Mayflower Separatists Escape to Holland

Autumn 1608 - A Puritan Separatists' group formed in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, and led by William Brewster, have escaped to Holland without royal permission. After enduring prison in England and uncertain sea voyages, the group were hoping to settle in Amsterdam.
  • Some Separatists embarked last spring from a quiet spot on the East coast between Grimsby and Hull in a Dutch ship, arriving in Holland after enduring a terrible sea journey all of 14 days later.
  • The women and children left behind were all arrested but the constables did not know what to do with them and they were eventually released to join their menfolk in Amsterdam.
  • The Scrooby group have joined the members of Rev. John Smith's Gainsborough Separatists who moved to Amsterdam a year ago.

The Separatists were part of the Puritan movement who want to purify the church, carry reformation beyond the Act of Uniformity (1559) that orders every minister to use the Book of Common Prayer. They believed in freedom of worship and the simplicity of religious life, wanting more emphasis on preaching than ritual or doctrine.

Puritans are well-known for their high morals and earnestness and like a strict observance of the Sabbath - no sports and games on a Sunday. This makes the Puritans unpopular with those who like to amuse themselves with archery, fencing, May-games and Morris-dancing after attending church on a Sunday.


Whilst the Puritans hoped to reform the church within, the Separatists went further by breaking away from the Church of England and worshiping together in their own homes. They did not like the rituals laid down in the Common Book of Prayer that are used in church; nor did they believe that anyone should be forced to accept any sort of religion - magistrates cannot compel religion by laws and penalties.

What then were these Separatists' services like? 'We begin with prayer; afterwards read one or two chapters of the bible, give the sense thereof and discuss it. The first speaker then announces a text and preaches on it for about an hour. Then the second speaker talks on the same text for the same length of time and after him the third, fourth, and maybe fifth.'


Since preaching by someone other than an ordained priest is considered dangerous by Parliament, it has forbidden Separatists to hold their own services. The Church of England warned that if anyone criticized Anglican services they would be excommunicated. King James was opposed to the Puritans because he believed he ruled by Divine Right: 'I shall not be content that my power be disputed upon but I shall be ever willing to make the reason appear of all my doings, and rule by actions according to my laws.'

Because of this repressive authority the Scrooby Separatist group, led by William Brewster Junior, began to think of illegal emigration.


William Brewster Senior was Bailiff of the Archbishop of York's estate and Master of the Queen's Postes, living at Scrooby Manor House (pictured right) which entertained Archbishops and royal guests. William's son attended Cambridge University, well-noted for its radical, religious ideas, and later spent several years in the service of Queen Elizabeth's representative in the Netherlands, a country known for its tolerance on religious matters.

On the death of his father at Scrooby in 1590, William Junior was appointed in his place as 'Master of the Postes.' William had long been attracted by Separatism and in 1598 he was cited before the ecclesiastical court for non-attendance at church. He later joined Richard Clifton's congregation at Babworth.

When the Rev.Clifton was deprived of his living for his own noncomformist views, William Brewster provided refuge for him at Scrooby Manor House and they both attended John Smith's Separatists church at Gainsborough. Included among this congregation were John Robinson from nearby Sturton-le-Steeple and William Bradford from Austerfield, both prominent Separatists who are now living in Holland.

When John Smith and his Gainsborough group emigrated to Holland, Scrooby Manor House became the meeting place for the Separatists congregation. On 30th September 1607 Brewster resigned his official position at Scrooby and two months later was cited, with others, before the High Court of Commission, for disobedience in matters of religion. He did not appear, was fined 20 in his absence and a warrant issued for his arrest. The court officer could not find Brewster nor any of the other defendants.

Plans were then laid for the group to escape to Holland: 'Seeing themselves molested, and that there was no hope of continuance.'

Attempted Escape

Since no one is allowed to leave the kingdom without royal permission and that permission was not likely to be granted to a group of Separatists, 'they had to bribe and fee the mariners, and give extraordinary rates for their passages. And Betrayed yet they were oft-times betrayed, many of them; and both they and their goods intercepted and surprised, and thereby put to great trouble and charge.'

Earlier this year a party of Separatists walked from Scrooby to Boston in order to smuggle themselves out of the country but were betrayed by the ship's captain (pictured left) and thrown into prison. William Bradford, being the youngest, was released after a month while their pastor Richard Clifton, their teacher John Robinson of Gainsborough, and William Brewster were held for the next assizes.


Later in the spring William Bradford made a second attempt to sail to Holland 'so that within awhile, he had opportunity with some others, to get over to Zealand, through perils both by land and sea not inconsiderable.'

At the same time another departure was planned with a Dutch captain at Hull who had his own ship. He agreed 'to take them aboard between Grimsby and Hull, where there was a large common good way from any town.' The women and children travelled by river while the men walked to the coast. Unfortunately only one boatload of men had been ferried to the ship when 'the captain espied a large body of horse and foot, armed with bills and guns and other weapons, for the countryside had turned out to capture them.'

The captain weighed anchor, hoisted sail, and away. Hit by more bad luck, the ship ran into a long and violent storm and it was 'fourteen days or more before they reached port, in seven of which they saw neither sun, moon, nor stars, being driven near the coast of Norway.'

Meanwhile the women and children left behind in England were arrested: 'They were hurried from one place to another till in the end the officers knew not what to do with them.' Released in the end because they had, in seeking to go abroad, merely sought to obey their husbands, their natural Christian duty, they too later escaped to Holland. By late summer all the members of the Scrooby group had reached Amsterdam.


Scrooby church The Separatist group prepare to settle in Amsterdam where 'they hear a strange and uncouth language, and behold the different manners and customs of the people, with their strange customs and attire - all so far differing from their own plain country villages (Scrooby village church pictured right) wherein they were bred and had lived so long, that it seemed they had come into a new world.'

Having to support themselves, they took poorly-paid, semi-skilled work in the woollen, leather and metal trades. And relations with John Smith's Separatists group, who had fallen out with the so-called Ancient Brethren (earlier arrivals in Amsterdam), had become strained.

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