Visiting Leiden, Holland

Leiden is just 40 minutes from Amsterdam and as welcoming and charming a city today as it was when the Pilgrims moved there.

Steeped in history, the city boasts many historic sites, monument, alms-houses - and of course windmills! Plus there are over 28km of waterways to explore.

Located in a beautifully preserved house built ca 1365-1370 near the clock tower of the Hooglandskerk, the Leiden American Pilgrim museum tells the stories of the founders of New England, the Pilgrims. Furnishings from Pilgrim times show aspects of daily life, while events involving the Pilgrims themselves are illustrated with a remarkable collection of sixteenth and seventeenth-century maps and engravings by such artists as Gerard Mercator, Adrian van de Venne, Adriaen van Ostade, and Jacques de Gheyn.  

Named after St. Peter, the patron saint of Leiden, Pieterskerk was founded in 1121 and is mainly constructed in late-Gothic style. The Pieterskerk is associated with the Pilgrim Fathers, whose leader John Robinson, lived in the nearby Pieterskerkchoorsteeg (marked with a plaque). John Robinson is buried here, as are the physician Herman Boerhave and  the painter Jan Steen (of Rijksmuseum fame). The church itself features a small exhibition on the Pilgrims in Leiden.

Leiden and the Mayflower story

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 America.

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 to North America.

There were several reasons the Pilgrims left 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.

The ships that brought the Pilgrims across the Atlantic have become famous: Mayflower (1620), Fortune (1621), Anne and Little James (1623) and the second Mayflower (1629).

Their Pilgrims years in Holland formed one of the bases from which they worked. That is why you can still discern old Leiden traditions in the modern USA.

Nine times from Pilgrim to President
Since the Pilgrims came to American no fewer than nine of their descendants have made it to President. Presidents Taylor, Grant, Roosevelt, Bush sr. and jr. and Obama all have a Leiden Pilgrim ancestor.

  • John Adams – 1797-1801
  • His son John Quincy Adams – 1825-1829
  • Zachary Taylor – 1849-1850
  • Ulysses S. Grant – 1869-1877
  • James A. Garfield – 1881-1881
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt – 1933-1945
  • George H.W. Bush – 1989-1993
  • George W. Bush – 2001-2009
  • Barack H. Obama — 2009 – 2016

Leiden-born Thomas Willett became the first mayor of New York. A letter written by this Pilgrim to Hugh Goodyear, vicar of the English reformed church in Leiden on the 16th of September 1660, can be found in the archives in Leiden.

Supported by our national sponsors and funding partners

The Mayflower 400 programme in Leiden

The Leiden programme commemorated the legacy of the Pilgrims in their city, and the reciprocal impact of the city on the community the Pilgrims established in America. Key projects included:

  • The ‘Intellectual Baggage’ exhibition, created in partnership between the Museum De Lakenhall, Leiden University Library and the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum. This focused on the books the Pilgrims took on their journey, exploring the impact of literature throughout the Mayflower’s story

  • The ‘Native Nations in the 17th Century’ exhibition, by Museum Volkenkunde in co-operation with the Wampanoag, which explores the culture of the original inhabitants of America

  • Multiple theatre productions, including by the theatrical music company VeenFabriek and PSǀtheatre

  • The ‘Meet your Pilgrim Relative’ booth, which ran through 2020 and enabled Leiden’s residents to explore their heritage and identify potential links to the Pilgrims

  • The Pilgrim Walking Tour, taking visitors through the city’s Mayflower heritage. Launched in October 2018, this expanded to include digital elements such as AR and VR

Leiden Mayflower Highlights

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