Leiden, Holland

Leiden is known as the City of Refugees. Throughout history Leiden has given shelter to people who were no longer welcome elsewhere. In the 17th century the population of Leiden grew from just over 20.000 to 70.000 souls in a short amount of time. Even in the 20th century no less than three out of four Leiden inhabitants descended from a refugee. The Pilgrims too found a (temporary) safe harbour in Leiden.

Early in the sixteen hundreds, the English Calvinists were persecuted by Queen Elizabeth and her successor James I. Especially the separatists, those who wanted to leave the established (state) Anglican Church, had a rough time. Around 1608 a number of them fled to Holland, where there was relative freedom of religion. They escaped from the coast somewhere between Grimsby and Hull. The refugees were picked up by a Dutch skipper, and eventually reached Amsterdam. From there they moved to Leiden.

A group of refugees led by John Robinson escaped England in 1608, where they were persecuted because they did not conform to the rules of the Anglican state church. Robinson and about one hundred others petitioned the city authorities of Leiden for leave to settle in the city. Although they did not need permission to stay, the request was answered on the 12th of February 1609 in the following, telling phrases: “Geen eerlicke persoonen weygeren vrije ende lybre incompst omme binnen deze stede…haer woonplaets te nemen”. In modern English: “No honest persons will be refused free and unconstrained entry to the city to take up residence”.

Leiden was the second largest city in Holland, home to the famous university. Robinson and his flock bought a piece of land near St. Peter’s Church, called the Groene Poort (Green Alley). They built 21 little houses, so that people also called it the Engelse poort (English Alley). Later the houses were demolished and the Jean Pesijn almshouses were built in the same spot (1683).

From 1620 a part of the Pilgrim community emigrated from Leiden to North America. There were several reasons for leaving. The freedom of religion was limited in the Netherlands too. On top of that the threat of war loomed large, because of the end of the Twelve Year Truce with Spain in 1621. The economic situation of the Pilgrims was not always very good and finally they were afraid that their children would integrate too much into Dutch life, and the Dutch church. They were right on the last count. More than half of the group remained in Leiden and eventually became indistinguishable from the locals.

The ships that brought the Pilgrims across the Atlantic have become famous: Mayflower (1620), Fortune (1621), Anne and Little James (1623) and the second Mayflower (1629). After that last trip some stragglers made the journey to America on their own.

After arriving in North America the Pilgrims wanted to freely realize their ideals. They tried to find a fitting way to govern themselves. Looking back we can say that the Pilgrims were an essential link in the formation of American society, then and now. Their ‘Dutch’ years formed one of the bases from which they worked. That is why you can still discern old Leiden traditions in the modern USA.

From 3rd of October to Thanksgiving
After the siege of Leiden in 1574 is has been customary to have a yearly service in the Pieterskerk (St. Peter’s Church), to give thanks for the liberation from the Spanish and the renewed supply of food. Ever since then, and even now, herring and white bread are distributed in Leiden on the 3rd of October, as a reminder of the ships with food that entered the city after Leiden’s Ontzet (the raising of the siege) along the Vliet. There is a theory that Thanksgiving, the feast of thanks of the Pilgrims, has elements of this tradition, along with elements of a harvest festival.

Civil marriage
Civil marriage is a Dutch ‘invention’. At the end of the sixteenth century only marriages in the (Calvinist protestant) state church were valid. Because the Dutch Republic had a large Roman Catholic minority, it was impracticable to deny marriage to almost half the population. Those who did not belong to the state church could be married by schepenen, the city authorities of the time. The marriage could then be blessed by their own church. Only the civil marriage had any legal validity. The Pilgrims imported the civil marriage in America.

Elected government
Leiden was divided in bonnen and gebuurten. A bon was a district of the city with governed by elected bonmeesters. The district took care of fire extinction and prevention, keeping the district clean, collecting special taxes and dividing the money among the poor. The gebuurte was a smaller unit that took care of burials and other neighbourly duties. The election of civil authorities has its roots in this system, as well as the election of church officials.

Nine times from Pilgrim to President
Since the Pilgrims came to American no fewer than nine of their descendants have made it to President. Presidents Taylor, Grant, Roosevelt, Bush sr. and jr. and Obama all have a Leiden Pilgrim ancestor.

  • John Adams – 1797-1801
  • His son John Quincy Adams – 1825-1829
  • Zachary Taylor – 1849-1850
  • Ulysses S. Grant – 1869-1877
  • James A. Garfield – 1881-1881
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt – 1933-1945
  • George H.W. Bush – 1989-1993
  • George W. Bush – 2001-2009
  • Barack H. Obama — 2009 –

and to mayor of New York
And how about Leiden-born Thomas Willett, who became the first mayor of New York? A letter by this Pilgrim, which he wrote to Hugh Goodyear, vicar of the English reformed church in Leiden on the 16th of September 1660, can be found in the archives in Leiden.