Elizabethan ‘Strangers’ of Norwich

This is not a new story – just a resume of what has been written many times before. In other words – the Strangers of Norwich are well documented.

A Solution to a Problem:

Strong trading links had existed between Norwich and the Low Countries before the 16th century, evident from very early Wills of Dutch and Flemish people already settled here. But, it was in the 16th Century that immigrants in the Low Countries were officially encouraged to move to the City.

Strangers1cEver since the Middle Ages, Norwich had been at the centre of an extensive textile inductry in woollens and worsted. By the 16th Century, however, this industry was in crisis, with competition coming from cheaper and better quality merchandise from Flanders – a region in the south west of the Low Countries now split between Belgium, France and the Netherlands. It was the skilled immigrants from these Countries which could provide a solution to the economic crisis here. At a time when skills were handed down through apprenticeships, the Strangers could teach local workers to produce new types of cloth, giving fresh impetus to Norwich’s flagging inductry.

Strangers3hSo it was that in 1565, the City authorities sent a representative to Queen Elizabeth I, asking for permission for immigrant workers to settle in Norwich. Later that year, the Queen responded by issuing a royal “Letters Patent”, allowing “thirtye duchemen” and their households – totalling no more that 300 people – to settle within Norwich’s city walls. Twenty-four of the householders admitted were Dutch and six were Walloons – the latter a Romance ethnic people native to Belgium, principally its southern region of Wallonia, who spoke French and Walloon. Walloons remain a distinctive ethnic community within Belgium.

 The Strangers also had their own pressing motives for emigranting. The anti-Protestant policies of their Habsburg ruler, Philip II of Spain, together with economic hardship and war, forced many people to leave the Low Countries. Between 50,000 and 300,000 refugees sought religious freedom elsewhere, many of whom came to Protestant England, settling in towns like London, Southampton, as well as Norwich.

Victims of Success:

Strangers4fThe Stranger community grew rapidly from the original 30 households. By 1620, there were around 4,000 Dutch and Walloons living in Norwich, comprising a quarter of the city’s population. They had an impact on all aspects of Norwich life. They rejuvenated the local economy, and by the end of the 16th Century the city was prospering again. English textile apprentices learnt new skills and techniques; the ” New Draperies” produced proved lucrative exports to Europe and the East. By 1600, Norwich weavers were even facing a shortage of yarn and labour. On the whole, the Strangers integrated well with the local community. With no restrictions on their residency, they were not deliberately “ghettoised”. They rebuilt the whole area north of the River Wensum that had been devastated by a great fire in 1507, leaving their mark on the city’s landscape.

Over the years, strong personal links were forged between the two communities: wealthy Strangers married into the Norwich elite, they sent their children to the local grammar school and they formed business partnerships with local merchants. But, the Dutch and Walloons did not lose their own identity and culture. The Stranger churches were important as centres of communication and social care, and immigrants continued to donate money to them, despite also having to support English parishes.

Dutch and Frence schools were established in the area, and strong links were maintained with their native countries, especially through trade. In the second generation, ties were strengthened as Stranger children returned to Holland to attend University.

Local Friction Nevertheless:

Strangers2dDespite general harmony, there were some teething troubles. When the immigrants first moved into the area, they were subject to detailed restrictions – from controls over what they were allowed to buy and sell, to an 8pm curfew intended to stop drunkeness and disorder. Frictions and disputes between the Strangers and indigenous locals sometimes erupted. Many Strangers refused to pass on their skills to English apprentices, arguing that they had enough of their own children to set to work. Locals were often upset when immigrants set up business in other trades, such as tailoring and shoe-making because this created unwanted competition.

Strangers (Solemne)aFrom this fragile start, relations gradually improved. A number of “politic men”, or arbiters, were appointed and they negotiated agreements between the authorities and the Strangers. Immigrants in Norwich were offered citizenship rights before those of any other town, and the corporation made full use of the Stranger skills and expertise. The Dutch printer,Anthony de Solempne, was employed to publish official orders and decrees. While in 1596, during a period of poor harvest, the authorities turned to a Stranger, Jacques de Hem, to help them secure provisions from Europe.

