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Welcome to Episode #170 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

William Bradford is most well known today as the man who served as the second governor of Plymouth Colony, leaving Europe for Virginia in 1620 aboard the Mayflower. Prior to this infamous voyage, Bradford was an Englishman whose life overlapped that of William Shakespeare, having been born in Yorkshire, England, when Shakespeare was 26 years old. There’s no evidence to suggest Shakespeare knew Bradford personally, but the life of William Bradford shines a light on a huge aspect of Shakespeare’s life: the presence and subsequent response to religious extremism in England. Queen Elizabeth restored Protestantism to England in 1559, along with requirements that everyone attend Protestant Church services. Many religious groups refused, moving to underground church services that were decidedly illegal in England. One of the people who attended such services was a young William Bradford. Relations with religious groups in England remained a tense tight wire act across two monarchs of Shakespeare’s life, a situation we can see reflected in Shakespeare’s Puritan character named Malvolio in Twelfth Night. The character is publicly humiliated while simultaneously painted as someone with whom we can sympathize. The duality of the character itself is a powerful reflection of the sentiments of England at the start of the 17th century. Efforts like the publication of the King James Bible in 1611 attempted to find a common ground with the Puritans, but peace could not be found, with arrests of religious dissenters increasing under James I and leading ultimately to religious groups, like Bradford and the Pilgrims, leaving England entirely in the early 1600s.

Here today to help us explore the life of William Bradford, explain the distinction between Puritans and Pilgrims, as well as the reality of religious extremists like the Anabaptists and Scottish Presbyterians, going on in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime is our guests, and direct descendants of William Bradford himself, David and Aaron Bradford.

Join the conversation below.

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David is a 13th generation direct descendant of Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford and a life member with the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the State of Delaware where he currently serves as Governor. Since 2013 in conjunction with American Liberty Tours of West Chester, PA, David has been portraying William Bradford and sharing Bradford’s account of Pilgrim history with senior centers, schools, and historical societies in DE and PA. 

For the past 25 years, Aaron shared a love for history from the Era of Jamestown through the American Civil War at historic sites, educational venues, and in historical films. He is a Certified Interpretive Guide with the National Association of Interpretation, Interpretive Supervisor with Coastal Heritage Society, interpretive ranger at Colonial Wormsloe, and offers engaging tours and educational programs as Liberty Encounters in Savannah, Georgia, and beyond.

Beginning in 1990, David was founder of a quality management and behavior-based safety training and consulting firm before becoming the Quality & Safety Manager for the prime contractor at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Over the years David has held leadership positions with various Quality, Safety, Home School and Historical organizations and for over 25 years has served as an Elder in the Bible Fellowship Church of Newark.


Aaron discovered a passion for history as a young child when he learned that he is a direct 14th generation descendant of Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford.  For the past 25 years, Aaron shared a love for history from the Era of Jamestown through the American Civil War at historic sites, educational venues, and in historical films.  After earning a B.A. in History Education from the University of Delaware, Aaron served as an educator and historical interpreter at Pamplin Historical Park near Petersburg, Virginia.  He served as the Education Chair and is the Social Media Assistant for the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the State of Delaware.  He is a Certified Interpretive Guide with the National Association of Interpretation, Interpretive Supervisor with Coastal Heritage Society, interpretive ranger at Colonial Wormsloe, and offers engaging tours and educational programs as Liberty Encounters in Savannah, Georgia, and beyond.

David and Aaron Bradford are a father and son team. They are 13th and 14th generation descendants respectively of the Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford. They are the historians behind the forthcoming 1620 Experience.


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In this episode, I’ll be asking David & Aaron Bradford about :

  • What was the religion of the Separatists and why did they feel like 16th century Protestant England was not a welcome home for them, when so many of the world’s Protestants were flocking there specifically in this time period?
  • We have mentioned Presbyterians, Anabaptists, Puritans, Pilgrims, Separatists and Non-Separatists. These are a lot of religious terms flying around that seem to have very fine delineations. Were all of these groups considered radical extremists by England’s standards during Shakespeare’s lifetime?

  • Aaron, on the poster for the 1620 Experience you’re wearing an outfit that looks like what we think of as a “Pilgrim” today, but were Pilgrims identifiable on the streets of early 17th century London by the way they dressed?
  • … and more!

