The former county of Flanders, which was located on the North Sea and was often linked to both Belgium and the Netherlands, provided Britain with a large number of immigrants during the medieval period. They became invaluable contributors to the development of Britain and contributed more to British industrial development than any other single group. The Flemish began to arrive in Britain at the time of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Walter Bec of Flanders led a contingent of his countrymen, who fought as allies of Duke William of Normandy during the Battle of Hastings. Following the Norman victory, many of the Flemish were granted lands upon which they settled permanently. Many more Flemish migrants arrived in 1107, after a large part of Flanders had been flooded. Some of them went to Northumbria, but were later transferred to the Welsh county of Pembroke.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, Flanders was one of England's most important trading partners and political allies. The people of Flanders were unable to support themselves through agriculture, so they turned to industry. They came to dominate the cloth industry of Europe and imported large quantities of fine British wool, since their own wool was too coarse. England also exported other commodities to Europe, especially grain, tin, and coal. In return, the English imported Flemish cloth.
After his accession in 1154, King Henry II banished the Flemish and other foreigners, since mercenaries under the command of William of Ypres had fought on the side of his rival, King Stephen, during the recent civil wars. In 1215, the terms of the Magna Carta again officially expelled Flemish settlers in England. More official expulsions followed in 1270 and 1305. However, these prohibitions were never strictly enforced.
During the 13th and 14th centuries, the Flemish were given royal permission to visit England to buy wool. A large number of these visitors remained in Britain, where they dominated the trades of paper-making, publishing, glass-blowing, glove-making, and weaving. So many remained that one contemporary observer noted that there were five races in Britain: Scots, Welsh, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, and Flemish.
The migrants that settled in England and Scotland became ardent patriots. During the storming of Berwick in 1296, Flemish defenders barricaded themselves in the Red Hall and stubbornly fought to the death. Nevertheless, the reputation of the Flemish as clever and industrious workmen occasionally aroused local jealousy. During the peasant revolt led by Wat Tyler in 1318, for example, many who failed to say the words "bread and cheese" without a foreign accent were denounced as Flemish and executed. Despite this, the hard-working Flemish prospered and spread throughout Britain. They became particularly numerous in the Scottish county of Lanark and the Welsh county of Glamorgan, and in Ireland, where they were well-known by the 13th century.
- ^ Swyrich, Archive materials
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