The trade carried on with the Netherlands from the Eastern Coast of England was considered of so much importance at the terinination of the 14th century that it was well said by Chaucer of the Merchant, who wore on his head "a Flaunders bevir hat,"
"He would the See wer kept for any thing,
Betwixte Middleborough and Orewell." 1
Chaucer thus indicated the trade route to Flanders in his time, but it would appear that the poet was somewhat in error with regard to the English port on this side, which must have been Yarmouth and not Harwich on the river Orwell, probably substituting "Orewell" for the sake of rhyme instead of the river Yar. The five staple articles of commerce of that time were wool, wool fells, leather, lead, and tin, to which were occasionally added butter, cheese and cloth. These articles could only be shipped or landed at the sea-ports of the towns of the staple, one of which was Norwich, there being no other on the east coast with the exception of York, Newcastle-on-Tyne, Lincoln, and at a later date Yarmouth. The object of having these staple towns was in the first place to encourage foreign trade, and secondly to facilitate the due receipt of custom dues by a more simple control. The merchants and seamen of the Netherlands had thus from early times a good knowledge of Norwich, their vessels bringing cloth and other goods made in Flanders, and taking away chiefly wools and skins, then important articles; these were shipped at Yarmouth, as shown by the suit between Norwich and that town in the reign of Edward III.2 The result of this suit was that Yarmouth was made a staple town in 1369.
It appears that wool was not woven in England before the time of Edward I, for in a case of the merchant adventurers of this country of 16923 it is stated that in the above reign certain merchants of the Mercers Company attempted the manufacture of English wool at home with such success that in 1296 they obtained privileges of John II, Duke of Brabant, and settled their staple for English cloth at Antwerp, joining in society with them all other English merchants resorting to those parts. King Henry IV, finding that this trade was likely to decay to the great damage of the nation (as it was expressed), granted them a charter in 1406, which empowered the majority of the merchant adventurers to make by-laws for the regulation of the trade. This charter was enlarged and confirmed by most of the succeeding Kings and Queens, and the articles of the Intercourse made in 1496 between Henry VII and Philip, Archduke of Austria, then Sovereign of the Netherlands, "called by the Flemings Intercursus Magnus, or the Great Treaty of Commerce," very greatly facilitated commerce between the two nations. The magistrates of cities abroad became competitors for the residence with them of the English merchant adventurers offering them immunities and privileges above those of all other nations, which privileges were still enjoyed by them in Hamburgh in 1692. These merchant adventurers had letters of safe-conduct from the magistrates under whom they resided, and had assurance for their lives and goods of six months' time to depart in case of war. These goods were not subject to confiscation. They paid far lower duties than other merchants when importing or exporting their merchandize. They might dispose of their estates and make their wills according to the laws of England, and the fellowship might arrest the person and goods of any Englishman by its own authority. They had liberty of religion as established by the law of England, and were provided with houses, both public and private, for their deputy governor, minister, secretary, porter, and other officers, free of rent, which were repaired at the cost of the city where they dwelt. They enjoyed freedom of excise for beer, wine, and fuel, and were free from all watching, warding, quartering of soldiers and contributions on their behalf real or personal. Much jealousy was aroused, and in 12 Henry VII a petition was made against the favoured corporation, but it held its ground to a comparatively late period. There was thus much intercourse between England and the Netherlands, and it appears that the manufacture of cloth was much improved and extended by early settlements of weavers from the latter country. "Flanders was certainly still far ahead of her future rival in wealth and in mercantile and industrial activity; as a manufacturing country she had no equal, and in trade the rival she chiefly feared was still the German Hansa."4 It was not until about one hundred and seventy years later that Flanders lost this pre-eminence in trade and commerce through the unstatesmanlike rule and blind bigotry of Philip II, which drove the best craftsmen of his Netherland dominions to the shores of England, where notably they settled and throve at Norwich.
