Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Flemish Influence on the Pilgrims - Part 2

The 16th century cartographic view of the English-Flemish relationship with Flanders lietrally at the top

The 16th Century Flemish ‘Swarming’ to the British Isles
Earlier Flemish immigration to the British Isles had been select, concentrated and relatively controlled. As we have seen in my earlier posting, Flemish migrants had for the most part been invited by English kings to settle in the kingdom for specific purposes. Flemings came as dependent vassals charged with subduing the Scots, fighting the Irish, or shoring up the border territories with Wales. Alternatively, colonies of Flemish artisans were encouraged with royal enticements to set up industrial colonies dedicated to the manufacture of relatively high-value woolen textiles. Over time most descendants of these Flemish immigrants shed their outwardly foreign ways and adopted the identity of their English hosts and neighbors.

In the 16th century this changed. The Tudors did not sponsor immigration as their predecessors did but rather practiced a kind of ‘open-door’ policy. The result was multiple waves of tens of thousands of Flemish immigrants flooding into Britain in what can only be depicted, to borrow the words of one historian, as a ’swarming’[i].

English towns with the heaviest concentrations of 16th century Flemish Protestant immigration populations tended to be the ones closest. Source: A Family From Flanders.

The 16th century Flemish migrations reached in England in multiple ‘swarms’. First, in the 1530s, especially after the Anabaptist fall of Munster; in the 1550s as a consequence of anti-Anabaptist efforts by the Hapsburg authorities ruling the Low Countries; during the decade 1567-1577 in advance of the Duke of Alva’s ‘reconquest’ of the Low Countries; and just after 1585 following the fall of Antwerp and its sacking by Spanish troops.

The unique feature of this century-long Flemish migration relative to earlier waves was the strong undercurrent of religious dissent as an additional motivating factor on top of traditional economic inducements[ii]. At the center of this dissent we have the seeds of both the separation of of the Church of England from Catholicism as well as that of the later dissenters from the Church of England, a movement we commonly refer to as the Puritans but who, in their day, were known as “Brownists” – after their leader, John Brown – and, still later, “Separatists”[iii]. The Separatists are the same people American history books loosely call ‘the Pilgrims’. And, as you may suspect, the Flemish were involved in creating, inspiring, financing and sheltering the Pilgrims.

The Low Countries in the 16th Century. Source: Peter Arnade, Beggars, Iconoclasts, & Civic Patriots: The Political Culture of the Dutch Revolt (Ithaca: Cornell, 2008) p.7

Protestant England via the Good Word from Flemish Printers
As with many historical watersheds, we must look for the genesis of this historical event in earlier, seemingly unconnected, developments. These developments were the Protestant Reformation and the intellectual ferment generated by it. The Reformation itself had origins even prior to Martin Luther’s October, 1517 public declaration. The historian John Murray in his excellent work, Flanders and England noted:

“By the sixteenth century, the most popular mystical book read in England was the Imitation of Christ [iv] by Thomas a Kempis (1379-1471), a work revised many times by its Netherlands author and which became the exact reflection of Flemish mysticism. English translations of it and other devotional books were printed in the Low Countries for the British market. They were the literature of the middle class and unconsciously prepared the way for the Reformation as they presented religion in a less institutionalized and more personal way.”[v]

Kempis, in the Imitation of Christ, quotes specific scriptural passages and in simple, straightforward terms lays out admonitions without ambiguity. The instructions he gives are also practical and resonate even today. “Fight like a man. Habit is overcome with habit.” Pronouncements like these could be easily remembered and woven into the popular lexicon. These statements, which deal with life, love, and the afterlife, were oft-quoted – and remain so even in 21st century America.[vi]

But perhaps one passage in particular spoke to his audience and prepared the way for those who would come after him. This message included the somewhat revolutionary hint to read the Bible. In Kempis’ Fifth Chapter, “Reading the Holy Scripture”:

“TRUTH, not eloquence, is to be sought in reading the Holy Scriptures; and every part must be read in the spirit in which it was written. For in the Scriptures we ought to seek profit rather than polished diction.”[vii]

Thomas a Kempis was an Augustinian monk. Augustinians were often viewed as more radical than other religious orders. So it is perhaps not surprising that the unleashing of the religious and political storm across 16th century Europe was also an Augustinian. The Augustinian monk we know as Martin Luther.

