Chapter Eleven


In Leiden … all these disorders, both in church and state, had their beginning.


In 1617, England’s envoy at The Hague was a man of forty-three, a collector of tapestries and a linguist, an acute observer of people and affairs. One day in January, Sir Dudley Carleton left his embassy in the city and joined a crowd on horseback and on foot. Gawkers, artists, and men of science, they were hurrying down to the seashore to poke with their sticks a prodigy of nature.

On the western side of The Hague, beyond the last loop of a tram, today the beach at Scheveningen has an air of superannuated opulence, pacified by a pier and titillated by a casino. It was different then, when only a shoal of fishermen’s cottages lay scattered along its inside edge. That winter, almost every day the wind blew from the southwest, bringing mild, wet weather to the south of England, but gales to the coast of Holland. The tides and the storms fettered Dutch ships to their harbors. They also caused the stranding of whales, at least four of them, here and along some forty miles of coastline, from Rotterdam northward.

One of the whales had come aground at Skeveling, as the English called the place, unable to cope with its name in Dutch. Skeveling was nearest to The Hague, and so it was the Skeveling whale that Carleton went to see. Most likely it was a sperm whale. The artists painted the creature, while Sir Dudley recorded its dimensions: sixty feet long, and thirty feet around its middle.

Of course he mentioned the whales in the dispatches he sent to Whitehall Palace. As always, Carleton noted the meaning that people gave to natural events. Men and women remembered the beaching of whales at historic moments, when the Dutch began their rebellion against Spain, and then again when the two sides signed a truce. What did the whales signify? “They are thought to prognostique both famine and plague,” Carleton wrote. An abundance of rats duly appeared by the Rhine, around Cologne, and then a pestilence that moved fatally northwestward down the river: it was probably either bubonic plague or smallpox. At Leiden, the number of burials leaped up, to reach its highest level in a decade. Then human beings added calamities of their own: riots and disorders, which carried the Dutch Republic to the brink of civil war.2

Sir Dudley had landed at The Hague twelve months previously, after five years as English ambassador in Venice. In Italy, by making peace between Spain and the Duke of Savoy, Carleton laid the foundations for a brilliant career. As ambassador to the Dutch Republic, he occupied a post of the highest prestige. The Anglo-Dutch alliance was the cornerstone of English foreign policy: he was entrusted with its safety. To his dismay, on arrival he found a country riven by dissension. His brief was to keep the Dutch united, with their frontier defenses intact against Spain. It was not a hopeless task, but Sir Dudley could achieve his mission only by taking sides in a violent struggle for power between Dutch factions.

Sixteen-seventeen was also the year when the Pilgrims first decided to leave Holland and to take their chances far away in North America. Perhaps they too saw the whale, since the sands of Scheveningen are less than fifteen miles from Leiden. Whether they did so or not, the Pilgrims found themselves pitched back and forth by the same winds of Dutch internal strife. This was certainly not what they expected when they first came here, a year after the flight from Stallingborough. All the same, by settling in Leiden they had entered an environment that might in time destroy them, a habitat as hostile as a beach to a stranded whale.


William Bradford called Leiden a “fair, & bewtifull citie, and of a Sweete situation,” and for some of its residents it was. It had a vast pinnacled town hall erected only fifteen years before the Pilgrims arrived. For its great university it possessed a lofty auditorium, with behind it a scientific garden for herbs. Leiden also had intelligent civic leaders. In 1611, on the northern flank of the city, they laid out a new town with streets and canals arranged in a grid pattern, where they built twelve hundred new homes for weavers and their families. In foresight, this far exceeded anything undertaken in England at the time. However, Bradford wrote in terms that were too glowing. A few pages later he makes this plain himself, as he describes the Pilgrim motives for leaving the city to go to America, but as so often his narrative leaves many things unspoken.

No town in Europe had industry more dynamic than Leiden’s. The demand for new housing arose because the city grew at alarming speed. The university was founded in 1575, soon after Leiden survived a siege by the Spaniards. At that time it had a population of ten thousand. By 1622, the number of inhabitants had soared to forty-five thousand, thanks to floods of immigrants coming to work in its textile industry. If we wanted a later city to compare with Leiden, what might the closest likeness be? Chicago in 1890, perhaps, a new metropolis with the same extremes of inequality, the same volatile politics, and a religious divide. To complete the parallel, we would have to assume that a Spanish army occupied Milwaukee, waiting to attack.3

The rulers of Leiden understood perfectly well the economic forces that made their city what it was. Their favorite artist was Isaac Claesz van Swanenburg, and in the middle of the 1590s they commissioned him to portray the source of the city’s wealth in a magnificent oil painting.

Hanging today in the town’s museum, the picture shows the walls and windmills of Leiden at sunset, with above them St. Peter’s Church, situated in the quarter where Robinson and Brewster lived. In the left foreground we see an old lady clad in dowdy woolens, colored black, brown, and maroon. Van Swanenburg paints her shrinking backward, as if she were fading into the gloom. Front and middle stands a tall young woman, wearing a white tunic emblazoned with red crossed keys, the Leiden colors and coat of arms. She offers a welcome to a slim young girl who enters from the right. The young girl wears a bright green blouse and a billowing pink skirt. As graphically as anyone could wish, the scene explains the secret of Leiden’s success.

