The role of the London Guilds in the Mayflower Story

The London Guilds played a pivotal role in the Mayflower story and the emergence of England as a great trading nation. Whilst the Guilds themselves did not fund the Mayflower voyage their members did.

One of the Mayflower sponsors was really committed to the project as he was a passenger onboard the ship with his family and a servant. William Mullins was a wealthy cordwainer (shoemaker) from Dorking in Surrey. In 1617 he sold his business and invested in the venture and also paid for passage to the New World for himself and his family. As a businessman he also took a large stock of footwear. Sadly, history does not record if he planned to just sell to only his fellow settlers or the Native Americans. He boarded the ship in London so was called a ‘Stranger’ by the Leiden Pilgrims who came over on the Speedwell to meet up with the Mayflower in Southampton.

Sadly, William, his wife, son and servant all died that first winter like many others. By the time the Fortune arrived in America in November 1621 only his daughter Pricilla was still living. She later married fellow Mayflower passenger John Alden and together they had 10 children. John Alden died in 1687. Pricilla had died a few years before him however the exact date is unknown. When they died they had 70 grandchildren.

The financing of the Colony did not end with the voyage but continued for many years afterwards. In 1626 a group of the settlers – including John Alden and John Howland – and 4 wealthy English merchants took over the debt from the original investors. In 1627 trade with the Indians for beaver fur meant levels of income improved for the settlers but it was not until the early 1640s that the debt was fully settled.

Whilst making the Mayflower 400 DVD we had the opportunity to visit one of the oldest Guilds in London – the Drapers Guild or to give its full title – The Master and Wardens and Brethren and Sisters of the Guild or Fraternity of the Blessed Mary the Virgin of the Mystery of Drapers. Founded in 1361 its members were wool and cloth merchants.

We were able to examine a number of books from their archives and see the apprenticeship record of Humphry Howland, elder brother of Mayflower passenger John Howland. Over the years Humphry also took on a number of apprentices including some of his brothers.