painting by Hendrick van Vliet.
the "Interior of St. Peter's Church in Leyden" ,
and the link to The Pilgrims.
by: Willem van Osnabrugge
Hendrick Cornelius van Vliet lived from 1611 - 1675. He was born and died in Delft. At
that time Pieter de Hooch and Jan Vermeer also worked in Delft. In order to earn a living,
many painters started to specialize in certain genres. Although Van Vliet did several
portraits, his specialty was painting building interiors. Our museum painting dates from
Construction of the Gothic style church started in 1390, on a spot where a chapel had
stood since 1121. Originally the building included a 400 ft tower, which was one of the
highest in the world. It was known as "King of the Sea".
Although the church is some 20 miles from the North Sea coast, sea men used the tower
as a navigational marker. In 1512 the tower toppled over. Much later, scientists
discovered that the church was built on the only small sandy area in Leyden and that the
tower was unfortunately built just where the more common peaty soil started, giving a very
Through the Reformation, the church fell into Protestants hands in 1570. The church did
not suffer much from the iconoclast. The beautiful altar piece, by the hand of painter
Lucas van Leyden also survived the iconoclast vandalism of 1566 and is to be seen today in
the Lakenhal Museum in Leiden. The present interior still has the original "choir
gate" from 1425, which was modified in 1550 to the Renaissance style. The late Gothic
pulpit, which you can see on the painting, dates from 1532 and is still in the church
On the painting you can see kids playing marbles (the Dutch version, where you pick the
marbles into a small pocket). You can also see a grave being dug for one of "the
stinking rich" people of Leyden. Many famous people are buried here such as: Jan
Steen, Gerrit Dou, Frans and Willem van Mieris, Rembrandt's parents and the leader of the
Pilgrims John Robinson.
Today the church is used as a multi cultural community center, and to be rented for
fashion shows, dinner parties and weddings.
In the 15th and 16th Century, the present Netherlands was part of the Habsburgh's empire
which, under Charles V -the Holy Roman Emperor-, covered most of Europe. At the time when
his son Philips II took over in 1556, he found that this small country in the North was
strongly influenced by the Reformation. They insisted on not only religious freedom, but
also governmental independence. Philips sent his cruel Marshall Alva to keep the Dutch in
their place, which in turn led to an 80 year war (1568 - 1648). Under the leadership of
William of Orange, the Netherlands revolted against Spain. First Haarlem -an important
city in the North- was freed from the Spanish. The Spanish army then considered Leyden of
strategic importance. Because previous battles had taken so many of their soldiers' lives,
the Spanish armies just surrounded the Leyden town, trying to force the people to
surrender through starvation. During the first 9 months William of Orange tried to fight
the Spanish army without too much success. Then the Dutch Government decided to destroy
the polder dikes and flood the land, so that the Spanish armies would have to flee.
However, the idea was better than the result: the water moved only very slowly. It took 6
weeks and some heavy rain showers to reach Leyden. But then on the 3rd of October 1574,
after an 11 months siege, the Spanish were suddenly gone and William of Orange's army
moved into town, giving each person half a loaf of bread and herring. Many people had died
of starvation and the plague. They had eaten all their dogs, cats and even rats to
survive. Every year since then, even to this day, October 3 has been a Public Holiday in
Leiden, and a day of remembrance, celebrated with a "herring and white bread"
Although the 80 year war lasted till 1648, the Northern Provinces were actually liberated
as of the end of the 16th century.
The link to the Pilgrims.
The Pilgrim story begins in Nottinghamshire, England. In about 1606, a group of English
religious dissidents, whom we now know as "the Pilgrims," formed their own
church independent of the national Church of England and its head, King James I. William
Brewster, Richard Clifton, William Bradford and John Robinson and their families felt that
their Christian faith required a greater degree of church reformation than was possible in
the King's established Church. They therefore decided to gather themselves into a church
of their own under a separate covenant. Such a move was considered treasonous at a time
when church and state were united, and the Separatists, as they were called, were forced
to flee the country lest they be imprisoned or even executed for their beliefs. Therefore,
the group emigrated by 1609 to the tolerant haven of the Netherlands.
