Plymouth Heritage

Plymouth Heritage

Plymouth is the home of many dramatic historical events. The modern city of Plymouth dates back to 1928, with famous areas including Dartmoor, made a National Park in 1951.

Available options include visiting Buckland Abbey, the former home of Sir Francis Drake. Stand on the Mayflower Steps like the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620, eagerly awaiting passage to America. Those who are brave enough may wish to sample a Pink Gin cocktail, invented for the Royal Navy’s sailors as a health drink!

Want to learn more? Listen to a guided tour of Plymouth’s historical monuments, from the Hoe to the Barbican. Call BBC Devon on your mobile, on 0800841331, and listen as you walk.

Follow the steps of the Pilgrim Fathers.

Each Thanksgiving, Americans are invited to join the people of Plymouth in celebration. The stars and stripes are raised, turkeys are roasted and thanksgiving parades are held in the streets. There is even a ceremony in St Andrews' Church in the Barbican. Why? Because on September th, 1620, the Mayflower set sail for America, carrying the very first European settlers.

Visit Plymouth and you can retrace their steps. The Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth on the Speedwell, but the ship was deteriorating rapidly, and they were forced to disembark. They are said to have stayed overnight at the Black Friars Distillery, in the Barbican. They could have eaten freshly-baked bread from Jacka's, the bakery nearby! Finally, on the 6 th September the Pilgrims stood, with about 50 additional passengers, on the Mayflower Steps . They were waiting to board the Mayflower, the ship which would carry them all to the New World.

Religious Persecution

The Pilgrims were a group of people who broke away from the Church of England in the 17 th century. The Protestant Reformation, which was sweeping across England , caused many congregations to dissent and create new groups. Puritans in particular found the Protestant ways distasteful, and yearned for a more disciplined approach to religious observation. The Pilgrims were just one group of separatists from Lincolnshire who sought a more structured approach.

In a time when the Church of England was compulsory, they became outlaws in their own country: some were sent to jail, some were whipped and some branded. Eventually the group, led by Reverends Brewster and Clifton , escaped the persecution by moving to Holland. They spent 12 years living there but, in 1617, the Dutch economy and concerns about their future in Holland led the group to vote to move on.

America was the destination they chose. Since its discovery, the 'New World' was seen as a land of hope. The Pilgrims applied to the Virginia Company for some land and plotted their departure. They bought a boat called the Speedwell, which carried them to England ready for their voyage.

The First Departure

In 1620, the Speedwell and the Mayflower set off from Southampton for the New World . Unfortunately the Speedwell ran into trouble and both ships were forced to dock at Dartmouth . They set off again quickly, but the Speedwell continued to struggle. A decision was made to head back to Plymouth , where the Speedwell was declared unfit to sail.

The Mayflower

In September 1620, the Mayflower prepared to sail. 100 passengers, including the Pilgrims, stepped on-board from the now-famous Mayflower Steps in Plymouth Harbour .

But the 90-foot Mayflower would have been far from comfortable. Crowded with extra passengers, it was rife with illness and tension. On a diet of biscuits and water, many passengers suffered with scurvy and many died, including several of the Pilgrims and the leader's wife - who drowned in the sea with American shores within sight.

Building a new Community

After 66 days, the Mayflower docked in Virginia . The Pilgrims had reached their new home.

Although there was some dissent amongst the little community, the settlers soon realised that they needed to set out some rules to live by. They drafted the Mayflower Compact, and John Carver became the group's leader. This set out their agreement to form a 'Civil Body Politick', respecting one another and developing laws to live by.

Stories were spreading about the massacre of a Virginian colony, and the settlers were undoubtedly nervous in their new surroundings. They struggled to build homes and erected log barriers around the village. A group of the Pilgrims unwittingly interfered with some ancestral graves, and were attacked by the American natives. Upon the sight of their guns, however, the natives left the Pilgrims alone.

The settlers had yet more trouble ahead: the harsh climate and difficult winter led to many deaths. Without established crops, the settlers would have been extremely hungry if it hadn't been for a number of American Indians who taught the Pilgrims the skills of hunting, woodcraft, trapping animals and growing crops. The Indians and Pilgrims established a peace treaty which was never broken.

By the following autumn, the Pilgrims were harvesting their first crops and celebrated with a feast - now known as Thanksgiving. They invited their native American friends and enjoyed goose, duck, bread and wine. 150 years later, the US President declared a national holiday in their honour.

Puritan families in England began to sail out and join the legendary settlement. By 1636, under new leader William Bradford, the Plymouth colony had drawn up extensive guidelines for crimes and their punishments. Only 5 crimes were punishable by death: wilful murder, arson (burning ships or homes), sex offences (sodomy, rape and buggery), adultery, and forming a contract with the devil. Other crimes, such as sex outside marriage, cursing God, failing to attend church, and lying in public, incurred fines or prison time. By 1643, the population was estimated to have been in excess of 15,000.

Plimoth in America

You can visit a replica version of the Pilgrims' village in Plimoth, Massachusetts. Thatched huts, cow huts, an oven and even a place of worship have been built to commemorate the Pilgrim Fathers. But a lot differentiates Plimoth from its namesake! Across in New England, you can watch whales, pick cranberries, and enjoy many activities that the Pilgrims would first have discovered centuries ago.

Why 'Plimoth'? Although spelling rules were vague in the 17 th century - and words were usually spelt however the writer saw fit - 'Plimoth' was the form commonly used by Pilgrim leader William Bradford. It is thought he spelled it this way in order to distinguish it from the English city.

