Pilgrim Fathers
Lincolnshire's historic link to the USA


The Story of the Pilgrim Fathers

Raised in the River Trent’s Quiet Valley

When the Mayflower set sail for America in 1620, its last landfall was Plymouth in the south of England, but the core of its Pilgrims came from that quiet corner of England, where Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire meet beside the River Trent.

This gentle countryside gave birth to families whose simple determination and rock-like faith in the separatist Church led them, via Holland, to the Mayflower and Plymouth Plantation in New England, in search of religious freedom.

These people developed their religious views in the relative freedom of Queen Elizabeth’s reign in the late 1500’s, until they found their Separatist Church outlawed by a pronouncement of England’s new King James I, in 1604.  They escaped to join other exiled English Separatists in Holland shortly afterwards.

Elizabeth I

The Beginning of the Story

The story began with a popular movement towards freedom of religious belief during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. The Separatists wanted the freedom to worship God according to Scripture, completely separate from the state religion, the Church of England, without priests or bishops to stand between them and their God.  Cambridge University was the hotbed of Separatism towards the end of the 16th century.  Many of the leading characters in this tale studied there and formed their passionate religious views there, influenced by the charismatic leader Robert ‘Troublechurch’ Browne.

Men of Conscience

William Brewster was the son of the postmaster of Scrooby.  Living in Scrooby Manor House and administering the Archbishop of York’s Scrooby estates, the Brewsters were in touch with all the nation’s official news as it sped north and south on the Great North Road, England’s main communication artery.  An intelligent and perceptive man, William studied at Cambridge and became one of ‘Troublechurch’ Browne’s followers.  Browne fled to Holland in 1578 and thirty years later his congregation there welcomed Brewster and other fugitives whose story is told here.

After Cambridge, and service to one of Queen Elizabeth’s trusted diplomats, Brewster returned to Scrooby a committed Separatist, and became renowned for “ripping up ye hart and conscience before God”.  The Church of England rector of nearby Babworth Church was likeminded Richard Clyfton, another ex-Cambridge follower of Browne.  Here Brewster and others worshipped in their own style, joined in 1603 by the 12 year old William Bradford from Austerfield.

John Robinson and his wife Bridget were both from Sturton-le-Steeple, south of Scrooby.  He too was educated at Cambridge University and was an inspired Separatist.

Across the River Trent in Lincoln, another ex-Cambridge man, the Separatist John Smyth, was dismissed in 1602 by his employer the Bishop of Lincoln, for preaching “strange doctrines” in church.  He moved to Gainsborough and formed the hub of a congregation of 60 or 70 Separatists there.  He was allowed to worship secretly in Gainsborough Old Hall by its sympathetic new owner Sir William Hickman and his mother Rose, both themselves former religious exiles.  This congregation swelled when Richard Clyfton was forced to resign from his Church of England post in 1604, and members, including William Brewster, came from a wide area on both sides of the river.

In late 1606 Brewester set up a second Separatist Church in his home at Scrooby Manor, despite the possible danger from his landlord the Archbishop of York.  Some members of the Gainsborough congregation were now able to worship nearer home at Scrooby, with Richard Clyfton as their pastor, John Robinson their Teacher and William Brewster himself as Elder.

Brewster, Bradford and Robinson


In Gainsborough William Hickman was under pressure from the Bishop of Lincoln for encouraging John Smyth.  William Brewster was being harassed by his landlord and employer the Archbishop of York for his own Separatist activities in Scrooby Manor.  When he was briefly imprisoned in York and then fined, both Gainsborough and the Scrooby Separatists took fright, and made the decision to abandon their lives and livelihoods in England and to escape to Holland, to join the other Separatists there.

Unable to emigrate legally without permits, John Smyth and at least 40 of his Gainsborough congregation, including his wife and two babies, slipped away quietly in the winter of 1607/8.  From the Gainsborough docks they could easily have boarded river barges bound down the Trent to Hull, and then have crossed anonymously from there to Holland.  In Amsterdam they joined some 300 or so other English Separatists known as the Ancient Brethren.

In September 1607 the Scrooby congregation sold all their belongings and travelled overland to Boston, 60 miles to the south east.  They hired a ship to take them to Holland,  but downstream from Boston at Scotia Creek “the captain betrayed them … Bailiffs put them into open boats and there rifled and ransacked them, searching them to their shirts for money … even the women.  They carried them back to Boston and made them a spectacle in front of the multitude that came flocking on all sides.”

They were held in Boston Guildhall cells whilst a waiting trial in the court room above, following which they were tried in Lincoln. After a month in prison most were sent back to their own parishes, bur seven, including Clyfton, Robinson and Brewster were kept in prison longer.  They too were released under pressure from local sympathisers, and all returned penniless to the Scrooby area for the winter.

In the spring of 1608 another Dutch ship owner was contacted in Hull.  He agreed to pick up the Scrooby Separatists on a remote stretch of coast north of Grimsby near Killingholme.

The men walked the 40 miles from Scrooby and about 30 women and small children together with their baggage travelled by barge from Scrooby, along the River Idle to the tidal River Trent, and from there north to the Humber Estuary and the rendezvous.  The barge arrived early, and the seasick women begged to land.  The barge was grounded in the muddy Killingholme Creek at low tide when the Dutch ship arrived.

