The very term, Pilgrim Fathers, denotes a biblical patriarchy. They called themselves, pilgrims, a religious term describing people who go on a religious journey to get close to their God. Father denotes male dominance.However, was it entirely like that?
They sailed to the the province of Virginia to create a “new world,” based on their beliefs in 1620 during a period in English history that was full of turmoil and changing views about society and the individual.
Elizabeth 1 died in 1603 unmarried and childless. James IV of Scotland, a great great grandson of Henry Tudor was Elizabeth’s closest living relative, and so he was asked to become King of England. He became James I of England. The Reformation had already caused a great upheaval in religion in England and had been the cause of many executions, both Catholic and Protestant. Although James was a protestant his mother, Mary Queen of Scots had been a devout catholic and James had catholic sympathies. The downtrodden Catholics in England had hopes for more toleration for their cause. In fact all aspects of the religious spectrum in England hoped for more toleration.
The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators
During the years 1605 and 1606 separatist or non conformist religious groups were being formed in various parts of the country. In Yorkshire, Richard Clifton, who was the rector at Babworth, was assisted by John Robinson from Sturton le Steeple in setting up non conformist groups at a village nearby called Scrooby. A similar congregation was begun by John Smyth at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. They were breaking the law because all English people had to attend services on a Sunday at their local Church of England parish church. It was an offence not to do so but these groups continued under duress.
These non conformist groups were not lead by people who formed their ideas from pure imaginings. John Robinson had been the Dean of Corpus Christi Cambridge so he was an intellectual of the highest order. Groups of people throughout the country were reading and interpreting the Bible for themselves. This was termed as self-prophesising and from this process new ideas and philosophies emerged.
During Henry VIII’s reign the bible was translated into English for the first time. This was called The Great Bible. In 1568 came The Bishop’s Bible another English translation. These bibles theoretically enabled every Englishman, or rather those who could read, access to the Bible and therefore enable them to interpret it. Henry had begun the Reformation in England in response to what he saw as the interfering authority of the Pope. He believed that the monarch had direct authority from God so he became the head of the Church in England. He began to remove the excesses of the Catholic Church, first by closing the monasteries and reorganising the church. However groups of people such as the Scrooby congregation wanted to go much further. They wanted to completely purify the church as they saw it. They became known as the Puritans. They wanted to cleanse the church of all it’s finery and catholic style services. They wanted to simplify it with the individual’s relationship to God paramount. Being able to interpret the Bible for themselves was an integral part of this. The Puritans were not happy with the first interpretations of the Bible. They were too catholic oriented. Between 1604 and 1611 James had a new interpretation of the Bible written. This was known as The King James Bible. This became the standard bible used by the Church of England for centuries to come and this was not enough for them either.
The King James Bible
Groups of non-conformists such as those at Scrooby in Yorkshire were not pleased with the pace of change in the church. The system of governing the church in England had not substantially changed since Catholicism. The King was the head instead of the Pope and the same hierarchy of Bishops and rectors was still in place. The individual was at the bottom of the pile and still had to follow the laws imposed from above. These groups were finding it harder and harder to exist and worship as they wanted. They were not tolerated. Between 1607 and 1608 the groups lead by Richard Clifton, John Robinson and John Smyth from Lincolnshire fled to Amsterdam in the Netherlands. They joined groups lead by Francis Johnson and Henry Ainsworth. They wanted to pattern their life on their own interpretations of the New Testament. John Smyth died in 1612 and many of his followers joined the Mennonites. These were groups that had formed around the teachings of Menno Simons (1496-1561) Their beliefs were based on the belief and mission of the life of Jesus Christ. They were persecuted by both the Catholics and the Protestant churches in Europe so they had to retreat to the areas and states where they were accepted. Others in John Smyths group returned to England with Thomas Helwys and John Marton and began what was termed The Baptist Church. John Robinson took his group on to Leiden. Leiden was experiencing economic expansion at the time. The cloth industry was growing rapidly there. The separatist groups in Leiden expanded and sympathisers from East Anglia, Kent and London joined them in Leiden. There was an English military garrison in Leiden and some of the soldiers of that garrison joined the separatist groups. Among the soldiers to join was Myles Standish. Theologically many of these groups were Calvinist. John Calvin lived (1509 – 1564) The Calvinists differed from some of the other groups such as the Lutherans by not believing in the presence of Christ at the consecration and differed also in other religious beliefs and rules. Calvinists believed in predestination. This was a belief that every individual was already chosen at birth to go to heaven or hell. Other groups such as the Lutherans believed that the way we lead our lives could determine whether we went to heaven or hell.
Within this atmosphere of the formation of beliefs John Robinson formed his theology. He believed in predestination, (the Calvinist view), free will, lay prophesising ( the individual’s ability to interpret the Bible) and the analytical methods of Petrus Ramus and Giacomo Zaberella. This was a way of explaining the Bible and practicing it’s tenets through a form of logic. Ramus created a method for explaining Aristotles thinking. He described logic as including summaries . headings, citations and examples. He believed in a sort of binary tree system to explain knowledge.
