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Wallonia and the emigration of its weaving families to England
researched and contributed by Diana Divo
Wallonia, the narrow strip of land between Germany and France, now part of Belgium, had long been a rich industrious country famed for weaving and tapestries. The wool came from England and business ties were more to Germany and England. Its main cities were Tournai, and Namur. It had been part of Flanders, then went with the last heiress to Philip of Burgundy and on the extinction of that male line to the descendants of Marie of Burgundy and Maximilian of Hapsburg. Their grandson inherited Spain and its empire too and by 1580 his son Philip II (one time spouse of Mary Tudor) pursued a bigoted persecution of protestants in his dominions.
So when after a severe winter in 1564-65 the Mayor and Corporation of Norwich decided to try to revive the local economy by encouraging skilled weavers from the Low Countries to settle and improve the Norwich textile industry they were not short of applicants. A license was obtained from Queen Elizabeth I for 24 Dutch families and 6 Walloon families to settle with a maximum of 10 family members each. More soon followed.
They were granted a disused church as a Cloth Hall, but by 1631 the textile trade had flourished sufficiently for them to need a larger cloth hall and they were moved to a new hall and St Mary the Lesser at Tombland, was granted to the Walloons for worship in French and all the church records of baptisms and marriages as well as some wills were also in French. Walloons from other settlements seem to have gravitated there later. Strangely, very few of the French refugees at the time of the Revocation of the Edict on Nantes settled in Norwich, so the church was always Walloon rather than French Huguenot in its congregation. Gradually as the people assimilated, support for their own church faded and it was in trouble by 1669, but managed to survive until the church was finally closed in 1832.
Norwich had a long tradition of weaving, but had no knowledge of the finer patterned, shot and damask weaves as their fabrics were plain, coarser and dyed later. The new fabrics though continued to be made by “the Strangers” who passed their craft from father to son - as Norwich Stuffs they were widely exported luxury products - who guarded their secrets and moved to keep abreast of court fashions. In Norwich the strangers were given run down tenements, often near the river in parishes like St Gregory’s which ran from the market place to the river and included Charing (shearing) cross and the palace of the Earls of Norfolk, which fell into disrepair as the Catholic Earls were not always welcomed in the protestant city. North of the river the close packed industrial quarter of the city must have seen many immigrants with many in St Augustines.
Other large Walloon settlements were in Yarmouth in the early 16th century and in various towns in England from 1540 onwards: London, Canterbury and Colchester. Some later moved from London and Canterbury to Norwich. The settlements at Canterbury and Norwich were known for their weaving and at Yarmouth for fishing and cooperage.