How Norwich’s ‘Strangers’ helped a Fine City stay a great one

Queen Elizabeth meets the Strangers in Norwich of 1578.

Queen Elizabeth meets the Strangers in Norwich of 1578. - Credit: Archant

Today men, women and children are risking their lives on the sea as they seek a new life in a safe country. Hundreds of years ago boats were arriving in Norwich carrying religious refugees. Derek James opens the pages of a new book about the 'Strangers'.

Helen Hoyte with her MBE. Picture: Denise Bradley

Helen Hoyte with her MBE. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015

The newcomers had been given permission to come in Norwich in 1565 on condition that:

• No-one from any household must be out after midnight.

• No-one was to deal in goods outside of their own community.

• A lattice grill was to be fixed to the windows of their houses hiding all within.

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• They could not buy skins to make shoes.

• The baking of white bread was forbidden.

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(The last two rules may reflect shortages felt by shoemakers and bakers after the very hard winter).

So why would they want to come to Norwich, where there was hostility and mistrust on both sides?

The story is told in a wonderful new book written and illustrated by Helen Hoyte MBE which can be enjoyed by people of all ages.

Helen, a retired art teacher, has spent many years researching and lecturing on the textile industry in Norwich and in 2013 wrote a splendid book on the Norwich Shawls.

'The inspiration to write and illustrate this book comes from my friendship with Nancy Ives. Her extensive researches into the lives and working practices of the Strangers who came to Norwich in the 16th century added to my own interests,' said Helen.

Her book is dedicated to her and it paints a vivid picture of life in Norwich at the time and how the great textile industry which flourished for five centuries made the city prosperous and the second most important in the kingdom.

And it was the Strangers who played an important role in creating this prosperity.

Even before the Norman invasion, Norfolk was a centre for the production of wool, with landowners rearing large flocks of sheep to export their wool to Europe and the Baltic states.

Flax and hemp were also significant crops and in the 12th century Aylsham had earned a reputation for making fine linen, much prized by princes and churchmen.

North Norfolk was the most heavily-populated part of the kingdom and many 13th- and 14th-century churches were built in the area.

The Black Death reached Norwich in 1349. Accounts differ but it would seem that of the population of about 13,000, more than half died hideous deaths. The plague ravaged communities across the county – some never fully recovering.

In Norwich Guilds were formed to look after the interests of their craft members. The drapers and mercers, the wool-sorters, weavers and the dyers. The industry prospered.

From the start of the 16th century Tudor fashions were changing. Luxurious foreign fabrics were affecting the popularity of traditional English worsted.

To rescue the city's fortunes, the Mayor enlisted the Duke of Norfolk's help to approach Queen Elizabeth with a request that Letters Patent be granted to the Mayor and Council of Norwich to allow Dutch and Walloon cloth workers to bring their skills to the city.

Thirty craftsmen - 24 Dutchmen and six Walloons, with their families each limited to ten members - would teach local craftsmen how to make more desirable and fashionable materials.

'We can imagine these courageous, determined and ingenious people, making their farewells to friends and families, to board. With sails billowing, the ships get under way and the watchers on the harbour pray fervently that the stout wooden vessels will have a safe passage across the hostile sea,' writes Helen.

As their journey started across Breydon Water on the River Yare and then onto the river Wensum to Norwich, the Strangers were using waterways which for centuries had been the commercial arteries of Norwich.

Although there was hostility, the citizens of Norwich largely welcomed the Strangers, as letters back to the Low Countries confirm and there was sympathy for their plight as religious refugees suffering under the harsh rule of the Spanish.

The book goes on to tell in glorious detail how the Strangers set to work and how they respected the local weavers. Within 20 years the Norwich trade returned to its former prosperity and lasted for a further 200 years.

At first the Strangers' religious practices were tolerated. The council had given them Blackfriars Hall for their church serves but resentment was fuelled by the increasing number of Strangers who kept arriving in Norwich, spurred on by good reports of life in the city.

In the summer of 1578 Elizabeth visited Norwich and examined the Strangers' displays set up inside St Stephen's Gate. They presented the queen with a silver cup filled with gold coins and thanked her for giving them refuge in her kingdom.

Over the years Dutch and Walloon families returned to their homes in the Low Countries but many settled in Norfolk, and became prosperous and prominent citizens in Norwich.

'Not only did they revolutionise the textile trade but their styles of architecture were adopted; their customs, language and names can still be traced, as can their descendants today,' said Helen.

And when they arrived they brought small yellow birds with them and the people of Norwich took them to their hearts. They were called canaries.

All these years on, just a short distance from the river where the Strangers first arrived you can hear the cry: Come On You Yellows!

The Strangers of Norwich written and illustrated by Helen Hoyte is published by Red Herring Press at £9.99 and is short-listed for the 2017 Amberley Press Publishing Prize. It is on sale at Jarrold and at Norwich Castle Museum and you can order it by clicking on

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