The story of the Separatist Mayflower Pilgrims, known for generations as the ‘Pilgrim Fathers,’ is a fascinating story with its origins firmly established within the wider Doncaster area.
One of the most important Separatist Mayflower Pilgrims, William Bradford, was born in Austerfield in the spring of 1590 and baptized in the almost one-thousand-year-old parish church dedicated to St Helena.
As a teenager, young Bradford was so inspired by Richard Clifton that he regularly walked the eight miles from Austerfield to Babworth to hear him preach. He joined the Scrooby Separatists and became close to the Brewster family escaping with them to the Netherlands. During their Dutch exile in Leiden, William Bradford grew in stature within the Congregation and after the voyage of the Mayflower in September 1620, Bradford rose to become one of the principal figures in 17th century New England. After the death of Plymouth’s first Governor, John Carver, Bradford served for several decades as Governor between the spring of 1621 and his death in 1657.
The village of Scrooby, which is approximately nine miles south of Doncaster is the birthplace of the leading Mayflower Pilgrim, William Brewster. At his home of Scrooby Manor, once a former palace of the Archbishops of York, Brewster sheltered a congregation of religious dissidents under the spiritual guidance of charismatic preacher, Richard Clifton, of Babworth .These dissidents or ‘Separatists’ desired to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience as opposed to those enforced by the Anglican Church. Their non-conformity forced them to flee to The Netherlands in 1608 and in 1620, on to the New World to found the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.
A part of the original Scrooby Manor House complex still survives, and although a private residence, access to its grounds is permitted by prior arrangement and as a part of a regulated Mayflower Pilgrim Tour. The Church of St Wilfred, where the Brewster family once worshipped, still stands.
William Brewster had family links to Doncaster itself. His mother, Mary Smythe, had once been married to John Sympkinson, who served twice as town mayor. When John died, Mary married then William Brewster senior of Scrooby in around 1564.
John Sympkinson, in association with two other ex-mayors of Doncaster, Thomas Sympkinson and Thomas Ellis, helped to lay the foundation of a Grammar School within the nave of the building of the, by then, defunct medieval chapel of St Mary Magdalene. The remainder of the building was adapted into a meeting house for the Town Corporation and in use until it was superseded by the Mansion House.
It seems highly probable that Pilgrim William Brewster attended the Grammar School in Doncaster in preparation for his further education at Peterhouse College, Cambridge. The Grammar School Room had remained within the Corporation House until it was demolished in 1849 to make way for the new Market Hall. However a fragment from one of the pillars from within the old Magdalene Chapel survives and can be found in Regent Square, off South Parade.
The strong direction given by William Brewster, as its spiritual leader, and the Governorship of his protégée, William Bradford, laid the solid foundations of this first settlement in New England. Bradford and Brewster were also among the first signatories of the Mayflower Compact, the initial governing document of Plymouth Colony, which in turn later paved the way for the first amendment of the US Constitution which protects religious freedom.
Within the borough of Doncaster, and just seven miles north east of the town of Doncaster itself, is the town of Hatfield. William Brewster’s mother, Mary Smythe, was almost certainly baptized here in the Parish Church of St Lawrence. Mary’s father, William Smythe, and his two wives are known to have been buried at the church, as well as other Smythe family members.
In 2020 the United Kingdom, United States of America and Holland commemorated the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower, known as Mayflower400.
Downloadable Pilgrim Heartland Trail:
For day out ideas involving Doncaster's rich culture and heritage click HERE.
The Mayflower Digital Trails app is live and available to download via Apple & Google Play! Please download it yourself and take a look https://www.mayflower400uk.org/app
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