Notts Rebels: William Brewster

Words: Ashley Carter
Illustrations: Natalie Owen
Wednesday 22 July 2020
reading time: min, words

Our Notts Rebels series continues with William Brewster and his Separatists, a group from North Nottinghamshire who fled England in search of religious freedom, sailing aboard the Mayflower to found the Plymouth Colony in America…


On 7 September 1620, a merchant ship named the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth. Usually tasked with transporting dried goods and wine for trade, the vessel’s cargo for this particular journey was 102 men, women and children fleeing religious persecution in search for a new life. Their destination lay across the Atlantic; a land rich with promises of arable land, plentiful livestock and free from the constraints of European corruption. They were heading for the New World.

But their journey began long before that September morning. Twelve years earlier in 1608 (just months after the first English colony of Jamestown was being established in Virginia), a congregation of disgruntled English Protestants from the village of Scrooby in North Nottinghamshire was growing increasingly disillusioned with life in England. Known as ‘Separatists’, they refused to pledge allegiance to the Church of England, which they believed to be no less idolatrous and corrupt than the Catholic Church it had replaced less than a century earlier. Desiring the ability to be free to worship God as they saw fit, they first moved to Leyden, a town in Holland. Among their number was William Brewster, who had studied briefly in Cambridge before entering the service of William Davison, ambassador to the Netherlands.

But secular life in Holland proved far more difficult than the Separatists – or Saints, as they referred to themselves – had anticipated. Dutch craft guilds excluded migrants, so their number were forced to resort to menial, low-paying work. Brewster, who had earned a decent wage as a postmaster in his hometown of Scrooby, found money particularly hard to come by, particularly with a wife (Mary) and five children to support.

Worse still was Holland’s relatively cosmopolitan approach to society, which proved to be too much of a temptation to some of the congregation’s younger members. These youths were “drawn away” wrote leader William Bradford at the time, “by evill [sic] example into extravagance and dangerous courses.” It was becoming apparent – the decision to move to Holland was a mistake, and the Separatists would need to move again. This time, however, they would choose a land free from the constraints of government meddling and sinful distraction.

The lasting legacy of the group’s arrival in the New World can still be seen in the American holiday of Thanksgiving

After returning to London to organise, they found a prominent merchant to fund the expedition across the Atlantic. The Virginia Company – the collective name for the two joint-stock companies chartered under King James I to establish colonies on the coast of North America – granted them permission to establish a settlement between Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the Hudson River, and the King gave his blessing, provided they “carried themselves peaceably.” William Brewster was the prime mover in the decision to sail for North America, as well as the principal organiser, but did so surreptitiously after falling in ill favour with King James.  Two years previously, it was his prolific printing press that had published De regimine Ecclessianae Scoticanae, a highly critical account of the King and his government. An international manhunt ensued, forcing Brewster to go underground. He eventually handed himself over to the Dutch authorities who, reluctant to send him back to England to face certain death, told King James that they had arrested the wrong man. In The Journey to the Mayflower, historian Stephen Tomkins argues that Brewster “came close to ruining his church’s plans for America.”

In August of 1620, around forty Saints joined a much larger group of relatively secular colonists - referred to as Strangers by the Separatists - and set sail from Southampton aboard two ships: the Mayflower and the Speedwell. The latter vessel began to take water almost immediately, forcing them to head back to port in Plymouth. The contingent squeezed themselves and their belongings onto the Mayflower, and the journey began again. What would be an uncomfortable journey aboard two ships was now doubly so, and the delay ensured that they were now crossing the Atlantic during the height of storm season. Under the captaincy of Christopher Jones, the passage was unpleasant in the extreme; many passengers were so sea sick that they were unable to stand up, let alone eat or drink anything. The waves were so violent that one Stranger was swept overboard. Though he was the first of their number to meet a premature end, he would not be the last.

The caulking of the Mayflower's planks failed to keep out seawater, ensuring that the already cramped living conditions were exacerbated by the constant presence of water. Another of their number died, this time a crewmember, and the storms blew them far from their plotted course. But, after 66 long, miserable days, they finally arrived at Cape Cod.

Finding the area near Provincetown occupied by the indigenous Native American population, the ship’s company continued to explore along the coast, eventually arriving in the area near present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts on December 21, 1620. They discovered an abandoned indigenous village, and very little else. However, the area they had chosen was well north of the Virginia Company’s territory, so technically, they Mayflower colonists had no right to be there at all.

