In 1565 the City authorities invited Protestant refugees from the Spanish Netherlands to settle in Norwich to boost the City's textile industry. 30 households of master weavers came over from Flanders, of which 24 were Flemish and 6 were French-speaking Walloons. Soon followed by many more, they became known as the Strangers, and at their peak accounted for over a third of the City's population.
The Strangers were eager to come to England to seek asylum. Neither their adherence to 'heretical' Calvinist doctrines nor their spirit of political independence could be tolerated by their Spanish overlords. From 1567, when the ruthless Duke of Alva was sent to suppress them, the numbers entering Norwich soared.
Unlike today's government, Elizabeth I and her advisors faced an entirely new situation. Never before had asylum seekers come in such numbers; never before had they been primarily, or allegedly, 'political' refugees. The Queen and the Privy Council worried not only about their sheer numbers, but also about their political reliability at a time of international tension, about the presence of dangerous fundamentalists (aka Anabaptists) in their ranks and about the danger of disorder sparked off by xenophobia in the local population. Foreshadowing current concerns about economic migrants, Sir William Cecil suspected that 'with so great a multitude', some were coming only 'upon pretence of fleing for persequcon for ye cause of religion'. Surveys were commissioned from the 1560s on to determine their numbers and motivation. In 1571 the Privy Council sent letters to 'sundry ports within the realme touching the daily excessive repaier of straingers' and even for a time hired a captain to control the flow of Thames traffic.
But in general the government came down on the side of welcoming them. Sympathy for persecuted fellow Protestants was one reason, but the most important consideration was less altruistic - their economic value.
Compared with its European neighbours, Elizabethan England was technologically backward and many of the Strangers had valuable skills particularly in the vital textile industry.
Despite his misgivings about non-political refugees, Sir William Cecil was the chief proponent of the economic argument within the administration, while the Archbishop of Canterbury weighed in by condemning what we might now call racist attitudes among those of the 'common sort' who 'term (the Strangers) no better than French dogs'. The upshot was a government policy judiciously mixing careful regulation with economic incentives.
Nowhere did the Strangers have a greater impact than in the city of Norwich where they eventually came to constitute nearly a third of the population in what was then the second city in the realm. The textile industry, Norwich's main source of wealth, had fallen on hard times thanks to disruption of foreign markets and failure to bring in new techniques. Unemployment, poverty and urban decay were rife. Responding to the central government's desire to disperse the refugees, hitherto mainly concentrated in London and Sandwich, the mayor Thomas Sotherton, realised that the Strangers might help by bringing in new expertise, new products (the so-called 'New Draperies') and a new spirit of enterprise which, in turn, would start and economic trickle-down effect.
In 1564 Sotherton accordingly approached the Duke of Norfolk who in turn obtained permission for 30 master weavers (24 Dutch and 6 Walloons) to settle in Norwich. Under the letters patent, granted by the Queen, they were to exercise 'the faculties of making bays, arras, sayes, tapestry, mockadoes, staments, carsay and such other outlandish commodities as hath not bene used to be made within this our Realme of England'.
The first arrivals may have benefited from a sixteenth century version of 'bed and breakfast' accommodation - Thomas Sotherton is known to have taken in Dutch tenants and the house where he lived is still known as 'Strangers' Hall'. But state hand-outs or social security would of course have been out of the question. On the contrary, the Strangers were required to pay various extra dues and taxes including extra customs duties and a poll tax according to their position. They in effect paid twice for the expenses for poor relief - once into the general pot and once through maintaining directly the poor in their own community.
The civic authorities both facilitated and highly regulated the Strangers' trade in order to ensure maximum benefit for the economy of the city and minimum competition for local artisans. A church was set aside for their cloth hall at a rent of £13 a year. Regulations, progressively modified and codified, stipulated such matters as the type of cloth which they were allowed to produce and the conditions under which they were allowed to buy and sell goods. But internal social regulation of the communities was left largely to their own leaders.
