James Brewster and The Pilgrim Fathers



When James I came to the throne, he adopted a moderate Protestant religious policy. Both Catholics and Puritans were forbidden to practice their religions. Many extreme Puritans left England for Holland where Puritanism was accepted.In 1607 Walter Raleigh had founded the English colony of Virginia in America and companies had begun trading between the colony and England.

The Pilgrims were English Calvinists who, unlike the Puritans did not try to transform the Church of England, but actually left the Church to form an independent sect. This group appeared at the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and in the early period of James I’s reign.

Since they were not in the king’s Church (i.e. the Church of England), the Pilgrims were effectively outlaws in the early 17th century. Their pastors were fined, put in the stocks and whipped. Some of them who published pamphlets criticizing the king and his Church had their ears sliced off, their noses split and their foreheads branded with the letters ‘SS’ (stirrer of sedition).

In 1607 a group of Pilgrims managed to escape to Holland which, at that time, was the only country with complete freedom of religion. Here they could worship as they pleased.

Thirty-five members, who had fled to Holland to avoid persecution, were recruited by an English stock company to go to Virginia to protect their business interests. The stock company financed the venture which, when it left England, included 102 men, women and children.

The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbour

The Pilgrim Fathers set sail from Plymouth on 16th September 1620 in the ‘Mayflower’ captained by Myles Standish and steered a course for Virginia. The ship was a double-decked, three-masted vessel.

On board the tiny vessel were 100 emigrants, less than half of whom were Pilgrims.



Richard Clyfton

Richard Clyfton had been the vicar of Marnham in 1586 and rector of Babworth since 1586. Summoned before the ecclesiastical courts in 1591 and 1593 for not wearing the surplice, for not announcing holy days, and for refusing to use the cross in baptism, he was cited for non-conformity and then deprived of his position on March 15, 1605, in the same court actions that deprived Robert Southworth. On March 6, 1607, Clyfton was summoned as the “pretended minister or curate of Bawtry,” but he did not respond and was excommunicated on April 24. He preached in early 1608 at Sutton cum Lound (James Brewster’s church), before emigrating to Amsterdam as the pastor of William Brewster’s congregation.

James Brewster

William Brewster’s brother James Brewster was vicar of Sutton cum Lound from 1594 to 1614 and of Gringley-on-the-Hill from 1604 to 1617. Although he was not deprived for non-conformity, James Brewster had a history of conflict with church authorities. He was prosecuted in 1595 for irregularities in acquiring the position of vicar at Sutton, succeeding his uncle Henry Brewster; and because his practice in administering communion did not follow the prescribed formula. He refused to bury a body in a shroud decorated with a cross, and he baptised infants without making the sign of the cross.

William Brewster

He was excommunicated briefly in 1597, “for various offences” that were apparently connected with irregular financial administration of the hospital of St. Mary Magdalene in Bawtry, of which James Brewster was the “Master.”

William Brewster appeared in court on James’ behalf at this time. In 1605, Edmund Thurland (himself presented for refusing to take communion) sued James Brewster for having called him “an atheiste, a knave and a whoremaster.” Brewster admitted to the charge and was assigned penance.

As vicar of Sutton cum Lound, James Brewster was the immediate superior of the curate at Scrooby, and he was responsible for choosing the curate. From 1603 to 1607, the Scrooby curate was a Robert Markham, about whom little is known.