It was these ideas that Robinson used to give authority for his explanations of the Bible to his congregation. This use of logic is why people who followed him formed strong beliefs and followed Robinson first to the Low countries from England and eventually had the strength of faith in his teachings to follow him to New England. He believed in a practice of lay prophecy where all men including women were allowed to discuss possible interpretations of the bible. Robinson also shifted away from rigid separatism which existed between the Calvinists, the Lutherans and other separatist groups. He began to believe in a cautious toleration of religious dissent and a variety of practice.
The Netherlands was becoming the home to many strands of separatist groups. However a coup by Prince Maurice of Orange only recognised Dutch Reformed control making the various groups think that they would be forced to worship within one church again. From 1619 independent ministers were no longer allowed to discuss religion in their own private homes. The Netherlands were under threat therefore and not a safe haven for these new religious groups. This organisation of Protestantism under a national church, the Dutch Reformed Church within the Netherlands was a powerful reason for Phillip II of Spain to try to reinforce his authority by revitalising the eighty years war. The Netherlands were part of a Catholic dominated Empire. The Protestant English Government in response promised military assistance to Prince Maurice of Orange under the condition that the English Government would have supervision of all English language congregations in the Netherlands.
The Pilgrim fathers walked down French Street to The Mayflower and Speedwell moored at the end of the street.
The separatist groups felt under pressure in many ways. These adverse conditions created the climate in which Robinson’s congregation planned to move to Northern Virginia then beginning to be known as New England. English investors supported the Leiden group and enabled them to obtain a charter to found a colony in the mouth of the Hudson River. In 1620 they set sail on the Mayflower. The Pilgrims had purchased two boats, The Mayflower and The Speedwell. They sailed first to Southampton on the south coast of England. They purchased stores and other Pilgrims joined them. After setting sail from Southampton bad weather and the unsuitability of the Speedwell for an Atlantic crossing forced them to take refuge in Dartmouth in Devon.The Speedwell was repaired and they set sail once more. The Speedwell once more proved unseaworthy and they called at Plymouth, also in South Devon. This time all the pilgrims boarded the one ship, The Mayflower and set sail. There was no going back.
The Mayflower memorial Southampton.
The memorial is on the site where The Mayflower was anchored.
Arriving in Cape Cod in November 1620 the prevailing winds prevented them from reaching their intended destination. Some on board, because they had landed beyond the restrictions of the charter they had obtained from the English Government wanted to set up a colony free from England. The leaders of the Pilgrims responded by writing The Mayflower Compact which all signed binding them to England and the English Sovereign. The Compact also laid out that they should elect leaders democratically and enact laws that they should choose. This early document was the forerunner of the American Constitution and in fact some of its tenets were similar to the Constitution.
The plaque on The Mayflower memorial
It is easy to think that emigration to the New World was the answer for these separatist groups but it wasn’t the only answer. The majority of non-conformist groups remained in England suffering for their faith. It all came to a head twenty years later when Charles I closed parliament and ruled independently under the belief that only he had the divine right to rule. There were many non-conformist or Puritan groups now who wanted a much more democratic approach. This rift in belief and philosophy caused a split in the country between those who believed in the authority of a democratic parliament and those who supported Charles in his belief in the divine right of kings. This brought about the English Civil war which the parliamentarians lead by Oliver Cromwell defeated the King and beheaded him for treason to the English people. This brought about a situation where the Puritans set the tone for authority and the laws of the country. They became strict and austere themselves in not allowing the freedoms they had struggled for. They in their turn did not tolerate those who did not hold their beliefs. Some groups went even further in their interpretation of the Bible and, “pure,” way of living. One such group was termed The Levellers. They got their name from their belief that everybody should be equal or level. An offshoot of the Levellers were The Diggers who got their name from their ways of digging the land to grow their own food. The Diggers, were formed in 1649, the year after Charles II was beheaded. Gerard Winstanley was their leader. They settled first at a place called St Georges Hill in Surrey near Weybrdge. They later moved to land near Cobham, also in Surrey. Their beliefs and way of life was more extreme than most Puritans and they were persecuted for this in their turn.
Gerrad Winstanley portrayed on a wall mosaic in Cobham Surrey
Gerrad Winstanley wote,
“everyone talks of freedome, butt here are few who act for freedome, and the actors for freedome are oppressed by the talkers and verball professors of freedome; if they wouldst know what true freedome is it lies in the community, in spirit and in the earthly treasures…” (A watch word to The City of London and the Armie 1649)
Sentiments not far removed from what The Pilgrim Fathers might have stated.
This is a hot cross bun reputedly amongst the stores that The Pilgrim Fathers were going to take with them from Southampton. The fact that it never made it to The Mayflower is interesting. Hot cross buns had been banned since the reign of Queen Elizabeth. It was illegal to make them and be seen eating them. This continued into the reign of the Stuart kings. This was an illegal item. I can image a port official looking through the Pilgrim Fathers stores and finding the hot cross bun,
"Sorry sir, you can't take that with you to The New World. I'll have to take that with me."
And so it has remained in Southampton for the last 400 years. A nice thought.