By John J. Murray – The American Historical Review, Vol. 62, No.4, (1957); pp. 837-854
“Historians have treated at some length the cultural impact of Celt, German, Scandinavian, Frenchman, Spaniard, and Italian, but they have too often ignored the significance of the Flemings. This is indeed curious, for cultural currents from the Flemish speaking Low Countries seriously although quietly helped to shape the flow of British life, especially during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the long run, their significance was perhaps equal to and in some respects superior to the combined influences of Italy and France….
“While the military marched, Flemish civilians flocked to England by the thousands seeking to escape the rapine, slaughter, and economic chaos resulting from Protestant and Catholic furies that alternately swept the Low Countries. The Flemings came as “strangers” and attended their own Dutch speaking churches, but their children born in England were British. Many became Anglicans, adopted British habits, and changed their names. But when Willem van der Straaten became William Streets, and Hoek became Leeke, and Haerstricht, the Flemish manufacturer at Bow, became James, they did not desert completely the old ways and the old customs…When they built their homes, they incorporated in them nostalgic reminders of their Flemish ancestry….
“Refugee traffic between the two countries ran both ways: Flemings came to England and Englishmen went to the Netherlands…. The Pilgrim Fathers were not a unique group so far as seventeenth-century Holland was concerned, and it is to be remembered that they did not embark for the New World before they had acquired some Dutch ideas and customs….
“Economic activities also provided a pathway for Flemish ideas. From the Low Countries, England drew many artisans and craftsmen, and these Flemish refugees brought new crafts with them. The coming of the “new Draperies” to England is directly connected with the Elizabethan settlements of Flemish refugees in Norwich, Sandwich, Colchester, London, and elsewhere. During Elizabeth’s reign, eleven thousand artisans from Ghent, mostly weavers, came to England….
“The town of Norwich opened its gates to four thousand Flemish strangers, the majority of whom were in the cloth trade….
“In spite of some local animosities, the immigrants prospered….they provided not only for their own poor but for the poor of their hosts as well….King and Parliament, however, levied heavy charges on them, and as a result some…migrated to the New World….
“Sir Thomas Gresham modeled the Royal Exchange on the Antwerp Bourse; Sir Balthazar Gerbier…outlined a plan for a bank for England in 1641; and fifty-three years later, under a Dutch king [William III], the Bank of England came into existence, with Sir James Houblon, grandson of a Flemish immigrant, as its first governor….
“One way to evaluate the importance of the Low Countries influence on England is to study the numerous Flemish words that crept into the English language….the common origin of many words and the similarity between English and Flemish in the fifteenth century. A pamphleteer could comment two hundred years later that ‘most of our old words are Dutch’….
“The test of language shows very clearly England’s debt….in maritime ventures. As might be expected, the English language abounds with Dutch nautical and marine terms…The influence of the Low Countries on English shipping [and exploration] extended [still] further…’The reform of cartography in the sixteenth century owed much to the achievements of Mercator and Ortelius.’ In the seventeenth century, Flemish predominance [in cartography] continued unabated….
“Flemings played a definite role in the history of English printing….From 1483, when Flemish printers first began to issue books for the English market, to 1640 over two hundred Flemish printers and booksellers had connections with England. Christopher Plantin, Martinus de Keyser, the Elseviers, the Blaeuws, and Hans Luft printed books specifically for English buyers. Others such as Christoffel van Ruremund and his brother Hans sold their books personally in England.…A third group, in which were Emanuel van Meteren, Stephen Mierdam, and Nicholas van de Berghe, settled in England and became British subjects.
“These booksellers and printers of Flemish birth and extraction were in the forefront in the battle for men’s minds and souls waged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A steady stream of Bibles and Protestant tracts were smuggled into England from the Low Countries. After [the Duke of] Parma was able to save the Southern Netherlands for the Spanish crown and for Rome, Antwerp and Brussels became focal points for the printing and distribution of Jesuit and other Catholic books [bound for British Catholics]….
“Flanders served as the outlet for disseminating information during the seventeenth-century religious conflicts in England, and its thinkers actually contributed many important ideas to British theological arguments….There was a direct, traceable progression of latitudinarian ideas from Erasmus, through Arminius and Grotius, to Milton and John Locke….In few periods in English history has thought been so vitally affected by ideas and occurrences in a foreign country….
“The controversy of the Dutch Remonstrant followers of Arminius with the orthodox party in the Netherlands was ‘followed with breathless interest in England’. British ecclesiastics sat at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619)….and were loud in their praise of orthodox champions such as Gomarus [of Flanders and an acquaintance of the Pilgrims]….
“[The Protestant sect of] Congregationalism drew strength from the Netherlands as well as from New England. The English separatists [from which America’s Pilgrims came], during their stay in the Low Countries, ‘had been considerably influenced by their Arminian and Anabaptist neighbors’ [in Leiden, which was nearly 70% made up of refugees, primarily from Flanders]…
“In the arts, as in other fields…Flemish polyphony merged with the active native [=British] tradition….Such Flemish musicians as Johannes Okelgem, Josquin des Pres, and Orlande de Lassus, through the subsequent developments of the Italo-Flemish and Franco-Flemish schools of music, left their mark on English music….