Fresh and attractive, the girl represents the so-called new draperies, light woolen fabrics, easily cut in a variety of designs. Woven in Leiden in rolls, nearly thirty yards long, white in their raw form but dyed with brilliant colors, these fabrics were known as says. They weighed much less than other woolens, and their popularity reached a peak in the early seventeenth century. Middle-class people, enriched by trade or rising rents, began to want new outfits with fashions that changed from year to year. They also began to wear undergarments. Says were ideal for both. Beginning in the late 1570s, the city of Leiden seized control of the trade, making itself the foremost producer in Europe. This happened after the siege, when a free, fortified Leiden opened its gates to refugees, driven there by war and persecution.

Painted in the 1590s, Van Swanenburg’s depiction of the new draperies arriving in Leiden. Above the old lady’s head we see the Pieterskerk, close to the homes of William Brewster and John Robinson, with the town hall to the right. (S 423, Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden)

The decisive episode occurred after the sack of the textile town of Hondschoote, near Dunkirk, where more says were made than anywhere else. In the 1560s, the weavers of Hondschoote became ardent Calvinists, pillaging churches and killing priests, and when the time came they joined the revolt against Spain. In support of the rebels a French army arrived in 1582 but the troops soon fell out with the townspeople. They sacked and burned Hondschoote, destroying nine hundred workshops, and the say weavers fled: some to England and to Germany, but most of all to Leiden. The city welcomed them warmly, and it gave them religious freedom: not absolute religious liberty, because that never existed in the Dutch Republic, but at least the right not to join a state church. Holland did not have one. With the weavers from Hondschoote came the fabric symbolized by Van Swanenburg’s maiden.4

As a result, Leiden grew rich. As the years went by and demand for its cloth continued to grow, the city continued to attract new immigrants. They came not only from Hondschoote but also from Bruges, Ghent, and Ypres, and then from Antwerp after it fell to Parma in 1585. In due course, Leiden readily allowed the Pilgrims to settle in the city.

Robinson’s group numbered about one hundred, of whom about twenty-five came from the Idle and Trent valleys. They reached Leiden in May 1609, after the city politely ignored a protest from the English ambassador, Sir Ralph Winwood, Carleton’s predecessor. Both men, it should be said in passing, were reluctant oppressors of English religious exiles, interfering with them only when pestered to do so by an outraged king or archbishop. Carleton spoke with respect about the most eminent English Puritan exile, William Ames, whose sermons he attended. Not quite a Separatist, though not far from it, Ames was on friendly terms with Robinson. Despite being a nonconformist, for eight years he acted as chaplain to the commander of the English regiments in the Netherlands.

For its part, the city of Leiden had an obvious, unsentimental motive for offering asylum to the Pilgrims, because temporarily the city had lost momentum. Between 1602 and 1604 a long epidemic killed five thousand of its inhabitants. The output of says fell sharply, and took several years to recover. Robinson and his colleagues arrived at a time when Leiden was starting to grow again, but remained short of labor. Most of the Pilgrims found work as artisans, and some clearly worked very hard indeed.

A case in point was William Bradford. He hired himself out to a French silk weaver, until he reached the age of twenty-one. Then he sold his land in England and used the money to start up on his own. His business went badly at first, absorbing all his capital, but by 1612 he could at least afford to buy his own small house. This was success of a kind, since only two-fifths of families in Leiden were homeowners. Bradford wove fustian, a mixture of linen and wool, and he must have done so energetically. When he sold his house in 1619, it fetched 1,250 guilders: not a large sum, but equivalent to four years’ wages for a laborer. In 1623, Leiden levied a property tax on householders, and if he had remained in Holland, William Bradford would have been eligible to pay it. Only a dozen fustian weavers were affluent enough to enjoy this doubtful privilege.

By settling in Leiden, Bradford and the Pilgrims entered another vortex, driven by international flows of goods and people: a fabric of migration in which religion was the warp, money was the weft, and politics served as the shuttle of the loom. For the majority of emigrants, the textile industry offered by far the most viable avenue of escape from whatever they were fleeing. Weaving was only one facet of an industry built on a multitude of roles, with slots for men, women, and children, whatever their aptitude, dexterity, or physical strength. So we find the English in Leiden working as processors of wool as well as weavers, and there were many other opportunities, in shearing, spinning, dyeing, and “fulling,” or beating and kneading cloth in tubs or pits with fuller’s earth.

Workers of each kind needed helpers and suppliers, makers of soap or shears or the lads who brought beer to quench the thirst of men combing wool, an exhausting business. Van Swanenburg painted all of this as well: in the Leiden museum, immediately opposite his allegory of the old and the new draperies, visitors will find his crowded cycle of paintings of the many stages of cloth manufacture, from the import of raw wool by sea to the sale of the final product by haggling merchants. He completed the last one in 1607, two years before the Pilgrims arrived.

