In 1354, Lawrence Conync became a freeman of the city of York. Conync was a weaver from the Flemish textile town of Deinze, south of Ghent. As many other immigrants from Flanders had done before him or would do in years to come, he must have acquired the freedom of the city in order to conduct a trade or to work as a craftsman. Unlike most of his fellow Flemings, however, Conync had not left his county voluntarily. Together with his wife, he had been banished in the aftermath of an armed rebellion against the Flemish count during the years preceding his arrival in York.
Nothing short of endemic, revolts and other forms of collective action struck Flanders in a way they did not strike any other part of Europe during the fourteenth century, Northern Italy excluded. Tensions dominated the relationship between the count and his main cities, between the patricians and the urban middle classes and between the larger cities and the smaller towns and countryside. Whenever the balance of power tilted, these tensions intermingled and erupted into an open conflict, followed by victory, defeat and repression, which, in turn, justified the next rebellion. A common punishment for collective action was banishment from the county. A mitigation of the capital penalty, sending those defeated into exile transferred tensions abroad and allowed those victorious to restore order, at least temporarily.
In 1323, peasants in the region of Maritime Flanders opposed the growing fiscal pressure and inequality resulting from the policy of Count Louis of Nevers. Joined by citizens of Bruges and Ypres and weavers of Ghent, who were concerned that the comital programme would damage commercial relations with England, they took hold of most of the county and proposed an alternative government. A classic ingredient in any political standoff in fourteenth-century Flanders, the powerless count called upon his suzerain, the French king Philip VI. The rebels tried to win the support of the English king Edward III but were rebuffed. Increasingly divided, the insurgent forces were eventually slaughtered by a French-led coalition on the battlefield of Cassel in 1328. During the repression that followed, 808 weavers, fullers and other artisans from Ypres were ordered to leave the county and to settle south of the river Somme in France. They were to remain there for three years, during which they were allowed to continue their occupation. 300 others accompanied them as hostages to secure the execution of the punishment.
England was not only an obvious ally for those facing the often pro-French counts of Flanders. Because of the political affinities and the opportunities for Flemish textile workers, always among the first to raise the barricades, in the booming English cloth industry, it was also a destination of choice for those told to leave the county once a dispute had been settled. In the early 1340s, Ypres had to deal with the competition of several smaller cloth producing towns in its vicinity. Fed up with the repeated violations of its charter, including the murder of its officers, the city’s bench of aldermen convicted numerous textile workers from nearby Poperinge in 1344. Several fines were imposed and an inquest was ordered to determine the twenty main culprits. These were to be sent to England and to stay there for three years, on pain of capital punishment.
The Poperinge exiles were all but the only Flemings who were made to cross the Channel in the 1340s. When, upon the outbreak of the Hundred Years War in 1336, Louis of Nevers chose the side of the French and the English retaliated by cutting off the wool supply vital to the county’s textile industry, the Flemish cities again rose against their count. Ghent citizen James of Artevelde formed a city state regime modelled after an Italian example, causing Louis of Nevers to flee in 1339 and recognising Edward III as French king and Flemish suzerain in 1340. The English support failed to materialise though, and Artevelde was murdered by rival factions in 1345. His sons John, James and Philip sought asylum in England. Back in Flanders, the county remained under control of the Ghent weavers. Their power was only broken when, on 13 January 1349 or Good Tuesday, they were defeated by the fullers in a bloody street battle. The latter recognised the authority of the new count Louis of Male, who ordered an inquiry to punish the rebels. In 1351, over 1400 people, mainly weavers, from several Flemish cities and towns were expelled to England. Among them Lawrence Conync and his wife. Edward III welcomed the ‘men of Flanders who have been banished from their country because they adhered to the king’s party’ with collective letters of protection. As their departure deprived the Ghent cloth industry of much needed skills and manpower, several attempts were made to bring the exiles back. With the fee to be paid for the pardon exorbitantly high though, few are known to have returned.
Who did return to Flanders was Philip of Artevelde. After having received a grant for life for his father’s good service from the English king, he reappeared in Ghent in 1360. Twenty-two years later, he would be in the front line during the next clash between the Flemings and their count.
Bart Lambert and Milan Pajic
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