Nowadays Leiden is associated with being a student town more than anything. But before, it was known as the ‘City of Refugees’.

Long before the time of the Pilgrims in Leiden, the same streets were home to many Catholic Spaniards. After their leave, as what we call today ‘guest workers’, French-speaking refugees took their place. Only between the late 16th century and mid 17th century, the population of the city went from 15,000 to about 45,000.

And then the Pilgrims arrived. This small group of people would later sail to America in a ship named ‘Mayflower’ to become the founders of the Colony of Plymouth in the New England area. And let’s not forget their part in one of America’s most celebrated holidays – Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving, 1621. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g04961

Fleeing from England

Prior to their move to the Netherlands, many of the Pilgrims lived in a farming village called Scrooby close to northern Nottinghamshire. Their belief system placed them in the spotlight as a troubling crowd against the Church of England which forced them to keep a low profile. By the early sixteen hundreds, the English Calvinists (as the Pilgrims were called) were persecuted by Queen Elizabeth and her successor James I. This meant that now it was illegal to attend the services of an unofficial church and disobeying meant fines and even an imprisonment or worse, execution.

Not wanting to be executed for their beliefs, the Calvinists of Scrooby -who would later be known as the Pilgrims- attempted to leave England in 1607 and succeeded to do so in 1608 where they carried high hopes for a city, which would allow them to keep their religion and identity.

Would they find what they all hoped for in the Netherlands? Well, the answer is both yes, and no.

Home, away from Home

They arrived at the biggest city; Amsterdam. Amsterdam then was already a newfound home to many other Separatist groups before they arrived. Wanting to split from the others, the Pilgrims soon decided to settle into Leiden.

The plaque that remembers the Pilgrim Fathers

Leiden, coming shortly after Amsterdam, was the second biggest city and home to a prestigious university. Moreover, the city was an industrial center with a lot of job opportunities in the textile and brewing sectors. This would mean they could work without having to speak Dutch or having to acquire any complicated skills to make a living.

In their permission letter 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.’

As I’ve mentioned before, being known as the ‘City of Refugees’, Leiden would soon accept the Pilgrims and they would settle on a land bought close to the St.Pieterskerk called the Groene Poort. In a short amount of time, the followers increased to roughly 300 from the initial 100.

One of the houses that the Pilgrims in Leiden have lived in. Now home to the American Pilgrim Museum

Pilgrims in Leiden

For Pilgrim families who moved to Leiden from bigger cities, adjustment was fairly easier compared to the Pilgrims who were used to a life evolved around farming and crops. 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 for six days a week.

In addition, they lived in rather small, one-roomed houses where living was far from spacious. Kids would sometimes be taught how to read and write at home until they start helping around the house when they were about 8 or 10.

Indoors of a typical Pilgrim house

Times of Hardship

The life in this newfound city was not easy. As the years went by, with the older age, the Pilgrims started to find the conditions they were in too heavy. Old age and poverty started to put a cloud over their contentment.

With many of them having little, if any, educational background – the language was still a big barrier in their daily lives. With their now-grown-up children becoming more Dutch every day by speaking the language, refusing the ‘old ways’ and yearning for the other culture, the parents feared that their legacy was approaching extinction.

In the meanwhile, the political state of the Netherlands was rather unstable as well. There had been a military coup and it was slowly turning into an environment that consisted of riots, military restrictions, censorship and rumors of war filling the streets. The Twelve Year Truce with Spain was coming to an end and one of the Pilgrims Bradford made the following remark about the issue:

”The 12 years of truce were now out, there was nothing but beating of drums and preparing of war, the events whereof are always uncertain, the Spaniard might prove as cruel as the salvages of America, and the famine and pestilence as sore here as there, their liberty less to look out for remedy.”


Journey to the Unknown

Fearing of losing their identity and therefore their legacy, combined with the harsh conditions; Pilgrims in Leiden decided to look for a new place. They didn’t want to fall into assimilation nor be punished for their beliefs. At the end, they decided to sail to America.

The first journey consisted of a very small group of people. These were the youngest and the fittest of them all. Moreover, it was important that each of them bear an essential skill that would be crucial for their life after the Netherlands. The rest of the community was supposed to join them later. However, some went and some choose to stay behind. As the years moved on the pilgrims that stayed became part of the Dutch culture and the Dutch church. Some even changed their names.

Long story short, much liked the traditional much loved food hutspot, the Netherlands is a country which is called ”home” by many nationalities. They all have different culture, religion and language all mixed and stirred like the potatoes, onions and the carrots. The Pilgrims and their story is an important part of the Dutch-American culture which shaped the national identity shared by millions today.

Liked reading about the Pilgrims in Leiden? Here are more historical pieces:

Three things about Dutch history

The Dutch East India Company was richer than Apple, Google and Facebook combined

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  1. Interesting read about the history of the Pilgrims in Leiden, however it would improve the readability if the story had been edited by a native (English) speaker.


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