10 Places That Tell the Story of the Mayflower

2020 sees the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower.

This ship took 102 passengers, many fleeing religious persecution and known as the Pilgrim Fathers, as well as adventurers and others – across the treacherous North Atlantic from Plymouth, Devon, to the New World. Here the settlements they established laid the foundations for what would become the United States of America.

An modern replica of the Mayflower known as Mayflower II, Plymouth, Massachusetts
An modern replica of the Mayflower, known as Mayflower II, Plymouth, Massachusetts © Raime

Today it is estimated that around 30 million Americans can trace their ancestry back to that momentous journey. Here are nine places that tell the Mayflower story.

1. Scrooby, Nottinghamshire

Archive postcard of Scrooby Manor House, Scrooby, Nottinghamshire
Archive postcard of Scrooby Manor House, Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, thought to be the site where the Separatists met and worshipped illegally in the late 16th century. It is now a private house. Listed Grade II © Nicky Hughes

The Separatists were Protestants, many of whom lived in or around the village of Scrooby and in the adjoining counties of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

They believed the Church of England was still tainted with unacceptable Catholic dogma and corruption, despite having broken away from the Papacy and the Roman Catholic church in 1534 during the reign of Henry VIII.

William Brewster, brought up in the village, is believed to have opened his manor house home to the Separatists. Here believers were free to worship simply in their own way, but it was an underground movement, fraught with danger. 

In 1593, parliament outlawed independent congregations. Separatist beliefs were considered treasonable and seditious. Believers lived under the threat of imprisonment or death.

2. Gainsborough, Lincolnshire

Gainsborough Old Hall, Gainsborough, Lincolnshire
Gainsborough Old Hall, Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, one of the best preserved medieval manor houses in England. Listed Grade I © Historic England J870222

Another centre of covert religious dissent was Gainsborough. Here a similar group worshiped clandestinely – drawn from the town and local villages and led by the Reverend John Smyth – possibly in the Old Hall pictured above.

But, in King James’ England (1603-25), pressure was mounting on Separatist congregations, with surveillance, arrests and imprisonment. The two groups decided to flee to religiously tolerant Holland.

3. Boston, Lincolnshire

The Pilgrim Fathers memorial
The Pilgrim Fathers memorial, on the site of the former Scotia Creek, Fishtoft, Boston, Lincolnshire. Part of the plaque reads: ‘Near this place in September 1607 those later known as the Pilgrim Fathers were thwarted in their first attempt to sail to find religious freedom across the seas’ © Tanis8472

In the autumn of 1607, the Separatists slipped away from their homes at night and secretly made their way to the north-east Lincolnshire coast. Here at Scotia Creek a boat they had hired was waiting to take them to Holland.

But, the boat’s captain betrayed them. The Pilgrims were arrested by the local militia; their possessions confiscated. They were taken to local Boston where they were paraded in front of the townspeople and reputedly held in the Guildhall. After a month’s imprisonment, most were allowed to return home, although the ringleaders were put on trial.

4. Immingham, Lincolnshire

Detail of the Pilgrims’ memorial, Immingham, Lincolnshire.
Detail of the Pilgrims’ memorial, Immingham, Lincolnshire. Part of the inscription reads: ‘From this creek the Pilgrim Fathers left England in 1609 in search of religious liberty. The granite of this rock was taken from Plymouth Rock, Mass)…’ (Massachusetts in America – the site where the Pilgrims eventually disembarked) © Christine Hasman

More than a year later, the Pilgrims made another attempt at fleeing persecution. Led by their pastors, including John Robinson, and accompanied by William Brewster, families left from Gainsborough by river barge; others travelled on foot. They met at Immingham Creek on the Lincolnshire coast where a Dutch sailing boat was ready to take them to safety.

As the men initially went on board and their families waited on the shore, a group of armed militia were spotted. The Dutch captain quickly weighed anchor rather than face arrest, leaving the distressed women and children behind. They were arrested and questioned, eventually being released and managing to leave for Holland to join their menfolk at a later date.

5. Leiden (Leyden), Holland

Interior of the Pieterskerk (church of St Peter), Leiden, Holland
Interior of the Pieterskerk (church of St Peter), Leiden, Holland. Across the street, the Separatists listened to John Robinson’s sermons and engaged in bible studies. Painting by Johannes Bosboom. Public Domain

The Separatists settled in Leiden, a booming industrial city already home to refugees, a large number also fleeing religious persecution. They lived in the city for the next 12 years.

