The Pilgrims in Holland

The story of a hundred Mayflower passengers travelling westward across the frigid waters of the north Atlantic in the autumn of 1620 is a familiar one to many. What is perhaps less well known, however, is that many of these passengers, known today as the Pilgrims, spent more than a decade in Holland, struggling to find work as self-exiled immigrants, raising children and organizing a new church without fear of persecution. Their time in Holland would have a profound impact on their ways of thinking about the world and about the building of community in New England.

Header Image: Engraving by Kaspar Merian from Martin Zieler’s Topographia Germaniae Inferioris (c. 1660), Leyden, 8 8 5/16 x 24 13/16 in.

“An Adventure Almost Desperate”: Leaving England  

Our story begins in about 1606, in the northern parts of present-day Nottinghamshire, England, where a small congregation of religious dissenters was meeting in secret. At great risk to themselves and their families, they had separated from the Church of England, the only legal church in 17th-century England, and established a congregation of their own. They strove to base their faith solely on biblical teaching, free of corrupt human doctrine and practices. Many English people in this period felt the Church of England needed reform and sought to improve it. Members of this congregation, however, wanted to separate completely. Their enemies called them, and people like them, separatists.  

In the years around 1600, England was a dangerous place for people who had broken from the Church of England. After the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, many reformers had hoped that her successor King James I would allow individual Church of England congregations more freedom to follow the Scriptures. Instead, he was determined to make the church a strong instrument of the monarchy and a force for national consensus. In 1604, James told a group of gathered reform-minded ministers that he would “harry them out of the land” if they refused to conform. William Bradford, future governor of Plymouth Colony recalled in his history, Of Plymouth Plantation, that he and his fellow Separatists were “hunted, and persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken, and clapped up in prison, others had their houses beset and watched night and day, and hardly escaped their hands.”

By 1607, life had become so uncertain for the separated congregation that they began to consider leaving England. Giving up hope, according to Bradford, “of their continuance there [in England],” and hearing of other English Separatists who had found a haven in Amsterdam, “they resolved to go into the Low Countries where they heard was freedom of religion for all men.”

According to Bradford, many felt their exile would be “an adventure almost desperate, a case intolerable, and a misery worse than death.” Without official permission to leave England, they were forced to seek extralegal means to cross the North Sea to Holland. After being duped by at least one English ship’s master resulting in a brief stint for some in prison in Boston, Lincolnshire and another rushed departure by a Dutch ship’s master that left most of the women, children and their belongings on the shore, most of the congregation made it to Amsterdam by 1608.

“And in the end, notwithstanding all these storms of opposition, they all got over at length, some at one time, and some at another; and some in one place, and some in another. And met together again according to their desires; with no small rejoicing.” 

William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation

Engraving by Kaspar Merian from Martin Zieler’s Topographia Germaniae Inferioris (c. 1660), View of Leyden (inset). From the south, this inset shows the western portion of Leiden as it appeared in the 17th century. The large building at center is the Pieterskerk (i), which dominated the skyline in the area where many of the Pilgrims lived. The large building to the left is the main academic building of the University of Leiden (d), while the Bagijnhof Chapel (f), where the Pilgrims held church services, rises just to the south.


Holland was one of seven provinces that united to form the Dutch Republic in the 1580s after declaring independence from Catholic Spain. For political imperatives, it was a proudly Protestant, and yet relatively tolerant, place. And in 1609, as the Pilgrims arrived, the recent negotiation of a truce with Catholic Spain meant an end, at least for the moment, of warfare that had been ravaging the Dutch for four decades.    

Amsterdam was home to a diverse and growing population. The ongoing religious wars sweeping across Europe pushed thousands of religious refugees toward the Dutch Republic, causing rapid population growth and housing shortages. Most of the English congregation had lived a rural life, “not acquainted with trades nor traffic (by which that country doth subsist) but had only been used to a plain country life, and the innocent trade of husbandry [farming].” Urban life was a difficult adjustment. Most found unskilled work in the textile trades.

Other English Reformed congregations preceded the Pilgrims in Amsterdam. In fact, it was one of the reasons they considered Holland a viable place to relocate. Upon arrival, however, they quickly realized that these other groups were in turmoil. Fearing “that the flames of contention were like to break out in that ancient church itself (as afterwards lamentably came to pass),” the Pilgrims resolved to leave Amsterdam. After several months of preparation and receipt of permission from the City of Leiden to relocate, the congregation departed for Leiden.


“The Court...declare that they refuse no honest persons ingress to come and have their residence in this city, provided that such persons behave themselves honestly, and submit to all the laws and ordinances here: and, therefore, the coming of the memorialists will be agreeable and welcome to them.”

Court of the City of Leiden,

Note in the margin of the Pilgrims’ petition to relocate to Leiden, February 1609

Translation from Leyden Documents relating to the Pilgrim Fathers, ed. J. Rendel Harris and Daniel Plooij

The Pilgrims’ appeal for permission to relocate to Leyden. “Request by 100 persons born in England, to take up residence in this City. Leyden Archives, Court-Journal G. fol. 33 v. (February 1609). 

