve Year Truce with Spain in 1621. The economic situation of the Pilgrims was not always very good and finally they were afraid that their children would integrate too much into Dutch life, and the Dutch church. They were right on the last count. More than half of the group remained in Leiden and eventually became indistinguishable from the locals.'
Those who decided to leave settled on Virginia in the New World. William Bradford lists some of the reasons which the Puritans had to leave, including the discouragements that they faced in the Netherlands and the hope of attracting others by finding "a better, and easier place of living", the children of the group being "drawn away by evil examples into extravagance and dangerous courses", and the "great hope, for the propagating and advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world." Edward Winslow listed similar reasons. He stressed that it was important for the people to retain their English identity, culture, and language.
Virginia was an attractive destination because the presence of the older colony might offer better security and trade opportunities; however, they also felt that they should not settle too near, since that might inadvertently duplicate the political environment back in England.
They hired a ship called the Speedwell and set sail on 22nd July 1620 for Southampton, where they would meet fellow Separatists in England.
The Separatists in England had hired a ship called the Mayflower, a three-masted, armed merchant ship, about 100 feet long and 25 feet at her widest. The ship was built in Harwich, and commanded and part-owned by her Master, Captain Christopher Jones.
In 1611, Jones decided to leave Harwich and move south to Rotherhithe, London, a mile downstream on the Thames from the Tower of London.
Many dissenters from the London Borough of Southwark had fled to Holland but others continued to meet in secret. In 1620, they were given permission to sail to America. They joined the Mayflower and set sail for Southampton, to meet the Speedwell.
Southampton had established trading links with Virginia and Newfoundland, so there was an experienced pool of sailors who had previously made the dangerous Atlantic crossing. It is thought that this is where William Brewster slipped aboard, having been in hiding after publishing religious material that angered King James.
Southampton was a thriving seaport offering all the commercial facilities to provision and equip for the long sea voyage. Many of the buildings and streets familiar to the Pilgrims then still exist.
The town had established trading links with Virginia and Newfoundland, so there was an experienced pool of seamen who had previously made the dangerous Atlantic crossing. John Alden, a cooper, joined the Mayflower and Stephen Hopkins from Hampshire also joined here and is known as the only Mayflower passenger with prior New World experience, having been shipwrecked in Bermuda in 1609.
Southampton was an ideal place to start the voyage for many reasons. The water is one of the world’s largest natural harbours and offers a safe anchorage, plus its unique double tide provides easy access for 16 hours out of every 24.
There were already concerns about the Speedwell, which required repairs after developing a leak. But on 15 August the two ships weighed anchor and set sail.
The Speedwell was found to be leaking and it was thought at the time that she may have had too large a mast and sail area. The extensive ship building and repair facilities near West Quay were very useful in expediting repairs.
According to Southampton’s Book of Instruments records, a ship called Speedwell was built locally in 1606 and this may have been the vessel that returned to her home port.
However, the most important benefit to the expedition was the availability of all the supplies required, not only for the voyage but to establish a permanent community in the New World. It is thought that the Pilgrims and settlers shopped during the day and slept back on board both ships. These were supposedly anchored just off West Quay.
In 1620, there were 153 Merchants in the Town of whom 118 were engaged partially or wholly in the wool trade but the balance would have been able to provide all the other items required for self-sufficiency.
The two ships had not gotten very far when the Speedwell began to take on water again. It may have been because she carried too much sail, straining her timbers, or the direct result of sabotage by a reluctant crew. They changed course for Dartmouth, Devon. It took about a week for the port’s skilled craftsmen to make good the damage.
Unfortunately, the second attempt did not go as hoped either. The Mayflower and the Speedwell were 300 miles clear of Land’s End when the smaller ship yet again began leaking badly and could not risk continuing. The two boats turned about for Plymouth.
By this time, the cramped, damp and miserable passengers had already spent up to six weeks at sea, basically getting nowhere. With a fair wind and good fortune, they would have hoped to be nearing America by then.
The Speedwell was finally declared unfit for the journey. Some of the Pilgrims dropped out. The remainder crowded onto the Mayflower, which required re-provisioning, despite funds running low.
She left Plymouth on 16th September, with up to 30 crew and 102 passengers on board. Just under half of them were Separatists, or Saints. They used the name Saints as a way to indicate that they were part of a particular group with a certain set of beliefs. The rest were known as Strangers, as this is how the Saints viewed all others outside of their group. The Strangers were a group of skilled tradespeople sent by the investors to help build the new colony.
The Mayflower Steps, Plymouth, commemorates the spot near to where they Pilgrims are thought to have boarded
The following passengers boarded the Mayflower at Plymouth:
Getting to America
It was crowded on the ship, and many endured hunger and terrible living conditions, but this was only a sign of what was to come. To make matters worse, the winter storms blew the ship off course. Instead of landing in New Virginia, the ship arrived in Cape Harbour, at what is now Provincetown, on 21st November 1620.
