In 16th century Tudor England, there was widespread belief that authority over the Church belonged with the monarchy, and not with Rome. England broke with the Catholic Church over the Pope’s refusal to grant Henry VIII a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, the youngest surviving child of Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1533.
Strict conformity with the English, (Anglican) church, was enforced throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, when separatist groups were suppressed. The Puritans were one such group, though they maintained ties with the Anglican. Other separatist groups had irreconcilable differences with the Church of England, believing that worship should be organized independently of the trappings, traditions and organization of the central church.
Tobias Matthew was elected Anglican Archbishop in 1606, and promptly began a campaign to purge the archdiocese of nonconforming influences. Separatists and those wishing to return to the Catholic faith alike were confronted, fined, and imprisoned. Many “recusants” were driven from the country.
William Bradford, the future 5-time Governor of the Plymouth Colony and signer of the Mayflower Compact, said of this period “[A]fter these things they could not long continue in any peaceable condition, but were hunted & persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken & clapt up in prison, others had their houses besett & watcht night and day, & hardly escaped their hands; and ye most were faine to flie & leave their howses & habitations, and the means of their livelehood“.
So it was that the group which came to be known as the Pilgrims left England not for the New World, but for Amsterdam, and later the city of Leiden, in the Netherlands. There they stayed for 13 years.
By 1617, Bradford was writing of his concern that the younger members of the group were being “drawn away by evil examples into extravagance and dangerous courses“. He wrote positive terms of the “great hope for the propagating and advancing the gospell of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world.”
They considered moving to Virginia, near the existing settlement of Jamestown, but dismissed the idea out of fear that the political atmosphere might be too much like the one they left in England.
A land grant was obtained to the north of the existing Virginia territory, to be called New England. The 60-ton Speedwell departed Delfshaven with the Leiden colonists in July 1620, meeting with Mayflower at Southampton, Hampshire. The two vessels set out on August 15, but soon had to turn back as the Speedwell took on water. Speedwell was abandoned after the second failed attempt, Mayflower setting out alone on September 16, 1620, with 121 on board.
65 days at sea brought them up on the outer reaches of Cape Cod in mid-November, near the present site of Provincetown Harbor. There they stayed long enough to draw up the first written framework of government established in the United States, signing the Mayflower Compact off the shores of Provincetown on November 11, 1620.
A month in that place convinced them of its unsuitability. By mid-December they had crossed Cape Cod Bay and fetched up at Plymouth Harbor.
More than half of these settlers died that first winter, of malnutrition and exposure.
Tisquantum, (Squanto), the English-speaking Pawtuxet, would mediate between the settlers and the native tribes, including Massasoit, chief of the Pokanoket. Squanto taught them how to plant corn, as well as where to fish and how to hunt beaver. The harvest feast of 1621, shared between the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets, is now considered the basis for our own Thanksgiving holiday, but that is a story for another day.
Bradford and the other Plymouth settlers referred to themselves as “Old Comers.” A manuscript was later discovered, in which Bradford called the settlers who left Holland “Saints” and “Pilgrimes.” 200 years after the colony’s founding, Daniel Webster referred to “Pilgrim Fathers” in a bicentennial address. The name stuck.
There is a common misconception that the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth in pursuit of religious freedom, but that’s not the way it happened. They had found their religious liberty in Holland. What they sought in the New World, was a return to religious discipline.