Willem Swanenburgh (c. 1581-1612) after Jan Cornelisz. Woudanus (c.1570-1615), University of Leiden Botanical Gardens (inset). Collection of Plimoth Plantation. In this inset of a larger image, two men stroll through the botanical gardens at the University of Leiden, while a man takes notes in the background. It is likely that some Pilgrims visited the gardens during their time in Leiden.

Leiden, the second largest city in Holland after Amsterdam, was becoming a bustling and cosmopolitan place. The city was home to the oldest university in the Dutch Republic, founded just thirty-five years earlier as the first university in the newly-independent Republic. The University of Leiden had four faculties: theology, law, medicine and the liberal arts, as well as an expansive botanical garden. Prince Maurits of Orange himself, who rose to command Holland’s military in 1587, founded the university’s school of military engineering. Mayflower passenger and future church deacon Samuel Fuller may have observed dissections in the University’s anatomy theater. The Pilgrims’ pastor, John Robinson, who lived just across the Rapenburg canal from the university, engaged, albeit reluctantly, in debates that pitted the university’s more moderate theologians against its more radical.


This wasn’t Mayflower passenger William Brewster’s first time in Holland. In his capacity as an assistant to Sir William Davison, who served as Queen Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State, Brewster likely visited Leiden twice, in 1585 and 1586, during negotiations with the Dutch for English aid in their fight for independence.

In the early 17th century, Dutch military leaders came to rely heavily on English soldiers provided by King James, Queen Elizabeth’s successor. Among them was Mayflower passenger Myles Standish, who was presumably stationed in Leiden from about 1600. His formative experiences in Holland likely informed his military leadership in New Plymouth.

Like Amsterdam, Leiden granted considerable toleration to the many religious groups who lived within its walls. In a city in which as much as one-third of the population was not native born, the Pilgrims made up a substantial portion of the English people living in the city. Between 1450 and 1700, historian Dr. Jeremy D. Bangs estimates that many religious groups, from Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic to Lutheran, Dutch Mennonite, and English, Dutch and Scottish Reformed (Calvinist), and perhaps even Jewish, congregations, lived and worshipped in relative peace in Leiden. Many of these groups met to worship, as the Pilgrims did when they first arrived, in private homes.

Though lacking the sea traffic that enabled Amsterdam’s mercantile wealth, Leiden provided an escape from the spiritual tumult of the English congregations living in Amsterdam. “And at length,” Bradford remembered, “they came to raise a competent, and comfortable living, but with hard, and continual labor.” The city’s surviving marriage and tax records give some indication of their labor - about half worked in the cloth trades, as weavers, hatmakers, woolcombers, and carders, among other occupations. William Bradford and William Pontus were fustian weavers. (Fustian is a durable, blended fabric similar to corduroy.) Mayflower passenger Isaac Allerton was a tailor, even taking on an apprentice in the year before he and his family left for America. William Brewster, with partner Thomas Brewer and associate Edward Winslow, operated a printing press in Holland. Other members of the congregation were listed in these records as shoemakers, carpenters, coopers, brewer’s men, pipemakers and merchants.

The congregation of about 100 continued to grow throughout the next decade. Led by Pastor John Robinson, William Brewster was elected church elder and John Carver a deacon. Shortly after the groups’ arrival, Robinson and several other congregants, purchased a property called “de groene poort.” This has often been translated as “the green door,” but historian Dr. Jeremy D. Bangs suggests that it might be better translated as “the green close,” suggesting an enclosed area, or court, behind a building where clusters of tenements were constructed in narrow alleys as housing for the growing numbers of immigrants (Bangs, 314). Although members of the congregation lived throughout the city, many clustered near the home of Pastor Robinson at de groene poort. A 1622 tax record indicates about 13 families living on this property on the south side of the Pieterskerk churchyard.

Anonymous, Bagijnhof Chapel, Leiden, 18th century. Engraving, 5⅞ x 7½ in. Collection of Plimoth Plantation. By 1617, the Pilgrims worshipped in this chapel, built in the 15th century for the town’s Catholic lay sisterhood. After the Reformation, it became part of the University of Leiden, and, though heavily renovated, remains so today.


The Pieterskerk, built in the 15th century, dominated the skyline of the oldest part of the city. After being stripped of its statues and religious imagery after the Reformation, it became one of three major, state-supported Dutch Reformed churches in the city. Not 300 yards from the Pieterskerk and just south of de groene poort, stood the Bagijnhof Chapel, built in 1450 for Leiden’s beguines, or Catholic lay sisters. After the Reformation, the Chapel became part of the University of Leiden. The first floor of the chapel was divided in two. The area inhabited by the former chapel’s altar contained the University’s anatomy theater. By 1617, the Pilgrims held their services in the main room on the first floor, which during the week was used for fencing instruction and on Saturdays for civilian musket practice. The other first floor room was used to teach military engineering. The University’s library occupied the upper floor.


