THE HAZARDS OF BEING FLEMISH IN FOURTEENTH-CENTURY LONDON
In the parliament of January 1377 – the last parliament, as it would transpire, of Edward III’s reign – the citizens of London presented a strongly-worded petition about the use of fixed fishing nets in the Thames and Medway estuaries. Keeping the major waterways free so that river traffic could pass unencumbered and the fish population be allowed to flourish was a major issue in the Middle Ages, and the Londoners had recently reminded Edward III that they had the right, by royal charter, to regulate such matters on a long stretch of the Thames. They were especially offended, then, that the king had granted to a member of his household the right to survey the fishing in the waters of the Thames and Medway, with the result that sundry person were being sold the rights to strew the rivers with ‘kiddles and trawl-nets’.
Three versions of this petition exist. The original Londoners’ petition and a duplicate made of it, which still survive in The National Archives, call the man at the centre of this controversy ‘Reynaud de Neuport, Fleming’. The petition was taken up by the parliamentary commons and included in their general list of grievances of the realm. In the course of re-drafting the petition into a more elaborate rhetoric that emphasised the perils to the ‘common profit’ of the kingdom, the commons also gave the main protagonist a different name: in the French form of the petition, he was ‘Reignald [sic] de la Chambre’, a name that otherwise appears in a variety of sources in the modern Anglicised form of ‘Reginald of the Chamber’. That Reynaud and Reginald were indeed one and the same man is made clear by the accompanying notes on the parliament roll, which required that ‘Reynald Neuport’ and others were to be called before a special inquiry set up in the Chancery to investigate the matter. The particular interest of this case lies in the notably ambiguous – one might even say slippery – identity of our protagonist, and of the particular significance that might have attached, at this moment in time, to the Londoners’ emphatic designation of their enemy as a man of Flanders.
Reginald (let us call him, for pragmatic purposes, by the modern English equivalent of his first name) turns out to be a man with friends in significantly high places. The designation ‘of the Chamber’ provides the essential clue, for this alias related to his long service in the royal household. Reginald de Neuport appears in the public records from the 1340s, consistently in the role of yeoman of the king’s Chamber. The process by which Reginald was recruited to English royal service remains hazy, but several obvious hypotheses are raised. He came, almost certainly, from modern-day Nieuport (otherwise Nieuwpoort) in Belgium. He may have been drawn to England by the strong trade links that existed from his home town to a variety of English ports across the Channel, and then to have sought out patronage upon arrival. In this respect we may note another individual of the same name who seems to have operated in England from the time of Edward I to at least 1343, and may have been our man’s father. Perhaps more obviously, Reginald may have been one of the relatively sizeable groups of people from modern northern France, Belgium and Luxembourg who entered the service of the English crown as a result of Edward III’s marriage to Philippa, daughter of the ruler of the Netherlandish state of Hainault, in 1328, or as a consequence of the king and queen’s long residence in Flanders at the beginning of the Hundred Years War in 1338-40. Alternatively, his entry to Edward’s service may be connected with the various recruitment drives operated in the 1340s to win allies in northern France and Flanders against Edward’s rival for the French throne, Philip VI.
Reginald’s first appearance in the public records, in 1345, reveals him in two capacities: as already a yeoman of the king’s Chamber, and as the nominated holder of the hunting park at Hatfield (Hertfordshire). Three years later, he was given further rights at Hatfield at the request of the king’s mother, Queen Isabella, and granted the rents from property in the hands of the crown in the parish of St Andrew, Holborn, London. These references suggest that Reginald was already well connected and well established, and had very probably taken up residence in or near the capital. Being a yeoman of the king’s Chamber did not mean that one spent all one’s time at court; but no doubt a London or Home Counties base of operations was convenient means of keeping up one’s attendance upon the king as he moved out from his bases at Westminster and Windsor to visit the various royal manors and lodges scattered along the Thames basin. This was very much Reginald’s nexus: by 1352 he held land by right of his English wife, Isabel Babeham, in Cookham (Berkshire), and was excused his tax payments there as a result of his constant service to the monarch (an unusual privilege suggesting high favour). Maybe the life grant of the right to control the fisheries of the Thames from Oxford to the Medway, which also came in 1352, was prompted in part by Reginald’s frequent appearance on the river in avid pursuit of the king’s interests.