After a brief stay in Amsterdam, where they were dismayed by the discord within other
immigrant English congregations, the Pilgrims were granted permission to settle in the
cloth manufacturing city of Leiden. They lived there under the religious leadership of
Pastor John Robinson for twelve years and gathered openly as a church. William Bradford
became a member of The Leyden Wool Guild and William Brewster started his Pilgrim Press.
The printing press was a relative new invention and Brewster had his in one of the side
buildings of the Peter's Church. (the painter Jan Lievens -a friend of Rembrandt van Rijn-
lived in the same room a few years later). Here Brewster printed his stirring pamphlets
and books against King James, which were smuggled into England. Possession of these
pamphlets and books in England meant long prison sentences or worse. The Pilgrim Press
became the cause for a political incident between Holland and England, but the Dutch did
not interfere with Brewster.
Although they were made welcome in Leiden and found no barriers to the practice of their
faith, the Pilgrims still could not find peace and security. Their poverty, as foreigners
at the bottom of the economic ladder, promised hardship in old age. Their living
conditions made it difficult for the congregation to recruit additional English
immigrants. They feared the loss of their English traditions as their children were
growing up Dutch and there was a threat of renewed war between the Dutch and the Spanish.
The twelve-year truce between Holland and Spain was to end in 1621, threatening a possible
resumption of hostilities.
In 1618, the little congregation made the momentous decision to emigrate yet again. But
where could they go? England, their old home, was still closed to them. They discussed
settling in South America, but decided that the hot climate would "not well agree
with our English bodies". There was also the menace of the neighboring Spanish. On
the other hand, the Pilgrims were dubious about joining the English colony of Virginia for
fear of suffering religious persecution once again. A later offer to settle under the
auspices of the Dutch Government in New Amsterdam (now New York) was also rejected. In the
end they decided to trust their countrymen in Virginia - but at the farthest remove
possible. Their goal would be the northernmost boundary of the Virginia Company grant, at
the mouth of the Hudson River (a captain for "The Dutch West Indies Company"
named Hudson had discovered the river).
In 1620 The Pilgrims sailed from ROTTERDAM to the New World.
It was not possible to just go to the New World and settle. A patent or license to
colonize was necessary and it took a sizable investment as well. In 1618, the Pilgrims
began negotiations with the Virginia Company of London, with hopes of getting some
assurance from the King that they would be left alone to practice their religion in
America. Although the King would not formally promise this, the Pilgrims decided to accept
what they viewed as his implicit assent and go ahead with their plans.
The Leiden congregation decided which of the group would go on the first voyage and which
would wait until the plantation had been established. John Robinson, their leader stayed
behind with his main congregation. They bought a small vessel called the Speedwell. The
first emigrants left the port of Delftshaven (Rotterdam), amid tears, prayers and
farewells on July 22, 1620.
The Pilgrim group sailed to Southampton, a city on the English south coast, where they
were joined by additional immigrants, randomly recruited by the London Investor Group, on
a ship called The Mayflower. Following a five week dispute over the contract with the
adventurers, the passengers on the two ships set sail for America on August 5. Their
voyage was soon interrupted when the smaller Speedwell was discovered to be leaking badly.
They put into the port of Dartmouth, Devonshire, and repairs were made, but the condition
reoccurred once they were under sail again. The two ships were forced to make port a
second time, in neighboring Plymouth. There it was decided to leave the defective
Speedwell behind, and continue with the Mayflower alone. The Speedwell's passengers and
cargo were transferred to the larger ship, and on September 6, 1620, The Mayflower set
sail across the North Atlantic and its famous 102 passengers, into history.