Van Swanenburg portrayed a thriving, confident city, but it had a dark side that he did not expose. The vortex might all too easily become a whirlpool where the migrants were the most at risk of drowning. In a trade depression, or during a war, demand would wilt, slashing the income of textile workers, who were paid by the piece. This happened during the European slump in the 1620s. The output of says in Leiden reached a new peak in 1617, bobbed up and down for six years, and then collapsed. Never again did it equal the heights attained in the year of the whale. The fustian trade did better, taking up some of the slack, but only after its own troubles between 1620 and 1622. Meanwhile, the price of bread in Leiden soared, more than doubling in the next decade, thanks to the resumption of war with Spain.

Furthermore, by coming to Leiden, a refugee found himself at the bottom of the social hierarchy. In Leiden wealth and influence belonged to very few. More than half the city’s property was owned by a narrow class of no more than 250 people, led by the brewers and overseas merchants. Among them were a tiny group of the super-rich, fourteen magnates who each possessed, on average, assets worth 160 times the value of Bradford’s house. In England, the typical Separatist was somebody rising like the Drews of Everton, but in Holland the ladder was blocked from above.5No Englishman could penetrate the clique of oligarchs who ran the towns, and neither could most of the Dutch.

Inequality led to bitter antagonism. This began to take a violent shape as economic conditions worsened. After the Dutch signed their truce with Spain in 1609, weavers and brewers in Spanish-held Flanders and Brabant were suddenly free to begin to fight for market share against the Dutch towns of the north. Competition forced weavers to make cheaper cloth, so that even during the boom years profits may have fallen despite rising sales. As wages dropped, unrest grew among the workers at their looms and in the breweries. It led to a first explosion twenty miles from Leiden at Delft.

To pay for repairs of their harbor, the port from which the Pilgrims later sailed, the authorities at Delft imposed a tax on flour in 1616. At the same time they refused to place a duty on imported wine, drunk by the rich. Workingwomen marched on the tax collector’s office, with their children at their side, beneath a flag made from a long blue skirt. They attacked the town hall, ripping up records and smashing windows, while the burgomaster hid in a back room. Order was only restored when troops arrived from The Hague, and even then the ringleaders escaped over the walls of Delft by night.6

William Bradford lived in Holland during a period that saw an angry deepening of social division. As for the beauties of Leiden, they could certainly be found, but nearby lay insanitary squalor. Disease was yet another peril facing exiles who worked in the textile trade. People died far more often in the towns than in the country, and so a path of emigration to urban Europe might well be a road to nowhere. If the Pilgrims were to survive, they needed to break away from the sixteenth-century pattern of escape undertaken by way of industrial toil in a back street. The risks they faced if they did not were all too obvious in the stinking suburb where William Bradford and John Carver made their homes.


Modern Leiden has a long, wide, and crowded thoroughfare called the Haarlemmerstraat. A few minutes by bicycle north from the town hall, on the way to the railway station, the street curves from west to east through the heart of a low-lying area once known as Marendorp. Long before the Pilgrims arrived, Marendorp had ceased to be a village. By 1609, it was an industrial neighborhood, identified by the city fathers as a place to put the smelliest textile trades, those that turned canals into sewers of effluent. Fulling was one of the most horrid, and today in Marendorp you will still find a street called Vollersgracht: in English, the Fullers’ Canal.

Narrow little lanes lead northward out of Haarlemmerstraat, and among them is Paradise Alley. Walk up it, and after forty paces you come to another long street, running parallel with the Haarlemmerstraat, but much quieter. It used to be called Achtergracht, or Back Canal. Even now it is obvious, from the curved surface of the pavement, that a watercourse runs beneath it, about six paces wide. This was where William Bradford lived.

The Achtergracht was what the Dutch called a stincknest. Even in the seventeenth century, the authorities wanted to brick it over because it was so noxious, thanks to human sewage as well as waste from industry: William Bradford’s privy emptied by way of a pipe leading down into the canal. Pollution was worst by far in hollows such as Marendorp, where the canals could not drain freely. The same was true near the home of William Brewster, in an alley known as Stincksteeg, much closer to the center of Leiden, where most of the Pilgrims lived. Only sixty paces from Brewster’s doorstep was a stagnant canal, another Vollersgracht, which had to be covered over in stages after 1595, because it smelled so dreadfully.7

Of course there was more to Marendorp than open sewers. It made sense for Bradford to move to the district, along with seven other Pilgrim families, because on the Haarlemmerstraat was the hall where finished fustians were inspected and displayed for sale. And close by, the city authorities had built something else that was very new, and very Dutch: purpose-made dwellings for the working class, two minutes from Bradford’s house. They occupied a site where, in the Catholic Middle Ages, monks and nuns had lived in three cloisters in Marendorp. After the Reformation, the city confiscated their property and turned the space over to become a cattle market, a leper hospital, and then a housing project.

