The Mayflower Pilgrims: Behind the Myth

First aired: 27 November 2016, 8pm

Genre: Documentary / History

Broadcaster: BBC Two


Reviewer: Liz Round

This programme purports to show the truth behind the myth of the Mayflower, the ship that took a group of colonists from Plymouth to Massachusetts in America in 1620. The Mayflower and her colonists are heralded by many in America as the pilgrim fathers of their nation, and the highpoint of the Mayflower story for most Americans will be that of Thanksgiving. It is perhaps no accident that this programme was shown just a day after Thanksgiving was held in America.

The programme begins in England, describing the conditions under which a young lad, William Bradford, was living – how he lost his family, and then fell ill with a condition that left him bedbound for several months, and during that time, he turned to his bible. After he regained his health, he fell in with a nearby Godly religious group. The programme gives a short explanation of how this group’s opinions and religious beliefs differed from those around them, and why this was a problem, both for them and the authorities in England. The decision was eventually taken to fully separate from the Church of England and in 1607 the group moved to Leiden, in the Netherlands, where they could worship freely. They stayed there for 13 years, but by 1618, the impending war (what would become the thirty years war) led the group to seek an additional move – this time, to the New World. None of them were rich but eventually they found someone willing to underwrite the cost of establishing a new colony. The Mayflower was hired and equipped, and then the group left Plymouth, England on 6 September 1620. They landed in America two months later, just in time for a harsh winter that killed half the pilgrims. Despite this, the group survived and thrived.


Much of the programme is viewed through the eyes of William Bradford. It is he who became the second Governor of the new colony in 1621, and he who wrote the key text, Of Plimoth Plantation in 1651. Much of the programme features an actor playing Bradford speaking parts of this document, sometimes while we see the document itself, which is very readable to modern eyes. The existence of one other document is hinted at, very briefly, when discussing thanksgiving, which was not recorded by Bradford, but by an Edward Winslow. At that point we have a brief glimpse of a printed text. This seems to suggest that the history of Plimoth plantation is based on just one or two sources, which is not quite correct, although Bradford’s text certainly remains the key one. What was hinted at as ‘Edward Winslow’s book was a document written by several people, including William Bradford and Edward Winslow, and was published in London in 1622, called A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation settled at Plimoth in New England, more commonly known as Mourt’s Relation. There are other documents too. In some ways Mourt’s Relation may be the better source as it was published more immediately – Bradford’s document being written 30 years later. But perhaps part of the reason for the programme’s intense focus on Of Plimoth’s Plantation rather than Mourt’s Relation was simply that Bradford’s writing reads so very well – poetic, almost lyrical in places, and acted with great aplomb by Roger Rees.


Although this programme is primarily concerned with relaying the story of the Mayflower Pilgrims, and specifically that of William Bradford, in the process it supplies the non-historian with a partial glimpse as to how historians interrogate texts. It discusses the provenance of Bradford’s book, for example, how it was lost, seized by the British in the ‘Revolutionary Wars’ and taken to England. In 1855 it was rediscovered in the library of the Bishop of London, then returned to America where it was widely published. The programme also discusses some of the reasons that Bradford wrote his text, what can be learned both from what he wrote, and did not write – such as the tragic death of his first wife, which is reduced to a footnote in the text.

As a history documentary that does not have a connection with the royal or twentieth century history that seems to saturate historical television programming, this programme is very welcome. That it is also a programme that strongly features (and shows) the key primary source is even more to be admired. Some serious money has been spent on the dramatic reconstructions, which was well done – nothing struck me as being jarringly out of place – and which used the modern reconstructions of the Mayflower II and the Plimoth Plantation. I would have welcomed a little more exploration as to the reasons that the group left England and then their lives in Holland, and perhaps a little more on the Strangers (the term the group used for those on the Mayflower who were not Separatists) but the programme makers were clearly focused on their American audience. This was betrayed by their use of the term ‘Revolutionary War’, rather than the more usual British term ‘American War of Independence’. A minor point, but one that startled me.

Where the programme does fall down is in its title – it refers to a myth, but does not really discuss what this myth may be. The basic facts of the Mayflower and the Plimoth Plantation are not in dispute, not a myth, and I’m not sure they’ve ever been regarded as such. It could possibly be in reference to modern day stories that are told about thanksgiving, but while the programme alluded very briefly to this, it did not dwell on it and made no real attempt to dispel it.

Perhaps the most salient point came at the beginning of the programme, where Pauline Croft, a historian, explained that really, of all the people who moved to the Americas, these were a very small group of ‘religious nutters’ and no-one would have been surprised if they had sank into obscurity. The ‘fact that they founded the world’s greatest democracy throws retrospective lustre’, is a good way of putting it (0:04:30). There were, of course, many other groups of people moving to the Americas at the time for a range of reasons. In focusing on just one small group of people with very specific – contemporaries would have said extreme – religious motives, perhaps the USA is unwisely re-emphasising that extremity. But this is a minor quibble; as a student of seventeenth-century English history, I very much enjoyed this glimpse at seventeenth-century American history instead. I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about either.

Liz Round is an AHRC M3C-funded History PhD student in the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester and the University of Nottingham. Her research explores clergy-lay relationships in seventeenth-century Herefordshire. For more information, click here.

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