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William Bradford and the Mayflower

William Bradford
William Bradford

Born in around 1590, to wealthy farmers Alice and William Bradford, William lost his father at just a year old. His mother remarried when he was four and he was sent to live with his grandparents. When his grandfather died just two years later, he returned to his mother and step-father only for her to pass away the following year. Young William was soon on the move again, this time to his two uncles, who expected their young charge to be able to help out around the farm. Alas William in his diary, explained he suffered a long illness, quite possibly grief/depression related in modern terms, and so took to reading instead. Most notably classic literature and the Bible.

At the age of twelve, William was taken by a friend to All Saints Church in Babworth, around ten miles away from home, where he heard the sermon of Rev Richard Clyfton, a promoter of further change within the Church of England, to sever its relationship with Catholicism completely. He was inspired to attend further meetings, against the wishes of his uncles. During one of these meetings, he met and befriended William Brewster, Postmaster and bailiff of nearby Austerfield, who resided at Scrooby Manor. Bradford regularly visited Brewster at home, listening eagerly to the older man’s tales of Church reforms, and often borrowed books from him.

After James I’s Succession, the new monarch ordered an end to reform movements within the Church; perpetrators were dealt with severely. Brewster began to hold weekly meetings on the Sabbath at Scrooby, attended by a 50-strong congregation and led by notable reformers including Clyfton and Rev. John Robinson. The group and others like them became known as Separatists. By 1607 their secret meetings had been brought to the attention of the Archbishop of York, and many of the group were arrested. Brewster was fined for religious disobedience, and several others were imprisoned. Bradford wrote that the rest of the congregation were being kept under 24-hour watch by the Archbishop. At this time, they learned that other Separatist congregations had also been imprisoned and were left to starve.

By 1607, it was apparent that they were in some kind of danger if they continued their activities and beliefs and so made the decision to leave for the Dutch Republic where religious freedom was tolerated. As their departure was unlawful without the agreement of the king, they were forced to organize their departure quietly, a venture which met with many setbacks. The sea Captain who agreed to transport them to their new home betrayed them and turned them over to the authorities. Several were imprisoned for a time, including the 17-year-old Bradford. The following year, however, the group successfully relocated piecemeal to Amsterdam.

Bradford was alone; and had little money. He was taken in by the Brewsters and had to endure working low-paid jobs for a number of months, whilst living in abject squalor. After around nine months, the family along with Bradford had saved enough money to enable them to relocate to the chosen city of Leiden, where conditions were little improved, as demonstrated by their new home in the salbriously named “Stink Alley”. However; when Bradford turned 21 in 1611, he was able to claim his fairly substantial inheritance, and used a sum of it to buy and set up a new home, and a workshop where he set to work weaving Fustian cloth. His standing improved and two years later he married Dorothy May, the daughter of a well-off English family living in Amsterdam, in a civil ceremony. The Separatists had yet to implement a religious wedding ceremony.

Bradford’s birthplace, from Addison’s The Romantic Story of the Mayflower Pilgrims
Bradford’s birthplace, from Addison’s The Romantic Story of the Mayflower Pilgrims

Following the birth of their son, John in 1617, it would seem that William and Dorothy returned to London perhaps in 1619, as records show this was when he sold his house in Leiden and the following year, tax records appear for Bradford’s property in Duke’s Place, Aldgate in London, a popular locale for Dutch merchants. Whilst here, they mingled with such historically notable figures as Henry Samson, Isaac Allerton, Edward Tilley and Stephen Hopkins, all of whom are recorded as being fellow passengers aboard the Mayflower. (More about them in a later post.) Also living in Aldgate were Edward and Alice Southworth; Edward had been one of the group leaders during their time in Leiden.

By 1620 many of the group of Separatists had all but made their way back to London, as despite their life of religious freedom, they were concerned with their children’s growing assimilation into what they saw as the morally inferior ways of the Dutch. After three years of negotiations, it was agreed that the party could make their way to the New World, where they would settle in an area on the edge of the established colony of Jamestown, to extend the settlement. An agreement had been reached with the London Virginia Company to that end, and a seven year indentured tenure was agreed in return for transportation and various assistance. Each adult passenger was to pay the sum of L10 (ten pounds) and children under 16 at a reduced rate. Employees of the company who were making the journey with the plan to remain with the colonists and work their property were also required to pay L10.

The remaining separatists in Leiden returned in May 1620 aboard a ship they had purchased and had built and fitted, the Speedwell. The intention being that the Speedwell would accompany the Mayflower, a ship that had been leased or bought by the Virginia Company to Virginia. In June, the two ships set sail, however off the coast of Cornwall, the Speedwell was forced to pull in, ostensibly due to taking on water. She was declared unseaworthy and sold. The passengers were consolidated, with some opting to remain in England or not making the cut, in favour of a later journey. The remaining 102 passengers and around 40 crew and employees set sail. Passengers included William and Dorothy Bradford, who had left their three-year-old son John behind with his maternal grandparents and the above mentioned Samson, Tilley, Hopkins and Allerton.

In further articles, I will talk about some of the other members of the voyage, what happened when they arrived in America, and discuss some of the often misunderstood differences between the religious groups of the time.