Between 1581 and 1606 nearly six hundred new homes for weavers appeared in Marendorp. Mostly they were very small indeed. Closest to Bradford was a complex called the Mierennest, or the Anthill, where a convent had once stood. In 1596, the authorities jammed more than sixty new dwellings into the plot that the monks and the lepers had occupied. Built of brick, with a steep roof, the weavers’ cottages measured twenty-two feet by eleven, with two rooms at street level, with space for a weaving loom in the front, and a bedstead and fireplace for cooking at the rear. A ladder led up to an attic bedroom. They were cheap, letting each week for the same as it cost to feed one person with the staple diet of rye bread for seven days.

New as they were, these weavers’ houses captured the ambiguities of Leiden. In a sense they were the product of enlightenment, planned and built to last. At the same time, they embodied division, holding the artisans at a distance, segregated from the wealthy, who lived on the higher and healthier ground around the Breestraat, beside a free-flowing river. Worst of all, the Back Canal harbored infection.8 Centuries later, in 1832, the city suffered an outbreak of cholera, spread by bacteria in water contaminated with feces. A map of the incidence of death shows that the overcrowded weavers’ lanes in Marendorp were among the worst affected. Paradise Alley and the streets around it became in time the city’s most infamous slums, to be shamed as such by Dutch journalists in the 1930s. Nobody would have called them that in 1617, but even so Leiden had the makings of a death trap.

Understandably, historians have always lingered over the deaths at New Plymouth in the winter after the Mayflower reached America. But most of the English Pilgrims at Leiden stayed put and never crossed the Atlantic. They numbered about three hundred. In 1624, they faced a catastrophe of their own, the worst epidemic since the siege by the Spanish. In the space of two years, the plague killed eight thousand people, nearly one in five of the inhabitants. Among those who died was John Robinson, in the late winter of 1625: he was in his early fifties. A decade later, it happened all over again, when fourteen thousand people died in the Leiden epidemic of 1635.

William Bradford gave four reasons to explain why he and his comrades left the city. At the top of his list was what he called “the hardnes of ye place”: poor conditions, endless work, and a harsh diet. Rye bread was eaten at Austerfield too, but there at least they could cook their own bacon, and their cows gave them milk and cheese. He also mentions a gradual weakening of morale, as in Leiden the Pilgrims aged prematurely, because of the hardships of manual labor. He lived before the language of industrial disease, but this may have played its part. Exposed to flax dust, workers with linen suffer from byssinosis, a lung disorder that causes a chronic cough.

Third among Bradford’s grounds for departure came the burdens inflicted on children. In Leiden, they had to work from an early age. In Nottinghamshire, even the smallest boys and girls hand knitted woolen stockings, but there was a world of difference between cottage life among the open fields and the toil of fetching and carrying in cramped Leiden. Worst of all, Bradford mentions the fact that the young might take to crime, or choose to ship out on Dutch vessels bound for the East Indies. In the seventeenth century, half of those who did so never returned.

Finally, William Bradford speaks about the hopes the Pilgrims had of conveying the Gospel to the New World. We will return to this in due course, when we explore the motivation of the investors in London who financed the voyage of the Mayflower. Edward Winslow, meanwhile, added a list of arguments of his own for quitting Leiden: the fear of losing an English identity, the lack of education for the young—Leiden did not have an English grammar school, like the one Winslow attended—and lastly the irreligion of the place. As he and Sir Dudley both pointed out, in Holland greed and competition transformed the Sabbath into a working day.

By the year of the whale, the Dutch Republic had ceased to offer a safe haven. The riot at Delft was merely a mild forerunner of what lay in wait. Less than eighteen months later, the city of Leiden became a battlefield. Years of rising tension, social and religious, led to a bloody crisis that added a last incentive for removal to America. Ironically enough, in Leiden the violence began on the city’s annual day of thanksgiving. Within a few weeks, the Pilgrims were deep in their talks with the Virginia Company in London as they sought permission to settle across the Atlantic.


In Leiden, October 3 marks the anniversary of the lifting of the siege in 1574. It remains a public holiday, celebrated with herring and vegetable stew, the first meal the survivors ate after the Spanish retreated. Public holidays had a way of turning sour. So, expecting trouble, on the day in question in 1617 the burgomasters of Leiden installed squads of armed guards in the Breestraat, at either end of the town hall.

Kitted out in the city livery of red and white, these guards were known as waardgelders. They were a new force, about three hundred strong, raised by the authorities only four weeks earlier, because the burgomasters did not trust the city’s militia. On the afternoon of the holiday, a crowd gathered to jeer at the waardgelders. They mocked them for failing to wear the orange sash, the great symbol of Dutch patriotism in the revolt against Spain, led as it was by William the Silent, Prince of Orange.

When one of the waardgelders yawned in the face of an aggravating boy, the crowd took offense. Shouting “Long live Orange,” they pelted the guards with stones, and so the waardgelders began to fire shots over their heads. They struck and killed somebody watching from an upper story. Soon a riot was under way, causing two more fatalities that night. Seeing that they had lost control, the burgomasters called in the old militia to quell the disorders, only to find that after doing so, the militia refused to stand down. Two days later, the burgomasters began to build a redoubt in the Breestraat. Occupying the town hall, they sealed off the space outside with barricades, manned by the hated waardgelders and protected by two cannon pointing down the street.9

All of this happened only two hundred yards from Brewster’s front door in Stincksteeg. During 1617, similar riots flared up in one Dutch town after another, beginning in February, when in Amsterdam a mob ransacked the home of a rich merchant. Incidents of arson followed, and the authorities discovered caches of homemade bombs, bags of gunpowder fitted with matches. Looking on in horror from The Hague, Carleton sent anxious dispatches back to London, often in cipher—Dutch intelligence opened his mail—warning that the country was disintegrating.

