In 1353, a fuller from Bruges, Walter Collessad appeared twice in the borough court of Great Yarmouth. On 25 March, he was sued for an unspecified debt by a weaver from Bruges, Peter van Skelle and then a few months later, the same Walter was himself a plaintiff against one John Lythkyrke, a weaver from another Flemish town Aalst. These cases would have not been special if they were not one of the first instances of non-English sounding names pleading in the borough court of Great Yarmouth. Indeed, the town’s earlier extant judicial records show that no foreigners resided in the town in previous decades. In historians’ minds, such an occurrence leads to several questions: who were these strangers and why were they in Great Yarmouth, a mid-sized market town on the East coast of England? What were the consequences of this immigration for both the country of origin and the host country? Flemish Textile Workers in England 1331-1400 explores these questions and offers an insight into the life experiences of a group of artisans who emigrated to England and spent there several decades of the second half of the fourteenth century.
The examination of records from both sides of the English Channel allows us to establish that a large part of the immigrants from the Low Countries were actually political exiles. Most individuals in this group were textile workers who were banished for their involvement in an armed rebellion against the count of Flanders. Due to chronic social inequalities and lack of political representation growing more apparent from the 1250s, the weavers from Flanders’ major cities became more and more radicalized in the expression of their discontent. Collective actions such as labour strikes or minor riots in the streets would evolve into a series of organized urban uprisings spread all over the county on several occasions. After two major revolts in 1302 and 1323-28, the urban artisans would take up arms again in 1345. However, their attempt to make major political change was put down by late 1349, leading to the banishment of numerous textile workers who subsequently received asylum from the English king Edward III.
Four years of revolt and the artisans’ final defeat, coupled with the ongoing Hundred Years War, caused major economic disruption all over the Low Countries throughout the 1350s. Many textile workers, artisans from other crafts and women, mainly from Flanders and Brabant, had also emigrated to England in search of employment opportunities. These voluntary economic migrants together with exiles settled both in English towns and the countryside. While this study focuses mostly on London, Colchester and Great Yarmouth, the book also shows that immigrant textile workers from the Low Countries established themselves in old and newly established urban cloth-industry centres such as Norwich, York, Winchester, Bristol, Coventry, Salisbury, but also in smaller places like Sudbury, Clare or Hadleigh.
Apart from determining the pull-and-push factors, profile and geographical distribution of immigrants, this book revolves around one big question, which is also important to contemporary debates on immigration; did immigrant textile workers have any influence on the development of English woollen cloth industry which grew exponentially from the mid fourteenth century? This is explored through the number of immigrants relative to the size of the industry, quantities and types of cloth produced, as well as the quality of immigrants’ manufacturing skills, but also through their interactions and occasional confrontations with the native population. As a result, this work differs from many others on migration history in that it pays much less attention to xenophobia and instead tries to make the point that immigrant presence has a lot more to offer when viewed from the perspective of economic contribution.