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Who was William Brewster?

William Brewster (c.1566–1644), born in 1566 or 1567 in Scrooby, near Retford, north Nottinghamshire, England, was a 'Pilgrim Father' colony leader and preacher who sailed on the Mayflower and, in 1620, reached what became the Plymouth Colony.  He is generally considered to be the most famous of the Pilgrims.

William Brewster was the son of William Brewster (Senior) and his wife Prudence; he had a number of half-siblings.  The Manor of Scrooby, where he was born, was in the possession of the Archbishops of York; the Manor itself was leased on easy terms by the Archbishop, Edwin Sandys, to his son, Sir Samuel.  Brewster's father was Receiver, or Bailiff, to the Archbishop, having been appointed by Sandys' predecessor Edmund Grindal; with this post went that of Postmaster, with important responsibility for stage horses for the mails on the major Great North Road from London to Scotland, on which Scrooby lay.   

Brewster entered Peterhouse in December 1580, aged about 14; the last reference to him in the College's records occurs in December 1581.  After Peterhouse, in 1584, aged about 18, he entered the service at Court of William Davison, whom in 1585 he accompanied to the Low Countries where Davison was to negotiate an alliance with the States-General of the Netherlands.  Cambridge had itself been, and remained, a centre of religious reformist thought; but Brewster's time with Davison in the Netherlands gave him the opportunity to hear and see more of reformed religion, and led him to draw closer to the concept of splitting from the Established Church of England.

Brewster remained with Davison when, in 1586, Davison was appointed assistant to Queen Elizabeth's Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham; but Davison lost the favor of the Queen in 1587. On Davison's dismissal from office and prosecution, Brewster returned to Scrooby, in 1590 being appointed, on the intercession of Davison, to succeed his father as Postmaster.

By the 1590s, Brewster's brother, James, a rebellious Anglican priest, had become Vicar of the nearby Nottinghamshire Parish of Sutton and Lound, from 1594 appointing dissenting Curates to Scrooby church.  William Brewster went further, adopting Puritan views and setting out on a path of separation from the Church of England.  He became a leading member of the Congregation of Brownists, which from about 1602 assembled on his farm at Scrooby; and in 1606 he formed the Separatist Church of Scrooby.  

William and James Brewster were brought before the ecclesiastical courts for their dissent, and by 1607 this and other restrictions and pressures applied by the authorities convinced the Separatist Scrooby congregation of the need to emigrate to the more sympathetic atmosphere of Holland.  Leaving England without permission was, however, illegal, and Brewster was betrayed, arrested and imprisoned.  After his release in 1608, Brewster and others were ultimately successful in leaving for Holland from the River Humber.

Initially, the emigrating Pilgrims settled in Amsterdam, and worshipped with the 'Ancient Church' of Francis Johnson and Henry Ainsworth.  Disputes between the two men led the church to divide and, after only a year, the Pilgrims moved to Leiden.  In 1609, Brewster was elected as ruling Elder of the Pilgrim Separatist congregation.  In Leiden, Brewster taught English and later, in 1616–1619, set up a press as the partner of one Thomas Brewer, to support his family and followers by printing and publishing religious books for illicit sale in England, where they were proscribed.

In 1619, the printing type was seized by the authorities, under pressure from the English Ambassador, Sir Dudley Carleton, and Brewster's partner was arrested. Brewster escaped.  Through the influence of the Treasurer of the London Virginia Company Sir Edwin Sandys, the brother of Sir Samuel who was the tenant of the Manor of Brewster's birthplace Scrooby, he obtained a patent for a grant of land in Virginia, in his own right and on behalf of his Pilgrim colleagues.

On 5th August 1620, thus, Brewster joined the first group of Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower on her famous voyage to North America, eventually landing at Plymouth, Massachusetts, to form the first permanent European settlement in New England.  He was the oldest passenger on the voyage, aged about 54: he was accompanied by his wife, Mary, who was to die in 1627, and his sons, Love and Wrestling Brewster.  A further son, Jonathan, joined the family in November 1621, arriving at Plymouth on the ship Fortune; and daughters Patience and Fear arrived in July 1623 aboard the Anne.

When the Pilgrims left for North America, the Pastor of the Leiden group, John Robinson, had remained behind.  Brewster, as the only university-educated member of the colony, thus became its senior Elder, serving as its religious leader and as an advisor to Governor William Bradford (who had been a Nottinghamshire neighbor of the Brewsters, being born at Austerfield, about three miles from Scrooby, in about 1590).  Brewster retained his role of leadership until a Pastor, Ralph Smith, arrived in 1629.  He was granted land amongst the islands of Boston Harbor, four of which (Great Brewster, Little Brewster, Middle Brewster and Outer Brewster) now bear his name.  After the arrival of Smith, Brewster continued to preach irregularly until his death on 10th April 1644 in Plymouth, aged about 78.

Of Brewster's six children, five survived to adulthood, four of whom themselves had children.  Notable descendants of William Brewster include Roger Nash Baldwin, George W Bush, Chevy Chase, Julia Child, Bing Crosby, Ted Danson, Charles G Dawes, Howard Dean, John Foster Dulles, Richard Gere, Katharine Hepburn, Lyndon LaRouche, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Seth MacFarlane, Jan Masaryk, George B McClellan, Bill Richardson, Cokie Roberts, Nelson Rockefeller, Norman Rockwell, Brewster Shaw, David Souter, Adlai Stevenson III, and Zachary Taylor.  In 2006, Byron Thomas Smith, from California, a direct descendant of Brewster, matriculated at Peterhouse to read for the M.B.A. degree.