Behind all this lay religion: sectarian controversy intertwined with social unrest. For the English Separatists, the situation created new hazards of three kinds. One was obvious: the risk of falling victim to random violence in the street. The second was a matter of national security. If, as seemed likely, the Spanish intended to go to war again when their truce with the Dutch expired in 1621, then a divided republic might swiftly be overrun, ending religious freedom for people such as they. And, last but equally dangerous, the Pilgrims might find themselves forced to take sides and end up among the losers in a civil war whose outcome could not be foreseen.

Theology supplied the origin of the conflict. In the 1590s, some liberal Dutch pastors began to file away the sharp edges of Calvinist doctrine, raising doubts about the idea of double predestination and flouting the official doctrine of the Dutch Reformed Church. This they could do, because that church had never been made compulsory. It could never compel everyone to accept its rigid Calvinist confession of faith. Many of the republic’s leaders never joined it at all. Those who did not included the central character in the drama of 1617, the Dutch statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, the republic’s prime minister in all but name. Seventy years of age and a veteran of the revolt against Spain, he distrusted the clergy and resented their ambition to dominate the state.

Oldenbarnevelt could not accept the idea that God created some human souls purely for the sake of damning them to hell. Nor did he wish to be dictated to by the Dutch Reformed Church, however patriotic it might be. And so, from about 1607, he sided with the liberals, or Arminians, led by the Amsterdam preacher Jacobus Arminius. Known also as the Remonstrants, the Arminians argued that God might choose to save everyone, and that human beings could freely assist God in doing so. More to the point, the Arminians were happy to accept that the state, led by Oldenbarnevelt, reigned supreme.

In all of this, Oldenbarnevelt played with fire. Theology stirred up emotions, and he had made many enemies: he was a brilliant lawyer, but by birth he came from a landowning family in the rural east of the republic, and he was an elitist. Nobody hated him more than the popular hero of the Dutch, the son of William the Silent, Prince Maurice of Nassau, fifty years of age in 1617. A brilliant general, and a determined foe of Spain, Prince Maurice was also amoral, an undiscriminating lecher, and a man happy to use religious strife as a weapon in a contest for power.

As Carleton put it, the disorders arose from “a schism in the church, countenanced and maintained by faction in the state.” Prince Maurice threw his weight behind the Counter-Remonstrants. They were the popular Calvinist party, anti-Arminian, a loose and unruly alliance of the Dutch Reformed Church, the urban working class, and merchants eager for another war with Spain, not least because they wished to take control of the trade with the Indies, East and West.10

England’s ambassador at The Hague, and later secretary of state, Sir Dudley Carleton (1574–1632), from a portrait painted in about 1620 by the Dutchman van Mierevelt (Print in author’s collection)

Each of the violent clashes of 1617 involved a sectarian fight between these two religious factions. The Amsterdam riot, for example, erupted because the rioters heard that an Arminian pastor was preaching in the house they attacked. At The Hague, thousands of Counter-Remonstrants occupied the city’s largest church, opposite Oldenbarnevelt’s mansion, and held it by force. Much the same was true at Leiden. There, and at other cities, the ruling oligarchy and the burgomasters were Arminians, and they mobilized their waardgelders to defend themselves against a popular rebellion. The barricades around the town hall at Leiden came to be called “the Arminian fence,” and the city became a sort of Dutch Belfast, divided by physical barriers as well as those of creed and class.

How should the English exiles respond? Their sympathies lay entirely with the Counter-Remonstrants, because the Pilgrims were orthodox Calvinists, sharing the same stark dogma of double predestination. Their friend Ames acted as tutor to the sons of an Amsterdam merchant called Reynier Pauw, leader of the anti-Arminians in that city and a close ally of Prince Maurice’s. At Leiden, William Bradford loathed the Arminians, blaming them entirely for the unrest. John Robinson took an even more direct role in events, actively supporting the Counter-Remonstrants in fierce debates at the university. His friends included the most orthodox Calvinist professors, ardent supporters of Prince Maurice.11

On the other hand, the English were merely foreigners, powerless and with little money. If they backed the wrong horse, they might find themselves in serious trouble. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the Pilgrims began an urgent debate about the idea of leaving for America, or that they found it very hard to reach a consensus. Which course of action was the more dangerous? To sail to the New World, where the traumas in Virginia gave little cause for confidence? Or to remain at Leiden, where anything might happen and where the economic climate was already difficult, and might soon become disastrous? The puzzle was all the harder to solve because the Dutch crisis offered a positive opportunity.