To circumnavigate this, they strived to overcome these dubious circumstances by drafting the Mayflower Compact. Signed by 41 of their number, the document promised to create a “civil Body Politick governed by elected officials" and “just and equal laws,” as well as swearing allegiance to the English king. It was to be the first document to establish self-governance in the New World, and that early attempt at democracy would set the standard for future colonists seeking independence from the British.

For as much as Brewster and his group were undoubtedly rebels, it’s important to note the devastating impact their arrival had on that indigenous population

William Brewster was by now an elder aged around 52, and one of the seniors of the group of refugees, as well as their de-facto religious leader, owing to him being the only university-educated member. But life in the New World was to be far more brutal than Brewster or any of the settlers had anticipated and, in the space of several months, almost half of their number would have perished in the cold, unforgiving New Hampshire winter.

The colonists had spent that first winter aboard the Mayflower, and only 53 of the original passengers still lived. Women had been particularly affected by the conditions, as only five of the original nineteen that had made the journey would survive those first months. As well as the cold, the confined spaces of the ship ensured that disease was rampant. But with the Mayflower set to sail back to England in April of 1621, the group permanently moved ashore. 

The lasting legacy of the group’s arrival in the New World can still be seen in the American holiday of Thanksgiving. Without the help of the area’s native population, those that had survived that first winter would surely have perished too. An English-speaking Abenaki named Samoset (or alternatively Squanto, the last surviving member of the Patuxet tribe who had been wiped out by disease, and survived only due to being a slave in Europe) helped the colonists form an alliance with the local Wampanoags, who taught their number how to hunt wildlife, gather shellfish and grow corn, squash and beans. By the end of the next summer, the Plymouth colonists celebrated their first harvest with a three-day festival of thanks. Attendee Edward Winslow wrote that there were “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men.”

How historical these thanksgiving origins were remains a matter of much debate. Other colonies claim it was them, rather than the Mayflower settlers, who were the true source of the holiday tradition, whereas some historians doubt whether the event happened at all, but rather ahistorical propaganda to shine a more positive light on the ill-fated relationship between the settlers and the indigenous population.

For as much as Brewster and his group were undoubtedly rebels, it’s important to note the devastating impact their arrival had on that indigenous population. It wasn’t just new people, technology and religions that they brought with them across the Atlantic, but a new series of diseases for which the indigenous population had no immunity. Smallpox and influenza, of which there was a ferocious outbreak in 1634, were to ravage both Native and settler alike. Furthermore, the mindset that the Saints were God’s chosen people sowed the seeds of white, Christian supremacy, which would later evolve into the practice of Manifest Destiny and the eventual decimation of the Native American population over the next three centuries.

But history is rarely as clean cut as simply being a case of good and evil, of right and wrong. Hindsight gives us the ability to judge those in entirely different circumstances we cannot begin to comprehend, and though their impact would be devastating to the indigenous population, William Brewster and the Mayflower settlers were fleeing a persecution of their own.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact that this group of rebels from Nottingham had on the shaping of America and the modern world

Brewster’s wife, Mary, died in 1627, and was joined by two of their daughters, Fear and Patience, who were lost in that influenza outbreak. He lived until 1644, when aged around 77 or 78, William Brewster passed away. He continued to preach sporadically until his death, and was laid to rest at Burial Hill in Plymouth, where a memorial stone still exists for him.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact that this group of rebels from Nottingham had on the shaping of America and the modern world. They established the blueprint for democracy and religious freedom that would help shape the country for centuries to come, and it’s estimated that around 10 million Americans (as well as 35 million other people around the world) – including three former US Presidents, Humphrey Bogart, Norman Rockwell and even LeftLion’s own Assistant Editor Emily Thursfield, are direct descendants from those original Mayflower colonists. In terms of Nottingham’s impact on the world, William Brewster and his religious rebels from Scrooby might just be our biggest contribution.

‘Voices of Today’ is aimed at inspiring Nottingham residents to get creative and represent their experiences or perspectives on activism, protest and rebellion in a number of ways, including poetry, drawing, singing, acting, dance, creating a protest banner or something different altogether.

You can submit your artistic take on Nottingham's history of activism, protest and rebellion at @nottmcastle using the hashtag #VoicesofToday  

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