Martin Luther, age 46, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder, burgomeister of Wittenberg, circa 1529

Recall that it was after serious study of the Bible in Latin - and Luther not only had a Ph.D. in biblical studies but also taught at the university at Wittenberg - that Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses, charging the lax Catholic clerical hierarchy with abuses and challenging key tenets of the Catholic faith, on the castle church doors at Wittenberg in 1517. For a religious order steeped in Kempis’ writings this challenge resonated, but only with those closest to those teachings. In fact, the majority of the 15 monks who went to study this new approach to Christianity under Luther between 1516 and 1520 were in fact from Antwerp and Ghent.[viii]

Antwerp harbor, near the printing district, circa 1500

These monks returned with not only the verbal teachings but also Luther’s written religious tracts back to Antwerp. So much so that Erasmus, one of the inspirations for Luther and resident in Antwerp, wrote to English Archbishop Thomas Cardinal Wolsey in May 1519 that Luther's works were 'everywhere'. Consequently the first and most prolific publications of Luther’s teachings were run off of Antwerp's printing presses.[ix] Although the Vatican issued a Papal Bull, “Exsurge domine” (June 15, 1520) expressly prohibiting the printing at Antwerp and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V - who was not only born at Ghent but spoke Flemish (mainly to his favorite horse) - issued an edict (in March, 1521) proscribing all Lutheran writings and even holding public book burnings (over some of which he actually presided), the spread of Lutheran teachings by the Flemish was beyond the control of either Pope or Emperor[x]. In fact, by 1521, as Albrecht Durer swapped his worn Lutheran tracts for different ones with the pensionary of Antwerp, Flemish cloth merchants, imbued with Luther’s teachings, were circulating these tracts in the future birthplace of the Pilgrims, Norwich, East Anglia[xi].
That same year, 1521, German Lutheran supporters observed that: “there [Antwerp] the common folk are a thousand times more attached to the teachings of Christ and Martin [Luther] than they are here”.[xii] The highly literate Flemings in Antwerp – itself the largest city in the Low Countries at this time – demanded a Bible in the vernacular to read and understand the source, so to speak, of their new faith. From belief to action was but a short step and these Flemish Christians directly acted on Christ’s ‘Great Commission’ to go out and spread the “Good Word”.

Flemish Protestant preachers spreading the Good Word in the early 16th century

Now no longer was it necessary to know Latin to understand scriptures. But the role of the Flemish in spreading the Protestant Reformation through the printed word was not limited to the Dutch-language market. As one modern, award-winning historian, the Leuven-educated professor Guido Latre describes it:

“In the same town [Antwerp] in the same decade (1526-35), the first Dutch and the first French Bible translation in print saw the light of day, as did the first English printed Bible, the Coverdale 1535.”[xiii]

The Great Bible, 1539, created by Myles Coverdale who borrowed extensively from Tyndale and Rogers, and dedicated to King Henry VIII, who had had Tyndale killed in Flanders, and whose daughter Queen Mary, consigned Rogers to be burnt as the first Protestant martyr of her reign. This was the first authorized English Bible and the one used by the Pilgrims.