Official Reaction:

During the Elizabethan era, foreigners became more numerous on the Nation’s streets. The government’s response to this wavered between control and welcome. Restrictive policies were needed to minimise tensions between Stranger and local communities, but very different policies were necessary if the English economy was to benefit from the skills and technologies of immigrants. Influence by both religion and international politics, the Crown’s attitude towards foreigners was constantly shifting and this can be seen filtering down in the treatment of the Norwich Strangers. Initially, under Elizabeth

I, the Strangers were allowed to hold their services at Blackfiars’ Hall and St Mary theStrangers (Mat.Wren)a Less in relative freedom, but in the 1630’s they suffered under Archbishop Laud, who ordered them to attend only English services. Matthew Wren, Bishop of Norwich, was one of Laud’s committed followers, and frequently quarrelled with the Stranger community. He accused one congregation of Strangers of damaging the Bishop’s Chapel, where they held their meetings. But, above all, Wren worried that locals might start attending Stranger services and weaken the English church.

 Suspicions:

Strangers (William Bridge)1aThe Stranger’s reputation was not helped by evidence that radical religious books were being smuggled into Norwich from the Low Countries, or by the flow of English Puritans to Rotterdam in the 1630’s led by William Bridge, where they established a ‘Gathered Church’ – “A church which asserts the autonomy of the local congregation……its members believe in a covenant of loyalty and mutual edification, emphasising the importance of discerning God’s will whilst ‘gathered’ together in a Church meetins”.

Even if the Strangers were not involved in these activities, as religious separatists they still viewed with suspicion by the authorities. The government also feared that immigrant communities were a threat to public order and security by assisting foreign powers to invade. In 1571, the authorities searched Stranger’s homes for armour and weaponry,and in the unsettled years before the Civil War, it was feared they might be disloyal to the Crown. However, the relationship between the Norwich Strangers and the English was generally stable. Personal ties were formed through marriage and friendship. Some English even became godparents and guardians to Stranger children.

This was all part and parcel of Norwich’s renewed success as an important provincial centre, thanks mainly to its thriving textile industry, which had been given an extra impetus by the Strangers. In time, these immigrants were to become so well integrated into the local community that they were no longer “strangers”.


Footnote (1):

Today, there are a few obvious reminders of the Strangers of old. They did bring with them a love of canary breeding, which soon caught on with the locals. It was not long before there was a new breed of bird known as the “Norwich Canary”. Bizarrely maybe, this is their most visible legacy – for who doesn’t know in Norfolk that the Norwich football team is the “Canaries”!

Footnote (2):

Textile pattern photographs are copyright of Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service with textile pattern books held in the Bridewell Museum, Norwich. Photograph of Matthew Wren copyright of Mary Evans.

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Norwich Blue Plaques: A Passing Thought!

By Haydn Brown

Norwich Plaque (Blue)1I have a thing about Blue Plaques. For me each one is a pin prick which alerts me to interesting people, intriguing buildings and places, all of which would otherwise be buried in the past and in dusty tomes. I never past a new one without stopping and reading the inscription, else I fear I will miss some detail of importance otherwise.

I found out some time ago that the blue plaque idea was born in London and that the first plaque appeared there in 1866. Now known as the world famous ‘London Blue Plaques’ and administered by English Heritage. Someone once made the observation that the blue plaque scheme celebrates people who were associated with a city or place where they appear and whose original buildings survive. It is not only people and buildings that the Plaques celebrate, but also events and a whole lot more – that’s partly why I like them so much. For me, the interpretive mount creates a window, a portal, to the past and suspends a possible boring or anonymous visual impression, transporting me to another and more evocative place.

Norwich Plaque (Green)1The Plaques in Norwich aren’t a new invention either. In the past, the city used to have what could only be called a confusing array of media items and then in the 1970’s Norwich, supported by a donation from a local philanthropis, produced its own high impact initiative of 100 ‘standardised green Plaques’ covering various people, events and buildings. However, this turned out to be a one-off project that was not sustainable; the materials could not stand the test of time and most items ended up vandalised and were not replaced. Other initiatives also proved short lived. Since those early days, certainly from around 2006,  the current blue ones gradually began to appeared here and there, refreshing my walks around and through the city. Their quality was clearly superior to the old green ones, the content more relevant and better displayed. This appealed to me for everyone of them had a local distinctiveness.

