In 2020 and 2021 the Anglo-American world marked the 400th anniversary of the trans-Atlantic Mayflower voyage. A range of celebratory activities were planned through the Mayflower400 network, from parades and festivals to musical performances and re-enactments – though many were disrupted or cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Intensive and focused interest in the story of the Mayflower was not a new phenomenon. In the United States, of course, the settling of New England by the Pilgrims is the bedrock of the nation’s ‘origin story’. But the tale of the Mayflower voyage has also captured the British imagination. There were periods of notable interest in the mid- and then late-19th century; during and following the First and Second World War; and for the last large anniversary in 1970. At both a local and national level, the Pilgrims’ journey across the Atlantic Ocean, and their escape from religious persecution, has proved to have an enduring legacy for individuals, institutions, and communities. A wide and rich range of novels, plays, films, alongside memorials, statues, and curated historical buildings, are testament to the cultural, political and religious significance of the Mayflower.
Drawing on an intensive analysis of these visual, textual, and physical materials, this Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project was the first to provide an authoritative and critical analysis of the powerful draw of the Mayflower story in British culture. Acknowledging that the meaning of the Mayflower voyage has altered substantially to suit specific agendas at different points in history, it provided a timely lens through which to view the contemporary vogue for historical commemoration. A critical view, across a long chronological range and through a broad thematic scope, gave insights into the relationship between historical culture and religion, Anglo-American cultural diplomacy, and local tourism and place-making. Our publications situate the changing meaning of the Mayflower in the larger context of the place of the past in British society.
Connecting our research with local communities, we supported and informed both local and national Mayflower 2020 celebrations and projects. Workshops, podcasts and public talks – mostly online because of the pandemic – encouraged us all to reflect on the historical re-telling of the Mayflower story. Our website gave historical context to the contemporary interaction with the Mayflower story. It includes many written features, and an interactive map hosts visual and written content from across the many sites of Mayflower culture in Britain.