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 of Scotland.

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 livelihood."

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! {Webpage editor}]

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 against Spain.

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 as well.

"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 work."

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 activities.

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 death."

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 Fear.

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.