Flemish Weavers in Edward III’s England
On 16 July 1331 King Edward III of England granted letters patent to one John Kempe of Flanders, ‘weaver of woollen cloths’, to enter England with his men and exercise and teach his trade freely under the king’s protection. The case was by no means unique, and the grant itself was very obviously intended as a precedent, giving assurances as it did that other men of the same land could be expected to have rights of protection should they too choose to ply their craft in the realm of England.
Edward III’s encouragement of cloth weavers from Flanders and other parts of the Low Countries has gone down in history as a notable example of the English crown’s efforts in the fourteenth century to nurture the nascent cloth industry of the country by attracting in skilled artisans from the most renowned centres of cloth production in northern Europe. This is not necessarily how the policy was judged at the time. As early as 1337, the city of London was having to deal with public order issues and instruct its inhabitants to desist from making attacks on Flemings who had taken advantage of royal protection to settle in its midst. Part of the problem lay in the fact that the foreign clothworkers were not subject to the same regulations as their native counterparts. Part of it was to do with a belief – accurate or not – that the open invitation to settle in England was attracting a criminal element to escape from the continent and make trouble for honest folk in England. And the rest of the problem lay, no doubt, in the endemic xenophobia that would lead, at a moment of high tension during the Peasants’ Revolt, to widespread victimisation of the visible Flemish community in London.
These rumbling hostilities need, however, to be put in context. John Kempe, the man who started the English government’s tradition of support for Flemish cloth-workers, evidently found sufficient security and prosperity in his adopted country’s capital to be there still in 1369. In particular, a small group of prosperous men, led by Flemings such as John le Grutteret and Brabanters such as John Elias, successfully established a separate guild of foreign weavers in London in 1362 that exercised a good deal of influence over trading practice in the city over the following decade. Despite some signs of infighting within this group, it was influential and effective enough to negotiate a working compromise with the native workers in the capital in 1380 and resolve a long-standing tension over the payment of the annual sum owed to the king by weavers of the city.
We know too little about the lives and experiences of this ‘first generation’ of Flemish and Netherlandish craftsmen who settled in England under Edward III’s new dispensation. Operating two generations before the development of a formalised process of naturalisation, they were resolutely identified and defined by their alien status, and it is difficult outside the realms of mere speculation to consider whether and how they sought to negotiate the English language, culture and social mores. Even so, John Kempe deserves to be rather better known, as a real pioneer: a craftsman who took up the opportunities offered in a foreign land and was prepared to face both economic vicissitudes and real cultural hostility in pursuit of his craft – and his profit.
Calendar of Patent Rolls
Jonathan Good, ‘The Alien Clothworkers of London, 1337-1381’, in Linda E. Mitchell, Katherine L. French and Douglas L. Biggs (eds), The Ties that Bind: Essays in Medieval British History in Honor of Barbara Hanawalt (Farnham, 2011), pp. 7-19.