Last Thanksgiving my wife was trying to explain to our granddaughter, Lizzie, 5 at the time, that some of her ancestors had been participants at the original 1621 feast in Plymouth.
Lizzie's forebears were Pilgrims. (My wife, like several million Americans at this point, is a Mayflower descendant.) Nowadays Pilgrims, with their funny, steeple-crowned hats and buckle shoes and their gloomy, pious ways (no games on Sunday, no celebrating even of Christmas!), have gone out of fashion. It's true that upon arriving in the New World they were so hapless that they would surely have perished during their first winter without the help of the American Indians.
But the Pilgrims were nevertheless heroic in their way. There were a great many Puritans in England at the beginning of the 17th century who wanted to purge Christianity of what they considered the laxity and corruption introduced by Rome and by the insufficiently rigorous Church of England. But only a few hundred of them felt strongly enough to become separatists and immigrate to another land.
What they objected to in the established church may seem fussy and trivial today: the wearing of surplices, the exchange of wedding rings, making the sign of the cross at baptism. But at the heart of their convictions was also a radical political thought: that the state had no business in the running of religion, and that congregations had the right to elect their own leaders.
The 102 passengers who sailed on the Mayflower in September 1620 came from all over England (and not all of them were religiously motivated), but the leaders of the separatist movement came from just a handful of farming villages in Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and southern Yorkshire, most within walking distance of one another. This is not the touristy, thatched-cottage part of England, but it is beautiful nonetheless, and last spring my wife and I visited to see what we could learn about her ancestors, who in so many ways are forefathers to us all.
We made the underappreciated cathedral town of Lincoln our base, and stayed at the White Hart Hotel in a charming upstairs room that overlooked the cathedral close. John Ruskin, the great English art critic, called the town's cathedral "out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles," which did not prevent the dean and chapter from renting it out as a location for the film "The Da Vinci Code." It really is a towering wonder, visible from miles around. Clearly I would not have made a good Puritan, for of all the churches we visited, this is the one, with its cassock-wearing choristers, flickering candles and rumbling organ, that I liked the best.
Lincoln also has some interesting Roman ruins and a couple of good restaurants. At the bottom of the aptly named Steep Hill, there is one exceptional restaurant with a name that would probably summon forth pickets in the U.S. It's called the Jews House, which is what it was in the 13th century, when Lincoln was home to one of the largest Jewish populations in England. Far from being an ethnic restaurant, the Jews House these days serves a lot of food that observant Jews are not allowed to eat: dishes like pork belly with miso glaze and pan-fried tiger prawns with melon sorbet.
To visit the villages of the Pilgrim leaders, all you really need is a map and a car. We had the additional benefit of Nick Bunker, author of "Making Haste From Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and the New World" (Knopf, 2010), who, after working as a stockbroker in London, now lives in an old, partly Norman house in Lincoln, where he writes full time. He was wearing riding breeches, stout boots and thick knee socks — not strictly necessary but a nice, squire-like touch. He took us first not to one of the Pilgrim sites but to the Church of St. Lawrence, in the all-but-abandoned village of Snarford. The tiny stone building gives no suggestion of the extravagant alabaster statues within — funeral monuments of the St. Paul family, local grandees who became staunch Puritans.
The most important of the Pilgrim villages, and probably the epicenter of the whole separatist movement, is Scrooby, in Nottinghamshire, where William Brewster, the local postmaster and later a Pilgrim leader, lived and held clandestine religious services in a large manor house. Scrooby today is a bit of a backwater and most of the house (which is now in private hands) was demolished in 1636.
You can still see traces of the moat and fishponds that once surrounded this grand establishment, and in the nearby market town of Gainsborough, another Puritan stronghold, there is an enormous half-timbered Elizabethan manor that gives an idea of what Scrooby Manor must have been like. In Gainsborough, especially, the Puritans were not rubes but bustling men of business.