According to Fuller,5 among the Netherlanders who came to this country in so great numbers, in the time of Edward I, encouraged by his alliance with Philippa, daughter of William, Earl of Hainault, were men who "were absolute masters of their trade," who brought "their mystery with them" and settled in towns near the sea. Norwich was one of these settlements where fustians, worsteds, and rough cloth were woven by them and their workmen. This trade greatly increased the prosperity of the city, which before 1336 had not the advantage of the skill of the weavers from the Low Countries, who had been in the habit of working up the English fleeces in their own land. In the middle of the 14th century "Norwich was in the most flourishing state she ever saw,.... there were no less than sixty parish churches, besides seven conventual churches within its walls,.... there were upwards of 70,000 souls in the city and its suburbs, all which prosperity had been caused by the woolen trade established by the Netherlanders." "In 1348, Jan. 1, the plague or black death broke out in this city.... In this year was swiche a dethe in Norwic, yat yere died of ye pestilence lvij mil. iij c. lxxiiij, besyd Relygius and Beggars."6 In 1361 and 1369 the plague reappeared, which so injured the trade of Norwich that Yarmouth succeeded in being appointed a staple town to the great injury of its neighbours. In 1378 the strangers must have been numerous enough to interfere with retail trade, as the citizens then petitioned parliament that strangers should not, under pain of forfeiture, sell or buy merchandize by retail. It was accordingly enacted that the bailiffs and twenty-four elected citizens might provide such remedies for the good of the town, "and of strangers thereto repairing, as to them shall seem best, so as such ordinances be profitable for the King and his people." Customs on goods were immediately levied, and strangers had to pay the same as citizens.7 No great number of foreigners (and this term then included all not natives of the city) could have been residing at Norwich in 1405, for in that year "the tenement Geywood's was let for a publick inn or reception for all foreigners staying to work here, and a penalty of £5 was laid upon all others that took in strangers to lodge for any time."8 Returns were made of the Alien Subsidy for the city of Norwich in the reign of Henry VI and Edward IV.9 In 1507, on the 31st March and on the 25th April, great fires almost destroyed the city; the second fire began in the house of a French surgeon named Peter Johnson, in the parish of St. George in Colgate, 718 houses being burnt on the river side from the bottom of Tombland, through St. Andrew, etc., up the city; this, although part was rebuilt by collections made in London and other places, tended to depress still more the ebbing fortunes of Norwich.10
THE PROTESTANTS COME TO ENGLAND.
By an act passed in the parliament of 14 & 15 Henry VIII (1523-1524), a warden, chosen by the makers of "worstedes,11 saies, and stamines" woven at Yarmouth, was yearly to be sworn in by the Mayor of Norwich, in the same manner and form as were the four wardens of the same craft in that city, according to the Act of 7 Edward IV. It was also enacted that "if and when" the town of Lynn had ten or more householders exercising the craft or mystery of weaving, these ten or more weavers should choose a warden to be sworn in like manner. The goods in both places to be searched and sealed in lead with seal engraved with Y and L respectively. That no one should make these goods except he were English born and had been an apprentice to the same craft; that these apprentices should be youths of eighteen years and upwards, and that the number be restricted to two for each weaver. That no cloths made at Yarmouth and Lynn should be dyed elsewhere than in Norwich, and that no goods of this nature should be exported beyond the sea before they were shorn, dyed, and calendered.12
In 1541 it was found that the trade of weaving worsteds was wholly decayed by the custom of factors buying up all the yarn from the spinners and exporting it in quantities to France, Flanders, and other places beyond the sea, where it was woven into says, russels, worsteds, and other cloths, and sent over for sale to England, to the great advantage of the foreigners. It was therefore enacted in the above year, 33 Henry VIII, that "nobody should buy any worsted yarn in Norwich or Norfolk, but only such weavers or other artificers as shall work or weave it, or cause it to be wrought or woven within the city of Norwich, or some other market town in Norfolk, on 40s. forfeiture for every pound of yarn so wrought." This act was only to continue till the last day of the then parliament, but by 1 Edward VI cap. vi., it was made perpetual.13 The poor of the city and neighbouring parts had earned their living by spinning yarn, but an act of 37 Henry VIII, forbad all persons, except the merchants of the staple, under heavy penalties from retailing wool, so that the spinners were hindered in buying small quantities as they required it. An act of 1 Edward VI, removed this grievance by allowing "every person in Norwich and Norfolk to buy and sell in open market any wool of Norfolk growth," notwithstanding the enactments of 37 Henry VIII.14
Already in the reign of Henry VIII England had become a refuge for those who had learnt the truths of religion through access to the Bible, then rapidly multiplied by the art of printing. Shortly after the condemnation of Luther and his adherents at the Diet of Worms in 1520, severe ordinances (Placaten) were issued by the Emperor Charles V against the reformers and their followers, when many Netherlanders left their country and came to settle in England, some bringing large amounts of money with them. In the testament of John van den Bempden of Pall Mall, Westminster,15 dated 6 March, 1625-6, it is recorded that his ancestor who came to this country in the reign of Henry VIII, brought with him the sum of twenty thousand pounds.
These refugees greatly profited by the divorce of Catherine of Arragon and the execution of Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, on whom the Pope, Paul III, had bestowed a cardinal's hat, which however, in consequence of the resentment of the King, he had not an opportunity of wearing. The sentence of excommunication of Henry VIII by the Pope, dated 3rd September, 1535, was answered by the silent permission for the circulation of the first complete English Bible, which, was ready in October of the same year for issue in print in England, it having been translated by Miles Coverdale at Antwerp at the expense of Jacob Van Meteren, as a trade speculation, who, with Edward Whitchurch, had it set in type by a printer at Paris,16 whose name research has not yet brought to light, the second edition being printed by Nycolson, in London.17 The Reformation soon gained ground, and a safe refuge was found in Protestant England by those driven out of the Netherlands by the severity of the Spanish rule.