In Antwerp, in the 1520s and 1530s, the printing of Bibles for propagation was funded and managed by – among others – Jacob Van Meteren, an Antwerpenaar[xiv]. Van Meteren financed and distributed Tyndale's English language New Testament in 1526, Matthew Coverdale's Bible in 1535, and the culmination of the earlier Bibles, and the standard for Protestant England until the King James Bible in 1611, the Matthew Bible of 1537 (upon which the Great Bible was largely based). Van Meteren’s son, Emmanuel Van Meteren, who was also born at Antwerp in 1535, would later help the Pilgrims in other, more practical, ways. The younger Van Meteren also played a key role in the history of the Netherlands – writing the first modern history of the Dutch speaking people, for example – and was the first defacto Dutch Ambassador to England[xv], the closest ally of the Dutch Republic during his tenure[xvi].

William Tyndale's English Bible. Tyndale translated, printed, published, and perished in Flanders

Outlawed religious tracts came to England both through Antwerp-based printer/book-dealers like Jacob Van Meteren, Symon Cock (who often worked with William Tyndale[xvii]), Johannes Hochstraeten[xviii] and also through printer Pieter Katz and his partner Franciscus Byrckman. Like nearly all of these printers, Byrckman both printed and distributed his books – in his case through his sons in London and Cologne as part of the Hanseatic network, as well as through English merchants[xix].

William Tyndale, who many call the"Father of the English Bible" because of his work translating the New Testament into English in 1526, may have become acquainted with Byrckman and the Hanseatic network of Protestant merchants through the distribution at Salisbury Church of various liturgical tracts off of Bryckman’s Cologne and Antwerp presses in 1523 - the same year that the first two Protestant martyrs - Augustinians from Antwerp - were burned at the stake.[xx] John Rogers, alias “Matthew”, who was the editor/author of the standard English language Bible throughout much of the 16th century, was not only resident in Antwerp, but his wife, Adriana de Weyden, was an Antwerpenaar and the niece of Jacob Van Meteren.[xxi]

The cover of Jacob Van Liesvelt's Dutch language Bible, the first of its kind, printed and translated at Antwerp in 1526

By 1526, less than a decade after Luther’s declaration, the Antwerp book printer, Jacob van Liesvelt had translated and printed the first Dutch-language Bible.[xxii] Other printers, such as Antwerp printer Christoffel van Ruremund and his brother Hans, translated, printed, and distributed religious works both independently as well as with fellow printers like Pieter Kaetz (the above-mentioned Byrckman’s partner). But the logistics behind successfully exporting forbidden books and tracts required the cooperation of many hands which in practice meant that Flemish and English fellow travelers worked in concert creating something of an underground network.

Of course this did not go unnoticed by either the Flemish or the English authorities. Sir John Hackett, the resident consul at Antwerp (and fluent in Dutch), wrote the English Archbishop Thomas Cardinal Wolsey a series of letters to report this, the first as early as November 24, 1526[xxiii]. Hackett’s intelligence made it possible for Wolsey’s agents, acting upon Henry VIII’s rule and role as “Defender of the Faith”, to intercept Van Ruremund (whom they referred to as “John Raymond”). In 1527 Van Ruremund and his brother Hans printed the 4th edition of Tyndale’s New Testament and attempted to smuggle (in a grain shipload) 500 of them into England for distribution. ‘John Raymund a Dutchman’ was apprehended, “for causing fyftene hundredth of Tyndales new Testaments to be printed at Antwerpe, and for bryngyng fyue hundredth into England.”[xxiv]

Van Ruremund vanished into the English gaol and was presumably murdered there in 1528[xxv]. But his widow, Catherine, carried on printing Protestant religious tracts translated by English exiles like Tyndale, his acolyte John Fryth, and his rival George Joye, author of the first Protestant Primer (1529) as well as the first English translations of Old Testament books (1534).[xxvi]

