“But now we are all, in all places, strangers and pilgrims, travellers and sojourners”

The City of Leiden has seen turbulent times and been a place of refuge for those fleeing turbulence. No more so than at the turn of the 16th and 17th Centuries. Wars were constantly raging across Europe; many driven by dynastic ambition, but many driven by religion. The established Catholic hegemony was being overturned by the Reformation sparked by Martin Luther, John Calvin and many other Protestant ‘Reformers’ in the early 16th Century. The predictable result was war and persecution.

St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Memorial to the Pilgrim Fathers, St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Memorial to the Pilgrim Fathers, St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

When Luther nailed The Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg in 1517, it marked the start of a new and bloody era of religious conflict. What Luther, Calvin and the English Puritans who turned up in Leiden seeking refuge wouldn’t have suspected was that, one day, one of their churches would house a funfair and a photographic exhibition featuring nudity. I looked but couldn’t find any money lenders.

St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Funfair in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Funfair in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden’s St.Pieterskerk is best known today as the church of the Pilgrim Fathers. In the area around it John Robinson’s group of English Puritans settled before they left Europe to found Plymouth Colony and establish New England. Robinson never made the trip to Massachusetts, he died in Leiden and is buried in St. Pieterskerk. I’m sure he’d be appalled that the church he knew so well was deconsecrated in the 1970s.

What he would have thought of the funfair we’ll never know. I suspect he’d have been secretly delighted. I was.

Memorial to John Robinson, St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Memorial to John Robinson, St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Medieval hopscotch? St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Medieval hopscotch? St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

The connection between the Protestant nations and their religious and colonial history is everywhere in Leiden. The city became a hotbed of religious debate and was a tolerant sanctuary for Protestants fleeing persecution: the Huguenots from France, Puritans from England. Both nations were influential in the early development of European colonialisation in North America: New Netherlands and New England; New Amsterdam became New York.

It was to Leiden in 1609 that around 300 English religious dissidents fled hoping to live free from religious persecution. England was a Protestant country but many Puritans believed the Church of England, under the control of the monarch, had not been sufficiently reformed of its Catholic tendencies.

Organ in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Organ in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Grave in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Grave in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

The English Church and Crown viewed these religious fundamentalists as a threat to the peace and stability. They had a point: England was a country coming to terms with a period of bitter religious persecution and bloodshed, and facing the very real threat of invasion and destruction from Catholic Spain.

Fearing the Spanish, the superpower of the age, England and the Netherlands regularly found common cause to protect their religion and sovereignty. They also regularly attacked Spanish ships returning from the Americas laden with stolen Inca, Maya and Aztec gold. While Spain sought to suppress Protestantism, it was also protecting its ‘trade’ with the Americas. A right granted to Spain by the Pope, an authority neither England or the Netherlands recognised.

Grave stone in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Grave stone in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Grave in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Grave in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

From Robinson’s Puritans were drawn the Pilgrim Fathers who in 1620 sailed via England to found Plymouth Colony.

What is so extraordinary about this group of people is just how influential their gene pool has been throughout American history. Four US Presidents can claim their lineage to this group of English religious dissidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Bush Sr., George Bush Jr. and current President, Barack Obama. More disturbing than this, much, much more disturbing, is the fact that Presidents Bush Sr. and Jr. share the same common ancestor as President Barack Obama.

St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

These three Presidents trace their lineage to an English family, the Blossoms, originally from Little Shelford, Cambridgeshire. Thomas Blossom and his wife Anne settled in Leiden in 1609; they left for the New World from Delfshaven in 1620 on the Speedwell which was to join the Mayflower in Plymouth, England before sailing onwards. The Speedwell proved unseaworthy and the Blossoms were forced back to Leiden. They finally made it to New England in 1629 – luckily for at least three American Presidents.

Seriously America. Three Presidents related to a bloke from Cambridgeshire. It’s just not right. Sort it out…and someone double-check that Hilary isn’t also related.

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