Boston in Lincolnshire, although some sixty miles south from the main part of the Mayflower Trail, played an important part in the story of the Separatists. It was from this town that the Scrooby Separatists made their first escape attempt from England in 1607.
In the past it was said that the name ‘Boston’ was derived from ‘St. Botolph’s town’ and that the settlement dates from the seventh century when a monk named St Botolph founded a monastery on the banks of the River Witham. However, doubt must now be cast upon that claim, because the Witham did not flow near Boston at that time. Instead, the river is thought to have joined The Haven after the flood of September 1014.
Boston does not appear in the Doomsday Book, but Skirbeck and the Manor of Drayton are mentioned in it. Skirbeck, now considered a part of present day Boston, had two parish churches, and one is likely to have been dedicated to St Botolph – which may explain the confusion.
During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the town grew into a notable port – mainly exporting wool. By the thirteenth century, trade with Europe was significant enough for Boston to be ranked, for a time, as a port of the Hanseatic League. But when the wool trade began to decline during the fifteenth century, so did the town’s wealth.
In 1545, Boston received its charter from King Henry VIII and had two members of Parliament. However, with the Haven becoming silted up, the town was already past its heyday.
In 1607, the Separatists failed to escape from England after an attempt near Scotia Creek. This was because the captain of the ship engaged to take them across to Holland betrayed the group – by turning these people over to the authorities. At Fishtoft, a few miles south of Boston, where Scotia Creek originally entered the River Witham, stands a memorial to the Separatists. It was erected in 1957 and the slightly misleading inscription reads:
‘Near this place in September 1607 those later known as the Pilgrim Fathers set sail on their first attempt to find religious freedom across the seas.’
The Separatists’ leaders were arrested and held for a while in the guildhall of the Guild of St Mary – now known as Boston Guildhall – which dates back to around 1390. The court records covering the proceedings against the Separatists have since been lost, but we know that, as prisoners, the Separatists would have appeared in the court room at the Guildhall. A spiral staircase in the centre of the court leads down to the cells below, where they were most likely confined. The two cells that remain today date from a much later date, but a space now used as a janitor’s room behind these is most likely to be an original cell.
The Guildhall has recently undergone major restoration work and reopened in March 2008, after being closed to the public for six years. As part of this process the ‘Guildhall Madonna’ – a stunning but controversial piece by leading Irish-born ceramics artist, Claire Curneen, was added to the front of the building to fill the empty niche – possibly once occupied by some former long-lost statue to the Virgin Mary.
Almost next door to Boston Guildhall is the much acclaimed Haven Gallery, home of an art and museum collection. A few minutes’ walk away in the Market Place is the ‘Stump and Candle’ public house – the site where John Foxe, author of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, was born in 1516.
At the time of the Separatists’ imprisonment, Boston was already noted as a ‘hotbed’ of dissent and Puritanism – and had gradually become so from as early as the 1530s. In 1612, non-conformist John Cotton was appointed as Vicar of St Botolph’s, and as a result attendance at the church increased greatly. Later Cotton encouraged many who sought religious freedom to join the Massachusetts Bay Company as New World colonists. Eventually, in 1633, he too emigrated aboard the Griffin.
St Botolph’s Church – also well known as the Boston Stump – houses many memorials to and reminders of John Cotton and his Puritan congregation. Apart from the pulpit, from which John Cotton preached, and the ‘John Cotton Chapel’ (restored in his memory in 1857), there is also a beautiful stained glass window depicting Cotton bidding farewell to his parishioners upon the Arbella, which, bound for Massachusetts, sailed from Southampton in 1630. The church also has a memorial to five men associated with Boston who later became Governors in the New World.