Pilgrim History and more in Leiden, Netherlands

Honestly, thoughts of the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims of 1620 Massachusetts had not entered my head once during the days after I booked a one night stay at the Holiday Inn in Leiden, Netherlands. My focus was getting a low priced hotel room on a weekend night when Amsterdam hotel rates double or triple in price for incoming weekend partiers. Amsterdam is kind of like the Las Vegas of Europe in the hotel rate sense.

I arrived in Leiden on a 10 EUR ticket train ticket from Amsterdam Centraal. The 20 minute travel time from Amsterdam to Schiphol Airport was longer than the journey from Schiphol to Leiden Centraal. This was a good sign since I planned to travel by train back to Schiphol for my morning flight to London.


Old Singel Canal in historic Leiden, Netherlands.

The Holiday Inn hotel is an eight minute bus ride from Centraal Station and I was kind of shocked to learn the fare was 4EUR one way. There were luggage storage lockers on the upper floor of Leiden Centraal train station. I paid 3 EUR to place two carry-on roller bags in a locker and loaded my back pack with essentials like camera, water and food. I figured I would spend the day touring Leiden before heading to the Holiday Inn outside the historic city center. There were only about five hours of daylight remaining on a late January afternoon.

Leiden Tourist Information was straight out the doors of Centraal Station, about 100 meters straight ahead. Still, an old Tourist Information sign caused me to go the wrong direction and enter a bank. At the actual Leiden tourist center, I put myself in the hands of the city tourist agency staff and asked what I should do to see the city in one day? The woman handed me a map and marked a place on the Rijn River in the center of town to pick up a canal boat cruise. The chilling wind outside made a boat tour a low priority on my agenda. I pocketed the map and headed outdoors, walking along canals and streets of Leiden. At least there was no rain falling out of the clouds.

De Valk Windmill Museum

De Valk Windmill Museum, Leiden

Leiden is second in Netherlands for 17th century architecture

Since 1999 I have stayed in several cities in the Netherlands outside of Amsterdam. Usually I regret the decision to spend time as a tourist in other places around the country. Amsterdam is special for its UNESCO 17th century canal architecture. Rotterdam is mind-blowingly cosmopolitan. The Dutch coast is sand dunes reminiscent of my California home. Nijmegen and Maastricht in the east are nice for quiet forest walks with solitary thoughts on the historical carnage of past wars in the soil beneath your feet. The Hague has good hotels and loads of shopping and dining. None of these places has the abundance of old architecture seen in the 17th century canal rings of Amsterdam. I have not yet ventured to the northern portions of the Netherlands beyond Amsterdam.

Turns out Leiden is the city with the most 17th century historic structures in the country, behind Amsterdam. Leiden also has a network of city canals that makes it similarly attractive to Amsterdam on a much smaller city scale. Leiden is where the Rhine River (Dutch: Rijn), passes through the historic Leiden city center in two canals called Oude Rijn and Nieuwe Rijn.

I walked around the historic city center for about four hours.

Leiden is mentioned in historic texts as long ago as 860 AD. The town was built around an artificial hill at the river junction for the old and new Rhine River (Rijn). Leiden received its city status in 1266.

The Burcht

The Burcht is a citadel on an artificial hill in Leiden, originally built around 1150 as a flood water defense against the Rhine River. The fortress was turned into a city park in 1651.

The Burcht gate

Gateway to the Burcht.

Leiden’s city symbol are two keys in an x-cross shape. The large Dutch elms are impressive sizes. A plaque on the citadel walls states the elms were planted when the Burcht became a city park in 1651.

I had passed a sign in the alley for a David Bowie memorial that night at The Burcht. I was sitting comfortably in my room at the Holiday Inn Leiden by then.

Leiden shopping

Pedestrian shopping zone in central Leiden.

Rijn Old and New

Convergence of Oude Rijn (left) and Nieuwe Rijn (right) in central Leiden.

Leiden American Pilgrim Museum

On the Leiden City Map was a listing for The Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, alongside the Nieuwe Rijn.