“The Grim and Grisly Face of Poverty”


While the Pilgrims lived in Leiden, the artist Rembrandt van Rijn, known today as Rembrandt, was a student at the Latin School, located just a block north of the Pieterskerk. Members of the Pilgrim congregation likely crossed paths with him. On May 20, 1620, as the Pilgrims were preparing for their final departure from Holland, Rembrandt enrolled as a student at the University of Leiden.

“For though they saw fair, and beautiful cities, flowing with abundance of all sorts of wealth, and riches. Yet it was not long before they saw the grim, and grisly face of poverty coming upon them like an armed man; with whom they must buckle…”

William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation

As the years passed, however, life in Holland became increasingly difficult and, at times, dangerous. They could gather openly as a church in Leiden, but life in a foreign country was not without its disadvantages. Most of the congregation’s members were not citizens of Leiden. The only occupations open to immigrants were poorly paid, and as Bradford remembered, their daily lived experiences showed “the hardness of the place, and country to be such; as few in comparison would come to them; and fewer that would bide it out, and continue with them.” Parents witnessed the hardships endured by their children forced by circumstance to work exceptionally difficult jobs. Potential church members still in England, Bradford claimed, “preferred, and chose the prisons in England, rather than this liberty in Holland, with these afflictions.”

Many disliked city life, with its poverty and temptations, and they grew increasingly troubled by Dutch worldliness and Holland’s toleration of religious diversity. In Hypocrisie Unmasked, Edward Winslow writes of the congregation’s disappointment at being “unable there to give such education to our children as we ourselves had received.” They found that their children were assimilating into Dutch culture. Some became soldiers or sailors, and others pursued lives of even more dissolution, “drawn away,” according to Bradford, “by evil examples into extravagant and dangerous courses...and departing from their parents.”

Despite Holland’s toleration, danger loomed. The Pilgrims were English subjects, and their religious activities were illegal in the eyes of the English crown. In the late 1610s, religious tracts critical of the Church of England were traced to William Brewster’s printing press. Dutch and English authorities searched for Brewster, confiscating his press’ paper and type, but he avoided arrest by secretly returning to England. Moreover, the twelve-year truce between Holland and Spain would expire in 1621, threatening a resumption of hostilities.   

After much debate, approximately half of the congregation elected to emigrate to North America to establish a new colony for all of the Leiden congregation. There, they hoped to be free to keep their church and spread their religious views across the Atlantic, to preserve their English heritage and to gain economic security. It was decided that the youngest and strongest should go first. Because only a small fraction of the congregation would be going in the first group, church elder William Brewster would go with them, while Pastor John Robinson would stay behind in Leiden.

Seeking a safer life and stricter church they began negotiating with both the Virginia Company of London and English investors for a colonial patent, or permission, to leave England for America. They were able to secure the patent, but not, as Bradford maintains, the King’s guarantee of religious freedom for them. They persevered, however, believing that they would be far enough away not to attract the King’s ire. Their investors purchased a ship, Speedwell, and hired a second ship, Mayflower, to make the transatlantic journey.

In July 1620, Bradford remembered, “they left that goodly, and pleasant city [Leiden], which had been their resting place, near 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things; but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country; and quieted their spirits.” This is one of only two contemporary mentions of the Leiden congregation as “pilgrims,” a name that would come to refer to all the Mayflower passengers after about 1800.

When Mayflower’s crew finally sighted land off Cape Cod in November 1620, most of the congregation was still in Leiden. Some would arrive on a succession of subsequent ships that sailed for New Plymouth throughout the 1620s. Others, like Pastor John Robinson, hopeful of joining the new community, would die in Leiden before they could sail. And others assimilated into Dutch society. Their descendants remain in Leiden to this day, keeping alive a foundational tie between the religious dissidents of Plymouth Colony and the city that provided a haven to them for more than a decade.



Primary Sources

Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647. Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison. 1952. Reprint, New York: Knopf, 2006.

Leyden Documents Relating to the Pilgrim Fathers. Edited by J. Rendel Harris and Daniel Plooij. Leyden: E.J. Brill, 1920.

Winslow, Edward. Hypocrisie Unmasked: By A true Relation of the Proceedings of the Governour and Company of the Massachusets against Samuel Gorton...Whereunto is added a briefe Narration (occasioned by certain aspersions) of the true grounds or cause of the first Planting of New-England...and their practise towards those that dissent from them in matters of Religion and Church-Government. London: Rich. Cotes for John Bellamie, 1646.  

Secondary Sources

Bangs, Jeremy Dupertuis. Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation. Plymouth, MA: General Society of Mayflower Descendants, 2009.

Begley, Thomas. “A Plaine and Familiar Exposition into the ‘Brewster Bear,’” Plimoth Life (2017): 28-31.
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Dexter, Henry Martyn and Morton Dexter. The England and Holland of the Pilgrims. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1905.
Much work has been done in this area since the publication of The England and Holland of the Pilgrims. It’s always a good idea to cross-reference this book with other sources.