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River Wensum at Norwich

Our Dutch and Low Country links

Norfolk used to be joined to the Continent. Yes, really! It was only the final thawing of the last Ice Age around 5000BC that separated us, but during the past few millennia there has been constant traffic between our shores and those of Europe. Some have been invaders, pillagers or colonialists, but our ties with the Low Countries have been largely friendly, not least because of important trading links.

So, you see, there's nothing but the sea between us and Europe.

George Vincent Fisherfolk and Dutch vessels on Yarmouth beach

Through to the 18th century Norwich was the second city of England. It was a busy cultural capital, heavily settled by those who had come over the North Sea, including the Dutch and Huguenots escaping religious persecution. Yes, the North Sea has always been a carrier, not a barrier.

They helped create many of Norfolk’s trades, its arts, its printing achievements and its painting traditions. At the hub of Norfolk’s great and farm-filled wheel, Norwich sponsored painting, writing, music and culture in general. 

Norfolk & Norwich Festival outside The Forum

The Norfolk coast is as close to the Netherlands, just 113 miles, as it is to London and in medieval times it only took a day to sail to Amsterdam, but four days to travel to London. At that time Norfolk was isolated by muddy marshland and dense forest so we have always looked to the Continent.

In fact, even now with daily KLM flights from Norwich International Airport to Schiphol it’s still quicker to get to Amsterdam than London!

The relationship began with fish but flourished in the thirteenth century when wool was exported through the Broads to the weavers of Flanders. At that time Norfolk was at the forefront of mercantile trade in Britain – the county had one of the highest populations in the country, and Norwich was a wealthy city, second only to London.

Elm Hill

Although the Dutch and Walloon ‘Strangers’ invited to Norwich in 1565 by Queen Elizabeth I are the best-known of the Low Countries immigrants, the first Flemings were invited to Norfolk in 1338 to escape their French rulers and the Hundred Years War.

In the fifteenth century, protectionist tariffs, taxation and wars promoted domestic cloth-making – assisted in the 1560s by refugee Flemish weavers fleeing the Inquisition in the Spanish Netherlands, who brought with them their now-famous Canaries, remembered today in the nickname of Norwich City Football Club.

Carrow Road

By the end of the 16th century there were over 4000 Protestant Dutch refugees in Norwich, accounting for almost a third of the population.

The Canaries aren’t the only influences we retain: Dutch architecture, such as gable ends, can be found across Norfolk, but particularly in Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn.

At the same time as the refugees came, Dutch engineer Joas Johnson helped erect stone and timber piers at the river Yare at Great Yarmouth which finally secured the harbour’s mouth. There had been more than a dozen attempts to make a final ‘cut’.

His work lasted until 1962 when ‘The Old Dutch Pier’ was replaced by the current concrete structure, which resulted in Gorleston losing part of its beach (don’t worry, it’s back now and bigger than ever).

Gorleston-on-Sea harbour's mouoth

In the 1650s Dutch engineer Sir Cornelius Vermuyden directed major projects to drain the Fens, the first time this had been attempted since Roman occupation.

Great sluices were constructed to control the flow of water, connecting villages that were formerly little islands and docks amid the marshes and seawaters of a great archipelago.

Even before Vermuyden’s work, Dutch drainage experts were working in Norfolk – there is a 1525 Dutch inscription for a ‘Peter Peterson, dyke reeve’ at Haddiscoe church in south Norfolk.

Haddiscoe Church

Norfolk’s prosperous links with the Continent waned with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, but at least that means we still retain so many of our old buildings – they were never demolished for ‘progress’.

And what many people don’t realise is that the Industrial Revolution was a product of the Agricultural Revolution that Norfolk helped create in the work of Thomas Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, at Holkham, who brought land reform, and Charles ‘Turnip’ Townshend, who brought four-crop rotation to Britain. And where did he copy it from? Waasland, in Flanders… continental Europe.

Two-horse ploughing from Holland replaced the heavy English eight-ox plough; turnips and Friesian cows came too – the latter particularly enjoying being fattened on Norfolk’s marshes.


Strangers’ Hall


Norwich Airport Amsterdam flights

Stena Line Ferries

Heritage and history in Norfolk

who were the strangers?

In the mid-16th century the Low Countries (modern-day Holland and Belgium) were under the control of Catholic Spain, who were opposed to the rising Calvinist movement.

Repressive measures to quell the religious insurrection by The Grand Duke of Alba saw an exodus of Protestants to England at a time when Norwich was receptive to an influx of skilled Dutch weavers for its burgeoning textile industry.

At that time Norwich was the second largest city in the country after England, owing its wealth to the wool trade and Continental trade.

By 1579 there were 6,000 settlers in Norwich, of a population of 16,000, and the immigrants, though welcomed, were called The Strangers. The Merchant’s House was their earliest base in the city – it is now a museum called Strangers’ Hall.

Being such a large group many cultural traditions were passed on – including the keeping and rearing of Canaries (after whom the football club is nicknamed), architecture and a love and appreciation of the arts.

Many people who live in Norwich now are descendants of these Strangers, whose influence can still be seen in buildings around the region, as well as in the way Norfolk people talk.

Norwich was the centre of a large textile industry, but in the 16th Century this industry was struggling. The City needed more workers and they came over from a region now covered by Belgium, France and the Netherlands. These refugees were known as ‘Strangers’ – the local dialect word in those days.

The Strangers taught local workers to produce new types of cloth in different ways, which helped the textile industry. They also helped to rebuild the whole area north of the River Wensum after it was devastated by a freak fire in 1507. They supported English parishes by donating money to them and Dutch and French schools were established in the area.

In Norfolk we hear people say ‘he go’, ‘she do’, ‘he like her’. Why? Some people think that as the Strangers tried to get to grips with English they formed their own version of the language, which remains part of the region’s dialect.

How to learn yew Norfolk