Suddenly the Pilgrims found themselves in full agreement with King James about a religious question. From the very outset, both Carleton and the king supported the Counter-Remonstrants, and not merely because they felt that the Arminians were troublemakers, hairsplitters who endangered peace and prosperity. They also disliked Oldenbarnevelt. He often irritated the English by being too close to France or negotiating hard in disputes about trade. It was also rumored that Oldenbarnevelt took bribes from the Spanish. For England, the much younger Prince Maurice seemed far more attractive in every way.

By the autumn of 1617, Maurice had made it clear that he would use force if necessary to defend the Counter-Remonstrants. With the army behind him, the prince was bound to win, an outcome that would suit the English very well. A military dictatorship led by the prince would unite the Dutch Republic and ensure that it stood firm against Spain. In all of this there lay a certain irony, which people noticed at the time: that, among the Dutch, King James was aligned with exactly the kind of Calvinist zealots whom he most disliked at home. For the Pilgrims, the situation had obvious benefits, all the same, by making them more acceptable to the English authorities. The king counted as his allies in Holland the very same Calvinist clerics who lived close to John Robinson and considered him their friend.

So, that autumn, the Pilgrims sent John Carver back to London, along with another exile, Robert Cushman, who made an arduous living in Leiden combing wool. Cushman and Carver began the talks with the Virginia Company. They took with them the Seven Articles, a declaration of belief that explained how conventional the Pilgrims were in their theology. As so often, Bradford does not give the date, but the mission appears to have taken place immediately after the riots in the Breestraat. On November 12, the company’s treasurer, Sir Edwin Sandys, wrote a friendly letter back to Robinson and Brewster, praising the Seven Articles and promising to help.

Things did not go badly for the Pilgrims in the ensuing months. With the help of Sir John Wolstenholme, Fulke Greville, and Sir Robert Naunton they received royal consent to go to America. They had little hope of obtaining support by way of capital from the Virginia Company, but in Leiden they found themselves on the winning side. During 1618, Prince Maurice gradually isolated Oldenbarnevelt and the province of Holland, where the Arminians were strongest, while he mobilized his own base of supporters.

In the summer and autumn, he disarmed the waardgelders, and in September the Arminian barricade came down. The following month Prince Maurice ousted the burgomasters of Leiden and installed a new town council. Huge crowds turned out to carry him into the city, “with much applause of the people,” Carleton told Naunton: “The boys marched about the town with a flag and a drum … felling Arminians by the score.”12 Prince Maurice toppled Oldenbarnevelt, having him arrested on a charge of treason. After a show trial, Oldenbarnevelt was beheaded in May 1619.

By this time, however, the Pilgrims themselves had stumbled off course. As we shall see, they had a good chance of finding merchants in Amsterdam ready to finance the voyage, but in London their period of royal approval turned out to be brief. King James did not prohibit them from sailing to America, but he did find a new reason to be very angry with William Brewster.

In 1616, Brewster hit upon a promising scheme, combining evangelism and the profit motive. At first, he had suffered worse than most in Leiden, because of the strain of keeping his large family—he and his wife brought with them five children—and because as a gentleman he had never done manual work. Gradually, he built a reputation as a tutor, teaching English to wealthy Danes and Germans studying at the university. Then, with backing from another Separatist, a minor landowner from Kent called Thomas Brewer, he went into the book trade. In early 1617, the Pilgrims began publishing titles at Leiden, mostly expensive, finely bound volumes for sale to academic Puritans at home.

Title page of A Confutation of the Rhemists, printed by the Pilgrims at Leiden. This copy belonged to the poet Edward Benlowes (1602–76). A Royalist during the English Civil War, Benlowes was not a Puritan, but he was fiercely anti-Catholic, and this seems to have been the book’s appeal. (The Old Library, St. John’s College, Cambridge)

The Pilgrim Press issued about nineteen books. By far their biggest seller was a thick, handsome folio by the great Thomas Cartwright, bearing the ponderous title A Confutation of the Rhemists. Written in the 1580s, and commissioned originally by Puritan sympathizers, including Walsingham, it was an anti-Catholic commentary on the New Testament. Although nothing in it was subversive, it fell afoul of a system of censorship introduced in 1586, when the Star Chamber decreed that printers must obtain a license from the archbishop of Canterbury for any title they sold. John Whitgift banned Cartwright’s book, fearing that it might enhance his reputation. It languished unpublished until 1618, when Brewster revived it and began shipping copies back to England.13

Although it was unlicensed, the Confutation must have sold openly and well, because nearly sixty copies still exist, fifteen of them in college libraries at Oxford. It would have been impossible to smuggle a book as hefty as this in such quantities. It seems that Brewster had found a profitable niche: books a little too hot for English publishers to handle, but not scandalous enough to bring the full weight of authority crashing down. The following year, however, the Pilgrims went too far. On his list, Brewster included books by a Scottish author, works bound to infuriate a king who had suddenly become especially sensitive to criticism.


For many years, the king had complained about scurrilous pamphlets printed abroad, mostly by exiled Catholics. There was, for example, a rebellious crew of Irish Franciscan monks who ran off seditious books in Gaelic from a printing press in their Belgian monastery, causing a mild furor in 1614.14 Then, the following year, a pocket-size title went on sale at the Frankfurt Book Fair, written in excellent Latin, accessible to every educated European. It was a comic sensation.