Norwich Plaque (Blue)2I have ałso noticed over time that whoever is responsible has not jûst thrown the plaques up willy nilly, there seemed to be a plan! So, a little while ago I investigated and found that plaques are sited in ‘zonal’ areas, at present there are, I believe, five – The Norwich Lanes, The Cathedral Quarter, Ełm Hill, the Castle Quarter and Timberhill. I do hope more will follow, as and when funds are available of course. I want to be surprised and educated with nuggets of, what is to me, hitherto unknown information. So far, the plaques have reminded me of Sarah Glover and my early music training days, also introduced me to the fact that the celebrated actor Sir John Mills went to school in Norwich. Last but not least is The Orford Cellar, the once popular city centre pub  which featured local bands and local luminaries such as Jimi Hendri and Geno Washington in its heyday; a time when I simply passed by on my way from the shops and on to the bus station.

I’m sure I haven’t seen every plaque currently in situ – but I will given a little more time. Nevertheless, I’m someone who always wants more; so here’s to further blue plaque zones coming on stream in Norwich. Maybe – I wonder, Over the water or Riverside or King Street?

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Reglimpsing Norwich’s ‘Lollards Pit’

It does not take too much imagination to create a 15th or 16th century scene where the condemned are seen walking from their place of imprisonment in Norwich Castle or the City’s Guildhall jail, through the streets and past the Cathedral towards Bishopsbridge and the place of execution beyond. Unquestionably, the route taken would be thronged with the inquisitive, those who were sympathetic, others who were downright hostile and some who were simply curious but with no feelings one way or the other. The parade of unfortunates would eventually preceed over the ancient Bridge and into a chalk pit on the other side of the river Wensum. There the faggots would be piled high and ready; the Church would hand over the condemned to the secular authorities who, in turn, would set about burning them ‘at the stake’ for nothing other than for their religious beliefs. The name for these unfortunates were ‘Lollards’.

Just Who Were The Lollards?

Lollards Pit (John-Wycliffe)We cannot understand who the Lollards were without first looking at who John Wycliffe was. John Wycliffe was born sometime in the 1320’s and died in 1384; an English Christian theologian who became popular for translating the Bible into vernacular (common) English in 1382. During this time, the Bible was usually only available in Latin, the language used by the Church and the Upper Classes. Many regular men and women were therefore not able to read the Bible for themselves. Wycliffe want to change that and he did so by translating the Latin Bible (the Vulgate) into the people’s common language. As professor of theology at Oxford University, Wycliffe also challenged the Catholic Church on numerous points of doctrine. He felt that the Church was too institutionalised and had become corrupt. He promoted a personal type of Christianity – one that emphasised piety, humility and simplicity. He died of natual causes in 1384. After he had been dead for about 40 years, the Church declared him a heretic and his body dug up and burned.

Lollards Pit (John-Wycliffes-preachers-the-Lollards)
John Wycliffe preaching to Lollards

They were part of a movement that existed from the mid-14th century and up to the English Reformation, inspired, if not led, by John Wycliffe, a Roman Catholic theologian who was dismissed from the University of Oxford in 1381 for criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. The Lollards’ demands, in line with Wycliffe’s thinking, were primarily for the reform of Western Christianity and in this they had much in common with the Protestants who would follow more than a century later. Amongst the many beliefs held by the Lollards, was that the Catholic Church’s practices of baptism and confession were unnecessary for salvation. They also considered that praying to saints and honouring their images was a form of idolatry. Oaths, fasting, and prayers for the dead were thought to have no scriptural basis and they had a poor opinion of the trappings of the Catholic church, including holy bread, holy water, bells, organs, and church buildings.

Lollards Pit (John-Wycliffes-remains-exhumed-burned-poured-in-River-Swift)
John Wycliffe’s remains were later dug up and thrown into the river Swift – its source at Upper Bruntingthorpe, Leicestershire.

Definition of  the ‘Lollard’ Label

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name Lollard is most likely derived from Middle Dutch lollaerd (“mumbler, mutterer”) and from the verb lollen (“to mutter, mumble”). It appears to be a derisive expression applied to those without an academic background, educated (if at all) only in English, who were known to follow the teachings of John Wycliffe in particular; they were certainly considerably energised by his translation of the Bible into the English language. By the mid-15th century, “lollard” had come to mean a heretic in general. The lesser known use of the more neutral term “Wycliffite” was generally applied to those of similar opinions, but having an academic background.

Lollard Influence – and the Consequences!