Some worked in hard menial jobs in the textile industry; others as shoe, glove and hat makers, coopers, masons, carpenters. William Brewster set up a printing press – later referred to as the Pilgrim Press – where he printed dissident religious pamphlets, smuggling them into Britain.

Pastor John Robinson’s memorial plaque in the Pieterskerk.
Pastor John Robinson’s memorial plaque in the Pieterskerk. He did not travel on the Mayflower, preferring to stay in Leiden and care for his remaining congregation. He died there in 1625. Part of the inscription reads: ‘…His broadly tolerant mind guided and developed the religious life of the Pilgrims of the Mayflower…’ Public Domain.

The political and religious situation in Holland was becoming unstable. Half the group wanted to emigrate to the New World after hearing about earlier settlers there. It was a dangerous journey, but they wanted religious freedom again and a better economic future. Some had anxieties about their children growing up more Dutch than English.

‘Embarkation of the Pilgrims’ - painted in oils by Robert Walter Weir
‘Embarkation of the Pilgrims’ – painted in oils by Robert Walter Weir in 1857. It depicts the Pilgrims in solemn prayer on the deck of the Speedwell prior to their departure from Holland to Southampton. The word ‘Speedwell’ can just be seen inscribed in the hatch cover, while ‘God with us’ is written on the sail upper left. Public Domain

The Pilgrims persuaded London merchants to invest in their journey in return for establishing a colony and sending back trading goods such as valuable furs. The Pilgrims purchased a ship, the Speedwell, to take them to Southampton where they would meet up with the Mayflower before both sailing across the Atlantic.

On 22 July 1620 they set off from Holland.

6. Rotherhithe, Southwark, London

The Mayflower pub, Rotherhithe
The Mayflower pub, Rotherhithe, London, standing on the site of the Shippe pub dating from around 1550. This pub was rebuilt again in the 18th century and named the Mayflower in 1957. It is close to where the Mayflower picked up its passengers © Steve F.E. Cameron

Rotherhithe, with its long seafaring and shipbuilding history, was the home of many of the Mayflower’s crew, and of Captain Christopher Jones, part owner of the ship. (He died 15 March 1622, having returned from the New World on the Mayflower, and is buried in St Mary’s church – opposite the pub – where there is also a modern sculpture dedicated to him in the churchyard.)

About 65 people embarked on the Mayflower in Rotherhithe.  Many of these passengers were not driven by religious beliefs, but by a desire to find work and start a new life.

The Mayflower sailed down the River Thames and into the English Channel, anchoring at Southampton on the south coast to wait for the Speedwell.

7. Southampton, Hampshire

The Mayflower Memorial, Southampton. Courtesy of Wiki Commons

When the Speedwell arrived at Southampton, she had sprung a leak on her voyage from Holland and had to undergo repairs. The city was a thriving seaport and already had trading links with the New World.

The Pilgrims benefited from advice from local seafarers who had sailed across the Atlantic before.

8. Plymouth, Devon

Vintage postcard: ‘The departure of the Pilgrim Fathers from Plymouth, September 1620’
Vintage postcard: ‘The departure of the Pilgrim Fathers from Plymouth, September 1620’ © Nicky Hughes

The Speedwell and the Mayflower first set sail from England to the New World early August 1620. But the smaller Speedwell started taking on water and both ships had to turn back twice, eventually ending up at Plymouth, Devon, where she was declared unseaworthy.

Island House, Plymouth, Devon
Island House, Plymouth, Devon, where it is believed some Pilgrims may have stayed. Listed Grade II © Historic England IOE01/00191/03

By now, the passengers had been at sea for several wasted weeks. Some Pilgrims lost heart and decided not to continue on the journey. The remainder joined the Mayflower, making conditions on the small ship extremely cramped. There were now 102 passengers, over 20 of whom were children.

Among the Pilgrims were William and Mary Brewster from Scrooby and their children Love and Wrestling, John and Catherine Carver – he was credited with drawing up the Mayflower Contract (see below), and William and Dorothy Bradford from Yorkshire – he later became Governor of the Plymouth colony in the New World.

The crew numbered around 30.

