The pilgrims in Leiden: Where were the pilgrims before they sailed to America?

The pilgrims in Leiden are a really important part of Dutch and American history. The pilgrims were a crucial group in the history of the US. They were an ostracized religious group that escaped from England and came to live in Leiden. From there, they would sail to the New World. 

Before the pilgrims came to Leiden, the city already had a history of diverse inhabitants. Before they were expelled at the beginning of the 80 Years’ War, the streets of Leiden were home to Catholic Spaniards. After they were forced to leave, French-speaking refugees took their place. All of this led to a massive increase in population: between the late 16th century and the mid 17th century, the population of the city grew from 15,000 to 45,000.

Then the pilgrims arrived. Anyone familiar with the founding story of the United States will have heard about this group before: the tiny group of people who sailed to America aboard the Mayflower to become the founders of the Colony of Plymouth in New England. Another association you’ll have with the pilgrims is, of course, Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving, 1621. Image: US Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons/public domain

Fleeing from England

So how did the pilgrims end up in Leiden? Well, prior to their move to the Netherlands, many of the pilgrims lived in a farming village called Scrooby, close to northern Nottinghamshire. Because of the belief system they held, they had irreconcilable differences with the Church of England, so the group had to leave the country. By the early sixteen hundreds, they were persecuted by Queen Elizabeth and her successor James I. It was made illegal to attend the services of an unofficial church. Disobeying meant fines, imprisonment or execution.

Image: Abuzer van Leeuwen/Supplied.

Like anyone sensible, the pilgrims were not loving the idea of dying for their beliefs, so they attempted to leave England in 1607, and succeeded in doing so in 1608. They held high hopes that they would establish a city somewhere which would allow them to keep their religious beliefs and identity.

Leiden: the pilgrim’s home away from home

First, the pilgrims arrived in the largest city of the Netherlands, Amsterdam. Amsterdam was already home to many separatist groups, as well as people of non-Christian religions, so the pilgrims decided to settle in Leiden instead. Leiden was the second biggest city in the Netherlands at the time and had a thriving industrial centre with a lot of job opportunities in the textile and brewing sectors. These industries allowed the pilgrims to find work without Dutch language skills. The city was, and still is, home to the prestigious Leiden University.

The plaque that remembers the Pilgrim Fathers in Leiden. Image: Abuzer van Leeuwen/Supplied.

In the permission letter from the city for their relocation the pastor Robinson wrote that Leiden “refuses no honest people free entry to live in the city, as long as they behave honestly and obey all the laws and ordinances, and under those conditions, the applicants’ arrival here would be pleasing and welcome.”

The pilgrims settled on land close to the St. Pieterskerk. In a short amount of time, the number of Pilgrims in the city increased to 300 from the initial 100.

One of the houses that the Pilgrims in Leiden have lived in. Now home to the American Pilgrim Museum. Image: Abuzer van Leeuwen/ Supplied.

Pilgrims in Leiden

For pilgrim families who moved to Leiden from bigger cities,  adjustment to city life was not such a big deal. However, for those who came from farming backgrounds, the adjustment was more difficult. Apart from a few like William Brewster who eventually took a job as an English teacher and John Robinson who enrolled to the university for a doctorate, many of the pilgrims worked at demanding jobs six days a week.

In addition, they lived in small, one-roomed houses. Kids would sometimes be taught how to read and write at home, and would then help out around the house from age eight up.

Leiden on a summer’s day. Image: Abuzer van Leeuwen

Times of hardship

The life in this newfound city was not easy. At first, this was accepted, but as the years went by, and as many of the original pilgrims got older, they started to find their living conditions intolerable. Many of them had little to no educational background, and with the language barrier, going about daily life was difficult. Additionally, their now grown-up children were learning Dutch, refusing the ‘old ways’, and yearning for a different way of life. Their parents feared that their legacy was approaching extinction.

At the same time, the political state of the Netherlands was becoming more unstable as well. There was a military coup, and the number of riots, military restrictions, and instances of censorship increased dramatically. Rumours of war abounded, as the Twelve Year Truce with Spain was coming to an end.

You can sense Leiden’s history as you walk around it. Image: Abuzer van Leeuwen/Supplied

Journey to the unknown

Afraid of losing their identity and therefore their legacy, the pilgrims of Leiden decided to leave behind the harsh conditions of Leiden in search of a new home. They didn’t want to end up assimilating, or being punished for their beliefs. In the end, they decided to sail to America.

Historical buildings fill the streets of Leiden. Image: Abuzer van Leeuwen/Supplied

The first journey was made by a very small group of people. These were the youngest and fittest of what the pilgrims had to offer. Moreover, each of them had an essential skill that would be crucial for their lives in the New World. The rest of the community was supposed to join them later — some did, and some did not. As the years went on the pilgrims that stayed in the Netherlands became part of the Dutch culture and the Dutch church. Some even changed their names.

The city is bustling with life. Image: Abuzer van Leeuwen/Supplied

Want to see more of Leiden?

If this article has inspired you to want to see more of Leiden, then we have the place for you to go! Leiden’s tourism office, Stad van Ontdekkingen, can help you find out about everything from museums to shopping in Leiden.

The Pilgrims and their story is an important part of the Dutch-American culture which shaped the national identity shared by millions today. Did we miss any important facts about their lives here? Let us know in the comments below!

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in November 2018, and was updated in November 2020 for your reading pleasure. 

Feature image: Abuzer van Leeuwen/Supplied

Ceren Spuyman
Born and raised in Istanbul, Ceren moved when she decided to follow her own Dutchie. Being restless by nature, she is now busy with everything Dutch by majoring in Dutch Studies at Leiden University while living in Delft. Her hobbies are petting as many cats as possible.


  1. Terrific article. Thank you. A side note, an ancestor of President Obama was a Pilgrim living in Leiden.


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