William Brewster (Mayflower passenger)

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William Brewster
William Brewster cropped.png
Published in The Romantic Story of the Mayflower Pilgrims: And its place in the life of to-day, 1911
Borncirca 1568
DiedApril 18, 1644 (aged 77-78)
NationalityEnglish subject
OccupationPostmaster and English teacher of Scrooby, preacher of Plymouth
Known forPilgrim
Spouse(s)Mary Brewster
Parent(s)William Brewster

William Brewster (1568 – 10 April 1644) was an English official and Mayflower passenger in 1620. In Plymouth Colony, by virtue of his education and existing stature with those immigrating from the Netherlands, Brewster, a Brownist (or Puritan Separatist), became senior elder and the leader of the community.

Life in England[edit]

William Brewster was born in 1568,[1] most probably in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, England. He was the son of William Brewster and he had a number of half-siblings. His paternal grandparents were William Brewster (1510–1558), and Maud Mann (1513–1558), from Scotland.[2][3]

He studied briefly at Peterhouse, Cambridge, before entering the service of William Davison, ambassador to the Netherlands, in 1584, giving him opportunity to hear and see more of reformed religion.[4] Brewster was the only Pilgrim with political and diplomatic experience. With his mentor in prison, Brewster had returned home to Scrooby for a time, where he took up his father's former position as postmaster in 1590.[5] The historian Stephen Tomkins argues that William and Mary became puritans in the mid/late 1590s, judging by the names of their children, which became much more puritan after Jonathan.[6]

William Brewster
A first-person historical interpreter portraying Elder William Brewster at Plimoth Plantation.

Following the campaign led by Archbishop Bancroft to force puritan ministers out of the Church of England, the Brewsters joined the Brownist church led by John Robinson and Richard Clifton, inviting them to meet in their manor house in Scrooby. Restrictions and pressures applied by the authorities convinced the congregation of a need to emigrate to the more sympathetic atmosphere of Holland, and Brewster organised the removal. Leaving England without permission was illegal at the time, so that departure was a complex matter. On its first attempt, in 1607, the group was arrested at Scotia Creek, but in 1608, Brewster and others were successful in leaving from The Humber.[5]

Life in Holland[edit]

A rare 17th-century "Brewster Chair," named after William Brewster[7]

Robinson's church lived for a year in Amsterdam, but in 1609 one of their fellow Brownist churches there, led by John Smyth, became the first Baptist church. In the controversy that followed, Robinson and Brewster decided to take their church to Leiden.

William lived near St. Peter's church (Dutch: Pieterskerk) in Leiden with his wife and children. His son, Jonathan, was a ribbonweaver. William was chosen as assistant and later as an elder to Pastor John Robinson. He was still an elder when he traveled to Plymouth Colony in 1620.[3]

In Leiden, the group managed to make a living. Brewster had struggled for money in Amsterdam, but in Leiden he taught English to University students. In 1610-11, Robinson and Brewster acted as mediators when the Ancient Church, the oldest Brownist congregation in Amsterdam, split into two factions following Francis Johnson and Henry Ainsworth, but they failed to reconcile them.[8]

In 1616, partnered by Thomas Brewer and assisted by Edward Winslow, Brewster printed and published religious books for sale in England which were proscribed there. The press was prolific, printing "seven books against the regime of the Church of England in 1618 alone."[9] In 1618, Brewster's press published De regimine Ecclesianae Scoticanae, by the Scottish minister David Calderwood, which was highly critical of James VI and his government of the Kirk. They followed it up in April 1619 with Perth Assembly. King James ordered an international manhunt for the writer and printer, but when his men eventually dicovered the culprits, Brewer was protected by Leiden University and Brewster and Calderwood both went underground. According to the historian Stephen Tomkins, Brewster handed himself over to the Dutch authorities, who refused to send him to his death in England and so told James that they had arrested the wrong person and let him go.[10] He judges that Brewster's printing operation 'came close to ruining his church’s plans for Americica'.[11]

Brewster, along with Robinson, was a prime mover in the decision to sail for North America, and a principal organiser, but once he was in hiding, the Separatists looked to their deacon John Carver and to Robert Cushman to carry on negotiations with the appropriate officials in London.[12] In 1620 when it came time for the Mayflower departure, Brewster returned to the Leiden congregation. He had been hiding out in Holland and perhaps even England for the last year. At the time of his return, Brewster was the highest-ranking layperson of the congregation and would be their designated spiritual leader in the New World.[13]

Brewster joined the first group of Separatists aboard the Mayflower on the voyage to North America. Brewster was accompanied by his wife, Mary Brewster, and his sons: Love Brewster and Wrestling Brewster.[14]

Mayflower voyage[edit]

Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1899

Among the people boarding the Mayflower were four unaccompanied children from Shipton, Shropshire. They were placed as indentured servants with senior Separatists William Brewster, John Carver and Robert Cushman, on behalf of Samuel More, husband of the children's mother, Katherine More. The children were placed without their mother's permission after four rancorous years between the Mores over charges of adultery against Katherine and her longtime lover, the children's alleged father. Two children were placed with William and Mary Brewster.[15]

The Mayflower departed Plymouth in England in September 1620. The 100-foot vessel carried 102 passengers and a crew of 30 to 40 in extremely cramped conditions. During the voyage, the ship was buffeted by strong westerly gales. The caulking of its planks was failing to keep out sea water, and the passengers' berths were not always dry. On the journey there were two deaths, a crew member and a passenger. After being blown off course by gales, the Mayflower made a landing at Cape Cod. Finding the area near Provincetown occupied by indigenous people, the ship's company decided to continue exploring along the nearby coast. The group arrived in the area near present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts on December 21, 1620. In the space of several months almost half the passengers perished in the cold, harsh New England winter.[16]

In Plymouth Colony[edit]

Signature of W. Brewster under his motto - Hebel est omnia Adam

When the passengers of the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Colony, Brewster became the senior elder, and so served as the religious leader of the colony;[citation needed] in the colony, he became a separatist leader and preacher,[17] and eventually,[when?] as an adviser to Governor William Bradford.[citation needed] Brewster's son Jonathan joined the family in November 1621, arriving at Plymouth on the ship Fortune, and daughters Patience and Fear arrived in July 1623 aboard the Anne.[18]

Brewster Gardens, Plymouth, Massachusetts. The park covers the original garden plot that was granted to William Brewster in 1620.

