So long as we be on earth we are strangers and exiles.
—BISHOP LANCELOT ANDREWES, 1611
Two weeks out from Stallingborough, the Dutch hoy that carried the Pilgrims approached a narrow channel, the Spaniards’ Gat, which led around the very northern tip of Holland. The channel passed between the white sand dunes of the mainland and a humpbacked island called the Texel, topped by the steeple of a church. Ships coming in from England had to pick their way carefully here among shifting mud banks, as hard to predict as those of the Humber. Once through the gat, the hoy would turn sharply to starboard and begin her final approach along the coast of the Zuider Zee, toward the river mouth that led to Amsterdam.
As the hoy crossed the North Sea, far to the south another group of exiles from King James had already reached their destination. These were the fugitive Irish earls, and they had arrived in Rome. They sat at the right hand of the pope, below the spacious dome of Michelangelo.
On May 19, 1608, the Earl of Tyrone and the Earl of Tyrconnell came to the Vatican to behold the making of a saint. St. Peter’s was not yet the basilica we see today, with its long nave thrusting out like the handle of a sacred implement, from the base of the dome to the piazza, ringed against heat by its white oval colonnade. When the earls first saw the Vatican, the western bays and chapels of the nave had not yet been erected, and men were still building the facade. The church remained as the Florentine sculptor intended it to be.
From The Light of Navigation of 1620, a Dutch chart of the approach to Amsterdam from the North Sea, showing the island called the Texel and the channel known as the Spaniards’ Gat, through which the Pilgrims would have passed in 1608 (The Old Library, St. John’s College, Cambridge)
The earls climbed up the steps to a wide platform. They entered a building laid out like a simple Greek cross, symmetrical and balanced, without the vast dimensions it later acquired. As they paused below the steps, or as they knelt in the sunshine that lit the space within, they saw the dome shoot up above them into the blue sky in its grandest and most assertive form. It sprang up to the heavens directly from the earth, with nothing but the scaffolding outside to deflect the gaze of the devout.
Pope Paul, the fifth pontiff to bear that name, had told his nephew to invite the Irishman to the ritual which took place that day above the sepulchre of St. Peter. The nephew, Scipione Borghese, was of course a cardinal. There were thirty-seven in Rome: Tyrone and Tyrconnell visited each in turn in their first weeks by the Tiber. On this occasion, Cardinal Borghese sent a gentleman to collect the earls and their countesses from the palazzo where they were lodged. He delivered them to their stalls, close to the Spanish ambassador. There they listened to the Mass, intoned by the pope and sung by the choir, “the most melodious in Christendom,” in the words of one of the Irish party.
It was not the first time the earls had entered the presence of Pope Paul. He was a tall man, at fifty-five running slightly to fat. His beard was sharply pointed, and his hair closely cropped beneath his cap or his tiara. Soon after their arrival, the Irish party had trooped past his throne, ninety strong, some doubtless still with their long hair and woven mantles, each one kneeling in succession to kiss the papal foot. But the canonization of Santa Francesca Romana was by far the grandest occasion of their first few months in Italy.1
The young Countess Catherine of Tyrone came with the pope’s niece, and she sat among the great ladies of the city. Enchanted by the event, perhaps she forgot for a little while her husband’s many adulteries and his frequent intoxication. There she heard the Angelus bell, and also the bell that faintly rang to mark the mysterious instant when the bread and wine became the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. She witnessed too the veneration of the new Saint Frances, a Roman matron of the fifteenth century revered for her works of charity, for her visions, and for the life of poverty she led in a convent cell.
And when the Irish left, and when the lurching image of the saint passed out of the basilica, the earls took with them gifts from the pope’s own hands. He gave them a silver basket, a pair of white doves, a golden bottle of wine, and a gilded loaf of bread. Outside, the Swiss Guards blew their trumpets and they beat their drums. Above the river, the guns of the Castel Sant’ Angelo fired a simultaneous salute. Irishman that he was, the eyewitness who described the event remarked with admiration on the superb Italian horses—“beautiful, mettlesome and wild”—that drew their carriages through the streets.
Every detail of the ceremony would have scandalized the Pilgrims: the bells, the nepotism, the marble theater of hierarchy, and most of all perhaps the Angelus, the triple Hail Mary. For them, it was the worst type of idolatry, the faithless automation of a formulaic prayer. As for the reception of the earls, nothing could have differed more from the first weeks spent in the Dutch Republic by the exiles from the Trent.
John Smyth set up his headquarters in Holland in the back room of a bakery, a place where they made ships’ biscuits, not gilded bread. There he lived until his death four years later. No civic welcoming party came to meet him on the quayside, and the new immigrants attracted little interest. English Separatists had been arriving individually or in small groups for a decade or more, and by now several hundred already lived in Amsterdam.