Although the Lollard’s influence spread to Lincolnshire to the north and to both the midlands and Wales to the west, the greatest concentration was in the south and East Anglia with Norfolk as an influential hub. These were the heartlands of the large agricultural Estates within which were the bulk of the restlest peasantry – the working classes of the future industrialised England. They, inherently, voiced grievances and complained, not only about religious issues but life in general. It was therefore a short step for them to be labelled troublemakers by the authorities. By the late 14th Century, the unrestful peasants became embroilled in the Peasants Revolt, led by Wat Tyler (1381), As a result, Lollardism became associated with tradesmen, peasants, public disorder, licence and excess; these were excuses subsequently used to suppress the movement. Notebly, King Henry IV was persuaded by the Church to pass the 1401 Statute “De Heretics Comburendo” (The Necessity of Burning Heretics). This Act did not, specifically, ban the Lollards, but (a) probibited the translating or owning heretical versions of the Bible and (b) authorised death by burning for all heretics.

Lollards Pit (Influence Map)
Lollardy Influence:  Blue = Districts affected by Lollardy before the death of Richard III. Red = Districts to which Lollardy spread in the 15th Century.

By 1395, the Lollards had their own ministers and were winning popular support but were to be subjected to extreme measures of persecution. Throughout England they, increasingly, were hunted down, imprisoned, tortured and frequently burnt at the stake as heretics. Clearly, the religious and secular authorities were strongly opposed to the them and a primary early opponent was Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was ably assisted by none other than Henry le Despenser of Norwich of whom the Chronicler, Thomas Walsingham praised for his zeal! In 1410, John Badby, a layman and craftsman who refused to renounce his Lollardy was burnt at the stake; he was the first layman to suffer capital punishment in England for the crime of heresy. John Foxes Acts and Monuments, popularly known as Foxes Martyrs, tells many of their stories although with a strong anti-Catholic bias. Thus we also learn of William White, a priest from Kent who moved to Ludham to preach dissent, along with fellow Lollard’s Hugh Pye and John Waddon. White was executed in September, 1428; how bravely he met his fate is not known but it was reported that some people emptied the contents of their chamber pots over him as he walked along Bishopsgate.

Lollards Pit (Thos Bilney)1Persecution of heretics tailed away after that, until 1531 when the Reformation began disturbing things once more with the burnings of Cecily Ormes and Elizabeth Cooper, artisans wives, who’s utterances virtually condemned themselves to death. Then there was Thomas Bilney, a Norfolk man born near Dereham; he was a Cambridge academic and, like White before him, was convinced the Church had to be reformed. Arrested, and taken before Cardinal Wolsey, he recanted his beliefs; but, characteristic of some who recanted when initially faced with execution, he returned to preaching heresy in the streets and fields. Bishop Nix of Norwich had him rearrested and this time there was no mercy. Like all other heretics Bilney was typically tried and convicted by the Church but given to the agents of the State for execution.

Thomas Bilney on his Way to the Stake
Thomas Bilney being walked to the Stake at Lollards Pit, Norwich

On the morning of his execution, Bilney was unwavering from his fate. A crowd had gathered in the streets of Norwich as he walked resolutely to the fire. Some thought that the weak and frail man would probably recant again. But as the fagots were piled around him, Bilney raised himself to his full height and said in a firm voice, “Good people, I am come hither to die.” After reciting Psalm 143, he took off his outer garments and was bound to the stake. As the torch was applied to the wood, Bilney did not flinch. The flames burned high around his face, but a strong wind blew them away. Bilney stood firm as the pile was ignited a second and then a third time. The third time, the fire burned in full strength. Whatever pain the noble martyr felt was bearable, for Bilney held his head high as the flames rose in full intensity around him. He cried out one brief phrase in Latin, “Jesu, credo.” – “Jesus, I believe.” With that dying prayer of faith, Bilney sunk downward into the fire, and the flames consumed all that was mortal.

Lollards Pit (Thos Bilney Stake)2
Illustration depicting the burning of Thomas Bilney at Lollards Pit. Norwich.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
It is said that this memorial, erected by the Protestant Alliance, is to be found by the door of the Surrey Chapel, on the corner of Botolph Street and St Crispin’s in Norwich. This Plaque was replaced by the one (in the Footnote below) which was erected on the Riverside gardens by Bishops Bridge which is a short distance away from the supposed site of the Lollard’s pit.

