To play the King: the Pilgrims continue to provoke James I

Even though the Pilgrims were now living in Holland, they were still at odds with the English authorities and the King, James I.

Leading Pilgrim and Elder William Brewster had set up a printing press with the financial support of another of their group, Thomas Brewer, in their new home city of Leiden. Brewster printed writings which helped spread the word about the Pilgrims’ religious beliefs. They wanted to bring about change, and believed that books were a good way to reach more people.

Some years later, Bradford recalled Brewster’s employment in Leiden:

“Towards the later part of those 12 years spent in Holland, … he lived well & plentifully; for he fell into a way (by reason he had the Latin tongue) to teach many students, who had a desire to learn the English tongue … by his method they quickly attained it … and many gentlemen, both Danes & Germans, resorted to him … some of them being great men’s sons. He also had means to set up printing, (by the help of some friends,) and so had employment enough, and by reason of many books which would not be allowed to be printed in England, they might have had more than they could do.”

As Bradford alludes to, some of the material that they printed was seen as provocative in England, supporting arguments against the English Church which many of them had been involved in before they moved to Holland.

According to Dr Jeremy Bangs in his work Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners (GSMD, 2009), an English ambassador, Sir Dudley Carleton, tried to stop their publishing activities, which ended up with Brewster being jailed overnight in the Town Hall. And, after his release, he went into hiding.

Brewer was also questioned in Leiden before returning to London to answer for his role in the press. At this time, in 1619, he wrote a will which left part of a legacy for John Carver for the purposes of “selling all the books that he can get in this country or elsewhere that have been published against the bishops and have been forbidden by them.” (Bangs, 2009, p457). Undermining the hierarchies of the Established Church was a priority for the Pilgrim press.

Things became increasingly tense for the Separatist Pilgrims in Leiden from 1616 onwards, and what was happening with the Pilgrim Press was part of that. Brewster saw fit to ‘disappear’ himself after his experience at the Town Hall, in order to pursue arrangements for another journey – this time to establish a colony. He went to London with Robert Cushman in 1619; it is uncertain whether he stayed, but in any case, he was not found there by the authorities, or elsewhere in Holland. The printing press had been successfully suppressed by Carleton’s efforts, and so it would seem it was now time for them again to plan to move on.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Pilgrim Press, Dr Bangs recommends Edward Arber’s account of Brewster’s escape in The Story of the Pilgrim Fathers, 1606-1623 (1897), Keith L. Sprunger’s Trumpets from the Tower, English Puritan Printing in the Netherlands, 1600-1640 (Brill, 1994) and Ronald Breugelman’s The Pilgrim Press (De Graaf, 1987).

Next week: Debates – the Pilgrims experience religious riots and wars in a turbulent Europe…