The Generous Mercer of Hempstead

For Refugee Week 2019, David Stannard has looked at the impact of immigrants from Europe to the east coast of Norfolk and their links with the local textile industry.

The East Norfolk Textile Industry

The wider historical record makes it clear that the medieval weaving and textile industry was of great importance to the economy of east Norfolk, albeit there were fluctuations in the success of the industry, often due to competition from near neighbours in the Netherlands. One response to these economic downturns, particularly during the reign of Edward III and his consort Phillipa of Hainault, saw Flemish weavers and their families encouraged to come to Norfolk with new ideas and working practices as a means to revive the local industry. Similar activity took place during Tudor times with further waves of immigrants from the near Continent coming to east Norfolk, with the wills of the parishioners of Hempstead and Eccles at this time revealing how textiles were an important aspect of their everyday lives, and their celestial futures.

The Wills Tell the Local Story

In medieval East Anglia textiles have been identified as one of the most popular items donated to churches, reflecting the importance of the textile trade to the local economy. A motivating factor for many people was the concept that the cloth could become a ‘contact relic’, the textile would hold the essence of its owner, and if they came into contact with the host, the host could imbue the cloth with mystical power. [1] Painted cloths depicting the events of the Resurrection would be hung on cross staves and carried aloft as part of the Rogation procession, and even more significantly used as altar cloths. In the pre-Reformation church these intercessory gifts were intended to aid the testators’ celestial future, speeding their time through purgatory to reach the sanctity of heaven.

In his will written in Latin (NRO, NCC will register Woolman 22) and proved at Norwich on January 7th 1488 Robert Derham, (possibly an anglicised form of the Flemish surname ‘de Rham’) parishioner of Hempstead St. Andrew bequeaths four yards of linen cloth to the altar of Hempstead church; whilst John Wersdall, also of Hempstead in his will proved at Dilham on June 19th 1525 (NRO, ANF will register Liber 8 Brockenhole, fo. 114) leaves money to purchase ‘steynd’ cloths (stained meaning decorated) for the High Altar and St. John’s Altar in Hempstead church. Similarly, in her will written on September 12th 1535 Agnes Mertons, (NRO, ANF will register Liber 9 Gillior, fo. 115) widow of Hempstead states:

‘first I bequeath to ye hey Auter  [high altar] vjd [6d] and I bequeth to the ij [2] Awteres [altars]  to any of them a cloth…’

Walter Grene of neighbouring Eccles also uses textiles as an intercessory gift but in a more practical way, where he bequeaths, ‘Item to xij [12] pore folk xij  [12]  shirtes  or smockes..’ which would have been distributed at his funeral (NRO, NCC will register, Deynes 69). Walter’s son Christopher was at that time the Rector of Eccles, so he must have officiated at his father’s funeral, and no doubt played a role in determining which twelve poor people should benefit from Walter’s bequest.

An Unusual Will

In the wake of the English Reformation the somewhat unusual text of the will of Francis Harte of Hempstead (NRO, ANF will register Liber 21 Waterladde, fo. 70) makes it clear from his many bequests of cloth that he was closely connected to the cloth trade of east Norfolk, where his will carries many of the aspects normally associated with a probate inventory. He was almost certainly a mercer, selling a wide variety of cloth to the residents of the surrounding villages, where he says his bequests of cloth should ‘be taken owte of my packe’; in other words his stock of merchandise.

Francis makes the usual type of monetary bequests to the church and his family as well as bequests in cloth, sometimes in lengths of material and on other occasions in terms of its value:

‘Item I bequeathe to my syster Heylette in brode clothe and frese to the values of fortie shillings to be prised by two honest men and to my brother Heylette in clothe also to the valew of tenne shillings..’

He goes on to appoint Edmunde Tucke and Edmunde Wrighte of Hicklinge as ‘prisers’ , [appraisers] these are his two ‘honest men’ who are not only to supervise the distribution of his bequests to the beneficiaries but also ensure the amount of cloth they receive meets the various values stipulated by Francis.

Retail Activity in Rural Hempstead

Francis was the son of Thomas Harte of Hempstead, whose will written on September 30th 1545 (NRO, NCC will register Deynes 207[1] provides firm evidence of retail activity in Hempstead and a very obvious link to his son’s mercery. Thomas leaves his estate to his children, Steven, Isabel and Francis where he says,

‘Also I give to Isabell my Doughter all thinges that is in the shoppe with the chamber in the yarde tyll forsayd Isabel be maried and then I wooll yt remayne to Stephen my sonne  Also I wooll that Stephen shall kepe yt water thite and winde thighte at his proper costs          and chardge.’

Steven was the older brother of Francis so would have been the principal heir, but as such Steven is also required by Thomas to look after his younger siblings where he states:

Also I will that Stephane my sonne shall have all my howse and all my londes bothe free and bonde lyinge in hympsted under this condicion that the foresaid Stephane shall paye or cause to be payde to Isabell five markes and to frannice v [5] markes A marke everie yere to the said tenne markes be full contentid and payde’

By the time of his death Thomas was a widower, so presumably Steven must have inherited the farm, Isobel ran the shop and when she got married Francis then took it over, but unfortunately there is no record of Steven’s will to help confirm all this.

