In secret, one night in the autumn of 1607, a passionate and determined group of men, women and children met a boat on the edge of The Wash at Scotia Creek, Fishtoft, near Boston. Their plan was to escape across the North Sea to Holland and live in religious freedom away from the authority of the English church.

The Pilgrims felt that the established church was too prescriptive, dictatorial and ‘papish’ in how it set out the order of sermons, as in the ‘Book of Common Prayer’. They were also opposed to the broader authority of the church as well as practices such as the use of wedding rings, kneeling for communion and making the sign of the cross during baptism, none of which were in the Bible.

Instead of wishing to try to change and ‘purify’ the church from within, as the ‘Puritans’ did, they felt compelled to separate completely from it and were called ‘Separatists’.

The group was acutely aware of how the church viewed their stance and of the persecution that similar separatists had been subjected to. They had been worshipping in secret in a variety of venues such as Gainsborough Old Hall, Scrooby and Babworth churches, led in worship by John Smyth and Richard Clyfton .The decision was made that to escape was the only answer. Holland was a place where they knew they could practice their worship as they wished.

The group had made arrangements with a captain to hire a ship wholly to themselves and were taken aboard during the night. To their horror the captain of the ship had betrayed them and once on board searchers and officers ran on to the ship, seized the group and put them into open boats, rifling and ransacking both the men and women for their money, books and personal possessions which they took from them. They were carried back to town in the boats where they were a great spectacle with crowds flocking to see them.

Stripped of their possessions and hope, the group was brought to the Guildhall, the home of the magistrates and the prison, and messengers were sent to inform the Privy Council in London. Whilst the Privy Council decided upon charges the group was held. The local magistrates treated them courteously and showed them what favour they could. After a month’s imprisonment within the Guildhall the order eventually came from the council to send back the majority from whence they came whilst seven ringleaders were imprisoned longer and bound over to the higher court of the Lincoln Assizes.

“Boston is proud to be part of the 400th anniversary celebrations of the sailing of the Mayflower and also its key role in the foundation of Boston Massachusetts. Both events were significant steps in the history of America”

Luke Skerritt
Boston Borough Council

It is not known if they ever attended the higher court but they did escape to Holland from North Lincolnshire the following year.

It is known that the town of Boston would have wished to show some sympathy to the group having strong puritan, reformist and separatist leanings since the late 1500s. John Foxe author of The Book of Martyrs was from Boston and had travelled to Europe in the 1550s. Though not recorded it is quite likely the larger group were only kept under house arrest in the Guildhall, with the ability to move freely in the non-council areas of the building whilst only the ringleaders were confined to the cells. William Bradford, one of the group’s leaders and most influential men when they reached America, recorded in his book ‘Of Plymouth Plantation’ that they were fairly treated.

Their final and most famous achievement was in 1620, 13 years after trying to escape from Boston and after living in Amsterdam and Leiden in Holland for 12 years. A group of these men and women sailed to England and then on to America in the Mayflower and a completely new life in new lands.

Another charismatic Bostonian, the Rev John Cotton, appointed vicar at The Stump in 1612, was also responsible for a great migration to America, this time from Boston. As much as ten per cent of the population left for a new life between 1630 and 1634. A Puritan, rather than a Separatist, Cotton attracted an influential following of town notables including a mayor, aldermen, a lawyer, MP, a headmaster of Boston Grammar School, a vicar, a merchant and a surgeon.

The so-called ‘Boston Men’ dominated the new colony for its first 85 years and amongst many achievements founded the Boston Free Latin School, the foundation of state education in America, and modelled on the Boston Grammar School they had known and loved and left behind.