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From Leiden Pilgrim to American president

Before founding their American colony, the Pilgrim Fathers first lived in Leiden in the early 17th century. This group has no fewer than nine American presidents among its descendants. The University played an important role in the Pilgrims’ life in Leiden.

Civiele marriage and Thanksgiving

The Leiden period was a formative episode in the Pilgrim Fathers’ history, claims American historian Jeremy Bangs, Director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum. He has conducted extensive research on the Pilgrim’s stay in our city and is the author of the hefty tome Strangers and Pilgrims (2009). One thing he highlights is that the Pilgrims were responsible for introducing civil marriage in America, a construction directly based on the Dutch matrimonial legislation of the time. Similarly, Thanksgiving, the harvest festival initiated by the Pilgrims, was probably partially inspired by the Leiden 3 October celebration.


So who where these Pilgrim Fathers? 

In the early 17th century, a group of English Puritan Protestants broke their ties with the Church of England on the grounds that the Church had misinterpreted the Reformation. To escape persecution, they fled to Holland. The group first settled in Amsterdam where they joined other English refugees living in the city. In 1609, to avoid getting caught up in existing scandals within this group, the Pilgrims moved to Leiden.


What was the Univeristy's attitude to the Pilgrims? 

Benevolent, according to Bangs. The Pilgrims were allowed to make use of one of the University chapels, the Faliede Bagijnkerk on the Rapenburg. On weekdays, the chapel was used as a fencing school, but there was no fencing on Sundays, so the pilgrims were allowed hold their services there.

The Pilgrims learned from theological debates in Leiden 

Two prominent members enrolled at Leiden University. Minister John Robinson, former lecturer in Theology and Dean in Cambridge, followed the University’s theological debates. He became a friend of important theologians such as Johannes Polyander and Festus Hommius. In those years an explosive conflict was raging between two other theologians: the strict Protestant Franciscus Gomarus and the milder Jacobus Arminius. Although Robinson took Gomarus’ side, he was also interested in what Jacobus Arminius had to say. Bangs: ‘Robinson was one of the few who attended both men’s speeches.’


The University protected the Pilgrims 

Enrolment at the University offered an important advantage: legal protection. Students fell under University jurisdiction and could therefore not easily be prosecuted by parties external to the University. This protection turned out to be particularly useful to Thomas Brewer. He financed the Pilgrim Press, which produced pamphlets and books aimed at influencing public opinion in England.

Beadle protected Brewer

These writings undermined the Church of England and Brewer was temporarily incarcerated at the request of the English ambassador. He could not, however, be prosecuted because he fell under University jurisdiction. The University decided to conduct its own investigation, and who did it charge with this commission? None other than Robinson’s friend, Polyander. Bangs: ‘Brewer did have to answer to the English King, but the Beadle of the University accompanied him on his journey all the way to the port of Rotterdam to protect him for as long as possible.’

Defence structures and knowledge of anatomy probably based on Leiden lectures

Other Pilgrims probably also followed lectures at the University. It is almost certain, according to Bangs, that Myles Standish, the Pilgrims’ military adviser, attended the lectures by Ludolf van Ceulen under the supervision of famous military engineer Simon Stevin. Later on, in America, Standish was responsible for the city plan and defence structures surrounding the village of Plymouth, and these match Stevin’s new ideas from this period. Pilgrim physician Samuel Fueller gained fame in America for his knowledge of anatomy. Bangs: ‘This knowledge was probably partially based on his visits to the anatomical theatre in Leiden, where bodies were dissected.’ 

Why did the Pilgrims leave Leiden?

Life in Leiden was difficult for textile workers, the profession of many Pilgrims. There was also the threat of renewed hostilities against the House of Hapsburg, which would have meant a much higher degree of English involvement in the Netherlands. In addition, most of the Pilgrims had trouble adjusting to what they perceived to be Leiden’s dissolute society. This is why many of them decided to leave for America and found their own colony. In the US they are considered to be among the founding fathers of modern America.


Nine presidents descended from the Leiden Pilgrims 

It would of course be wonderful to be able to say that the ancestors of President Obama studied in Leiden, but their names are not inscribed in the Album Studiosorum, the University’s enrolment register. However, genealogical research does show that through his mother’s line, Barack Obama descends directly from the Leiden Pilgrim family Blossom. Thomas and Anne Blossom had six children, including Thomas and Elizabeth. Obama is a distant descendant of Elizabeth. And this is not the only remarkable finding. Former presidents George Bush Senior and Junior are both descendants of the Blossoms’ son Peter. Obama and Bush are therefore distant cousins of each other! Other descendants of the Leiden Pilgrims include the Presidents Ulysses Grant, Calvin Coolidge, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Zachary Taylor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Did they all leave? 

Between 250 and 300 of them made the crossing to America and the rest stayed in Leiden. Robinson was planning to join the group later, but he died in Leiden in 1625. He is buried in the Pieterskerk, together with several other Pilgrims. The Blossom family left for Plymouth in 1629, but three of their children died in Leiden and are also buried in the Pieterskerk. President George Bush Sr referred to this when he visited Leiden on 17 July 1989, and gave a speech in this same Pieterskerk. ‘I am glad to be back with my cousins, because we fondly remember Aunt Abigail back there those many years ago.’ That remark was rewarded with laughter. Then he noticed, more serious: ‘And it was here to Leiden that the Pilgrims came to escape persecution to live, work, and worship in peace. In the shadow of Pieterskerk, they found the freedom to witness God openly and without fear. (…) And it was from this place the Pilgrims set their course for a New World. In their search for liberty, they took with them lessons learned here of freedom and tolerance.’

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