The Norwich Strangers: 16th century refugees

This is World Refugee Week and so I am going to write about some refugees who came to Norwich (and elsewhere) in the 16th & 17th centuries from the Netherlands, fleeing persecution.

Norwich Castle

Norwich Castle

Norwich has always been multi-cultural. In the early mediaeval period, for example, it had a large French quarter, known as the “French Borough.” Following the Norman invasion, the new rulers had tried successive measures to quell the local populace, including building the hugely dominant castle – it looms over the city centre now and must have been an extremely strong symbol of power when it was first built in the late 11th century. Even so, the Normans still had problems suppressing the locals and so they decided to bring in an influx of French settlers (a policy that was similar, albeit on a smaller scale, to the plantation of Ulster in Ireland at a later date). The French Borough was situated where the Forum is now and, up to the 13th century, when its prosperity declined, it was one of the wealthiest parts of the city.

 The arrival of the “Strangers” from the Low Countries (roughly Holland and Belgium) in the 16th century was the result of the persecution of Dutch Calvinists by the Catholic Spanish rulers of that region of Europe. The Duke of Alva ruthlessly pursued them as heretics and many of them were raped, murdered or burnt at the stake. There were two main reasons why these refugees were broadly welcomed: under Elizabeth I, England was a Protestant country and it had not long been the case that Mary I had persecuted “heretics” in a similar manner. There are several monuments to this in East Anglia, for example at Bury St Edmunds.

Memorial to Protestant martyrs in Bury St. Edmunds

The Martyrs' Memorial, Bury St. Edmunds

 The second reason was that, with their skills in weaving, the new immigrants were of immense economic value. The asylum seekers had first settled in Sandwich, Kent, in 1565, and the City of Norwich elders invited them to the city because of their renowned skills in textile weaving. Much of the prosperity of Norfolk after this period can be traced to this influx of refugees.

 The arrival of the Strangers was described by W. Moens in his book The Walloons & their Church at Norwich (1888):

 Invited by the Duke of Norfolk and the Corporation of Norwich, the strangers on obtaining letters patent from the Crown, came to Norwich in 1665 from Sandwich, where they first settled, and soon increasing in numbers restored to the city, by the manufacture of their various fabrics, that prosperity which had been lost by the ravages caused by the mortality from the black death at the close of the 14th century.

 In 1566 an accord was made by the Duchess of Parma with those of the reformed religion in the Netherlands, who, on attaching their signatures to the terms before the magistrates of the various towns, were allowed to attend the Services of their own ministers. Many returned from England to the Low Countries on this concession, but in the following year faith was broken with them, and the unscrupulous severity of the Duke of Alva’s rule caused a flight of all who could escape the vigilance of the authorities. … The details of the conditions under which foreigners were formerly allowed to settle in this country and to follow their trades are interesting and very different from the custom of the present day, when they are on the same footing as natives, but from their frugal habits are able to (and do) work at rates, which in many eases bring misery and ruin to whole districts…. The old custom of hostage, revived by the grant of 1576 to William Tipper, compelled to reside with appointed hosts who received payment for their entertainment and who supervised and received a percentage on their purchases and sales. The Corporation of Norwich purchased this right in 1578 for the sum of £70 13s. 4d., but did not exercise it against the strangers. The strangers paid double subsidies or taxes on the value of their personal property; they paid their own ministers, by whom they had to be furnished with a voucher before permission to reside in the city was granted to them, all their names being registered; they had to pay all the expenses of their churches and the entire support of their poor besides twenty pence in the pound on their rentals, towards the pay of the parish clergy. … As in the present time in London, where the old jealousy against foreigners seems to be reviving, there was always a party in the Corporation of Norwich opposed to the strangers, but the manifest benefits derived by the city from their manufactures and trade always induced a large majority of the Council to watch over and protect them.

 The strangers at Norwich from the first were placed under a strict and special rule; a book of orders was drawn up by the Corporation and settled by a committee of the Privy Council, From time to time these articles were varied, but it was not long before they were allowed in a measure to fall into abeyance, on account of the prosperity brought to the city by the successful trade of the strangers.

 Norwich was not free from xenophobia. As early as 1144, the death of a boy had led to accusations made towards local Jews of ritual murder and sparked anti-Semitic rioting. Despite the undoubted benefits that immigration had brought to the city – many of its finest buildings, for example – there was still some resentment. In 1567 the mayor of Norwich, Thomas Whall, made inflammatory statements, which sound all too familiar today, that the Walloons had “sucked the living away from the English” and greater restrictions were placed upon them. Interestingly, though, when the 16th century equivalent of the BNP tried to foment attacks on the refugees in 1570, it was the ring-leaders of the anti-Stranger faction who were executed.

 In 1578, Queen Elizabeth I made a state visit to Norwich, which appears to have been a specific attempt to demonstrate her support for the Strangers. The Dutch community presented her with a pageant and a silver-gilt cup worth £50. Although there were further difficulties and conflicts between their community and the established population of Norwich, it was probably the beginning of their assimilation and, as with most influxes of immigrants and refugees, they gradually disappeared as a separate entity. In 1633-4, the Norwich rate book listed many names which were probably Dutch or Flemish in origin, such as Vanrockenham, Vartingoose, Verbeake, Vertegans, Vinke, Dehem, Dehage. By 1830, the Norwich poll book includes very few: possibly only Adrian Decleve (goldsmith) and  John De Vear (draper).

 To this day, the people of Norfolk have profited from the labour of migrants and, even fairly recently, there have been nasty incidents such as the attacks on Portuguese people in Thetford following England’s defeat by Portugal in the 2004 European football tournament. Other foreign workers have been exploited and abused by gangmasters. Overall, however, the story of the Strangers in Norwich was a very successful one and indeed there are many historical examples of refugees, not only helping the economy but also of adding to the cultural variety and vibrancy of the communities in which they settled.

The Dutch Church, formerly AUstin Friars in Norwich

Austin Friars, which became the Dutch Church in Norwich


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