William and Mary Brewster

Elder William and Mary Brewster

I discipline churchgoers with godly lessons and sharp words if they do not change their ways. My goal is to open their hearts so that they seek forgiveness.  (William Brewster)

William and Mary Brewster are my great x 10 grandparents. I’ve been spending as much time in the 16th and 17th centuries lately as I have in the 21st one, learning what I can about this amazing couple. It has been background research for Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures, which will be published sometime next year. Right now it’s in the editing and pitching to publishers stage.

The more I learn about these amazing people and their colleagues, the more I am in awe of them and the dangerous journeys they took from their peaceful Scrooby village in Northern England to Leiden, Holland, to the perilous crossing on the Mayflower.

Most people pick up the Pilgrim story with the arrival of the Mayflower in Cape Cod in 1620 and drop the story after what is widely claimed to be the first Thanksgiving. The story starts much earlier than 1620 and has repercussions that are still unfolding today. In recent years the descendants of those whose land and way of life was devastated by the arrival of thousands of Europeans have been more organized and vocal in telling us the rest of the story. We need to listen. However, for this blog, let me introduce you to this remarkable couple.

William at Peterhouse, Cambridge University

William was the only Mayflower passenger with any college education. He studied briefly at Peterhouse in Cambridge University, but did not graduate. Historians do not know why, but I suspect he returned home to help his father as his mother was nearing the end of her life.

William and Mary married at St. James (Later renamed St. Wilfred) in Scrooby. We do not know with any certainty which family Mary comes from; though genealogists and historians have been trying to figure that out for years. One popular theory ( it is only a theory) is that she was the daughter of Thomas Wentworth, who was the Bailiff and Postmaster at Scrooby until his death.

William’s father assumed that position after Thomas Wentworth died. When the senior William Brewster died, our Pilgrim William Brewster, Jr. assumed the role.

Before taking over his father’s role at Scrooby Manor, young William was a secretary or administrative assistant to William Davison, who was in diplomatic service to Queen Elizabeth I. She appointed him to her Privy Council. He served Her Majesty as Ambassador to the Netherlands, and was named her Secretary of State. Pilgrim Brewster accompanied Davison on many of his court visits trips to the Netherlands on her behalf.

Mother Mary Brewster

William and Mary had five children, and one stillborn infant. Jonathan, Patience, and Fear were born while they lived in Scrooby. Fear’s rather unusual name is based on their commitment to rely on their fear of the Lord rather than the dictates of the Established Church. By the time Fear was born, her parents were deeply involved in the highly controversial Separatist movement. The term ‘fear’ does not mean to be afraid, though their defiance of the Established Church was certainly cause for fear. Rather the term means to be in awe or wonder at the mysterious ways in which God provides.

Two more sons were born after they emigrated to Leiden in Holland. Love was so named because the hundred or so Separatists who emigrated to Leiden felt such close kinship with one another that they were as one large extended family. Wrestling may have gotten his name because by the time he was born the Leiden community was contemplating moving again – this time to the New World. Such a move would obviously be very bold and precarious. They wrestled with the possibility for several years before committing to take their chances.

William the Underground Printer

The decision to take their chances in the New World was solidified when Brewster’s printing press was confiscated. Like Martin Luther a century earlier, he printed pamphlets and books that criticized the Established Church. Others smuggled them back to England. They were eventually traced to his garret print shop on the top floor of the Brewster home in Leiden.

William went into hiding for most of the year before his family joined with other Leiden families to sail across the Atlantic. Approximately half the passengers were strangers to their close knit congregational friends and they referred to them as Strangers. The Adventurers, business men who financed the trip, insisted they join the Leiden folks. Given their extreme devotion to their religious convictions, they were sometimes called the Saints. Together they made up the English settlers who established Plimoth Plantation on the site of a deserted native village along Cape Cod Bay.

Mary said good-bye to her three older children – Jonathan, Patience and Fear – when she left Holland. She traveled to Southampton with her two younger sons to meet up with William and the other settlers. She and William were eventually reunited with three older children – Jonathan a year later; the daughters two years later. By the 1600’s European ships crossed the Atlantic frequently.

In addition to her own two young sons, Mary assumed responsibility for two of the four More children sent on the journey. History is unclear why these children were sent; one theory being their parents separated and the father didn’t want them to have access to his estate. Again, only a theory.

Survival of the Fittest

As more and more passengers died from the extreme hardships, Mary assumed responsibility for newly orphaned children and young adults.  Being one of the older women in the group, she functioned basically as the colony Matriarch. History has recorded very little about her life, in spite of the major role she must have played nursing the sick, raising orphaned children, feeding family and friends, and other chores necessary for survival in the strange new world,

Mary Brewster was one of only five adult women to survive the first winter. William was one of the few settlers who didn’t spend some portion of their first months in America in a sick bed. She died in April 17, 1627. William died April 10, 1644.

Sources: http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies, Pilgrim: A Biography of William Brewster by Mary B. Sherwood (Great Oak Press of Virginia, Falls Church, Virginia) and William Brewster: The Making of a Pilgrim by Sue Allan.


In preparation for releasing my historic novel, Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures, I’ll be posting blogs about the people on the Mayflower and the people impacted by that famous voyage.

Thank you for reading about William and Mary Brewster. I hope you found this interesting and inspiring. If so, please forward this to a friend. If someone forwarded this to you, you can get your very own weekly updates at HowWiseThen.

I’m currently giving away a list of resources about dementia in memory of my older brother who recently died following dementia-related complications. By the time I completed my research on our family history, my brother’s dementia made it impossible to share this with him. The give-away is my way of honoring two generations of our family.

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