The Wealthy Mercer

Given his generosity in both textiles and money Francis must have been fairly wealthy, reflecting the importance of the textile trade to the local economy in Tudor times. Francis bequeaths to the church, the poor of the parish and his family and friends a total of £32:17s4d; a significant sum in the mid-16th century. He also mentions the following textiles in the will:

Broadcloth [Brode] – This was an expensive, fine quality cloth used for good quality garments; usually produced in black, but Francis obviously had a good stock of red brode. A statute of 1535/6 laid down a breadth of 63 inches for broadcloth which was reduced in 1584/5 to 58½ inches. Broadcloth was expensive because it took two people to weave using the standard loom of that time, with red brode of even greater value from the expense of the dyeing process. He bequeaths ‘brode redd’ to the value of £2:10s to close family members, a further 3½ yards to acquaintances and another indeterminate amount of this material to his brother Steven to make him a coat.

Frieze – a woollen cloth where the nap is raised by rubbing to give a pleasing texture, also used for outer garments such as coats and cloaks. Francis bequeaths to family and friends a total of 22½ yards of ‘grey frieze’.

Cotten [Cotton] – this was probably imported from North Africa.

Housewives Cloth – coarse linen made from hemp for household use. Francis bequeaths 4 yards to make Alice Stoner a pair of sheets.

Sheets – these were probably fine linen sheets which Francis bequeaths to his relatives the Myhills of Ingham, rather than ‘coarse sheets’ which were made from hemp.

Kersey [Carsey] – coarse woollen cloth from Kersey, the Suffolk village of that name. Francis bequeaths ‘Carsey’ cloth to the value of £4. The different spelling may indicate the way in which the name of the village was pronounced in Elizabethan times.

Northern [Noden] Cloth – this was similar to Kersey, Francis bequeaths just over 3½ yards to family and friends.[2]

Francis worked in close cooperation with brother-in-law William Myhill of Ingham who was obviously a tailor since Francis specifies, ‘that william Myhill of yngham have the making of all these garments beforesaide’, although whether or not the beneficiaries had to pay William for his work is not clear. However, Francis also leaves the Myhill’s bedclothes and other household items, and very generous legacies of £10 each to their children when they come of age, with future provision made through a savings bond if other children come along.

Evidence of Flemish Immigration to Hempstead

Francis Harte’s will can also give some indications of the strong links which existed between east Norfolk and the near Continent through the weaving and cloth industry, where the Hartes and Myhills may well have been of immigrant French speaking Walloon origins. Indeed, Myhill, a variant of Michael is derived from Old French ‘Mihel’ and is recognised as a typically East Anglian name, whilst the surname Harte, from the male red deer, is of Dutch origin and has a wide usage across Europe. Both names appear in ‘England’s Immigrants’, [3] a database of alien subsidy returns and letters of denization held by the National Archives.

The Flemish weaving link is well recognised where Elizabethan ‘Strangers’ arrived in Norwich in 1566 after an official invite from Queen Elizabeth, which allowed, ‘therty Douchmen of the Low Countreys of Flaunders’ [24 Dutch weavers and 6 Walloon weavers] and their families and servants to settle in Norwich. [4] With the will dated 1563 the Harte’s were obviously not part of this group, however there were earlier influxes of Flemish weavers into Norfolk. After the Norman Conquest a group of Flemish weavers seized the opportunity to develop trade in Norwich (a place they had often sold to) by moving to the area, and in 1336 Flemish wool weavers emigrated to Worstead in Norfolk where Oliver de Gros set up the Worstead Market. [5] Similar emigrations of skilled workers occurred in East Anglia throughout the 14th century when Edward III issued several letters of protection encouraging Flemish textile workers to establish their trade in England; [6] perhaps the Harte and Myhill families of Hempstead and Ingham derived from these migrations.

Although a post-Reformation will the bequests made by Francis, particularly the exceedingly generous £10 to be distributed to the poor of the parish at his burial, bear all the hallmarks of Catholic intercessory bequests. By 1563 such practices had long been made illegal, perhaps giving evidence that this is the will of a committed Catholic, and a further clue to a possible Walloon heritage of the generous mercer of Hempstead.

Researched and compiled by David Stannard

[1]  This is one version of the will of Thomas Hart of Hempstead proved at Norwich on October 27th 1545. Thomas also made another will on the same day, (NRO, NCC will register German 13 ) which expresses very similar sentiments but was not proved.

[2] Definitions of cloth types from ‘A Researcher’s Glossary’ by David Yaxley, Larks Press

[3] England’s Immigrants 1330-1550 ( Version 1.0

[4] Laura Crossley [2013] ‘Norfolk and the Low Countries: A Shared History.  Norwich HEART

[5] Ibid

[6] ‘Drapery in Exile: Edward III. Colchester and the Flemings, 1351-1367’ by Bart Lambert and Milan Pajic [2014].

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1 Response to The Generous Mercer of Hempstead

  1. Pingback: An Elizabethan Beguinage in Hempstead cum Eccles, Norfolk? | Norfolk Record Office

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