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1620: The Pilgrim Fathers, Episode 21 - 24/10/05


People waving farewell to the Mayflower as she leaves Plymouth, 6th September 1620. Original Artwork: After Gustave Alaux (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Farewell Mayflower, 1620
(Getty Images)
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In Richmond, Virginia, they talk of their first settlers as the founders of America. That was 1607 - even though Richmond didn't get its name until more than a hundred years later. We have looked at the voyages of the Cabots, Gilbert, Ralegh, Drake even, Gates, Smith and others. Yet symbolically the Pilgrim Fathers have the distinction of being the people who started something that would come to be called the founding of America.

It is these families who are usually known as the founding fathers and not the earlier explorers and settlers. Why? Perhaps because they had not gone as short term merchant venturers. They had gone to America for a new life, not simply as a commercial expedition. The Pilgrim Fathers were non-conformists - in today's jargon, religious asylum seekers.

The Mayflower sailed from Plymouth in 1620. America was to be their Promised Land and a shrine to their non-conformism. They were escaping an England full of religious and social intolerance. The England they longed for no longer existed. So they took with them a memory of the old ways in England, not the England they were leaving behind.

Many left earlier because of religious persecution, not for America but Holland. That did not work, partly because the non-conformists believed their children were corrupted in Holland being "drawn away by evil examples into extravagant and dangerous courses."

A group of the pilgrims from Leiden charted the Mayflower for America. To understand the extent of religious discontent, we should think about the so-called "Millenary Petition" to James I in 1603. The petition was said to have been signed by a thousand priests demanding reform of the established Church. They wanted rid of church rituals and an end to the ex-communication of non-conformists. Ironically, the non-conformists who had escaped strict religious laws in England for the freedom of the New World, immediately insisted that all settlers should conform to the equally strict laws of non-conformism. Here was the beginnings of white Protestantism in America.

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Historical Figure

William Bradford, 1590-1656

Born near Doncaster, Bradford was a religious non-conformist and the most influential leader of the Pilgrim Fathers. Like many who sailed to America in 1620 and those who followed, Bradford had first sought religious freedom in Leiden in 1609. In Leiden he became a weaver and merchant and in spare moments educated himself in religious thought and history and philosophy.

When the Mayflower sailed on what was an unrelentingly stormy crossing of the Atlantic in 1620, Bradford was a naturally chosen elder of that group. On 21st April 1621, shortly after the arrival in the place they named New Plymouth, the pilgrims elected Bradford as Governor of the Plymouth Plantation following the death of their first leader, John Carver. Bradford was governor for 31 years and by 1651 had completed his history of the first settlement and the reasons for leaving Holland as well as England.

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Did You Know...

That the Pilgrim Fathers had not intended to go to New England? The Mayflower was bound for Virginia. The severe weather conditions and limited navigation skills blew the ship off course and the pilgrims found themselves on the New England coast.

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Contemporary Sources

The royal charter to the Pilgrim Fathers
The royal charter to the Pilgrim Fathers includes a declaration that the settlers should have a proper hierarchy and a governor named and approved by the Privy Council.

"Our will and pleasure is, that as well as such as are hereby appointed to be the Governor, Deputy Governor, and Assistants of the said Company, those that shall succeed them, and all other officers to be appointed and chosen as aforesaid, shall, before they undertake the execution of their said offices and places respectively, take their corporal oaths for the due and faithful performance of their duties before such person or persons as are hereunder appointed to take and receive the same; that is to say, the said Mathew Cradock, who is hereby nominated and appointed the present Governor of the said Company, shall take the said oaths before one or more of the masters of Our Court of Chancery, unto which master or masters of the Chancery, we do give full power and authority to take and administer the said oath to the said Governor accordingly."

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