Old Meeting House Congregational Church (1643)

The Best Hidden Church in Norwich

The Pilgrim Fathers and Norwich

The Pilgrim Fathers were a group of some 60 Nonconformists (the name Pilgrim Fathers originated many years later) who sailed to America on the Mayflower in 1620.

For centuries there had been Christians who believed that the Church was moving away from its New Testament roots. They saw it as a power structure, existing by pomp and elaborate liturgy, and imposing itself upon the common people.  Anyone who made their own decisions regarding religion was called a heretic. (a Greek word meaning "chooser").  The reformation brought about some changes in the teaching about salvation, but the Reformed Churches were now imposing their doctrines and practices by force, instead of those of Roman Catholicism.

At that time Norwich was one of England's biggest and wealthiest towns, home to a large number of skilled, literate, independent minded merchants and craftsmen.  Such men wanted to take responsibility for their religious beliefs and practices.    Many of them objected to the rule of bishops and to having the Prayer Book forced upon them, and wanted more congregational decision making.  They often organised their own services and became known as Separatists or Puritans.   Some were fined, imprisoned or executed and others fled abroad.  In 1581 members of the congregation of St. Helen's at the Great Hospital, Bishopgate had fled to Holland for refuge.   Various other people from around the region were fleeing to different venues on the Continent.

St. Andrew's was one of Norwich's most prominent churches and in 1604 John Robinson (1575-1625) became a member of its clergy, but within a year was forced to leave Norwich. He led a Separatist church in the Trent Valley until 1609 when he was again forced to flee, this time taking his congregation to Leiden in Holland where they were free to worship according to their conscience.

Although the Netherlands offered freedom to all, problems did eventually arise and they decided to emigrate to North America. The Virginia Company held the right to authorise settlements along the coast up to latitude forty-one north.  Robinson sent two men to London to negotiate with the Virginia Company, to ask King James to grant them a charter for a new colony, and to raise a company of shareholders to back their venture.

Only 50 of Robinson's church opted to make the first crossing so he decided to stay with the others and go later.  They sailed from Delftshaven in the Speedwell, on July 31st 1620.  At Southampton they joined up with Mayflower, carrying another 20 Separatists and about 50 other passengers.  Problems developed with Speedwell and it became necessary to return, first to Dartmouth and then to Plymouth for repairs, the result being that they disposed of Speedwell and crowded onto Mayflower, although some pilgrims had to stay behind.


The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbour


Their final departure date from Plymouth was 16th September and because of an error they arrived at Plymouth Bay, far north of latitude forty-one, on 16th November. To the Pilgrims this was a happy co-incidence and they retained the name Plymouth which had been given by John Smith a few years earlier. The Separatists and the other emigrants stayed together although tensions were to arise.  Five of the original party had died on the crossing and forty five others died during the first six months.  More settlers from Leiden arrived over the next few years, one of Robinson's sons amongst them, but Robinson himself died in Leiden in 1625.  His church there eventually dispersed and integrated with the Dutch community.   The Mayflower returned to England in 1621 and was scrapped a couple of years later. Many buildings in England claim to incorporate timber from her, but there is little evidence to support these claims.

Norwich people involved

  • Desire Minter from Norwich had gone to Leiden and worked for the Carver family.  Desire was a young woman of about twenty at the time of the crossing (the average age was thirty-two) and she returned to England (Norwich?) in 1625.
  • William Holbeck was employed in some capacity by William White and went over with him, whether from Leiden or directly from Norwich is not known.
  • Edward and Ann Fuller were members of the Leiden Church and originated from Redenhall in Norfolk.  Their young son, Samuel, had been born in Leiden.
  • Thomas Williams had gone to Leiden from Great Yarmouth.
  • Edward and Elizabeth Winslow were from Chattisham in Norfolk.

Did the Pilgrim Fathers plant democracy in America?    No, they were not democratic and never claimed to be.   They believed that they had been chosen by God and that they had to preserve a particular way of life at all costs. If anyone didn't fit in, they were driven out of the settlement.   If the honour of establishing democracy should go to any one individual, Roger Williams is probably the man.   Williams is rarely mentioned in church history books but a short biographical note and extracts from his writings can usually be found in any comprehensive anthology of American literature.

The churches formed by the Pilgrim Fathers were usually self-governed by the members of the congregation and hence became known as Congregational Churches.  There were many such churches on both sides of the Atlantic, and although they have mostly merged with Presbyterian churches to become the United Reformed Church  (URC), Norwich's oldest Congregational Church, The Old Meeting in Colegate, still remains as a separate congregation.  American visitors who tour Europe on the "Pilgrim Trail" probably look on the Old Meeting, rather than St. Andrew's,  as their closest link to Norwich.

The part taken by the Eastern Counties in the Pilgrim movement required some explanation. Relatively they were in the 17th Century the most progressive part of the British Isles. The Eastern Association, of which Cromwell became joint-Commander, included Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Hertfordshire, Cambridge and Huntingdonshire. It was from these counties Cromwell drew his Ironsides, “plain russet coasted captains, who knew what they fought for and loved what they knew.”

The proportion of the Mayflower Pilgrims from these counties is very striking: 6 came from Yorkshire, 9 from Nottinghamshire, 2 from Lincolnshire, 17 from London, 17 from Kent, 11 from Essex and 32 from Norfolk.

Listen to talks related to the Pilgrim Fathers and Norwich

Click on the image to listen to Jonathan Pierce's talk on John Robinson and the Pilgrim Fathers

Click on the image to listen to David H.J. Gay talking on Robert Browne, Separatist and Norwich