The video version of today’s show is now available free on YouTube and streaming inside the Members Video Library. See David & Aaron in full Pilgrim costume, straight from the set of 1620 Experience, along with Aaron’s authentic 17th century sword named Victory and other history tidbits!
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If men could be contented to
be what they are, there were no fear in marriage;
for young Charbon the Puritan and old Poysam the
Papist, howsome’er their hearts are severed in
religion, their heads are both one


Alls Well That Ends Well (I.3)

Conjectural drawing of William Bradford, 1904, by A.S. Burbank of Plymouth, Public Domain. Original Source

William Bradford Was a Puritan

Between the 17th century and today the concept of a “Puritan” has had many meanings. This discrepancy among definitions owes it’s status of confusion to the fact that the original 17th century Puritans were fractured in their beliefs as well. As a group, they were known for being extremely honest and highly religious. Some puritans were known for supporting the government and taking an inside-out approach of reforming the Church of England from within (these are the groups who met with James I after his cornonation to try and submit complaints to the King that eventually lead to the approval of the King James Bible). Then there were other groups, considered religious radicals, who wanted to separate from the government entirely because they couldn’t abide the decisions being made within the Church of England, believing them to be polluted by Catholic doctrine and not “purely” Protestant (hence the name Puritans). The actual term “Puritan” and “pilgrim” weren’t used to describe these Separatists during the 17th century except as terms of derision; a slang term, if you will. 

This slang term meant to apply to anyone who was highly religious or known for being honest in an effort to be holy, were called “puritans.” This term, and its’ 17th century meaning, show up several times in Shakespeare’s plays. 

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Sir Toby Belch

Twelfth Night (II.3)

A Tyndale Bible, displayed at the Bodleian Library in June 2014. Photo by Steve Bennett (stevage). CCASA3.0 Original Source

William Bradford was persecuted for his faith

As a boy of just 12 years old, William Bradford attended (against the wishes of his guardians) underground Puritan church services, which were illegal under English law of James I. If you were caught worshiping in any way not agreeing with the Church of England, or indeed if you did not attend Church services of the Church of England on Sundays, you could fined or imprisoned. The Puritans, as a group, sought reconciliation under the government but were finding it impossible. There was no interest in compromise or allowances from the government, who had a history of being overthrown and attacked by members of other religions. The Elizabethan paranoia of anyone not adhering to the Church of England strictly carried over into the reign of James I.

Everyone…was looking forward to their being a more hopsitable environment, but the church was still very much acopy of the roman catholic church, all the hierarchy, doctrine, and policies, very oppressive, and dictated to you how you needed to worship–the pilgrims were all about –when they began reading scripture for themselves, a lot of what they were being =told by the church didn’t match up with the scripture they were reading for themselves. Depravity of man, Christ’s atonement was sufficient, simplicity of the new testament church and all the trappings, corruption and everything, they could no longer book it [as they would have said in the 17th century], they couldn’t put up with it anymore. The persecutions were not minor.

Many of Bradford’s compatriots that were on the Mayflower in 1620 were men who had suffered at the hands of the government for not towing the government’s line for what was acceptable to believe.

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Marry, sir, sometimes he is a kind of puritan.

Twelfth Night (II.3)

Pilgrim exiles, Plymouth, Massachussets, between circa 1930 and circa 1945 Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection #76419 | Pub. by Smith’s Inc., Plymouth, Mass. Tichnor Bros. Inc., Boston, Mass. | Public Domain | Source

Pilgrims Tried to Blend In

After Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1588, at least 800 Puritans returned to England joyously as they had fled under the reign of Mary Tudor who had mass murdered anyone who was Protestant. The hope for Puritans was to be able to live in England peacefully.

After bloody mary’s reign, you did have a big return of Protestants to England. Things were incredibly dynamic in the life of Shakespeare, how much hope there was and how much pushing there was, but how much the pendulum would swing, the amount of fear and apprehension in England, by King James, with the Spanish Armade (Catholic Spain was seekgn to conquer england adn return it to catholicism) Gunpowder plot, Catholics trying to blow up the country. 

