They considered themselves Separatists, because they did not recognize the authority of the king of England over the church. That's why they got into trouble in England. A large group fled to Amsterdam in 1607, where they were called Brownists, after their leader Robert Browne.
The "Pilgrims" lived in Amsterdam for about a year. Most of them were countryfolk, and did not like the "big city" that much. Moreover, in Amsterdam there were many other English refugees, of different protestant denominations, which gave cause for heated theological disputes.
Consequently, they thought about moving to Leiden. They applied for a license for the congregation of about 100 Separatists to settle in Leiden, and that was granted.
The English envoy in The Hague protested. But this was dismissed by the Leiden authorities, who wrote: "we cannot refuse entrance to honest people who obey our laws."
This nagging by the English became a constant factor during the stay of the "Pilgrims" in Holland. Matters culminated when the "Pilgrim press" in Leiden published books that were banned by English law and were smuggled into England. Dutch authorities tried to be as uncooperative with the English as possible... Early 17th century Leiden was a middle-sized Dutch town, though booming. On its way to become the second town in Holland, after Amsterdam. For sure plenty of hands needed, especially in the textile workshops.
Although also in Leiden, that meant hard labor and modest pay as for most newcomers. But at least, here they were "on their own", free to worship as they pleased. The "Pilgrims" settled in a poor overcrowded neighborhood around Pieterskerk. Only a few members of the community were more affluent: like William Bradford, who set up his own weaver workshop, and pastor John Robinson. The second had a house built with a large courtyard where about twenty tiny houses were set up for the poorest in the congregation. At that time 70% of the population of Leiden were newcomers and refugees, from all over Europe.
Thousands of Flemish people from the war infested southern Netherlands. For a large part highly specialized textile craftsmen. They were very welcome, and as Flemish and Dutch are basically the same language, they integrated rapidly.
Many French and Walloon - French speaking refugees. Still today, there's a Walloon church in Leiden with services in French. Many languages could be heard in Leiden.
So, those 100 English would barely have been noticed. Not when they arrived, nor during their stay, and probably hardly when part of the group left for America in 1620.
After all, also in this part of western Europe there were hundreds of thousands of people on the move in that period. War was everywhere, and Holland proved to be one of the few safe places for a while, as the Dutch Eighty Years' War of Independence was temporally on hold. But nobody knew what the future had in store. Nowadays the old center of Leiden is as close as a 17th century atmosphere can come in Holland. If you manage to filter out the bustling bicycle traffic...
For one thing, a person of that period would have no trouble at all finding the way around today. See pictures of Leiden for an impression. From 1617 on some Separatists, their numbers had by now grown to about 300, were seriously thinking of leaving once more.
"Pilgrim" William Bradford, who himself was actually reasonably successful as an entrepreneur, kept a diary. He mentions "the (economic) hardness of the place" for the workers. Hard labor, long hours, bad pay.
Also, after 10 years in Holland, the children were slowly becoming Dutch in language and customs, and many parents didn't like that. They found the Dutch ways too permissive, bringing too many temptations.
Although the attitude towards religion and the multitude of denominations was relatively tolerant in Holland, there were growing tensions. At times even with the country hovering on the verge of civil war. Internal conflict fueled by different interest groups and politics for their own purposes, with religion often being nothing more than a pretext.
For one thing, the "Pilgrims" didn't want to get caught between fires.
And, very important, the uneasy truce in the Eighty Years' War with Spain was going to end. If one wanted to sail out, better not wait too long. So, a substantial part of the congregation looked at America as the most attractive option for starting a new life in full liberty.
Although there certainly was discussion and doubt; why venture into an unknown wilderness? Leiden was not all that bad.
A person like pastor Robinson must have had mixed feelings. He was thrilled with the intellectual freedom of Leiden university, where he became a very estimed lecturer. As such, he enjoyed many privileges.
And there was also a very important practical point, many "Pilgrims" simply could not afford the voyage. On July 21, 1620, a group of Leiden Separatists, travelers plus family and friends, set off for the port of Delfshaven. After a last evening meal with the entire congregation at John Robinsons premises across from the Pieterskerk.
There had been a certain selection for the composition of the group of future settlers. A few young strong families would go, people of reasonable (financial) standing, with their servants. And then mainly persons with skills that were considered to be essential for the new settlement.
After this hard core, more "Pilgrims" were intended to follow in the years to come. Some did, many did not in the end. Roughly half of the Leiden congregation remained in Holland, and slowly assimilated like all those thousands other immigrants. In Delfshaven the Speedwell was waiting for them. In England, in Southhampton, a second and larger ship would join the expedition: the Mayflower. On board of the Mayflower were mostly emigrants the Separatists called "strangers", non-"Pilgrims". On July 31 the Speedwell sailed from Delfshaven, but the ship was leaky and proved to be unfit for an ocean crossing.
Consequently, all passengers and luggage were supposed to go on the Mayflower. That proved impossible. Some people and goods had to be left behind.
Finally, September 6th 1620 the Mayflower sailed out. 102 emigrants in all.
Of the Separatists on board the Mayflower the majority of the "Pilgrims" came from Leiden. On their way to America and history.
It's only then that they truly became Pilgrims, without quotes. Exactly 400 years later, you can view a virtual reconstruction of Delfshaven online. TimeTransit made a free app that allows to explore the port of four centuries ago.
But you can also view a couple of "hotspots" directly - simply click on this link or on the two TimeTransit Delfshaven 1620 images above.
There's a Dutch and an English version on TimeTransit, with extra information on each location & stories. More on Leiden - click here.
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