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Pilgrim Year Leiden 400 celebrated online

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

It’s already 2022, and many Mayflower 400th anniversary celebrations were postponed, cancelled, or reimagined due to the Covid-19 pandemic. One such celebration which was reimagined to great success was the online opening of Pilgrim Year Leiden 400. On Saturday, May 16, 2020, I joined 30,000 others and remained glued for four hours to my iPhone and the video feed from a sunny Leiden. Experts there shared history, culture, gardens, and more on a city walk and I didn’t have to worry about crowds of tourists, admission fees, or sore feet.

Leiden was a thriving university city in 1609 when it became the home to a congregation of English separatists known as the Pilgrims. Led by their minister John Robinson, the Pilgrims were able to live, work, and worship in Leiden free from persecution. Although Leiden was heavily damaged in World War II, there is still much that remains of the 17th century that our ancestors knew.

The virtual Leiden tour featured stops and commentary at these locations:

• National Museum of World Cultures, Exhibition called “First Americans: Honoring indigenous resilience and creativity.” Exhibits include artifacts and works by contemporary artists to tell the stories of indigenous North America. It was emphasized that the Mayflower 400 observance incorporates the contributions of four nations: UK, US, the Netherlands, and the Wampanoag.

• Museum of Lakenhal, Exhibition called “Pilgrims to America.” This building was used as the office for controlling and governing textile manufacturing, the main industry of Leiden. The current exhibition begins with King James insisting “I will make them conform themselves…” The Pilgrim story is told through paintings, artifacts, and even Delft tiles to show the sites and people the Pilgrims would have known before, during, and after the voyage of the Mayflower.

• Rijksmuseum Boerhaave (which was literally mentioned in passing as its exhibition on pandemics was cancelled due to the pandemic).

• Onze Lieve Vrouekerk, the church, now an archaeological site, which was used by the Walloon community. Cooke descendants will be interested to know that our Walloon ancestor Hester Mahieu married Mayflower passenger Francis Cooke in this parish. Other Walloons sailed after the Pilgrims and founded Nieuw Amsterdam in 1624.

• The confluence of the New Rhine and the Old Rhine Rivers in the real city centre of Leiden. The city actually is on an island between the two rivers.

• Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, located in a 17th century house. While no Pilgrim actually lived here, it is the only example of what an interior of a house would have looked like. There is an important collection of books that would have appeared in Pilgrim libraries, including a Geneva Bible from 1602.

• Leiden City Hall which dates to 1595, so the building we see today is what the Pilgrims would have known. The guides gave an interesting explanation of civil marriage which was invented here due to the religious split with the Catholic Church. This concept of civil marriage would be brought with the Pilgrims to the New World. William Bradford and Dorothy May were married here.

• William Brewster Alley, aka “Smelly Alley.” Brewster’s house was located in this row of small and crowded buildings.

• Pieterskerk, the 899-year-old former cathedral is the cultural heart of Leiden and a National Monument. In 1574, crowds gathered here in a Thanksgiving celebration for having survived the siege with Spain. Each year on October 3, this Leiden Thanksgiving tradition continues, and the Pilgrims would have known this. (In the U.S., both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln issued proclamations of Thanksgiving, Washington’s on October 3, 1789, and Lincoln’s on October 3, 1863. October 3 will now be etched in my mind as a lead-up to and inspiration for our November version of offering thanks). John Robinson, the Pilgrims’ influential minister lived and died in Leiden and was buried here.

One of the plaques at Pieterskerk reads“In Memory of


Pastor of the English Church in Leyden

1609 1625

His Broadly Tolerant Mind

Guided and Developed the Religious Life of


of Him These Walls Enshrine All That Was Mortal

His Undying Spirit

Still Dominates the Consciences of a Mighty Nation

In the Land Beyond the Seas

This tablet was erected by the General Society of Mayflower

Descendants in the United States of America A.D. 1928.”

• Green Gate, aka Pilgrim’s Gate or English Gate leads to the central courtyard where Pilgrims lived in 21 small houses.

• University of Leiden which was a gift to the city by William of Orange after the Spanish siege.

• Botanical and Medicinal Garden which dates to 1590 and was recreated in 2009 according to old maps and the plant list. Strolling through this garden now would be the exact experience of the Pilgrims in the 17th century.

• Heritage Leiden, the archives of Leiden built into the former city walls. Here you can see the actual documents of our Pilgrims’ marriages, deaths, and court appearances, and even use your camera for a photo of these important records of their lives. Just outside is the place where the Pilgrims left for Delfshaven and the waiting Speedwell. The spot is marked with a plaque of names of Pilgrims who left for America from 1620 to 1647, so not just those who left on the Mayflower. There is also a small sculpture which symbolizes the uncertain step of the Pilgrim travelers to the New World.

The virtual tour then concluded with a specially commissioned art performance of dance, film, and music in Pieterskerk. It was lovely and haunting and peaceful to watch after a tour of so many historic sites.

There is much I didn’t include here, such as the windmill, prison, markets, firehouse, and interesting ties to Abigail and John Adams, John Quincy Adams and the incomparable Rembrandt. I encourage you to go to the website and follow the link to YouTube.

If you are fortunate to visit the Pieterskerk, Leiden Netherlands when travel restrictions are eased, plan on a day trip to Leiden. Trains from Amsterdam leave every 30 minutes and the journey time is only 36 minutes.

My takeaway from this detailed visit to Leiden is that the Dutch are as proud of their part of the Pilgrim story as we are with ours. The guides mentioned that two thirds of the English separatists living in Leiden did not leave. They were assimilated into the community and their descendants live there still. If your ancestor had not boarded the Speedwell, would you be living in Leiden today?

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