Titled the Corona Regia (Kingly Crown), it was a satire aimed directly at King James. In October, an English informer in Brussels overheard two Jesuits chuckling about its contents. A few copies reached England and enraged the king. For the next two years he made his diplomats devote much of their time to tracking down the anonymous author. Besides making fun of the king’s pretentiousness, not least his posing as a peacemaker, the Corona mocked his heavy drinking, his habit of smacking his lips, and his vomiting after meals. Worst of all, the author broke a taboo by openly calling James a homosexual, with a preference for juveniles.15

Scores of dispatches remain to show how great a fuss this caused. King James became even angrier when the theological civil war among the Dutch gave rise to pamphlets that reminded him about the defects of his own state church. At this point, James was pursuing his cherished plan to unite the Protestant churches of Europe. He took very unkindly to any suggestion that he had failed to bring religious peace to the British Isles. His fury became still greater if any writer touched on religious affairs in Scotland, his old domain.

In the spring of 1617, James rode north to Edinburgh on his extravagant royal tour. In advance, he had sent up a list of changes he wished to see in the Church of Scotland, to make it more closely resemble English practice. Again, he wanted uniformity between his kingdoms, but he horrified the Scots by suggesting that they kneel to receive Holy Communion and by proposing to give more power to bishops. Leading the opposition was a prolific and popular minister called David Calderwood. Events soon followed a familiar pattern.

James summoned Calderwood before a Church court. Calderwood did not attend, and so the king had him dismissed, banished from Scotland, and branded a rebel.16 In hiding in Scotland, then in a safe house in Holland, Calderwood wrote book after book attacking the king’s plans for the Scottish Church. He found a willing helper in William Brewster and the Pilgrim Press.

By this time, the young Winslow, aged only twenty-two, had arrived in Leiden, after about five years as an apprentice printer in London. It seems that he came to work with the Pilgrims as a compositor in 1618, setting the type for their publications. Soon afterward, at about the end of that year, the Pilgrims began to print Calderwood’s books. This time they were definitely contraband, smuggled back across the North Sea. The operation must have been successful, because today the library at Edinburgh University owns four copies of the most controversial, the Perth Assembly, and Glasgow has another three.

The Pilgrims had picked a fine time to upset the king, since his agents were still trying to find the men responsible for the Corona Regia. Meanwhile, Prince Maurice had seized power in The Hague, and with the support of King James he convened a synod at Dordrecht, with a view to settling the dispute with the Arminians once and for all. The synod began to assemble shortly after the comet lit up the night sky at the end of 1618, and the blazing star only made the delegates more quarrelsome. Despite the fall of Oldenbarnevelt, civil disorders continued, lasting far into the following year: in the worst incident, the army shot dead four Arminians in the town of Hoorn.

Against this background of unrest, James feared that the synod might fail or reach the wrong result. If it did so, then pamphleteers on all sides might be to blame for inciting controversy. Before the synod, therefore, he urged the Dutch to clamp down on public debate about religion, by Dutchmen and exiles alike. This was all the more necessary, since Europe was sliding into war and James needed a peaceful, united Dutch Republic as his ally. In December, Carleton persuaded the Dutch authorities to issue a decree banning English exiles from printing books and sending them home.

Brewster and the Pilgrims took no notice and printed Calderwood’s books regardless. Illegal copies began to turn up in Scotland. Until now, Sir Dudley Carleton had left the Pilgrims unmolested, even though he must have known of their activities: one of his best agents was an expatriate English Puritan. The same was true of Carleton’s superior at Whitehall, Sir Robert Naunton. He was a friend of the Pilgrims, not an enemy. Neither man displayed any eagerness to persecute the exiled Separatists. But at last, under orders from the king, in February 1619 they had to take action. And yet even then Carleton dragged his feet, risking the anger of his sovereign.

On February 26, Naunton wrote to Carleton to tell him that the king was furious about another libelous book in Latin, apparently written by a Scottish nonconformist and printed in Holland. Carleton went to Prince Maurice to complain. He soon discovered that Calderwood was the likely author, but he did not hurry to track down the publisher. Not until July did Carleton report that the guilty party was “one William Brewster, a Brownist, who hath been for some years an inhabitant and printer at Leyden.” Brewster, he said, either had printed Perth Assembly, which was freely available in Leiden, or would know who had. Poring over the books in question, and comparing their typeface with that of the Confutation, the ambassador decided that all three books came from the Pilgrim Press.

But Brewster was nowhere to be found. According to Carleton, a few weeks earlier the Pilgrim had left for London. This was false: in fact, Brewster seems to have spent the whole of the spring and early summer of 1619 in England, where the Pilgrims were trying to close their deal with the Virginia Company. This they did on June 9, when the company granted them a first patent for a plantation. Then Brewster slipped back to Holland, where he lay low. He surfaced briefly at Leiden at the end of August, when at last he was spotted by Carleton’s informants.