Thereafter, there was a respite for about forty five years (1440 – 1485) as a consequence of the ‘War of the Roses’, but thereafter the attacks on the them entered another bloody phase. As for the reign of Henry VII (1485 – 1509), it had hardly got going before burnings began again in London, Canterbury and at the Pit at Norwich. Despite these renewed pressures, the Lollard movement struggled on into the 16th Century but were still being burnt at the stake during the reign of Henry VIII (1509 – 1547). In 1519, seven people were burnt in Coventry and within the next few years ther were six burnt in Kent and five in the Eastern Counties, including Norwich. The stern measures employed by both the Church and State effectively drove the Lollards underground.

 

71821781-2FD6-40A9-95CA-5D31142E7FE0The climax to burning at the stake came during the reign of Mary (1553-58). Up to 50 people died during this time, under the religious conservative Bishop Hopton. In 1557 pewterers wife Elizabeth Cooper and Simon Miller, of Kings Lynn, were executed. Cooper had interrupted a service at St Andrews to retract her earlier recantation of Protestantism. As the two went to Lollards Pit, Cecily Ormes, wife of a weaver from St Lawrences parish, declared her support for them. She would “pledge on the same cup that they drank on”, she shouted. The civil authorities, often loath to arrest heretics, had no choice; Ormes spent a year in prison sticking to her guns before being executed in September, 1558, shortly before the death of Queen Mary when the burnings ended.

Note: There used to be a local rumour that had Sir Thomas Erpingham listed as a Lollard, for which his ‘penance’ was to build the Erpingham gate, entrance to the Cathedral precinct in Norwich!

Lollards Pit (Erpingham Gate)
Erpingham Gate, Norwich

Why did Norwich choose the Pit site?

What was to become known as the ‘Lollard’s Pit’ had long been associated with the Church being, as it was at the time, held by the Bishop of Norwich. For generations Norwich’s citizens had used the area, along with the then vast expanse of Mousehold Heath beyond. It was somewhat of an industrial site with early chalk workings dug out there to provide foundations for the nearby Cathedral; hence the creation of a Pit in the first place. Also, its position was, conveniently, just outside the city walls and therefore a good place to dispose of those who had been cast out by the Church. Today all traces of that particular chalk pit where Lollard supporters were burned is long gone; the site is now occupied by the Lollards Pit public house and car park on Norwich’s busy Riverside Road.

The aftermath.

For many years after the exercutions ended the area surrounding Lollards Pit was shunned by local people, many of whom feared evil connotations. Later it became a tannery, where wherrymen used to load and unload cargo, also it was a convenient place to dump the City’s rubbish and later it was used as a camp for gipsies. In modern times, as the area became more developed, local children would play there, unbothered by the ghosts of the past.

Lollards Pit (Pub)
The Lollards Pit Public House, Norwich. Opposite Bishopsbridge over which convicted ‘heretics’ walked to be burned at the ‘Pit’.

Today the Lollards Pit (formerly the Bridge House) pub has a blue plaque fixed to its wall marking the site of the infamous pit. Inevitably, it is now sometimes claimed that eerie ghostly screams may be heard in the pub late at night. Claims also refer to terrified witnesses having seen ghostly black figures in the pub’s corridor and on one occasion, a shocking apparition of a woman engulfed in flames was claimed to have been seen before she quickly vanished into thin air; this suggests that spirits are not confined to the bottles on the other side of the bar!

Lollards Pit (Plaque)

One final point: On the other side of Riverside Road, on the riverbank, is another commemorative plaque which hails the executed as martyrs, naming up to a dozen who died so horribly in Lollards Pit centuries ago.

Lollards Pit (Plaque)3

FOOTNOTE:

No one is absolutely sure where the Lollard’s Pit was situated; Some argue it was under the site of the old Gasometer on Gas Hill, some say it lies beneath the back bar of the ‘Lollards Pit’ Public House, others put the case for it being below the site once occupied by Godfrey’s Store – or even underneath Chalk Hill House on Rosary Road. All close to one another.

Interestingly, With regard to Thomas Bilney; he did not consider himself to be a Protestant. “He was to the last perfectly orthodox on the power of the Pope, the sacrifice of the Mass, the doctrine of transubstantiation and the authority of the church.” Thomas Bilney did however preach, just as the Lollards did, against Saint and Relic veneration, disapproved of the practice of pilgrimage and did not believe in the mediation of the Saints. He may also have rejected the teachings of Martin Luther. So why did the ‘Protestant’ Alliance sponser the above memorial?

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