Simon Worrall in Smithsonian Magazine:
On an autumn night in 1607, a furtive group of men, women and children set off in a relay of small boats from the English village of Scrooby, in pursuit of the immigrant’s oldest dream, a fresh start in another country. These refugees, who would number no more than 50 or 60, we know today as Pilgrims. In their day, they were called Separatists. Whatever the label, they must have felt a mixture of fear and hope as they approached the dimly lit creek, near the Lincolnshire port of Boston, where they would steal aboard a ship, turn their backs on a tumultuous period of the Reformation in England and head across the North Sea to the Netherlands.
There, at least, they would have a chance to build new lives, to worship as they chose and to avoid the fate of fellow Separatists like John Penry, Henry Barrow and John Greenwood, who had been hanged for their religious beliefs in 1593. Like the band of travelers fleeing that night, religious nonconformists were seen as a threat to the Church of England and its supreme ruler, King James I. James’ cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), had made concerted efforts to reform the church after Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic faith in the 1530s. But as the 17th century got under way at the end of her long reign, many still believed that the new church had done too little to distinguish itself from the old one in Rome.