The involvement of Flemings with the English Bible was not, however, limited to Antwerp. Resident Flemings naturalized in England were also actively involved. The first printer of the Coverdale Bible in 1535 in England, for example, was known as James Nicholson, the Anglicized name of a Flemish printer most likely from Antwerp, who corresponded regularly with Van Meteren, and who set up shop in the Flemish enclave at Southwark in London. Not only did Nicholson print the first English language Bible (Coverdale) to be printed in England, but he actively advocated for its propagation throughout the kingdom. The first official vernacular Bible that many Englishmen had access to in Reformation England then was translated in Flanders, printed and distributed by Flemings in England[xxvii]. Anecdotally Nicholson’s royal access extended to the queen herself, Anne Boleyn. It may not have been a factor in this propagation but both Anne, who gave birth to Queen Elizabeth I and her rival and successor, Jane Seymour, who gave birth to Edward VI, were of Flemish descent.[xxviii]
Anne Boleyn, of Flemish ancestry and painted before becoming the wife of Henry VIII and giving birth to Queen Elizabeth I

This flood of printed English texts out of Flanders, challenged both the authority of the Church (at this time and officially until 1534, England was still Roman Catholic) and Henry VIII (who until 1533 was attempting to secure from the Pope a divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, future mother of Queen Elizabeth I). Both affronts were ultimately challenges to the authority of King Henry VIII, as “Defender of the Faith” (ironically, a title given to Henry VIII for refuting Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation) and provoked from king and high clergy an aggressive response. Authorities on December 24th, 1529, issued an edict to prohibit any dissemination of religious tracts, including English translations of the Bible.[xxix]

The Bible, as many know, is the most published book in history[xxx]. Arguably then, the core component for the spread of Reformed Christianity (as orthodox Protestants of the time referred to their collective beliefs), began in the center of 16th century Flanders. But as we shall see, this was only one of several Flemish contributions to the Pilgrims’ exodus.

16th century printing operation in Flanders

Having direct access to God’s Word enabled the common artisan, peasant, or merchant to misinterpret the Scriptures in unforeseen ways. For most of the preceding centuries, the vast majority of those with direct understanding of scriptural tenets were clerics. Now unrestricted access to God’s Word was available to those who were literate and had both the financial means and physical proximity to the printers who lived and worked in urban centers.

The economic class that neatly fit this profile were artisans. They had both the economic independence as well as the education to and desire to question the status quo. Among the artisans this was especially true for the skilled artisans in the cloth trade. Flanders’ wealth of course was directly a result of the textile industry. Flemish weavers' economic well-being was intimately tied in with that of England, the primary source of their raw material, wool. And as we track the progression of Protestant ideas from Flanders to England and ultimately to the Pilgrims, we find one of the consistent themes is the involvement of clothworkers in the propagation of their faith.

English towns with the heaviest concentrations of 16th century Flemish Protestant immigration populations.

My next posting will follow the path of Protestant Flemish clothworkers to England and their successful efforts to not only imbue England with their interpretation of Christianity but their direct connection to the founder of the Pilgrims' Separatist movement, Robert Browne.