More information about Plimoth and Thanksgiving in Plymouth :

Sir Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada

The Spanish ships may have been looming on the horizon, but the unstoppable Sir Francis Drake stood on Plymouth Hoe and calmly finished his game of bowls. As the game came to an end (and he probably won), he dusted off his hands, and left to prepare for battle.

Francis Drake's legacy is legendary. One of Elizabeth I's 'sea-dogs', he plundered, pillaged and traded slaves, and became the very first Englishman to sail around the world - not intentionally, but to avoid sailing again past enemies. His ruthlessness as a captain was unmatched.

When the wealthy Drake returned to England loaded with treasure, he bought Buckland Abbey near Plymouth, and enjoyed a brief retirement before the Spanish Armada brought him back into service in 1588. Defending the English against the Spanish was perhaps his greatest achievement.

Sir Francis Drake: getting a taste for the sea

Born in Plymouth , Francis Drake was destined for a life on the ocean from the very beginning. His father was a chaplain in a naval shipyard and apprenticed his young son at the tender age of 17.

At the age of 23, Drake began sailing with his cousin John Hawkins, a famous and distinguished sailor. Hawkins was involved with the international slave trade, making his fortune from buying and selling African slaves.

In 1567, Drake became captain of one of Hawkins' ships on a 6-ship expedition; but it was far from an easy voyage. The Spanish, who were put out to see English ships sailing in the Pacific, attacked the expedition at a Mexican port. Drake's and Hawkins' ships were the only to emerge from the battle. His lifelong war with the Spaniards had begun.

For the next decade Drake continued to sail, plundering towns and capturing ships to take their loot. He took his two brothers on a trip in the 1570s, visiting Cuba and capturing a town called Nombre de Dios. The ships encountered some hostility but continued around the coastline, looting Spanish ships. Drake had plans to capture the 'Golden Train', which travelled from Panama across the Isthmus. His first brother left the party to guard Port Plenty, where the men had stored some of their loot. After a while news came to Drake that his brother had been killed by the Spanish; and not long afterwards, the Spanish arrived and during battle killed Drake's second brother.

Drake's personal war against the Spanish was now well and truly underway.

Sir Francis Drake: sailing round the world

In 1577 Drake set sail on a voyage supported by Queen Elizabeth I. His official mission was to investigate the trade routes in the Pacific Ocean. The Spanish and Portuguese had monopolised the Pacific trade, and Queen Elizabeth wanted a share. Drake's plundering was by now well-renowned, and it is understood that he brought back a share of treasure for his Queen.

However dubious his motives, the journey was a landmark one. Drake took the Pelican and four additional ships, two of which were simply carrying supplies. The expedition soon encountered two Portuguese ships, and promptly captured one to add to their fleet.

Thomas Doughty, a friend of Drake's, was given command of the Portuguese ship, but as they continued their journey he coaxed and convinced his crew into mutiny. Hearing of this, no doubt from a loyal crew member, Drake stopped the expedition on the West coast of South America and held a military court-martial to convict and execute Doughty.

Drake renamed his ship The Golden Hind, and the expedition continued along the south coast, capturing ships and commanding their cargoes. Drake heard tell of a Spanish Galleon that was heading towards Panama, and carrying vast riches. He and his crew lay in wait, took the ship and spent the next four days carrying treasure from its hold to the Golden Hind.

By now Drake's ship was so loaded with treasure that he decided to head home. Wishing to avoid the Spaniards, he led the ships onwards, passing San Francisco, and around Cape Hope in Africa , reaching Plymouth in 1580. He thus became the first Englishman to sail around the world. Elizabeth was delighted, with his journey, his stories and the wealth he had brought back to his country. She knighted him in 1581.

Sir Francis Drake: defeating the Spanish

In 1586, King Phillip II of France determined to invade England . Angered by the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and the damage wrought on Spanish trade ships, he created the Spanish 'armada'. This was a fleet of 150 ships, which Phillip declared invincible.

Elizabeth, upon learning of his plans, despatched Drake with a fleet of 25 ships. They headed for the Spanish port of Cadiz , and managed to sink about 30 Spanish ships. But the King was even more set in his plan.

His Armada had been a long time coming, and the English had become to wonder whether it would ever appear in their sights. June and July of 1588 saw English ships sail out, ready to intercept the Spaniards, but simply return empty-handed. When the Armada finally appeared in late July, Drake and the English ships were undoubtedly surprised. The legend that says Drake calmly continued his game of bowls reflects the English attitude towards the Spanish late-comers.

Their confidence was perhaps dented when the fleet did appear - 150 ships were sailing in a crescent formation, which would be very difficult for the English to penetrate.

Drake led the English fleet from Plymouth . The Spanish ships were large and difficult to manoeuvre, so the English had an advantage and quickly escaped. When the Spaniards took the unexpected decision to dock at Calais, the English attacked. The Armada lost 4 ships and became dispersed in the North Sea. Their commander, DUKe Medina, decided to lead the fleet home, but the rocky coastline and bad weather North of Scotland destroyed many of its ships. By the time the Armada reached Spain, there were only 65 ships remaining.

1589 onwards saw attempts to attack from both sides: the English landed in Spain on a couple of occasions without having much effect, and King Philip sent a smaller fleet that year which was blown into the South Sea. Ultimately, the Anglo-Spaniard battle was never to amount to anything: in 1604 James I made peace with England .

Read more about Drake and the Armada:

  • Sir Francis Drake
  • Sir Francis Drake Playing Bowls as the Spanish Armarda Approaches
  • The Pilgrim Monument in Cape Cod, Massachusetts marks where the Mayflower landed
  • Mayflower Replica
  • Portrait of Sir Francis Drake
  • Spanish Armarda Replica Ship
  • The Mayflower Steps

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