In The London Footsteps Of The Mayflower Pilgrims

In The London Footsteps Of The Mayflower Pilgrims

If you're reading this while confined to your living room, wondering how to survive months of enforced isolation, then consider some of the passengers famously crammed aboard the Mayflower for 16 weeks, after enduring months of self-isolation in London. Join us for an armchair jaunt around what survives of the London which would be recognisable to passengers who boarded the Mayflower at Rotherhithe in 1620.

Holy Trinity Priory, later Heneage House

The above images shows Aldgate Ward in the City of London in the year of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the
monasteries, 1531. The scene is dominated by the Priory of Holy Trinity. Top centre stands the medieval church of St Botolph without Aldgate, one of four ancient churches set immediately outside the City walls. Aldgate, to its right, accommodated traffic from Colchester and Essex. It’s long gone, as has the medieval church and the Priory.

The only surviving above ground section of Holy Trinity Priory

Following the dissolution of the monasteries, the town palace of the Abbot of Bury St Edmunds was given to the Duke of Norfolk, today referenced in Duke’s Place running off Bevis Marks. The western section of the Priory was given to Sir Thomas Heneage, with today's Heneage Lane marking the separation of the two halves. The only surviving fragment of the Priory complex above ground can be viewed through the window of the below building, on the corner of Mitre Street and Aldgate High Street. The reception area is graced by the arched entry to the former Priory.

By 1620, the fine mansion built by Sir Thomas Heneage was reduced to a house of multi-occupancy due to its location on the site of a dissolved religious order, and was therefore devoid of a parish church. As such it allowed those rebelling against the religious restrictions placed upon them by Protestantism to escape the law, which enforced Church of England attendance.

Several leading figures in the Mayflower story underwent a form of self-isolation here until such time as a ship was found to carry them to the New World. Among them was John Carver, who would become the first governor of New Plymouth, and his successor William Bradford, who would go on to write what is generally believed to be the authoritative account of the Mayflower passage and the early years of the colony.

The Hoop & Grapes

But not all Mayflower passengers were religious dissidents. More than half of those who boarded the ship in London at the start of the voyage were economic migrants and the poor, including street urchins forcibly transported as servants. Some of the worst and most troublesome Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower in London, including John Billington, the first man to be executed for murder in New England. He is believed to have originated in Lincolnshire and so would have entered London through Aldgate. The only building dating to the period which he might recognise is the Hoop & Grapes pub, opposite Middlesex Street on Aldgate High Street.

The building has a cellar dating back to the 13th century but the frontage dates from 1593 and presents itself much as it would have done to Billington and his fellow travellers on both entering the City and leaving it in July 1620 bound for the Mayflower at Rotherhithe.

London Wall: Crutched Friars

Much more of the old Roman wall would have been exposed than in centuries to come when it would become even more integrated into shops, houses and warehouses. Today sections exposed following wartime bombing act as backdrops to businesses and bars such as the above in in Crutched Friars, catering for 21st century pecuniary Pilgrims.

Vine Street

35 Vine Street incorporates the preserved base of a Roman bastion tower, one of a number punctuating this eastern flank of the Wall. Measuring a height of around 10 metres, it would have housed catapults firing iron-tipped arrows. When the Mayflower Pilgrims passed by, it probably formed part of a shop or a house.

Cooper's Row, and the Tower of London

Passing underneath Fenchurch Street station, London Wall takes on an aspect more in keeping with the post-Elizabethan Pilgrims wending their way south. The medieval arrow loop apertures had since served their purpose and today it’s possible to weave through narrow Cooper’s Row towards Tower Hill and the last major slab of Roman wall standing before those of the Tower of London dictate the way to the Thames foreshore as they did 400 years ago.

Ed Harris is the author of The Mayflower Missing, published by Phantoms Books.

Last Updated 10 March 2021