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.
Ever 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.
So 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:
The 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:
Despite 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.
From 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.
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 the 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.
The 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”.
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”!
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.