That day, the settlers wrote the Mayflower Compact. Signed by 41 men on board, the compact was an agreement to cooperate for the general good of the colony. They would deal with issues by voting, establish constitutional law and rule by the majority. This was later claimed to be the foundations of American democracy.
The document read:
In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereigne Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, France and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc. having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honour of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civill body politick, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enacte, constitute, and frame such just and equall laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the generall good of the Colonie unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape-Codd the 11. of November, in the year of the raigne of our sovereigne lord, King James, of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fiftie-fourth. Anno Dom. 1620.
A few days later, Susannah White gave birth to a son aboard the Mayflower, the first English child born in New England. He was named Peregrine, derived from the Latin for ‘pilgrim’.
Having the need for clean water and fertile land, a Pilgrim party went ashore to explore the area for the first time, on 25th November. Having spotted a small group of Native Americans, the Pilgrims tried to follow them but got lost in the woods and stuck amongst some dense thickets. They decided to change course and came across cleared land where corn had been grown. As well as finding corn, that they took back to the Mayflower, they also found graves. The village had been home to the Wampanoag and called Patuxet but had been deserted following the outbreak of a plague.
The colonist would face no resistance in settling there. They departed the bleak shores of Provincetown and arrived, finally, in Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts, on 26th December 1620.
It was difficult in this new land. The winter was cold and many of the passengers stayed on board the Mayflower. The ship became home to the sick and dying, with many succumbing to a mixture of contagious diseases. By the end of the first winter, just under half of the crew and passengers had survived.
The colony feared an attack by the Native Americans. In February, Captain Christopher Jones oversaw the moving of the cannons from the ship onto land. Each cannon would have weighed almost half a ton.
Once his crew had started to recover from disease, Jones sailed the Mayflower back to England at the beginning of April. It took him less than half the time to sail home, than on their outward journey.
During March 1621, an English speaking Native American, named Samoset, entered the grounds of the Plymouth colony and introduced himself. He is said to have asked for a beer and spent the night talking with the settlers. Samoset, later, brought another Native American, Squanto, to meet the Pilgrims. Squanto’s English was more advanced. They arranged a meeting with the Wampanoag chief, Massasoit.
The relationship between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims developed. The Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims how to hunt and grow crops. They began trading furs with each other. Squanto lived with the Pilgrims, acting as an advisor and translator, ensuring their safe and prosperous relationships with other natives.
In the autumn of 1621, the colonists celebrated a successful and bountiful harvest in a three day festival of prayer with the Wampanoag. This has become known as the first Thanksgiving.
Each tribe in New England had their own territory in which to fish, harvest and hunt. The boundaries for hunting were very strict as some areas had large populations. The Wampanoag people knew how to work with the land and moved between sites to get the best of their harvest. They spent the summer near the shore and the winter in land, amongst the woods.
The Wampanoag worked as a confederation, a number of groups united together. A head Sachem managed a Sachem from each of the groups. Within this organisation, family and group links were the most important, connecting them to each other and their territory.
The Wampanoag had already had contact with Europeans. In the 16th century, European merchant ships had sailed the East coast of America. Captains of the ships increased their profits by capturing the Native Americans and selling them as slaves. In 1614, Captain Thomas Hunt captured many Wampanoag and sold them as slaves in Spain. One, Tisquantum (or Squanto), was bought by Spanish monks. They tried to convert him but ended up freeing him.
In the years before the Mayflower landed, The Wampanoag had been attacked by neighbouring tribes, losing land along the coast. Then, sometime between 1616 and 1619, up to 90% of the population was killed during an outbreak of disease. It is thought that the diseases were brought over by Europeans, meaning the colonists had some immunity but the Native Americans were highly susceptible. The losses were so devastating that the Wampanoag had to reorganise its structure and Sachems had to join together and build new unions.
The Narragansett tribe had not been affected by the epidemics and therefore remained a powerful tribe. They demanded that the Wampanoag show them honour and tribute. Massasoit, from the Wampanoag people, formed an ally with the English at Plymouth Colony to help fend off any attacks from the Narragansett.
In 1621, the Narragansett sent the Plymouth colony a threat of arrows wrapped up in snake skin. William Bradford, who was governor of the colony, filled the snake skin with powder and bullets and sent it back. The Narragansett knew what this message meant, and would not attack the colony.
The Native American activist group, The United American Indians of New England, continues to raise awareness of racism towards Native Americans and the consequences of colonialism. When the Wampanoag leader, Frank James, was informed that his speech was inappropriate and inflammatory for the annual Thanksgiving ceremony 1970, he refused to read their revised speech. Supporters followed James to hear him give his original speech on Cole’s Hill, next to the statue of Massasoit. This became the first National Day of Mourning, which continues today in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on the same day as Thanksgiving.
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