The Mayflower sighted land on November 9, 1620. It proved to be Cape Cod, which although
the right latitude, was well east of their original destination at the mouth of the Hudson
River. However, an encounter the following day with the shoals which lie off the outer
Cape, as well as the lateness of the year, persuaded them to remain in the Cape area. The
Mayflower came to anchor in what is today Provincetown harbor on November 11, after 66
days at sea. That day the male passengers signed the famous agreement we now know as the
The Mayflower remained in New England with the colonists throughout the terrible first
winter. Although the ship was cold, damp and unheated, it did provide a defense against
the rigorous New England winter until houses could be completed ashore. Nevertheless,
exposure, malnutrition and illness led to the death of half the group, both passengers and
The tradition of the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving is steeped in myth and legend. Few
people realize that the Pilgrims did probably not celebrate Thanksgiving the next year, or
any year thereafter, in the same manner as we do it now, though some of their descendants
later made a "Forefather's Day" that usually occurred on December 21 or 22.
Several Presidents, including George Washington, made one-time Thanksgiving holidays. In
1827, Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale began lobbying several Presidents for the instatement of
Thanksgiving as a national holiday, but her lobbying was unsuccessful until 1863 when
Abraham Lincoln finally made it a national holiday with his 1863 Thanksgiving
Today, our Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday of November. This was set by President
Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 (approved by Congress in 1941), who changed it from Abraham
Lincoln's designation as the last Thursday in November. The date of Thanksgiving was
probably set by Lincoln to somewhat correlate with the anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape
Cod, which occurred on November 21, 1620 (by our modern Gregorian calendar. It was
November 11 to the Pilgrims, who used the Julian calendar).
But the Pilgrims' first "Thanksgiving" began at some unknown date between
September 21 and November 9, most likely in very early October. Also, for the past 12
years, during their stay in Holland, the Pilgrims had grown accustomed to the "Leiden
Liberation" celebration and "Thanksgiving" feast, held every year on
October 3. The Leiden town has been celebrating this feast since 1574, after having been
liberated from the Spanish by William of Orange after an 11 months siege. The Pilgrims had
now combined that custom with some of the traditional English harvest celebration. This
included games, recreations, three days of feasting and Indian guests. It would have been
unthinkable for the Pilgrims to have these things as part of a religious Thanksgiving.
Then, a hundred years ago there was this inspirational image of the Pilgrims and the
Native Americans sharing their communal meal in harmony. The country was seriously
concerned over immigration and the problems surrounding the integration of the new
citizens into American culture. The Thanksgiving image of dissimilar ethnic communities
coexisting amid peace and plenty was an irresistible symbol. The Pilgrims became the
exemplary immigrants whose Protestant virtues made them the preferred model for all later
arrivals. Americanization programs, which were intended to socialize the new immigrants by
instilling in them the values and beliefs of "real" Americans, made good use of
the symbols and ideals of Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims. By 1920, when the Pilgrims' 300th
anniversary celebration elevated them to the pinnacle of their fame, their role as
Thanksgiving icons and the "spiritual ancestors" of all Americans became
permanently fixed in the American psyche.
Some perhaps startling omissions from the authentic "Thanksgiving" menu:
- Ham. The Pilgrims most likely did not have pigs with them.
- Sweet Potatoes, Potatoes & Yams. These had not yet been introduced to New England.
- Corn on the cob. Indian corn was only good for making cornmeal, not eating on the cob.
- Popcorn. Indian corn could only be half-popped, but this did not taste good.
- Cranberry sauce. Cranberries were available, but sugar was not.
- Pumpkin Pie. They probably made a pumpkin pudding of sorts, sweetened by honey.
However, don't forget that it all started in Leyden with the "Herring and White
Bread" (Thanksgiving) dinner celebrations, remembering the hardship of prosecution
and famine of the Dutch.
November 3, 1999
Willem van Osnabrugge