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 In the 16th century, one man from Norwich, Thomas Sotherton, wanted to encourage these refugees to settle in Norfolk, specifically, because the immigrant’s skills in textiles made them valuable to the economy. Like many people in Norwich, Thomas opened-up his house (which was latterly to become known as Strangers’ Hall) to the newly arrived population. As a mediaeval merchant’s house, Sotherton’s property was used for both business and living accommodation; a common practice for mediaeval merchants’ dwellings. Therefore, Strangers’ Hall wasn’t built or established for the strangers arriving in 1565 but was used by them as an available property. Only one known family lived in the Hall from 1567. The letter written by the family lodging at Strangers’ refers to it as ‘Master Thomas’ property in the High Street.’ The hall is a museum today and we are delighted to welcome the museum’s Assistant Curator of Social History, Bethan Holdridge, to the show today to tell us about the history of Strangers’ Hall and the impact of the influx of refugees to the area during Shakespeare’s lifetime. 

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Bethan Holdridge has worked for Norfolk Museums Service for nearly twenty years. As a curator of social history she is something of a Jack of All Trades, however, she has a particular interest in the development of mediaeval households, dining etiquette and the fascinating history of everyday things; you can see Bethan talking about airplanes on the television show Plane Resurrection. She is one of the main leads in Norfolk Museums Service gaining its Museum of Sanctuary award and works closely with charities welcoming people who are newly arrived into the city of Norwich by helping them to access the museums and ensuring that they have a representation in the museum’s collections and displays. In her spare time, Bethan is a Morris Dancer and teaches two local sides. In 2000 Bethan was one of six dancers and two musicians who recreated Will Kemp’s morris dance from London to Norwich.

I’ll be asking Bethan Holdridge about:

  • Who were the refugees coming to England in the 16th century? 
  • Was Stranger’s Hall originally Thomas Sotherton’s personal home? 
  • What updates were done on the structure of the house to make it suitable for immigrants, specifically?  
  • …and more!

The Welcome Stranger: Dutch, Walloon And Huguenot Incomers To Norwich 1550–1750

Alistair Duke and Christopher Joby:

Original letters translated by Alistair Duke:

Strangers’ Hall, Norwich | Taken by Northmetpit 21 May 2011 | This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. | Source

Strangers arriving in England for the 16th century  

The influx of strangers to England refers to the arrival of refugees from anywhere outside England. We have discussed specifically the French Huguenots previously on That Shakespeare Life, but as Bethan explains in this episode, there were refugees coming for many reasons from several countries around Europe.

“…[at] Strangers’ Hall we now tell the tale of the Strangers but we don’t know for sure whether the Hall was named after those refugees. The term “Strangers” in early English was anyone that was outside of your area. In the records of Norwich in particular we have a reference to a Nicholas le Jay from the 13th century, who appears in the court records, and he’s termed a stranger because he’s outside the medieval city walls; so the term Stranger meant anyone from outside your locality. Where Strangers in  Norwich differ is that in 1565, the person living in Strangers’ Hall, invited strangers to Norwich to be weavers, and they came from Holland, Northern France, Walloon etc. The original invitees had previously settled in other areas of the country before they came to Norwich: Sandwich or Canterbury. Not all 30 who were originally invited decided to make the move. It was in 1567, two years after those original 30 families came to Norwich, that we have a refugee crisis. The low countries were being attacked by the Catholic Spanish, and it was religious persecution in the extreme. They would be killed if they didn’t have Roman Catholic artifacts in their homes, so they fled to Norwich in significant numbers.   

Stranger’s Hall Undercroft, the oldest part of the property at Stranger’s Hall in Norwich. | Strangers Hall Undercroft by Ashley Dace, September 2008 | This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph’s page on the Geograph website for the photographer’s contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Ashley Dace  and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. | Source

Thomas Sotherton’s Personal Home 

Strangers’ Hall may be named after the efforts of Thomas Sotherton, who was owner of the property at one time and responsible for inviting strangers specifically to live at the hall for the economic value to Norwich their work provided. However, Sotherton was not the only person to own the property.

The oldest part is the undercroft, which is like a warehouse; it’s a stone building, it is fireproof, and keeps a relative humidity and temperature. It also provides a level platform for the house above. It dates back to 1320, the person owned it then was Ralph Middleton, and several families have owned it since. Thomas Sotherton wasn’t the first— Agnus and Nicholas Sotherton lived there before him and after the Sothertons the Paine family come in and they all have it as their house, but also their business, it was a medieval merchant house it was a merchant’s house, where he stored his wares, did his business, had his shop, where he lived with his family and servants, but also because these people who were living there were the rich and well to do of Norwich, they became the ruling elite of Norwich and it became a place to entertain the civic elite of Norwich.  

Stranger’s Hall Has Not Changed Much Through Time

Many owners have come and gone to the property, along with a varied scope of uses for the space as well, so structurally, there have been many changes to the building itself.

We do know that a lot of the Strangers who came to Norwich would have lived in the Alderman’s houses, we know there was a family who lived in a wing of Strangers’ Hall and thanks to the work of Alistair Duke and Chris Joby, there’s a letter 1567, written from Strangers’ Hall…[in the letter, the anonymous person writes about how] there’s a Great Chamber, right up high, with two closets that are like small cupboards, and we believe the person who wrote that letter was lodging in this room….whoever this was at Strangers’ Hall was someone who was from the upper echelons in Ypres, which is where it was going to, and the person maybe knew Sotherton in a mercantile way, which segued into an invitation for this stranger. Whether or not the letter writer ran a business at the house we don’t know, but it is unlikely he’d have been a physical weaver with a workshop in Strangers’ Hall.

Bethan explains in this episode details about how to card wool, as an example of the kind of work the strangers were doing. If you are new to the history of making wool (as I was, too), here’s a video that shows what carding the wool looks like when it is done by hand. Today, there are machines that separate this material out to create clean wool, but in Shakespeare’s lifetime, this would have been done in a similar fashion to what’s in this example video. The audio on this video is in German, and I do not speak German, so there is no translation provided.

Engraving by Poisson after a painting by Pierre Sonnerat (1748-1814), showing a man carding raw cotton, (using a card or comb to clean or disentangle the fibres prior to weaving). Illustration from Sonnerat’s ‘Voyage aux Indes Orientales et a la Chine, fait par ordre du roi, depuis 1774 jusqu’en 1781’ (‘Voyage to the East Indies and China, made by order of the king, from 1774 to 1781’), published in 1782. | Public Domain| Source

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!