Thanksgiving is a good time to explore England's Boston
By KAREN BRADBURY | Stars and Stripes | Published: November 19, 2020
Long before there was a Boston in Massachusetts, a settlement of the same name arose along the eastern coast of England. The United Kingdom’s Boston, today a city of about 35,000 inhabitants in the county of Lincolnshire in the East Midlands, was by the 12th century already a lively market town. Its name references St. Botolph, an Anglo-Saxon monk reputed to have passed through the area centuries previously.
Strategically positioned along a river flowing into the North Sea, Boston developed as an important trading center, and in the early medieval period, it ranked second only to London in terms of wealth and clout. Several surviving buildings attest to Boston’s glory days, first and foremost St. Botolph’s Church, better known as “The Stump,” likely after the distinct appearance of its 272-foot spireless tower rising high above the flat topography of the surrounding fens.
American visitors to Boston are likely to be interested in the city’s connections to its newer and much larger stateside brother. In 1612, The Reverend John Cotton was appointed vicar at St. Botolph’s Church. A man of great passion, his beliefs and teachings challenged the church, which he sought to reform from within. (The term “Puritan” referred to those seeking to remove, or purify, church practices.) Frustrated in his efforts to change the church, he inspired members of his congregation to seek a new life in America. Between 1630 and 1634, roughly ten percent of Boston’s population left for a fresh start abroad. Amongst this group of some 200 to 300 were many powerful and educated residents, many of whom played decisive roles in shaping the city they founded in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. The first school on American soil, the Latin Free School, was based on the Boston Grammar School.
The English Boston’s connection to those in search of religious freedom predates the settlement of the colonies. In the fall of 1607, a group of men, women and children from a town named Scrooby were to have met a boat near Scotia Creek. But their plan to escape the reach of the English church by crossing the North Sea over to Holland was thwarted when the captain of the ship betrayed them and turned them in to the local militia. Stripped of their possessions, they were brought to Boston and the ringleaders imprisoned at the Guildhall, site of the court and jail cells, for around a month. The following year, the group made another attempt at escape from the town of Immingham in North Lincolnshire, and this time, they managed to reach Holland. Following a brief resettlement in Amsterdam and several years in Leiden, many of this same group returned to England in 1620 to board the Mayflower and cross the Atlantic to begin a new life in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Several sites of remembrance to these events and times await visitors to Boston and the surrounding area. A stained glass window in St. Botolph’s Church depicts John Cotton’s departure to America aboard a ship named the Arbella. The circa-1390 Guildhall shows the cells in which the Pilgrims were imprisoned and the court room in which they were tried. The Pilgrim Memorial at Scotia Creek, Fishtoft, marks the site of the Scrooby group’s thwarted attempt at departure.
Mayflower 400 is an ambitious multi-country program commemorating the anniversary of the famous ship’s voyage from England to America and its far-reaching legacy. Scholars, historians and interested parties from around the world have been examining the history of the crossing and the consequences of colonization from multiple angles. The milestone date was envisioned as an opportunity to explore both the darkness and the light that underpins the event’s place in human history. Although the pandemic put paid to many in-person events, one re-imagined and community-safe commemorative event is slated to go forward on Thanksgiving.
On November 26, many of Boston’s business owners and residents will heed the Mayflower 400 event organizers’ request to display a lit lantern in their windows, a gesture designed to pay tribute to the Pilgrims’ roots in the region and an expression of hope in these uncertain times. Gainsborough and other North Nottinghamshire communities will organize similar activities. In better years to come, you can expect Boston’s annual Illuminate events, including its impressive lantern parade, to once again light up the night.
Other commemorations unpacking the shared history of four nations – the Wampanoag, UK, USA and Netherlands – include an ambitious transatlantic community theater production and the exhibition of a Wampum Belt in the Guildhall Art Gallery in London (Jan. 8 – Feb. 14, 2021) and The Box, Plymouth (May 15 – July 19, 2021).