The captain saw the party of men ashore and began to ferry them out to the ship.  William Bradford and most of the men got aboard but when the captain saw a large armed crowd coming to capture the illegal emigrants, he set sail as once to keep himself and his ship out of trouble, leaving the women and children on the shore.  There was a fearful storm at sea and the ship was driven up the treacherous North Sea as far as Norway before it could turn south and head for Amsterdam.

Back in England the Justices did not know what to do with the captured homeless miserable women.  In the end they were glad to get rid of them on any terms anf by August 1608 they were all reunited in Holland.


Boston Guidhall and Cells as they are today

The Mayflower and the New World

In 1620 a core group led by Brewster, Bradford and John Carver left Holland in the Speedwell and joined up with the Mayflower at Southampton.  The Speedwell proved to be unseaworthy and eventually the Mayflower alone set sail from Plymouth carrying the Pilgrims to their new life in North America.




The Boston Connection

Although there was not a single Bostonian amongst the original flock that sailed to the New World in 1620, Bostonians played an important role in the early colonisation of New England.

With a strong Puritan tendency among the leading citizens of the town it came as no surprise when many Bostonians decided to follow the Pilgrim Fathers.  They were led mainly by the family of the earl of Lincoln and supported by the town’s Vicar, John Cotton.

In March 1629 the Massachusetts Bay Company was formed to organise and govern the planned settlement.  The colony was managed by a Governor, a Deputy Governor and a General Court of eighteen Assistants, one of whom was Isaac Johnson.  His wife, Lady Arbella, was the sister of the Earl of Lincoln.

In the spring of 1630 a fleet of seven ships crossed the Atlantic, led by John Winthrop in his flagship the Eagle which was renamed the Arbella in honour of Lady Arbella Johnson.

Early Map of Boston

The Naming of Boston     

Dissatisfied with his original settlement at Charlestown Hill, Governor John Winthrop was attracted to the Shawmut peninsular, which the Pilgrims had called Tremount, or sometimes Treemoutaine, because of the three small hills on which the settlement had developed.  On September 17th 1630 a decree was issued “that Trimountaine shall be called Boston”, naming it after the town in Lincolnshire from which many of its best citizens had emigrated.  Four of the men from Old Boston – Bellingham, Dudley, Bradstreet and Leverett, together with Winthrop, controlled Massachusetts for sixty years and served as Governors one after another.


John Cotton

John Cotton’s Arrival in The New World

A meeting house which was erected at Boston became the First Church of Boston and when the Reverend John Cotton arrived from Boston, Lincolnshire in 1633, he became the Second Minister of the Church and the spiritual leader of a church-dominated State.

The Early Development of Massachusetts

Early in 1649 John Winthrop died.  His passing marked the end of the first stage of Boston’s history.  At the time of his death Boston was no longer a mere settlement, but a thriving town with an international trade and commerce, the acknowledged capital of a virtually independent state.

Massachusetts soon absorbed the plantations at Plymouth and Salem, and became the largest and best organised, educated and governed colony in New England.  The Boston group dominated the colony for two generations and formed nearly half of the Board of Overseers of the College of Further Education, which was founded in 1636.  Re-named Harvard in 1639, it is the oldest University in the United States.

Contract Between the Towns

By the mid-19th century friendly contact between the two towns began.  In 1851 a set of Corporation seals was sent to America and in 1879 stone tracery was sent to Trinity Church.  In return American money was sent to restore the Cotton Chapel (1855), the Guildhall (1915), St Botolph’s Church (1931) and in 1938 Ambassador Joseph P Kennedy opened the American Room in Fydell House.

John Cotton (1585-1652):  Puritan Vicar of Two Bostons

John Cotton, a gifted preacher and charismatic leader, was born in Derby in 1585.  Like many non-conformists before him, he was educated at Cambridge University.  Cotton moved on to Boston in 1612 where he was appointed as vicar in spite of initial opposition from the bishop of Lincoln who described him as “ a young man unfit to be over such a factious people who was inclined with the Puritan spirit”.
“At this assembly Mr. John Cotton master of Arts is now elected and chosen Vacr pof Boston”. (Minutes of the Coporation of Boston 5th July 1612)

Even though non-conformity landed him in the court at Lincoln, he continued to rebel against the centralised basis of church government and the religious ceremonies that he thought were ‘so pressed’.  John Cotton, the figurehead of Boston’s Puritan movement, had many enemies in the town, who plotted against him.  In spite of them – and with the Corporation’s support – he held office for 21 years bringing great changes to Boston and attracting other Puritans to the town.
“A great reformatiuon was wrought by (him) … religion was embraced and practised by the body of the people … the mayor and most of the magistrates were now called Puritans”.

He was eventually forced to flee from Boston to London and in 1633 he sailed fro Massachusetts where he was received and ordained Teacher of the Church of Boston.  Within three years he had helped compile a code of fundamental laws for the colony.

Cotton caught a cold from which he was never to recover and died in 1652 at the age of 68.  It was written of him at that time:

“Both Bostons have reason to honour his memory, and New England most of all, which oweth its name and being to him, more than any other person in the world.”


Boston USA and Boston UK

Modern Boston

Surrounded on three sides by water, the City of Boston Massachusetts grew as a harbour town and has retained its reputation as one of America’s finest ports.  Much of the Boston landscape is the result of extensive land-fill operations that began in the early 1700’s and continued well into the 20th century.

Today, Boston thrives as a centre for medicine, high technology, finance, education and much more.  It is also the administrative capital of a large metroplitan area covering 1,100 square miles and almost 3 million people.  The City is 46 square miles and has a population of over 600,000 people.