In their participants, these two episodes of exile could not have been more unlike. The Irish were warriors, cattle breeders from the farthest Atlantic cliff edge of Europe, while the Pilgrims were minor gentry, yeoman farmers, tradesmen, and servants from market towns and lowland villages. For their livelihood, the earls could count on a modest but adequate annuity, paid by the Pope but financed by Philip III, the Spanish king. For the arriving Pilgrims, on the other hand, the second priority after accommodation was to find work. This had to mean manual labor in a country where, although the real wages of artisans were twice as high as in England, the jobs involved were tedious, repetitive tasks, mainly in textiles. As William Bradford put it later, “It was not longe before they saw the grimme, and grislie face of povertie coming upon them like an armed man.”2
And yet the two stories had odd similarities. Both groups of emigrants had a chronicler who recorded the terrors and the hardships of the voyage by sea. The Pilgrims of course had Bradford, who told of “the fearful storm” between Stallingborough and Amsterdam, when for days on end the sun and stars were invisible, until they went down on their knees and prayed for salvation. Six months before, as they left Lough Swilly, the earls had their own narrator, a bard, the family historian of the Maguires, writing in the Irish language.
Harassed by contrary winds all the way down the west coast of Ireland, past Connemara and Kerry and across the channel, the earls and their companions had also resorted to devotion, but of a very different, Catholic kind. Somewhere between England and France, beset by a storm of their own, they fastened to a rope a golden cross filled with holy relics, and they trailed it along in the swell behind the ship. They too reached harbor safely, in thirteen days, almost exactly the same duration as the Pilgrim voyage.3
Behind both migrations lay unifying themes, and the parallels between the two were far from being merely coincidental. In both cases, the Jacobean regime’s drive for uniformity squeezed out of the realm those who would not fit in, just as in Scotland it pushed into exile dissident Calvinists and Gypsies. Freedom of worship was a goal the Pilgrims shared with the Irish earls. In words that mirror those of the Brownists, Tyrone told Philip III that “with regard to matters of conscience,” the English forced his people to abandon their beliefs, to take part in heretical ceremonies, and to swear allegiance to James as the head of the Church. Those who refused were imprisoned, or worse.
In writing to the Spanish king, the Irish earl addressed a man who had his own experience of pogroms.4 His forebears dealt wickedly with their Jews, expelling them from Spain in the year when Columbus reached the West Indies. And in 1609, within eighteen months of the letter from the earl, the king of Spain issued another decree, casting out of his territory the Moriscos, Arabs who remained in Andalusia, after the reconquest of the province by his ancestors. In the course of the next six years, Philip III sent as many as 300,000 Moriscos into exile. They died of hunger or disease, or they were murdered when they reached North Africa.5
And so the Pilgrim flight from Stallingborough was only one of a multitude of dispersals, like the sailing of the Mayflower, and later the Great Migration of Puritans to Boston. If we could draw a demographic map to chart the patterns of diffusion, we would see the voyages of Brownists, across the North Sea and then the Atlantic, as a pair of small directional arrows among many other movements of displaced humanity.
Landless workers walked over the frontier from overcrowded France into less thickly peopled Spain, to fill villages left vacant by migrants to Madrid. The Spanish capital more than doubled in size in the first half of the seventeenth century. So did London, brimming with new entrants from the shires. Black slaves in Lisbon, Christians in Algiers, Armenians everywhere from Venice to Bengal, French and Dutch Protestant weavers in Norfolk, Welshmen in London, and Scots in Antrim or Roscommon: we would find them all on such a map. Like tidemarks on the sand, traces were left by flows of human beings, often channeled and diverted by the decrees of monarchs, but mostly lying beyond their ultimate control.6
Exile did not mean escape, and emigration did not put an end to politics and hardship. In Italy, the Earl of Tyrconnell died very soon. In the summer, he went down to the sea at Ostia, to avoid the July torpor of the city, and there in the insect-ridden marshes he caught a fever. Tyrone lingered on, drinking hard, trying to gather money and men for an armed return to his native land, until his own death in 1616.7 As for the Pilgrims, they continued to agitate, as best they could, in the country where they settled.
Their shrewd old enemy Bancroft knew that this would be the case. In 1606, he had already written to the English ambassador in the Dutch Republic, urging him to stop Puritan exiles printing seditious books for secret dispatch back to England. In the case of the Pilgrims, Bancroft was right to suspect the worst. He also predicted that when Separatists were free to do as they pleased, their communities would splinter into a multitude of sects. He was correct in this as well.8
Less than a year after reaching Holland, John Smyth swerved away along a new and even more radical path. He insisted that even the rite of baptism of children was tainted by popery, because the infant did not give free consent. Only adults could do so, and therefore Smyth insisted on rebaptizing himself and his followers. This alarmed most of those who looked to him for guidance. Soon he split from Thomas Helwys, and the English Separatists in Amsterdam broke into fragments as Bancroft had foreseen. In the spring of 1609, to escape the quarrels and controversy, John Robinson and William Brewster led their own community to the industrial center of Leiden. There, eight years later, politics caught up with them again, in a divided city.