Heritage Header


The struggle between England and Spain during the 16th century had drained the energies of Englishmen, and in the last years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth few fresh enterprises were undertaken upon the oceans. for a while little was heard of the New World. The lure of exploration had given way to the demands of war. The novel idea of founding colonies also received a setback.

By 1604, when James I made his treaty with Spain revived interest was being shown in colonization of the New World. England was in a turmoil, people were reduced to beggary and vagabondage was common. New outlets were needed for the nation's energies.

A steady rise in prices had caused much hardship to wage earners. Though the standard of living improved during the sixteenth century a wide range of prices rose sixfold and wages only twofold. Industry was oppressed with excessive Government regulation. The medieval system of craftsmen's guilds which was still enforced made entry of young apprentices harsh and difficult. The Squirachy, strong in its political alliance with the Crown, owned much of the land and ran all local government. The March of Enclosures, which they pursued, drove many English farmers off the land. There were many without advantage, hope, or livelihood under these conditions. Colonies, it was thought might help to solve these distressing problems.

The Government was not disinterested. Trade with lively colonies promised an increase in Customs revenue on which the Crown heavily depended. Merchants and the richer landed gentry saw new opportunities across the Atlantic for profitable investment, and an escape from the cramping restrictions on industry and the general decline of European trade during the religious wars. Capital was available for overseas experiments. In 1606 a group of speculators acquired Royal charter creating the Virginia Company, and as a result the first permanent white settlement in America was established.

Beneath the drab exterior of Jacobean England, with favoritism at Court and humiliation in Europe, other and more vital forces were at work, five hundred years after the Norman conquest in the reign of queen Elizabeth I, the Puritan movement sought the reform of the establishment, the state church, which for the Puritans was too political, too compromising with evil, and too Catholic. They craved a freedom of organization and worship which did not exist in England.

The independent wing of the movement defined a church as any self governing congregation of believers. Such a group desired to elect its own ministers and leaders. By definition and desire then, the Puritans and were in conflict with the established Church of England. The Elizabethan bishops had driven the nobler and tougher Puritans out of the Established Church. But though they destroyed the organization of the party, small illegal gatherings of religious extremists continued to meet. There was no systematic persecution, but petty restrictions and spying obstructed peaceful worship. A congregation at Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, led by one of their pastors, John Robinson, and by William Brewster, the Puritan bailiff of the manor of the Archbishop of York resolved to seek freedom of worship abroad. In 1607 they left England and settled in Holland at Leyden, hoping to find asylum among the Dutch. Life in Holland was not easy. The Puritans were persistent and persevering but a bleak future faced them. The Dutch authorities were sympathetic but in practice unhelpful. The Puritans began to look elsewhere.

Emigration to the New World presented itself as an escape from a sinful generation. There they might gain a livelihood unhampered by Dutch guilds, and practice their creed unhampered by English clerics. As one of their number records The place they had thoughts on was some of those vast and unpeopled countries of America, which are fruitful and fit for habitation being devoid of all civil inhabitants; where there are only savage and brutish men, which range up and down little otherwise than the wild beasts of the same.

The Leyden community, disillusioned with life in Holland sought and gained a license to settle in America. Thirty-five members of the Leyden congregation left Holland and joined sixty-six West Country adventurers at Plymouth and in September 1620 they set sail in the 'Mayflower' a vessel of 160 tons. After two and one half months of voyaging across the ocean they landed in December on the American coast at Cape Cod bay. There they founded the town of Plymouth.

For ten years afterwards there was no more planned emigration to America; but the tiny colony of Plymouth pointed a path to freedom. In 1629 Charles I dissolved Parliament and the period of so called Personal Rule began. As friction grew between the Crown and subjects so opposition to the Anglican Church strengthened in the countryside. Absolutism was commanding the Continent, and England seemed to be going the same way. Many people of independent mind began to consider leaving home to find freedom and justice in the wilds of America. Between 1629 and 1640 the colonists rose in number from three hundred to fourteen thousand. These resources of the company offered favourable prospects small emigrations. In England life for farm labourers was often hard. In the New World there was land for every newcomer and freedom from all restrictions upon the movement of labour and other medieval regulations that oppressed and embittered the population at home.