The Mayflower Memorial, Plymouth, Devon
The Mayflower Memorial, Plymouth, Devon, West Pier (Listed Grade II), close to the Mayflower Steps from where the Pilgrims left for the New World © Historic England BAR03/01/137

The Mayflower finally set sail from Plymouth 16 September 1620.

9. Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Engraving of the Mayflower at sea.
Engraving of the Mayflower at sea. Public Domain.

For around two months the Mayflower battled Atlantic storms and huge waves. One passenger was lost overboard and a baby, named Oceanus, was born during the voyage.

The Pilgrims had been bound for Virginia where they had permission to settle but the seas were so rough that, in November, when they sighted what is present-day Cape Cod, they decided to anchor there.

'The Mayflower Compact 1620’ - painting
The Mayflower Compact 1620’ – painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. 41 men on board drew up and signed the ‘Mayflower Compact’ – a document giving a constitutional framework of liberty and law and order to their new colony. Public Domain.

At the end of November, Captain Jones led an expedition by open boat, exploring the harsh snow-covered coastline to find a suitable site for the colony. They came across buried corn and burial sites in an abandoned village, Patuxet – before the Pilgrims’ journey, other settlers had brought European diseases which wiped out indigenous communities.

'Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor’
‘Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor’ by William Halsall. Public Domain.

At Christmas 1620, the Mayflower set sail again, arriving at what would be their new home, known today as Plymouth, Massachusetts.

10. Plymouth, Massachusetts

A postcard (with some damage) of ‘The Landing of the Pilgrims’ taken from a painting by Charles Lucy
A postcard (with some damage) of ‘The Landing of the Pilgrims’ taken from a painting by Charles Lucy. Public Domain.

With temperatures below freezing, the Pilgrims remained on the Mayflower. The ship offered some protection from the bitter winter but they were starving and many had been struck down with scurvy, tuberculosis and pneumonia. Only around 50 passengers survived, along with just half the crew.

In early spring 1621, the remaining passengers disembarked and started building their new colony. Knowing there were indigenous people around, they feared attack and fortified the settlement.

Bronze sculpture of Massasoit by Cyrus E. Dallin
Bronze sculpture of Massasoit by Cyrus E. Dallin, located in Kansas City, Missouri. Part of the inscription reads: ‘…Great Sachem of the Wampanoag, Friend and Protector of the Pilgrims, 1621…’ Public Domain.

The Pilgrims were colonising traditional lands belonging to the Wampanoag, one of the many warring indigenous peoples in the region.  Their leader, Massasoit, sought an alliance with the Pilgrims against their enemies. He sent an English-speaking Wampanoag to talk to the colonists who had learnt English from fishermen on English ships that had long been plying their trade in the waters of the New World.

Massasoit smoking a ceremonial pipe with Governor John Carver
Massasoit smoking a ceremonial pipe with Governor John Carver. Public Domain

The result was an historic peace treaty. The Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims about planting corn, where to fish and how to hunt deer, fowl and beaver. Without such help, they almost certainly would have starved to death.

‘The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth’ painting
‘The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth’ painted by Jennie A. Brownscombe. Public Domain.

Following an abundant harvest in the autumn of 1621, the colonists celebrated with a festival of prayer, inviting the Wampanoag to a great feast. This became known as the First Thanksgiving.

One of the senior Pilgrims Edward Winslow, who chronicled the Pilgrims’ experiences, described the First Thanksgiving: ‘…many of the Indians (came) amongst us…their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they… bestowed upon our Governor and upon the Captain and others…’

Thanksgiving is an American tradition that continues to be celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday in November.

Written by Nicky Hughes.

Further Reading

4 responses to 10 Places That Tell the Story of the Mayflower

  1. John Sanders says:

    Why has Southampton been ignored ? It was the chosen departure point for a variety of reasons, including knowing they were unlikely to be persecuted, as is still true today.

  2. Rob Smith says:

    The Mayflower may have undergone repairs in Leigh on Sea – theres a pub called the Mayflower there to commemorate it.

  3. Elizabeth Rhodes says:

    Does the Mayflower barn in Jordan’s Bucks come into the story anywhere? Reputedly it contains part of the ship’s timbers.

  4. Charles Trollope says:

    So what happened to the entry for Harwich where the Mayflower was built and where Jones came from as did some of the crew and passengers?

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