Even with the help of the Dutch, and after a reprimand from the king, Sir Dudley failed to detain the Pilgrim. After the authorities bungled an attempt to arrest him, Brewster went into hiding at Leiderdorp, a rural suburb only two miles from the Achtergracht. He reemerged in America, after traveling on the Mayflower, and the Pilgrims avoided mentioning his name in their early reports about life in New England. His backer Thomas Brewer was easier to find. In mid-September, his books, papers, and printing type were seized, marking the end of the publishing house.

Even so, Brewer escaped harsh treatment. Because he was a member of Leiden University, he could be locked up only in the university’s own prison. Carleton had to negotiate hard before the university would allow Brewer to be taken to England for questioning. Sir Dudley had to give assurances that the English Crown would treat him well, meet his expenses, and release him after three months. Not until November 12 did the university finally deliver Brewer to an English officer, Sir William Zouche, for the journey to London. Even then, John Robinson came with him as far as Rotterdam. Far from putting Brewer in handcuffs, Zouche bought him drinks as they waited for the weather to clear.17

Like their friend Ames, the Pilgrims had made powerful allies among the Dutch. Given the politics of the day, Carleton had no wish to offend them for the sake of an affair that had blown over. With Robinson lending his support, the synod at Dordrecht had also ended well, settling the religious dispute in favor of the Calvinists and Prince Maurice. With that accomplished, and Oldenbarnevelt dead, Sir Dudley hoped to strengthen the Anglo-Dutch accord by striking deals with the prince to end the disputes about fishing rights and the East Indies that endangered the relationship.

For their part, the Dutch reminded him that King James was penniless, while they were rich: the Dutch paid the wages of English soldiers in their country. If James wished to play in the politics of Europe, the only card he had was his friendship with the Dutch, and they knew this perfectly well. So did King James. He fulfilled his pledges to Brewer, who was released unharmed. As for the Pilgrims, in the months ahead they came even closer to their Dutch friends. Until April 1620, less than six months before the Mayflower left Plymouth Sound, they were still hoping to sail to America under the Dutch flag. If they had done so, their future might have taken a very different form.


When Bradford came to write his history, he touched briefly on an alternative proposal. He says that “some Dutchmen made them faire offers aboute goeinge with them.”18 In fact, as Winslow later explained, two sets of Dutchmen came up with two alternatives. The first was for the Pilgrims to leave Leiden, but to remain in the Dutch Republic, and to move south to Zeeland and the town of Middelburg.

This would have made some sense. In Zeeland the political and religious leaders were refugees themselves, exiles who had fled north from the Spanish many years before. Pro-English and pro-Puritan, they had already offered to help by intervening with Prince Maurice on behalf of Thomas Brewer. When the Pilgrims communicated with England, they did so by way of Middelburg, which had an English business community. The man who carried their mail was John Turner, concierge of the English merchants’ house. His name turns up in the customs records, ferrying over from London cargoes of pewter and English beer.19

Neither Bradford nor Winslow explains why the Pilgrims rejected the Zeeland offer. The reasons were most likely very simple: prospects would be no better there than at Leiden, and if the Dutch and the Spanish went to war again, Middelburg was even closer to the front line. A second proposal carried more weight. It came from the New Netherland Company, which saw in the English exiles potential settlers for the islands that it knew existed at the mouth of the Hudson. Once again, however, the Pilgrims found themselves caught up in the vagaries of politics.

Ten years before, Henry Hudson had first sailed up the river that bears his name and told merchants in Amsterdam about it. Since then, Dutch seamen and merchants had made voyage after voyage, with varying success, trading for furs up the Hudson as far as Albany and often clashing with the native people. More creatively, the Amsterdam skipper Adriaen Block made accurate maps of the coastline, from Manhattan as far as Marblehead Bay to the north of Boston.

So, in 1614, a consortium of Amsterdam merchants with interests in fur and whaling formed the New Netherland Company with a patent from the authorities in The Hague. It gave them exclusive rights for three years to explore and to trade in the zone between the fortieth and the forty-fifth parallels, from the Delaware north to Nova Scotia.20 By 1620, their time had run out, before they could establish a permanent base. The Pilgrims offered one last chance. In February, the company told Prince Maurice that they had found at Leiden an English preacher—John Robinson—willing to take four hundred families to the Hudson River. There, they said, he would plant “a new commonwealth” under Dutch protection and convert the natives to Christianity. To make the idea more appealing, they mentioned the abundance of timber, ripe to build oceangoing hulls. From Prince Maurice, they needed two Dutch warships to protect the Pilgrims from rivals, including King James, who claimed the same territory for England.

Expressed in such a way, the project had not the slightest chance of approval. With war against Spain approaching, the prince needed no more quarrels with England. In any event, plans were already being made for a much larger venture, a West Indies Company, led by such men as Ames’s friend Reynier Pauw, to challenge the Spanish in Brazil and elsewhere. On April 11, after consulting the prince for less than twenty-four hours, the Dutch authorities vetoed the Robinson scheme.

Even so, their talks about the project gave the Pilgrims a glimpse of a new opportunity. For the first time, they crossed paths with the mammal that came to be their salvation: not a beached whale, but the North American beaver.21

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