Then, I remembered the history of the Pilgrims and how they had moved to Leiden prior to setting out to found Plymouth Colony (40 miles south of Boston, Massachusetts) in the winter of 1620-21.

Dutch history was closely tied to the Spanish Habsburg empire in the 16th century until William I of Orange revolted against Spanish rule in 1568. Leiden, as one of the largest cities in the Lowlands played a significant role in the Eighty Years’ War or Dutch War of Independence when it joined the rebels in 1572. King Philip II successfully regained control of the southern provinces (much of Belgium), while the Dutch Republic declared independence from Spanish rule in 1581. Religious freedom was one of the main issues for the battles with Spain. The Reformation of the 16th century resulted in a growing Protestant population in the northern Dutch provinces persecuted by Spanish Catholic and mercenary forces.

The separation of Church and State in the new Dutch Republic led to religious refugees from across Europe emigrating to cities in Holland. Protestants arrived from across Europe in the Dutch Republic in the late 16th century and early 17th centuries. French Huguenots and Pilgrim Brownists, who separated from Church of England practices. The Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam was established during these years. The 12 Years Truce 1609-1621 with the Spanish created a decade of relative peace during which time many English Pilgrims lived in Leiden. The English Pilgrims were a relatively small number relative to the population in a city that grew from around 15,000 to 55,000 between 1600 to 1650. Leiden became one of Europe’s largest and most industrialized cities.

Leiden Pilgrim Museum-1

Leiden American Pilgrim Museum is located in nondescript houses on right side of street in my photo. The home on the right corner is one of the oldest documented homes in the Netherlands with a fireplace and tile kitchen floor dating to 1370s construction.

My fascination with American Pilgrim history has less to do with having been a 5th grade teacher for several years with the task of educating American kids about the Pilgrims colony in Massachusetts and more about learning through an Ancestry.com study in 2007 that my wife is descended through her mother 11 generations back to Samuel Fuller, a 12 year old child on the Mayflower crossing. Samuel was orphaned in Plymouth Colony during the Pilgrims’ first deadly winter of 1621. Samuel Fuller was raised by his uncle, another mayflower passenger, also named Samuel Fuller.

Samuel Fuller was born c.1608. At his parent’s demise, he came under the care of his uncle, Samuel Fuller, probably in very early 1621. In the 1623 Division of Land, he was listed as “Samuell fuller Junior” and in the 1627 Division of Cattle he was listed as “Samuell fuller Junior” with his uncle Samuel Fuller. He became a freeman in 1634 and married Jane Lathropp — daughter of the prominent Rev. John Lothropp — on April 5/8, 1635 in Scituate. They had nine children, though several died young. He moved to Barnstable by August 1641 and died there on October 31, 1683.[4][7][15][16]

Wikipedia Edward Fuller (Mayflower passenger)

My wife’s family history is like reading a history of the New England colonies as members lived and died in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island for the next 180 years. Family members were involved in King Philip’s War (1675-78) and two of her ancestors Seth Clark Sr. and Seth Clark Jr. were Revolutionary War soldiers. Seth Clark Jr. moved to Tioga County in 1814 where a large part of the Clark and Kelley clan moved for frontier opportunities in timber and lumber mills in Tioga County, Pennsylvania.

Talking with Leiden American Pilgrim Museum founder Jeremy Bangs was a fascinating conversation that I could have continued for hours. He served as Chief Curator of Plimoth Plantation (1986-1991) and founded the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum in 1996. Visiting the museum in winter was delightful as I spent time leisurely looking through artifacts and discussing history with Mr. Bangs.

Leiden 14th c fireplace

14th century fireplace and tile kitchen floor in Leiden house is considered one of the oldest documented homes in the Netherlands.

Leiden fireplace

The space inside the ground floor rooms of the two houses of the Leiden American Pilgrims Museum is very limited. There were six of us in the museum room, two Dutch couples, me, and Jeremy Bangs. We pretty much occupied most of the available space filled with books and historic artifacts. I was kind of blown away when I was invited to sit on a sturdy 13th century wooden chair.

