In the early 1600s a group called ‘Separatists’, people who wanted to worship as they wished rather than as the Church of England dictated, were meeting and worshipping God in secret. This was dangerous as they risked arrest if caught. Among their number were William Bradford, later to become governor of the Plymouth Colony in America and William Brewster. A ship was organised to take them across the North Sea to Holland where they could live in religious freedom.
In secret, one night in the autumn of 1607, this passionate and determined group of men, women and children met the ship on the edge of The Wash at Scotia Creek, Fishtoft, near Boston. They had travelled 60 miles from Scrooby, near Gainsborough, and were weary but hopeful for their new life across the sea in Holland.
To their horror the captain of the ship had betrayed them and they were suddenly surrounded by soldiers. After rifling through their possessions and seizing money, books, clothes and other personal items, the party was carried to the town by boat where they were made a great spectacle for the crowds who had flocked to see what was happening.
Without their possessions and any hope of reaching Holland, the group were brought before the magistrates at the Guildhall and held in its cells. Messengers were sent to inform the Privy Council in London what had happened. Many in Boston were sympathetic towards them so the town’s magistrates treated them courteously while they waited for instructions about the charges to be brought against the group. William Bradford, who was 18 years old at the time, wrote later that ‘they were fairly treated’.
The New World
After a month’s imprisonment word arrived back from the Privy Council that the majority were to be sent back ‘from whence they came’. Many however, including the leaders, were eventually able to reach Leiden in Holland, where they joined others from England. In 1620 it was decided to start completely new lives in a new land. The voyage to the New World was to be long and dangerous. Of their two ships, the Speedwell, had to be abandoned, leaving the Mayflower to sail on alone. A group of 102, including many who had been imprisoned in Boston, Lincolnshire, arrived in the New World on 20 November 1620.
The name Pilgrim Fathers was not used until 1820. The phrase was coined from William Bradford who had described the Separatists he was with as having left as ‘pilgrims’. Today they are referred to simply as The Pilgrims. The Pilgrim Monument commemorating the events of 1607 can be seen in Boston’s Havenside Country Park. The cells in the Guildhall where some were held can also be visited.