Though Bradford wrote, “They (the Pilgrims) knew they were Pilgrims, so they committed themselves to the will of God and resolved to proceed,” this expression comes from the biblical understanding that Christians are passing through this life and that our final home is in Heaven.  The contemporary terms were Puritans, Separatists, and Reformers.  Bradford was considered a Puritan, consider the inscription on Governor Bradford’s headstone at Burial Hill in Plymouth, Massachussetts, reads:

 “Under this stone rests the ashes of William Bradford, a zealous Puritan, and sincere Christian Governor of Plymouth Colony from 1621 to 1657, aged 69, except 5 years, which he declined.  [Hebrew phrase] “Let the right hand of the Lord awake.” [Latin phrase]  “What our fathers with so much difficulty attained do no basely relinquish.”  He was also considered a Reformer and a Separatist!

While today many dress up in wide brimmed hats featuring buckles on our shoes and hats, these attributes were typical of the dress in 17th century England more than unique to the Puritans. There dress would have made them highly identifiable as English when they arrived in the New World, but in England they would have blended in.

If anything, the Pilgrims sought to blend in. Beaver hats were very fashionable.

In fact, beaver hats were so popular in England that capturing beavers in North America to trade back in England was one way the new colonies funded their budding communities.

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I’ll send you this diagram of The Globe Theater to welcome you.

In cypress chests my arras counterpoints,
Costly apparel, tents, and canopies,
Fine linen, Turkey cushions boss’d with pearl,


Taming of the Shrew (II.1)

Plaque in memory of the Pilgrim Fathers or Pilgrims, located on a facade of the Pieterskerk in Leiden. Photo taken by Enrique Boira Freire (user Enboifre), on July 19, 2006. CC-BY-ASA-2.5. Source 

Puritans were arrested for not attending church

In 1607, William Brewster, one of the Mayflower passengers along with William Bradford, was arrested, being found guilty of being “disobedient in matters of religion.” David and Aaron explain this was not a drastic measure, but instead considered quite common behavior in England: 

It was not uncommon to be fined for not following the dictates of the church. The distinct about the pilgrim congregation, scrooby that became the liden congregation, they had a personal relationship with the Bible, they were professors, the called themselves Professors, because they were professing the word of God, learn from this person. Tolerance, distinctive from the Pilgrims in New England (Puritans seem to be authoritative) the Pilgims were looking for God to reveal himself. 

They’d have somebody pray, sing a song, and have someone preach on a topic, and people would the talk aon it. Prophesying, to share what the Holy Spirit is teaching you–discussing it, services took all day long. New light, listening to other faiths, they weren’t saying “if you do’nt believe everything I do then we will disown you.” this approach was misunderstood and rejected by culture in England. They believed GOd could work through all people, didn’t have to be a trained theologian, or anything special. They weren’t free to worship or practice on the terms they decided for themselves. Bradford was admonished as a child for wanting to participate in the Puritan church. 


Books and Resources David and Aaron Bradford Recommend

With historical books, some are available on Amazon and others are harder to find. Where available, I am including the amazon link. When those prices are exorbitant I tried to find you a cheaper alternative available in digital format online and linked those as a sub-note to the book provided here. Most of the titles on this list are in the $8-20 range. You can copy/paste the author’s name and title to do independent research on these suggestions. They are all great titles!

Baker, James. Made in America; The Pilgrim Story and How it Grew

Bangs, Jeremy Dupertuis. Strangers and Pilgrims Travellers and Sojourners; Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation

(I’ve linked to this one on amazon, but it is a $500 book on amazon.  Try to get it at a local library or even a digital copy online. I found this version at Cambridge Library, which you can ask for through interlibrary loan at your local branch.)

Bangs, Jeremy Dupertuis. New Light on the Old Colony; Plymouth, the Dutch Context of Toleration, and Patterns of Pilgrim Commemoration

(I’ve linked to this one on amazon, but it is very expensive. Try to get it at a local library or even a digital copy online. Found a few pages on Google Books)

Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647

Bradford, William and Winslow, Edward. Mourt’s Relation

Bremer, Francis J. One Small Candle; The Plymouth Puritans and the Beginning of English New England

Bunker, Nick. Making Haste from Babylon; The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World – A New History

Gragg, Rod. The Pilgrim Chronicles; An Eyewitness History of the Pilgrims and the Founding of Plymouth Colony

Jehle, Paul. Journey of Faith; Why the Pilgrims Came

Johnson, Caleb H. The Mayflower and Her Passengers

Johnson, Caleb H. http://mayflowerhistory.com/

Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower

Turner, John G. They Knew They Were Pilgrims; Plymouth Colony and the contest for American Liberty

Winslow, Edward. Good News from New England

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