[i] Borrowed from John Peters, A Family From Flanders (London: Collins, 1985), p. xi who lifts it from a section called “The Swarming of the English” in a book by C. Bridenbaugh called Vexed and Troubled Englishmen (1976).
[ii] Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904) emphasized the impact a Protestant – and in particular a Calvinist or Pietist (read: Anabaptist) orientation had on economic development. In particular, he culled many of his ideas from Benjamin Franklin’s own writings on frugality and industriousness. As pointed out in several biographies, Franklin may have imbibed these teachings from his maternal grandfather, the Flemish Protestant Pieter Folger. See also an updated, more quantitative analysis of the relative economic merits of Catholic and Protestant societies in Benito Arrunada’s The Economic Effects of Christian Moralities (2004) here:
[iii] More concisely put: “The term Brownists was a common designation for early Separatists before 1620. Brownists, Independents, and Separatists were all used somewhat interchangeably for those nonconformists who broke with the Church of England.” Source: “Brownists” at
[iv] The online version of The Imitation of Christ (taken from the 1940 edition published by The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee) can be found here:
[v] Flanders and England, A Cultural Bridge: The Influence of the Low Countries on Tudor-Stuart England (Antwerp: Fonds Mercator, 1985) p.46
[vi] See
[vii] See the online 1940 translation by The Bruce Publishing Company
[viii] Reformation and Revolt in the Low Countries by Alastair Duke (New York: Hambledon & London, 2003) pp 15-16
[ix] Ibid p16. The Erasmus quote is from C.CH.G. Visser, Luther's geschriften in de Nederlanden tot 1546, (Assen, 1969), p.16 quoted in Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), p. 79
[x] The Latin text is in Corpus doc. Inquisit., Vol IV, p.29 quoted in M.E. Kronenberg, Verboden boeken en opstandige drukkers in de Hervormingstijd (Amsterdam:P.N. Van Kampen en Zoon, 1948), p.4. Kronenberg points out that the Bull itself is incorrectly dated as July 17, 1520. op.cit., footnote 4, p. The reference to Charles V's edict comes from Israel, op.cit., p.79.
[xi] The Albrecht Durer reference comes from ibid. The East Anglia reference is from Christopher Hanson-Smith, The Flemish Bond:East Anglia & The Netherlands – Close and Ancient Neighbors (Norfolk: Groundnut Publishing, 2004), p.29. Nor should this be surprising given that a relatively sizable number of the books printed in the Netherlands at this time were printed for the English market – as many as 360 of 2000 titles (Kronenberg, op.cit. p.97, citing an unnamed author in “Notes on English printing in the Low Countries (early sixteenth century)” in Transactions of the Bibliographic Society IX (Oxford, 1928), 140 vv.
[xii] Reformation and Revolt, op.cit., p.16
[xiii] “The First English Bibles in Print (Antwerp, 1526-1535)” by Guido Latre Kronenberg, op.cit., p. 93 says that the “instigator and financier” for the production and export of ‘forbidden books’ was Christian Pedersen. To me all this begs a question of “Why were all these Bibles printed at Antwerp?” First and foremost must be the early tradition of moveable type printing in Flanders. The very first moveable type printed books were in fact religious works. Please see the excellent reproductions in the 4 volume reprints Herman Liebars, ed., Alosti In Flandria anno MCCCCLXXIII (Brussel: GemeenteKrediet, 1973). Second of course must be the high literacy rate among the Flemish.Not directly related but of some peripheral interest to that question may be the discussion around why industries tend to coalesce geographically. A recent paper by Edward L. Gleaser of Harvard University, states: “Our results suggest that input-output dependencies are the most important factor, followed by labor pooling.” See for a downloadable version.
[xiv] Guido Latre, The Printing Place of the Coverdale Bible online article at
[xv] In 1553 at the tender age of 18 (as unlikely as this sounds) Emanuel Van Meteren was appointed head of the Netherlandic merchants at London. See Gustaaf Asaert’s 1585: De val van Antwerpen en de uittocht van Vlamingen en Brabanders, (Tielt: Lannoo, 2004), p.66. He was functioning in this capacity when the “Eighty Years’ War” between the Dutch rebels and Spain broke out in 1576.
[xvi] Queen Elizabeth I was in fact offered the crown of the Netherlands (north and south) in May, 1585. Instead of accepting, Elizabeth sent troops, financial assistance, and in fact appointed the defacto military governor, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester from 1585-1587. See Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic, op.cit., pp.219-230.
[xvii] Kronenberg, op.cit., p. 105. Kronenberg points (p. 80) out that Jonn Fryth had his first polemic printed by Cock in 1531.
[xviii] Ibid, pp.74-83. Hochstraeten was the nom de plume of Hans Luft. Luft printed at least 13 proscribed English language books of Tyndale and his assistant Frith between 1528 and 1539 (p.78). [xix] Ibid, pp.99-100.
[xx] ibid pp.100-101. See Israel, The Dutch Republic, op.cit. p.82 for a recounting of the martyrdom July 1, 1523. Note that there seems to be a great deal of dissonance between the actual names of the martyrs, their origin, etc. But the one common thread is that they were Augustinians at Antwerp when they were charged. See for example, and for some quick checks on popular dissemination of variations on the 'who'.
[xxi] Rogers’ wife, Adrienne de Weyden/van der Weede – who Anglicized her name to Adriana Pratt in 1552 (but is sometimes – and their ten children witnessed his burning at the stake at Smithfield in 1555. See J. Foxe, Ecclesiasticall history conteyning the actes & monuments of martyrs, II (London, 1576). One of these children, Daniel, ironically became Queen Elizabeth's chief spy/diplomat to the United Provinces. See J.A. Van Dorsten, Poets, Patrons and Professors: Sir Philip Sidney, Daniel Rogers and the Leiden Humanists, (Leiden, The University Press, 1962).

