Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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The Pilgrims- Part I

By Judy Leithe

History tells us that European and Eastern oligarchies the world over exercised absolute control over the lives of their subjects -- proving the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the Middle Ages, the only entity in Europe with equal or even greater power than the kings came from the Vatican in Rome. It was heretical to hold views that were not sanctioned by the sitting Popes, and even royalty sought their approval. In the 15th and 16th centuries, like other Catholic countries, England was rife with religious persecution for anyone holding differing religious views from the Vatican. If you were a Protestant your possessions could be taken from you and you might even be tortured or killed.

In the early 1500s, England’s King Henry VIII blamed his wife, Catherine of Aragon, for her inability to give him a male heir, so he petitioned the Pope to grant him a divorce so he could remarry. The Pope’s refusal to the king’s request drove Henry to break with the Vatican. He now proclaimed that the Church of England was no longer Catholic, but Protestant! With this turn of events, the British Catholics now suffered the same persecution for their faith as the Protestants had under the Catholic Archdiocese.

Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth, reigned for a remarkable 60 years as the first Queen of England. At her death in 1603, since she remained childless, her throne was passed on to her nephew, James, son of Mary Queen of Scotland. King James ruled over England, Scotland and Ireland, and dealt harshly with the Puritans because his mother raised him in the Catholic tradition.

Once again, the persecuted people, known as Puritans, attempted to reform the church so that it would better reflect the pure teachings of the Bible, including the Christian tenets of peace, love, and mercy. They also wanted freedom of speech, the right of peaceful assembly, and freedom to worship as they chose. Failing in that mission, they sought to separate themselves from the doctrines of the English Church, as well as from their English homeland, itself.

The Puritans, also known as Separatists, began to make their way to Holland, where the Dutch were much less restrictive in terms of religious beliefs.

When William Bradford was eighteen years old, he and his fellow Puritans realized they would have to leave their English homeland in order to freely practice their religious beliefs. The Netherlands offered fewer religious constraints on such matters, however leaving England proved to be perilous as they were pursued by British soldiers who were sent to arrest them. Recognizing the desperation of the Puritans, ship captains collected exorbitant fees from them to transport them to Holland.

Rough seas nearly drove their ships off course, but the Puritans finally arrived in Amsterdam in 1608. The weary travelers found “A strange and uncouth language, customs, and attire…” so the beleaguered Protestants eventually moved to the small city of Leyden. However, as non-citizens they could only be hired as poorly-paid laborers – work that was so strenuous that children and adults aged prematurely, some even dying from overwork. In England, their backgrounds were farming and sheepherding, but in Leyden they had to learn new trades such as silk weaving and pottery-making to supplement their laborer’s wages.

In 1609, Spain threatened war with the Netherlands. Fearing they couldn’t withstand attacks by the powerful Spanish Navy, the Netherlands’ government entered into an eleven-year truce with the Catholic King of Spain. Of additional concern was that, if Spain were to conquer the Netherlands, the terrifying Spanish Inquisition would soon follow. Under its heavy-handed policing, one of Inquisition’s main tasks was to root out any opposition to Spanish rule, especially from Protestants.

As the truce was nearing its end, in 1619, the Netherlands tried to curry favor with Spain by passing a law which outlawed non-Catholics. This did not bode well for Bradford’s group. They considered joining the newly settled Jamestown Colony in Virginia, but had real concerns about having to face the native “savages” in the New World. Although, looking at their limited options, they decided going to Virginia would be less dangerous than facing the Spanish Inquisition!

Even though King James was relentless in harassing the Puritans, he was convinced to allow the Puritans passage to the New World because he foresaw being able to collect taxes from the newly forming colony in Virginia. With few resources, the Pilgrims sought financing for their Atlantic crossing from a group of English businessmen known as The Merchant Adventurers. The goal of the investors was to participate in the development of Jamestown by paying the passage for people who would help colonize the settlement. After arriving in the New World, the colonists would actively participate in the untapped trade in fur pelts and other natural resources in order to repay their British investors, and open up new investment opportunities for them, as well.