Meanwhile, as repression in the Low Countries had intensified, many more Strangers, mainly from the Flemish and French speaking areas of present-day Belgium, had joined the Norwich bridge-head. The original contingent (the 30 master weavers permitted under the royal licence, plus their families and household servants) amounted to about 300. But in about two years their numbers had grown about five-fold to 1,471 and in another two years it had doubled to 2,866. Despite an outbreak of the Plague in 1578/79 in which about 2,500 Strangers perished, by 1582 the community had grown to 4,678 - about a third of the city's total population.
The conditions in the original licence restricting them to certain textile related occupations had long since been either relaxed or overlooked. A whole new community with occupations ranging from schoolmasters and ministers of religion to bakers, brewers and farmers had grown up.
Then, as now, such a 'flood' might well have been expected to stir up all sorts of social, economic and even religious tensions. However, the Strangers appear to have been initially well received - at least better in Norwich than in London or elsewhere. The tone of their letters home, some of which are amazingly preserved in the archives of Ypres, testify to the warmth of their welcome. 'You would never believe how friendly the people are together, and the English are the same and quite loving to our nation', writes a hatmaker to his wife. 'Come at once and do not be anxious'. For their part the incomers are aware that they have to make allowances for different customs. The same letter-writer continues, in the style of a post report, 'When you come bring a dough trough, for there are none here...Buy two little wooden dishes to make up half pounds of butter; for all Netherlanders and Flemish make their own butter, for here it is all pigs' fat'.
In contrast to the situation today, religion was probably one factor which brought the Strangers and the indigenous community closer together. Norwich was mainly a Puritan city with bad memories of persecution under Queen Mary and the Strangers were after all fleeing persecution for their Calvinist principles. Immediately after their arrival they were allocated churches (Walloon and Dutch) in which to worship. The main religious problems which did arise were confined to quarrels within the Dutch church and they did not affect relations with the wider community. Similarly, fears that the bacillus of Anabaptism might have been brought in with the Strangers and spread among the indigenous population were not borne out.
The Strangers' relationship with their host city was also helped by the conditions of their accommodation and settlement. Far from crowding into insalubrious ghettos, they spearheaded urban regeneration by rebuilding a part of Norwich north of the River Wensum, traditionally inhabited by textile workers, which had been devastated by fire in 1507 and left to decay. The wealthy and influential among them naturally gravitated to the more prosperous wards but there was evidently room enough for them. Norwich was not a crowded city by Tudor standards - the area enclosed within its walls was larger even than that enclosed within the walls of the city of London.
Nevertheless, xenophobic feelings were just as likely to break the surface in Tudor, as much as in modern times. Thomas Whall, the mayor whose term of office in 1567 coincided with the first significant influx, evidently did not share Thomas Sotherton's enthusiasm for bringing in new blood to regenerate the city. Taking up the age-old cry that the incomers were taking local jobs, he complained that they 'sucked the living away from the English' and proceeded to impose additional restrictions upon them.
Other social irritants also began to creep in. Some of the Strangers were indulging their taste for strong liquor and selling their aquavit in the streets. It was noted that 'the moste dysorded persons walked late in the streets of the citye dronken and of greate dysorder'. The sixteenth century solution was to put the whole community under curfew: '...neyther you nor anye of you shall be fownde in the streetes after the eight of the clocke bell shal be ronge in the churche of Saynte Peter of Mancrofte', they were told.
Industrial pollution was surprisingly another problem. Offence was taken the dyers among the Strangers took to tipping their industrial effluent into the river. Sheer jealously over the Strangers' hard-won prosperity was probably, however, the most pervasive irritant.
In 1570 an anti-Stranger group reared its head. The conspirators planned to assemble on Midsummer Day at Harleston fair and then 'to have raised a number of men with sound of trumpet and beat of drum, and then to have declared the cause of their rising namely, to expulse the strangers from the city and the realm'. The conspiracy was betrayed by one of its members. The leader, John Throgmorton, and two other 'gentlemen' were hung, drawn and quartered; five others were imprisoned and suffered forfeiture of their goods. In the custom of the times one of the conspirators wrote a poem on the night before his execution, throwing himself on God's mercy. It was printed by the only printer in the city, who ironically happened to be a refugee from Antwerp - an indication of how well ensconced the Stranger community already was.