[xii] Ibid p.10. Also,
[xxiii] Kronenberg, op.cit., p.101. For a modern chronology of this time period, albeit with a fairly anti-Catholic theme, please see the Fundamentalist Baptist site called “William Tyndale: The Father of Our English Bible” at Incidentally, Wolsey was a native of Ipswich, East Anglia, where a large resident Flemish clothworkers colony resided and a town which later became a source of some of the Pilgrims to America.
[xxiv] J. Foxe, Ecclesiasticall history conteyning the actes & monuments of martyrs, II (London, 1576), 1013 quoted in Kronenberg, p.102. The online version (1563 edition) lists a different page for John Roger's martyrdom. See for the precise reference, although the interrogation, etc. proceeds from pages 1022 to 1037.
[xxv] Ibid, p.103. See also John Foxe’s interesting hint that “Christopher, a Dutchman from Antwerp, was burned for distributing New Testaments” in 1531. Brian Moynaghan in God's Bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible---A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal (London: St. Martin’s Press, 2003) p. 309 says that Christoffel was arrested in Antwerp in 1528 and again while on a business trip to London in 1531. He says Hans was arrested and disappeared in prison in 1528.
[xxvi] Ibid, pp.103-104.
[xxvii] Arthur Geoffrey Dickens, The English Reformation First published 1964, 2nd ed. first published 1989, p.153.
[xxviii] See The essence of Anne Boleyn’s story captures the prevalence of Flemings in Tudor England. Anne Boleyn was of Flemish ancestry and her royal portrait was painted by a Fleming (Frans Pourbus); she was allegedly seduced by a Flemish musician (Mark Smeaton) and her rival for the affection of King Henry VIII was another woman of Flemish ancestry (her successor, Jane Seymour). Boleyn was tried and condemned by nobles led by Thomas Cromwell – also of Flemish ancestry. Her execution was carried out by a Flemish swordsman from Sint Omaars – where even today they speak Flemish even though it is part of French Artois!. Importantly, Anne Boleyn, like her successor’s successor, Catherine Howard, was a niece of the Duke of Norfolk. And, like the largest number of the Pilgrims, born at Norfolk. Incidentally, one of the areas with the heaviest numbers of Flemish protestant refugees.
[xxix] Blackford Condit, The History of the English Bible, (London: A.S. Barnes, 1882), p.113 Found online at The only text of the decree I could find is here (missing the list of banned books):
[xxx] See

Copyright 2008 by David Baeckelandt


  1. Mooi werk. Eén suggestie: maak je posten korter en deel ze in stukjes op (en publiceer op meerdere dagen).

  2. Dank U wel! Uitstekende aanbevelingen. Ik zal uw ideeën proberen en volgen. Met vriendelijke groeten vanuit Chicago...

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Please could you tell me where the picture of Antwerp harbour is from, or who it is by? Thanks.

    1. As a matter of fact, this is a miniature by Simon Bening, early 16th century. It depicts a scene in the harbor of Brugges.