17th century artifacts

One room of the museum is filled with research archives and history of American Pilgrims. I was looking through some poster board size materials on the general history of Pilgrims when I was told we were going to the adjacent house to see another room. The fireplace photos above are the street corner house, built in the 1370s and considered one of the oldest documented kitchens in the Netherlands. The room seen in my photos has household artifacts from the 17th century and older that would have been common items in the homes of Pilgrims during the time they lived in Leiden.

Leiden had two primary town industries during the early 17th century – weaving and brewing. Leiden was also a center for printing manuscripts. Pilgrim families mostly worked in these industries.

The cloth industry in Leiden was an historic center of broadcloth manufacturing for Europe in the 1400s. The Hanseatic League, who controlled much of northern Europe’s trade, declared Leiden broadcloth as the exclusive cloth standard. Leiden lost its fine cloth exclusivity in the 1500s as other cloth manufacturing centers developed, especially in England.

The English Pilgrims in Leiden primarily worked in weaving or brewing in one of the city’s numerous breweries. The decline of the cloth industry in the 1600s led to an economic depression for the city for 200 years, resulting in much of the historic Leiden city center remaining intact with 17th century architecture due to lack of development.

Leidse Loper

After walking around Leiden for a couple of hours, I came across a sign labeled Leidse Loper.

Leidse Loper

Leidse Loper is a walking tour around Leiden to see all the main sites. Would have been nice if the woman at Leiden Tourist Information had mentioned there was a marked trail around the city.

Leidse Loper

You are on the Leiden Loop, denoted by this signpost. This is a tour along the most beautiful spots of historic Leiden. On the way you will find information about the history of Leiden.

Walking from one signpost to the next, you will return to this spot in about 110 minutes. The signposts are distinguished by the Leiden coat of arms on top.

Gemeenlandshuis van Rijnland

Gemeenlandshuis van Rijnland

Gemeenlandshuis van Rijnland is the oldest water management organization in the Netherlands, originally from the 1200s to manage canals and dykes projects along the Rijn River. This building was constructed in 1598.

A plaque on the wall commemorates the Siege of Leiden 1573-74, when Spanish forces encircled the city and prevented food transport. Prince William of Orange cut the dykes protecting Leiden and on October 3, 1574  Dutch ships were able to reach Leiden and relieve the city from the Spanish siege. An estimated 6,000 of the 15,000 residents had died from starvation and disease. Leiden has an annual holiday each October 3, kind of a Dutch Thanksgiving celebration, in memory of the Dutch victory over the Spanish in 1574.

Kind of makes me wonder where the Pilgrims got their idea for a Thanksgiving feast?

“When the Black Famine had brought to the death nearly six thousand persons, then God the Lord repented, and gave bread again as much as we could wish”.

City Hall Plaque Commemorating end of Spanish Siege 1574

So, I jumped on the Leidse Loper as best as I could follow in my walk across Leiden for the remaining two hours of daylight. I found the garden where tulips were first grown in Holland, and the birthplace of Rembrandt, which explains the van Rijn. He was born in Leiden and lived beside the Rijn River as a child.

I have more to write about Rembrandt, tulips, the Golden Age of Leiden and Leiden University, oldest university in the Netherlands, established 1575 in the aftermath of the Spanish siege.

Rembrandt van Rijn Leiden home

Rembrandt van Rijn grew up beside the Rijn River here in Leiden from 1606 to 1631, when he moved to Amsterdam as a successful artist.

About Ric Garrido

Ric Garrido of Monterey, California started Loyalty Traveler in 2006 for traveler education on hotel and air travel, primarily using frequent flyer and frequent guest loyalty programs for bargain travel. Loyalty Traveler joined BoardingArea.com in 2008.

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  1. Very informative post! Enjoyed reading about the history of Leiden. Being Dutch and living in NL myself, I have to admit I have actually never been there. But its on my list to visit next weekend, thanks to you!

  2. Amazing how famous Leiden used to be, and yet now mostly unknown in the world. Thanks for teaching me so much..

  3. Thank you for this post! I visited Amsterdam last year, but didn’t venture beyond. Next trip may have to include a visit to Leiden. Like your wife, I have Mayflower ancestors (seven, including Samuel Fuller), and I would love to see where they took refuge.

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