As an American living in the Netherlands, it’s been fascinating to discover the key locations for the Pilgrims in the Netherlands. Although not everyone realizes that the Pilgrims lived in Leiden, you can visit many of the key locations relevant to them. I include some history of the Pilgrims in the Netherlands as well as the addresses of where to go! 2020 marks the 400th year when the Pilgrims departed on the Mayflower to the Americas!
Why were the Pilgrims in Leiden?
The Pilgrims were Christians from England who were dissatisfied with the Church of England. They were very vocal in their opinions, resulting in persecution from King James I. In 1593, independent congregations were banned in England, however, this did not stop the Puritans from running their own services in secret.
The most famous instance of these services was in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire. Services went on for three years, but due to the Protestant Reformation in the Netherlands, the Puritans decided to head to the Netherlands to start over where they could practice in peace. (At this time, Catholics were heavily sanctioned with their own secret churches.)
At the time, Leiden was considered a city of free thinkers and tolerance. When arriving in Leiden, the Pilgrims were told: “No honest persons will be refused free and unconstrained entry to the city to take up residence.” The Pilgrims settled near the Pieterskerk, Leiden’s beautiful Gothic cathedral, and settled down in Leiden. The Pilgrims spent about twelve years living and working in Leiden.
Why did the Pilgrims leave Leiden?
It’s important to remember that immigration in the Netherlands is fairly normal and English is widely spoken, however, this was not the case in the 1600s. After twelve years in Leiden, the Pilgrims were concerned about integrating too much into Dutch life. (Some Pilgrims remained in Leiden to live out their lives.)
The Netherlands had already once been invaded by the Spanish who imposed Catholicism on many cities in the Netherlands. The influence of this invasion is still felt in many parts of the Netherlands where Catholicism is more prominent (e.g. Brabant and Zeeland). In 1618, the truce with the Spanish was on the verge of ending. Leiden is a city where the Spanish had been gleefully ridden out by the residents (it’s still celebrated each October), however, there was no guarantee that the Spanish would not invade again
Similarly, the Pilgrims found life in the Netherlands difficult. As a foreigner myself, it’s not always easy to find the comforts of home abroad. Historians have argued that the Pilgrims missed their more diverse diet, which included meat. Similarly, employment in the fabric industry (a big industry for Leiden) was dominated by entrepreneurs who controlled quite a bit of the city and without work, the Pilgrims would become destitute.
In 1618, a portion of the Pilgrims in Leiden moved back to England in preparation for departing for the Americas. There were some mixed reports about early settlements in the Americas, but they chose to take the risk. The Pilgrims hoped that England would finally allow them to practice their religion in peace in the New World, however, they required some help with funding this journey. Ships, including the Mayflower (1620), were funded by merchants who were promised some of their goods after settlement. The Pilgrims arrived in the Americas and established Plymouth. Needless to say, the rest is history. 😉
Key locations for the Pilgrims in Leiden
The Pieterskerk is one of the gems of Leiden. This beautiful church dates back to 1121 when it was rebuilt in the spot of another chapel. It took almost 200 years to build the church,
Protestant church services were attended by John Robinson, one of the Pilgrim Fathers buried within the church, as well as numerous influential Dutch figures. It’s a must-visit location for those interested in Pilgrim history and you can see the plaques dedicated to their journeys. Mathematician Snellus is even buried inside.
On a normal day, admission costs a few euros for entry into the Pieterskerk, which is now an events space. Thanksgiving services are held each Thanksgiving in English at the Pieterskerk if you wish to attend! Address: Pieterskerkhof 1.
Site of the printing press
On one of Leiden’s most popular street for boutique shops in the Pieterkwartier, you’ll find a street where the Pilgrim Press once sat. Today, there’s nothing there, however, there’s a plaque over the doorway to this street dedicated to William Brewster who preceded over the printing press. Following persecution from the English, the printing press here closed in 1619. Luckily, Brewer was able to escape. Address: William Brewstersteeg.
John Robinson’s former home
This beautiful courtyard is one of my favorite places in Leiden to briefly visit. It’s long been the home of members of the Wallonia Church, who were allied to the Pilgrims. This peaceful courtyard (behind a heavy door) can be found at Kloksteeg 21. Please be quiet as this is a privately owned residence.
Leiden American Pilgrim Museum*
Let’s be clear that this location is not original,
Note: When departing the Netherlands, the Pilgrims departed from Delftshaven, which is now located in Rotterdam! This beautiful town was a port for ships, however, it has only been recently added onto Rotterdam. It’s worth a visit for history lovers as its curator is one of the world’s experts on Pilgrims. Address: Beschuitsteeg 9.