“The influence of Flemish painters upon those in England began as far back as the Flemish primitives. Touching the portrait painters of the Tudors, it reached its greatest significance in the seventeenth century. Within the short space of thirty-five years (1634-1668), the Dutch words ‘easel’, ‘etch’, ‘maulstick’, ‘landscape’, and ‘sketch’ were added to the English language, while at the same time the artists Van Dyke, Rubens, Huysman, and others enjoyed a tremendous vogue in England…
“The fashion of having one’s portrait done by Flemish painters has sometimes provided the historian his only real idea of the appearance of many historical personages. The two Gheerharts, the De Critzes, Hans Eworth, Antonis Mor, Lucas de Heere, Joos van Cleef, to mention a few, reveal the character of various Tudor and Jacobean figures and illustrate the clothing of their times…
“What the portrait painters did for people, the two Van de Veldes…did for ships. Pepys could ask in his Naval Minutes, “What sea-scape of our nation have we ever had like Vandervelde [sic] or the others?’…
“Flemish [art] collectors and dealers, such as Gerbier and De Critz, did much to foster art in England and to preserve the masters for posterity. The English debt to them during the dispersal of the Royal and Buckingham collections cannot be overstressed….
“Architects from John Thorpe in the sixteenth century to Christopher Wren in the early eighteenth century…incorporated many Flemish characteristics in their own work….Wren steeples and Jacobean gabled houses bear testimony to Flemish influences….
“British household interiors, like their exteriors, sometimes became Flemish Renaissance….The Flemish bow, C-scroll, and curve can be found at least individually if not collectively in all chairs made in the late Stuart period….[In 1622]Johannes Fromanteel made the first long case, or perhaps we should say ‘grandfather’ clock….One of these clocks merrily ticked away in Dickens’ ‘old curiosity shop’.…[these] examples of marquetry and inlay were put to excellent use, not only in the manufacture of clock cases but also in the making of chests and cupboards. [Recall that] ‘Veneer’ is a Dutch word… [In wall-hangings] Up to the beginning of the reign of Charles I [reigned 1625-1649], Flemish tapestry makers dominated the British markets.
“In the sixteenth century a light plow that could be drawn by two horses was invented in the Netherlands, and it was introduced into Norfolk and Suffolk during the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Farmers in the Netherlands employed crop rotation, and in the seventeenth century Sir Richard Weston advocated the application of such Flemish methods to British agriculture. He initiated the planting of Dutch clover, so that in Norfolk and the Fen country, clover cultivation was practiced some years before 1700. Thirty years later, a decided impetus was given to the practice of crop rotation when Charles Viscount Townsend…quit his office of Secretary of State and returned to Raynham, his Dutch-style home, to farm his lands according to the ‘Husbandrie used in Brabant and Flanders.’
“Before the coming of the Flemings, the art of gardening seems to have been lost by the English…Queen Katherine of Aragon [1485-1536] had her table supplied from the Low Countries for she was unable to obtain the makings for a salad in all of England….[these] immigrants changed asparagus, artichokes, and water cress from aphrodisiacs and women’s remedies [in English minds] to edibles. By 1699, when Evelyn wrote his Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, he could find in London gardens the ingredients needed to fill the salad bowl….
“Engineers from the Low Countries altered the face of England and shamed the British by their industry, ‘which makes them seem as if they had a faculty from the worlds Creation out of water to make dry land.’…Sir Richard Weston, in about 1645, brought out of Flanders ‘the Contrivance of Locks, Turnpikes, and tumbling Boyes for Rivers.’ Charles II, during a yachting party on September 11, 1680, had a discussion with Pepys on how it came ‘to pass that England has at all times served itself with strangers for engineers.’ By far the majority of those foreign engineers were Flemings….
“New industries meant new commodities; new tools and scientific instruments made new tasks possible….New eating habits and new drinking habits became established. The Dutch word ‘brewery’ took the place of the English word ‘brewhouse’…The stylish ruffle [worn by the elite] of the reign of Elizabeth [1558-1603] and the widespread use [in England] of lawn and cambric can both be traced to the Low Countries, as can the use of starch. On the streets, the new coach from Antwerp [first brought in the 1560s by the husband of the woman who introduced starch], often pulled by mares from Flanders, appreciably changed the London scene.
“The Flemish strangers themselves gave a colorful twist to English history. Some were sober and hard-working artisans; some were godly and walked with the saints; but others were more of the flesh than of the spirit…. Some of the newcomers were merchants, bankers, goldsmiths, engineers, architects, and doctors; others were freaks, acrobats, artists, and entertainers. Some sank down into the depths of the London underworld while others rose to mingle with the high and the mighty. One, Isaac Doreslaer, helped brief the legal arguments that sent Charles I to the scaffold; another, John de Critz the second, lost his life before Oxford fighting for the Royalist cause.
“An attempt has been made here to place in proper perspective the great debt that Britain owes to the Flemish Low Countries during the period in which Britain was developing….Just as European thought was given a definite British tinge before it came to Boston and Philadelphia, so did the characteristics of the Renaissance and Reformation receive Flemish overtones before they arrived in Norwich and London.
Professor Murray’s article originally was delivered as a speech on November 13, 1954 at the first meeting of the Midwest Conference of British Historians.
Copyright 2010 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction in any form without my express, written consent.