Leiden in The Netherlands is a delightful city of about 125,000. If you overlook the bicycles, cars, and modern buses, the center city is much as it might have been in the 1600s when the future Pilgrims settled there in 1609. After a year in Amsterdam, Separatists religious refugees from northern England relocated to Leiden to get away from church conflicts among other English religious refugee groups.

At that time, Leiden was a significant industrial community of around 15,000 and growing. Within 30 years after the Pilgrims left for North America, in 1650, Leiden was a city of 55,000. 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. The city is laced with nearly 17 miles of canals, second in number only to Amsterdam. Eighty-eight bridges cross the canals, many of them suitable only for pedestrians.

Immigrant Refugees

Leiden, in the 1600s, was a major industrial center for the textile industry. Many of the English Separatist refugees worked in textile mills or at home weaving for one of the mills. Children sorted and combed wool and did other textile-related menial jobs.

The Separatist immigrants came to Leiden a few decades after England had befriended the area against Spanish efforts to assimilate the region. England aided the Dutch, soundly defeating the Spanish Armada in the naval showdown 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, and the University of Leiden was established in 1574.

University of Leiden

The University provided William Brewster with a means of income. He taught English to university students through their mutual familiarity with Latin. Separatist Pastor John Robinson took classes there, making friends among the university faculty. Brewster was familiar with Leiden from his earlier trip there in 1584 as a staff assistant to William Davison, the former Secretary of State and Ambassador for Queen Elizabeth I.

The Dutch, grateful for England’s support, hosted Davison and Brewster at a variety of special events.  England befriended the Dutch in a typical European monarch game of chess, with each monarch trying to gain and maintain power and stability by absorbing neighboring nations. 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 is has held for over four centuries. Students from all over the world come to study there. One of them,  Dr. Jeremy Bangs, has 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.

Life in Leiden

As is the case for many modern immigrants, the plight of the Scrooby area Separatist immigrants was desperate. They arrived with few resources, most unable to communicate in Dutch, and were unfamiliar with city life. They banned together, doubling up families, taking whatever menial work they could find, and banning together to worship and encourage one another.

Eventually, they were able to purchase a home with sufficient land to build a series of small homes for their members. The community was so congenial that when Brewster had another child, they named their son Love. Though life was safer in Leiden than in England, it was also hard. Children were picking up ideas and practices from their Dutch peers that bothered their parents.

William Brewster’s decision to start publishing and distributing documents critical of King James stirred the anger of the king. Though the Dutch were tolerant, they were in no position to go against the wishes of the King of England. So when King James sent his men to find and arrest Brewster, William went into hiding, and their Separatist community more seriously considered setting up their own colony in the New World.

Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Leiden made extensive plans to participate in the 2020 400th anniversary, plans which were scuttled because of the pandemic. However, forward-thinking planners put together a virtual four-hour Leiden tour with stops at places significant to the Pilgrim story.

This month is the second anniversary of the release of my historical novel about the story behind the Mayflower voyage. I’d be happy to speak to your book club or organization about this fascinating history. Contact me at HowWiseThen to make arrangements. You can sign up to receive weekly blogs and/or a monthly newsletter there as well. If you’ve enjoyed this article, share it with a friend.

Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures covers the Pilgrim’s escape from England and their interactions with the Pokanoket people. Available wherever books are sold in paperback, eBook, and audio.
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Autographed copies are available from my website or BlueWillowBookShop.com/book/


  1. We lived in The Netherlands for five years, not far from Leiden – wonderful city, and yes, discount the modern means of transportation and you’re back in time.
    Thanks for this article, Kathy, fascinating as always and it brought back some happy memories!

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