Today Leiden in the Netherlands is a delightful city of about 125,000. The center city is much as it was hundreds of years ago, but easily reached today by modern bus service. In 1609 the Scrooby Separatists religious refugees relocated there from Amsterdam. At that time Leiden was a significant industrial community of around 15,000 and growing. By 1650 the town had grown to a city 55,000. Though I grew up knowing our family tree included Pilgrim Elder William Brewster and his family, I didn’t know about their long stopover in Leiden until I began researching the Pilgrim story in more detail. Leiden, also spelled Leyden, is about 10 miles northeast of the Hague, 30 miles southwest of Amsterdam, and 200 miles across the North Sea from London, England.
A couple of years ago my husband and I signed up for an Ancestry.com sponsored genealogy cruise from England to New York City. If we were going to England, I also wanted to visit to Cambridge where William Brewster studied briefly, and Leiden where the Brewster family lived with the other Pilgrims before sailing on the famous Mayflower.
The travel agent I consulted to make these arrangements assured me we couldn’t get to Leiden from England and back before our ship sailed in the amount of time we had available. All train routes involved transfers and layovers. Not to be dissuaded, we rented a car at the Amsterdam train station. Driving a five-speed manual, in the rain, in a large city with signs in a language I do not speak, proved one of the more daunting aspects of researching the Pilgrim path for Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures.
None-the-less, I am glad we made the effort. The freeway from Amsterdam toward The Hague is well marked, as is the exit for Leiden. All went well until our GPS system took us to the Leiden town center. Leiden evolved into a city several centuries before cars. The city is laced with nearly 17 miles of canals, more canals than any other city other than Amsterdam. It has 88 bridges crossing the canals, many suitable only for pedestrians. The town center is best traveled on foot or bike. I’m guessing bicycles outnumber cars about 100 to 1. We found our hotel without running over any cyclists. For the duration of our visit I used taxis and buses and spent hours wandering along the canals, streets and alleys the Pilgrims walked four hundred years ago.
Leiden in the Pilgrim Era
Leiden in the 1600s was a major industrial center for the textile industry. Many of the Scrooby refugees found work in the textile mills or worked weaving in their homes. Children sorted and combed wool and did other related menial jobs.
The Pilgrims arrived in Leiden a few decades after England had befriended the Lowlands against Spanish efforts to assimilate the region. England came to the aid of the Dutch and soundly defeated the Spanish Armada in the naval show down of 1588. A decade earlier the Spaniards laid siege to Leiden. For a terrifying period of several months (October 31, 1573 through March 21, 1574) the Dutch made heroic efforts to keep the Spaniards at bay. When the siege finally ended, William, the Prince of Orange, allegedly offered the people a choice. He would either exempt them from taxes for several years or establish a university. They chose the university. The University of Leiden was established in 1574.
University of Leiden
The University provided William Brewster a means of income. He taught English to university students through their mutual familiarity with Latin. Their pastor, John Robinson, took classes there and made friends among the university faculty. Brewster was familiar with Leiden from his earlier trip there in 1584. The year he accompanied his mentor and employer, Ambassador William Davison to the Netherlands on an assignment on behalf of Queen Elizabeth. The Dutch were exceedingly grateful for England’s support and hosted Davison and Brewster at a variety of special events. England befriended the Dutch in a typical European monarchic game of chess, with each monarch trying to gain and maintain power and stability by absorbing a neighboring nation. In this case, England wanted to secure the loyalty of the Dutch to keep Spain away from England.
Thanks to the University, Leiden became one of Europe’s most prominent scientific centers, a position held now for over four centuries. Students from all over the world come to study there. One of them, Dr. Jeremy D. Bangs, came and never left. He’s devoted his life to researching the influence of Leiden on the American Pilgrims. He founded the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum in a small 14th century house near the city center. There he collects and displays manuscripts and other memorabilia germane to the Pilgrim story.
Today the University of Leiden spreads out over several sections of the city. It has been the source of numerous scientific discoveries and claims thirteen Nobel Prize winners among its alumnae. In honor of the 400th Anniversary of the Mayflower voyage, Leiden joined with several other places along the Pilgrim path to host a series of special events.
When these cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, forward-thinking planners put together a virtual tour. This four-hour tour includes stops at places significant to the Pilgrim story. It also includes interviews with people who know the story well. Fortunately for us, this Leiden tour is available on YouTube. It is well worth the time and, since it is a recorded tour, you can pause as often as you like.
For now, I’ll leave you in the capable hands of these Leiden tour guides. Next week I have a special guest blog tribute to fathers. We’ll return to Leiden after that and I’ll tell you more about the Pilgrim years in Leiden. It turns out Martin Luther wasn’t the only one to get in trouble with a printing press.
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