Reginald appears to have led a quiet life through the 1350s and 1360s, slowly building up a modest property portfolio in London and the south-east of England and justifying his annuity as yeoman of the Chamber by undertaking a range of duties for the crown. Reginald’s sister, Isabella, also resided in London as the wife of Giles de Melyn, who traded as a lorimer (metal-worker) before his death around 1365. In the 1370s, however, Reginald achieved at once greater status and significantly greater public notoriety. Two aspects of his career and circumstances in this period help to shed important light on why the Londoners chose to identify him as a target of their hatred in 1377.
First, there is the increasing favour shown to Reginald by the elderly Edward III. In 1373 Reginald was given an annuity of £20 a year to support his status as yeoman of the Chamber. This was a considerable sum of money, equivalent to the annual income of a prosperous member of the lesser gentry. No doubt he merited the award: in the same year, his career took a new turn when he acted as a messenger for the king to the pope at Avignon. But as the decade wore on, there was a growing public suspicion that royal courtiers were exploiting the generosity of the feeble king to hijack a disproportionate amount of wealth in the form of land and cash. In the so-called Good Parliament of 1376, a number of high-ranking members of the royal household, including Lords Latimer and Neville, were impeached for their abuse of office, and Edward III’s notorious mistress, Alice Perrers, was temporarily exiled from court. A number of other lesser courtiers were also caught up in this dramatic eruption of public anger. In 1372 Neuport had secured special powers for himself and a group of cronies under the Statute of Westminster II (1285) to enforce the season for salmon fishing and thus help maintain stocks in the Thames. In the Good Parliament itself the commons referred to this practice and alluded to Neuport’s responsibilities as ‘warden of the river’; the inference of their petition was that Reginald and his officers were taking backhanders to ignore illicit fishing and other abuses of the law on the Thames. By the time of the Londoners’ complaint in 1377, then, Reginald Neuport seems to have become strongly associated, in the minds the politically aware, with an unscrupulous group of courtiers who, in spite of their disgrace, were even now returning to the old privileges and their old ways.
Secondly, there is the fact of Reginald’s status as an alien. The authorities of the city of London had become increasingly anxious about what they saw as the over-privileging of foreign merchants by a royal government eager to uphold the principle of free trade. The civic powers had already orchestrated a number of high-profile attacks on aliens in the 1350s and 1360s, and although official animus was focused on the Italians, the Flemings were also coming under increasing suspicion. In 1369 the count of Flanders, after long prevarication, had agreed that his heiress should marry not the English prince, Lionel, duke of Clarence, but the French prince, Philip, duke of Burgundy. Despite the fact that many Flemish towns and merchants remained inclined towards England, the outbreak of a new phase of the Hundred Years War later in the same year created increasing official and popular hostility towards the many Flemings resident in England. Then, in 1376, after a long struggle, the city of London managed to win back the right, lost since 1335, to impose its own regulations and restrictions on foreigners working and trading in the city.
In this increasingly anti-alien atmosphere, it is probable that the Londoners had a very conscious reason for identifying Reginald as a Fleming in the petitions that started the political campaign of 1377. ‘Reynaud de Neuport’ is a name that very easily adapted into an English form: after all, ‘Newport’ is a very common placename in England. None of the official records that mention Reginald before 1377 ever referred to him explicitly as a Fleming; and his marriage to an Englishwoman and long residence in the realm make it likely that he could easily pass as a native. The London petitions of 1377 may have been doing no more than adding an additional identifier to make it absolutely clear to whom they were referring and thus to protect others of the same name from contamination by association: after all, the prominent fishmonger William Neuport had only completed his term of office as sheriff of the city a few months before. But it is surely also tempting to see the label ‘Fleming’ as deliberately inflammatory. If the Londoners had the right to regulate alien trade, what was a Fleming doing controlling one of the most important channels of communication and trade, the waterway of the Thames?
For all the heat that might have been generated by the Londoners’ complaint, Reginald survived the onslaught. It is interesting that, in the hands of the commons and of the Chancery clerks who wrote the parliament rolls, the London petitions were adapted to restore Reginald to his English – and courtly – identity as Reginald of the Chamber. This was sufficient to do the trick: in spite of the fact that the crown ordered an inquiry, Reginald remained firmly in charge of the wardenship of the Thames. It is apparent that Neuport had made himself indispensible to the crown. Following his mission to Avignon in 1373 he had undertaken a series of journeys on the king’s behalf to his native county of Flanders, and continued in this role through 1377. Nor did the change of monarch alter his fortunes: Reginald quickly secured confirmation from the minority regime of Richard II both of his annuity and of his life grant of the regulation of the waterways from Oxford to the Medway. There was, then, every expectation of a secure future for him and his family. And yet the Londoners’ exposure of Reginald as a suspect foreigner continued to cause trouble. There was to be one further, and still more dramatic, episode in Reginald’s career that proved just how difficult it could be to be a Fleming in fourteenth-century London.