Although economic and other issues continued to cause tensions in the city both before and after the Throgmorton conspiracy, the official reaction to manifestations of xenophobia was generally robust both in national and local government. The Corporation of Norwich foiled another attempt to restrict the Strangers in 1567. A certain William Tipper had attempted to revive the ancient custom of 'hostage' under which Strangers could have been compelled to reside with appointed hosts who received payment for their entertainment and a percentage on their sales and purchases. The Corporation purchased this right, but declined to enforce it.
As a generally well-organised, cohesive community the Strangers did not need lessons in how to manipulate the levels of power. They soon learnt that one way to rectify any grievances was to appeal to the Privy Council and the Queen over the heads of the city authorities. A few months before the Throgmorton conspiracy the Privy Council had written from Greenwich to say the Queen 'doth take in good part' the favourable treatment of the Strangers, who should be allowed 'to sell their commodities as their brethren settled in Sandwich and Colchester do, to whom they please'.
When the Queen visited Norwich in 1578, she was greeted by a pageant staged by the 'artizans strangers' who, on a large stage embellished with uplifting homilies, demonstrated various aspects of their trade. Later in the visit a minister of the Dutch church delivered a speech in Latin thanking the Queen for her protection and presented her with a silver-gilt cup to the value of £50. Ten years later the Strangers were able to demonstrate their loyalty in a more positive way by finding a contingent of men for the levy prepared to repel the invasion expected at the time of the Spanish Armada.
Efforts such as these were rewarded by a greater appreciation of their contribution. In a document on 'The Benefitte received by the Strangers in Norwich for the space of tenne years', the civic authorities praised them for having brought a great body of trade by manufacturing a variety of stuffs not made there before, for creating employment both within and around the city, for rebuilding ruinous houses, for giving a great impetus to the city's commerce at home and overseas, for contributing their full share to local and national expenditure, for setting a good example of industry, particularly to the young people of Norwich and for introducing new crops such as flax and roots.
In what must be one of the most fulsome tributes to a refugee community ever recorded, the document concluded: 'they for the most parte fear God and do diligently and labourously attende upon their severall occupations, they obey all majistrates and all good lawes and ordynances, they live peacablie amonge them selves and towarde all men, and we thinke out Cittie happie to enjoye them'.
But no amount of political lobbying could isolate the Strangers from the political changes which followed Elizabeth's death. During the 1630s the religious pendulum swung back as Archbishop Laud sought to reimpose beliefs and practices contrary to the religious faith of the Strangers and their Calvinist counterparts, the Puritans. The Dutch Republic, freed from Spanish domination, became in turn a refuge for Norwich Puritans and some Strangers also returned. Nevertheless the bulk of the communities in Norwich stood their ground in spite of the hostility of Matthew Wren, Bishop of Norwich and one of Laud's most faithful lieutenants. When the pendulum swung yet again they formed a contingent which lined up in the Civil War with overwhelmingly Parliamentarian Norwich.
In the years that followed members of the Strangers communities in Norwich either continued to drift back to their homeland or became increasingly integrated into the local population. Wealthy Strangers went into partnership with local businessmen and sent their sons to Cambridge; their languages, which could still be heard as commonly as English on the streets of Norwich in the early seventeenth century, died out; their names became Anglicised; their religious communities merged with local churches.
Nevertheless some elements of their legacy persisted. The innovations they introduced are thought to have contributed to the continued rise of the Norwich textile industry right up to its golden age in the mid eighteenth century when it stood supreme in Britain and Europe. More fancifully, their love of gardens and canaries (the symbol of Norwich City Football Club) is said to persist even in present-day Norwich. Overall the story of these Norwich asylum seekers is one of mutual benefit and smooth integration.
References and further reading:
Ian K Smith
Find out more about The Strangers in HEART's 'Strangers - A History of Norwich's Incomers' by Frank Meeres.