As the only university educated member of the colony, Brewster took the part of the colony's religious leader until a pastor, Ralph Smith, arrived in 1629. Thereafter, he continued to preach irregularly until his death in April 1644. "He was tenderhearted and compassionate of such as were in misery," Bradford wrote, "but especially of such as had been of good estate and rank and fallen unto want and poverty."[5]

Brewster was granted land amongst the islands of Boston Harbor, and four of the outer islands (Great Brewster, Little Brewster, Middle Brewster and Outer Brewster) now bear his name. In 1632, Brewster received lands in nearby Duxbury and removed from Plymouth to create a farm there.[19]

In 1634, smallpox and influenza ravaged both the English and the Indians in the region. William Brewster, whose family had managed to survive the first terrible winter unscathed, lost two daughters, Fear and Patience, now married to Isaac Allerton and Thomas Prence, respectively.[20]

Family and other charges[edit]

Title page of a pamphlet published by William Brewster in Leiden


In 1591 or 1592, William Brewster married a woman named Mary,[3][21] whose surname is unknown; no formal record of their marriage appears in the preserved marriage records of Nottinghamshire Archives.[22] The search for further information on Mary—about whom many theories, e.g., about surname, have been offered[citation needed]—as well as on the marriage, has been extensive, e.g., by Jeremy Bangs, Director of the American Pilgrim Museum in Leiden, Holland.[22]


Their first child, Jonathan, was born on 12 August 1593.[citation needed] Two other children were born in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire: Patience about 1600, and Fear about 1606. A more comprehensive list of their children is as follows:[citation needed]

  1. Jonathan Brewster (12 August 1593 – 7 August 1659) married Lucretia Oldham of Derby on 10 April 1624, and were the parents of eight children. He was the father of Mary Turner and the grandfather of Amos Turner.
  2. Patience Brewster (c. 1600 – 12 December 1634) married Gov. Thomas Prence of Lechlade, Gloucestershire, 4 children.
  3. Fear Brewster (c. 1606 – before 1634) so called because she was born at the height of the Puritans' persecution. Married Isaac Allerton of London, 2 children.
  4. Unnamed child was born, died and buried in 1609 in Leiden, Holland.
  5. Love Brewster was born in Leiden, Holland, about 1611 and died between 6 October 1650 and 31 January 1650/1, at Duxbury, in Plymouth Colony. At the age of about 9, he travelled with his father, mother and brother, Wrestling, on the Mayflower to Plymouth Colony. There he married Sarah Collier on 15 May 1634. Love and Sarah were the parents of four children.
  6. Wrestling Brewster was born in 1614 in Leiden, Holland; was living in 1627, died unmarried before the 1644 settlement of his father's estate.[3]

Other charges[edit]

Coat of arms of William Brewster

Three of the Mayflower pilgrims, including William Brewster, took responsibility for children of Samuel More, who accompanied him and others as indentured servants:

  • Mary More, age 4, assigned as a servant of William Brewster. She died sometime in the winter of 1620/1621. Her burial place is unknown, but may have been on Cole's Hill in Plymouth in an unmarked grave, as with so many others buried there that winter. As with her sister Ellen, she is recognized on the Pilgrim Memorial Tomb in Plymouth, misidentified after her sister's name as "and a brother (children)," the mistake of calling her "a brother" arising from William Bradford's failing memory years after the event of her death.[citation needed]
  • Richard More, age 6, servant of William Brewster. He resided with the Brewster family until about mid-1627 when his term of indentureship expired. His name appears, at age 14, in a census as a member of the Brewster family, in what was called then "New Plimouth". By 1628, Richard was in the employ of Pilgrim Isaac Allerton, who was engaged in trans-Atlantic trading.

In addition to these, Jasper More, age 7, was assigned to John Carver as a servant, but died of a "common infection" in Dec. 1620 while the Mayflower was in Cape Cod Harbor (several weeks after Elinor). He was buried ashore in the area of what is now Provincetown, where a memorial plaque bears his and the names of four others "who died at sea while the ship lay at Cape Cod Harbor" in Nov./Dec. 1620. Finally, Elinor More, age 8, was assigned to Edward Winslow as a servant, but died in November 1620 soon after the arrival of the Mayflower at Cape Cod Harbor. Her burial place is unknown, but may have been ashore on Cape Cod similar to her brother Jasper. With many others who died that winter, her name appears on the Pilgrim Memorial Tomb, Cole's Hill, Plymouth, Massachusetts.[23][24][25][26][27][self-published source][28]


William Brewster died on 18 April 1644,[1] at Duxbury, Plymouth Colony.[29] He was predeceased by his wife, Mary Brewster, who died in April 1627, age about sixty.[3][30][self-published source] Brewster's body was buried at Burial Hill in Plymouth. A memorial stone exists there for him, which states that it is in honour of "Elder William Brewster, Patriarch of the Pilgrims and their Ruling Elder 1609–1644".[31] The burial place of his wife Mary is unknown.

Places and things named after Brewster[edit]

Notable descendants[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]