Lambert’s research into migration flows during the late Middle Ages reveals that Jan Wetter’s migration to England and the success he made of his life were not as exceptional as we might think. Jan Wetter was a native of the County of Flanders that today corresponds to the Belgian provinces of East and West Flanders plus Zeeuws Vlaanderen in the Netherlands and tracts of northern France.
“Little is known about the figure of Jan Wetter in Flanders” says Lambert. “More details are available on his time in England. He was called a Fleming, though that was a term that could be used for anybody hailing from the Low Countries. In his case he did come from the County of Flanders. Wetter was a Lincoln innkeeper and even became mayor of the city”.
Research by the VUB historian reveals that several immigrants from western Europe held important political offices in medieval England: “There’s a Mayor of Southampton, who was an Italian, while a German even became Mayor of York”.
Records of a tax due from anybody not born and bred in England shed light on migration flows from the continent.
“The King of England introduced the tax in 1440. Some believe it helped to fund English exploits during the Hundred Years War, but others think it was a cunning method of keeping tabs on foreigners on English soil” says Lambert.
During the 15th century around 1.5% of the population of England was born outside the kingdom. In the cities this figure was higher. In London the figure stood at 7%, while in ports like Bristol and Southampton this figure rose to 12%.
So why did people leave the Low Countries to settle in England during the 15th century? Lambert speaks of a prosperous Flanders, but with a lot of political unrest below the surface.
“There were revolts in several cities. Groups battled it out or there was a conflict with the authorities. Often, those who lost would leave the country.”
Flooding affected parts of Zeeland and Brabant. A small group of people emigrated on ecological grounds. “They were a kind of climate refugees” says Lambert “and established a new life for themselves in England.”
Economic motives also played a role: “There was great demand for the skills of Flemish craftsmen. Cobblers, tailors, goldsmiths and brewers all filled a hole in England’s labour market. In small and medium-sized towns the foreigners were welcome. Resistance to competition from these immigrants was greater in the big cities.”
Moving to a different country involved little of the red tape we are used to today. “There were hardly any border controls, except in times of war. Travel was easy and you encountered few difficulties settling elsewhere. In many towns you did need to fork out some cash to become a citizen and be active in certain professions.”
“You had to be a citizen in order to vote and to stand for election. As a result it was above all rich immigrants who landed the top jobs in local government. It was a male only affair. Women were excluded from local politics.”
Knowledge of English wasn’t that important in those days.
“15th century sources show a pragmatic approach. Knowing English wasn’t the most important thing.”
Lambert gleaned most of his information from records at the National Archives in Kew.
“The English were good at tax collection and central government co-ordinated everything. All the data ended up in one and the same place and that is helpful to research.”
Comparable evidence telling us about the migration of English people to the Low Countries is not available.
“Bruges and Antwerp were among the most important commercial hubs in the 14th and 15th centuries. Both cities attracted numerous merchants involved in the wool and cloth trade and we do know quite a lot about them. Much less is known, however, about other people who may have migrated from England to the Low Countries. That is due to a lack of sources like the lists of the English tax on immigrants” concludes Lambert.