Not far from Scrooby is the modest Yorkshire village of Austerfield, where William Bradford, the second governor of the Plymouth Colony, grew up; orphaned, he found solace in the radical preaching that could be heard in the area. In the other direction is Babworth, a pretty little hamlet where Richard Clifton, an important separatist thinker, was rector of the local church.
Then there is Sturton le Steeple, where these days at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Fisher-Price toys, for child-minding, are parked next to a sarcophagus. Sturton, a large and still prosperous-looking village, was the birthplace of both John Robinson, the charismatic spiritual leader of the Pilgrims and John Smyth, who led a large separatist congregation but eventually became even more important in the Baptist movement.
More than anything else it was probably the critical mass of such men — eloquent, passionate, many of them educated at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge — that accounts for why this area became such a hotbed of separatism. It also did not hurt that the main religious authority was the Archbishop of York, who, being more worried about Roman Catholics, took a fairly relaxed attitude toward the Puritans.
But could the landscape itself have been a factor? This is farming country, so flat that a modest little mound in the Nottinghamshire village of Gringley-on-the-Hill is a local landmark. Nick Bunker took us up there one morning, and though the view has changed a lot since the 17th century — much of the land has been drained, and there is a big power station to the north — you can still get a sense of what it must have been like. The sky is endless, the horizon flat, the light soft and Hopperish. There are marshes, woods, heaths, pasturelands and fields of red clay. Though far from the sea, it is a countryside, Bunker suggested, that in some ways resembles what the Pilgrims found in New England. It's also the kind of landscape that urges you to spread out and — far from bishops and bureaucrats down south — think daring, independent thoughts.
Why the pilgrims left
So why did they leave? For one thing, the king and a new Archbishop of York had begun cracking down on them. The Scrooby congregation also interpreted a devastating flood that surged up the Bristol Channel in January 1607 as a sign of divine disapproval. Later that year a large group tried to flee the country, booking passage from the Lincolnshire port of Boston. They were betrayed by the ship's captain, however, and the leaders, including Brewster, were imprisoned in the town's medieval guild hall. (Once a port second in importance only to London, Boston is now down at the heels a little, though still worth a visit thanks to the local church, St. Botolph's, and the guild hall, now a museum.)
A year later the separatists tried again, and a handful of them made it to Amsterdam, where they were followed by a steady trickle of others from the Scrooby area. "They all got over at length," Bradford wrote, "some at one time and some at another, and some in one place and some in another, and met again according to their desires, with no small rejoicing."
After a year or so, the flock, now numbering 100 or so, moved south to the town of Leiden. My wife and I came to like this university town even more than Amsterdam, though the bike riders are apt to run over the unwary. One afternoon I saw a woman pedaling her young child on the crossbars while also texting.
Many of the canals in Leiden are wider and leafier than those in Amsterdam, and there are extensive public gardens belonging to the university. But in the 17th century Leiden was also an industrial town, noisome and crowded. The English immigrants, like most people, worked in the textile business, weaving cloth on looms in the home, and they sorely missed rural life. William Bradford lived on a canal, not far from Haarlemmerstraat, the city's main shopping thoroughfare, that was so foul it eventually had to be filled in. The entrance to the alley where he lived is today across from an H&M store.
To get a better idea of how the Pilgrims lived you need to visit the American Pilgrim Museum, a brick house near the Hooglandse Kerk presided over by the genial and dryly ironic Jeremy Bangs, author of the immense and immensely knowledgeable book "Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation" (General Society of Mayflower Descendants, 2009).
It is the oldest house in Leiden, dating back to the 14th century, and typical of a Pilgrim dwelling: a single 8-by-14-foot room with a stone floor, small leaded windows, a big medieval fireplace. The parents would have slept sitting up in a box bed (because lying flat was thought to cause disease) and the children on the floor. Somewhere in there a loom would have been crammed.
It was for the sake of the children, Bradford later wrote, that the Pilgrims decided to move on to the New World. In Leiden they had to work from an early age and many of them were learning Dutch and adopting Dutch customs. But the cramped, slumlike conditions, so far from the open Scrooby landscape, also had something to do with the decision.