In the summer of 1381, during the violent disturbances in the capital that accompanied the wider crisis of the Peasants’ Revolt, the mob conducted a ferocious attack on the Flemish community of London. The various chronicle accounts of the massacre share a certain horrified frisson about the scene: men, women and children dragged from the sanctuary they had sought in various city churches and put to death, their screams of mercy going unheeded and their abject bodies piled high in the streets as proof of the insatiable thirst for vengeance. Whether Reginald Neuport witnessed this horrific moment is uncertain. But there is more than a hint that it encouraged the Londoners to have one final go at discrediting him. Around the time of the revolt, Reginald was arrested by the city authorities on the allegation that he had ‘spoken against the king’s person’, committed a further series of trespasses against the crown and the city, and failed to settle a number of his outstanding debts and obligations, including an account owed to the city for the goods and chattels received from the estate of his former brother-in-law, Giles de Melyn. Imprisoned in Newgate, he was then handed over to the royal Exchequer for investigation. In the febrile atmosphere of the parliament following the Peasants’ Revolt in November 1381, the government put through a statute declaring that anyone found to be spreading rumours against the crown might be tried for treason. If we may push the evidence a little, it seems plausible that someone in quite a high-up position in London in 1381-2 tried to play on Reginald Neuport’s unpopularity and foreignness to cast him as a traitor against the king. This was altogether more serious a brush with the authorities than had been the case in 1377, and says much about the ways in which many people in England tried to use the revolt of 1381 and its aftermath as a context in which to pursue their old prejudices and settle old scores.
Once again, Reginald was lucky. In October 1382, by an act of grace, Richard II pardoned him from the accusation of seditious words and the other trespasses of which he had been charged, ordering his prompt release from prison. The city remonstrated that the cases of debt and account still remained open, and pleaded that it be allowed to proceed against him ‘according to the laws and usages of the realm’. The outcome remains to be investigated in detail, but there is every sign that Reginald once again had his way. In 1389, still fully in control of his estates and titles, Neuport surrendered his life grant of the fisheries of the Thames to Richard II, who granted the title on to one of his own servants, Ralph Soote. Perhaps Reginald could see the shape of things to come, for in 1393 the regulation of fisheries in the Thames and Medway was finally granted to the mayor of London. Or perhaps he was now just ready for retirement: already at least in his fifties, he had reached the kind of age at which a fourteenth-century man’s thoughts turned increasingly to eternity.
Reginald Neuport offers us an interesting perspective on questions of national and cultural identity in the reigns of Edward III and Richard II. In the next generation and later, Reginald was precisely the kind of man who might have sought out formal ‘letters of denization’ from the crown according him some of the rights that we today associate with the process of naturalisation. The nearest we get in Reginald’s case is a ‘passport’ issued to him in 1350 to travel to the continent as a pilgrim. But these licences had no bearing on the nationality of the recipient: rather, they were special rights granted to natives and foreigners alike at a moment when, because of the state of the Anglo-French war, the crown had placed a general embargo on travel abroad. Neither at the time nor in the historical record was Reginald easily identified as an alien: both his association with a cosmopolitan court and his settling into English local society blurred the specifics of his origins and meant that his Flemish roots tended never to be noticed or remarked unless it was for some malicious purpose. There were plenty of other immigrants from northern France and the Low Countries who achieved just such a successful assimilation and never suffered the hatred to which Reginald himself was exposed. Indeed, his story suggests that, for all the popular xenophobia to which a significant number of Flemings fell the tragic victims in 1381, foreigners with friends in high places could generally be assured a safe and prosperous living in England. Above all, however, his case is a salutary reminder of the contingent nature of ‘national’ identity in the later Middle Ages and of the way in which a whole range of exogenous factors – in this case, chiefly London politics – could so easily and dramatically affect the identity and fortunes of the resident alien.
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