Netherlandish workshops in London, between integration and exclusion

Sophie Cassagnes-Brouquet, Universite de Toulouse le Mirail

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council


At the end of the Middle Ages London was a prosperous town. Its suburbs were increasing and areas like Westminster or Southwark were attracting numerous craftsmen. The presence of the Court and of Westminster Abbey, with their building yards brought steynours, sculptors, painters, glaziers and also goldsmiths to the capital - both Englishmen and foreigners. Immigrants played an important part in the artistic life of London. In 1537, the city registers name 3000 heads of family, citizens of London, for a population of 60 000 inhabitants. With the members of their families, the number of citizens is about 15 000 persons. All the others are considered as strangers, foreigners or aliens.

The foreigners are Englishmen who come from the shires, aliens are strangers, born outside the kingdom. In 1440, 16 000 aliens, about 1% of the kingdom's population, live in England, with a strong concentration in the south, especially around and inside London, where their percentage is about 10%. In 1483, 1595 aliens are registered within the City and 499 dwelling in the neighbouring parishes of Middlesex. Their part in artistic crafts is very important. It fluctuates between 9% for the glaziers to 20% for the goldsmiths. They gather in the same wards, along the Thames, in the East of the town and, above all, in the suburbs of Westminster and Southwark. Their origins are very diverse, nevertheless, the great majority of aliens are described by the documents as Dutchmen or Germans. Some crafts are still dominated by local craftsmen like the sculptors. The arrival of alien sculptors seems to be quite late in London, during the two last decades of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth century.

Artistic crafts linked with the textile activity show the same evolution. At the very end of the Middle Ages, the domination of aliens is patent: King Henry VII's tapicer, John Bakes, is a Brabançon. The craft of embroidery, known under the name of opus anglicanum has the same competition. Painters and glaziers are confronted with artists native from the Netherlands, Germany or Flanders. These aliens often carry out talented careers in the service of the king or of the magnates of the kingdom. Germans are present in London, in particular the craftsmen coming from Rhenany and especially Cologne. The Dutchmen are glaziers or goldsmiths. Flemishmen and the natives of Brabant are also very numerous in London.

Aliens gather in very close communities, practising endogamy. In Southwark, they live in St Olave's parish where they work together. Masters are practically always married with a wife native from their own country. They engage themselves as workmen or apprentices in workshops ruled by people native from the same country. Workshop masters often hire their apprentices from the areas or countries where they come from. They have their own religious guilds like the one of the Dutch goldsmiths of St Eloi, in the church of St Nicholas Accon, opposed to the English fraternity of St Dunstan. Their wills manifest the emotional link that bound them until their last hour to their native country. These favoured relationships don't prevent them from wanting to join the artistic circles of London by entering in the local guilds. They bought letters of denization, engaged themselves in the corporations as masters or workmen. Only the best introduced in the court match it. They are often artists who work for the king or the magnates of the kingdom. Denization makes them Englishmen like the provincials came to make fortune in London, but doesn't make them citizens of London. They can't settle in the city and open a workshop. To be a master in London, you must be a citizen. Opening a workshop and selling products of craft is strictly forbidden. They must sell their products to the masters of the mystery. These restrictions don't prevent the arrival of many aliens. They settle and their children become members of the craft. For the poorest, assimilation can be tried by other means. They can engage them as a lowy in a workshop ruled by a Londoner master. Despite the numerous statutes forbidding the employment of strangers, London craftsmen don't despise this workforce. These relationships in the daily life of the workshops contribute to the progressive assimilation of aliens.

The competition between Englishmen and foreigners has for stake the capacity to show their superiority in matters of technicity. In the case of the glaziers, the superiority of the Dutchmen is patent. Mysteries' ordinances try to protect craftsmen from the foreign competition. They intend to limit the capacities of production and marketing of the newcomers. For the modest guilds such as the one of painters and glaziers, this fight is difficult. Their small number prevents them setting a united front with the invasion of alien artists. In the case of the painters, this fight turns out to be impossible. In 1481, their statutes, approved by the London municipality, recognize the existence of the alien labour and allow employment in workshops of non citizens. The glaziers resist more. On 27 July 1474, the mystery presents a petition to the Mayor of London. They complain about the competition of aliens and ask that their activities should be strictly controlled.

The goldsmiths of London resist more and use a great variety of means to discredit their alien competitors. In 1465, they go so far as to arrange a competition that ended with the complete defeat of the aliens settled in London and Southwark. This victory, if it has the great merit of cheering up the Englishmen on their ability, doesn't prevent the strangers from coming to London and from playing an important part in the artistic life of the town.

Alien artists receive their customers in their workshops. As English nobility is fascinated by continental art, it can find in London all sorts of products to satisfy its desire for luxury.

In 1449, the king invites the flemish glazier John Utinam on his construction sites to bring coloured glass and to teach his technique to English glaziers who ignore it. This technical superiority is confirmed some decades later by the politics of recruitment of the English sovereigns. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, all the king's glaziers are Englishmen, but with the appointment of Barnard Flower by Henry VII in 1501, the dominion of Flemishmen becomes patent. They monopolize the office during all the first half of the sixteenth century. Thus, we can imagine the fear of the London craftsmen to see the richer patrons escape them, if the court and the magnates imitate the king and also address to foreigners. Alien artists, especially coming from the Netherlands, seem to take an increasing part in the artistic life of the city of London at the beginning of the sixteenth century.