Official Visitor Website

How the Dutch, Low Countries and Continent helped shape Norfolk UK

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.

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, and even emigres from the French Revolution. Yes, the North Sea has always been a carrier, not a barrier.

Norwich School and Cathedral, Norwich

Dutch Gable architecture at The Norwich School in the precinct of Norwich Cathedral.

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. Today’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival, the oldest arts festival in the country, is testament to that immigration.

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! (And the more slow travel approach today is a Stena Line Ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich).

Dutch Fair Great Yarmouth George Vincent

The Dutch Herring Fair at Great Yarmouth by George Vincent (1821).

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.

The first Flemings were invited to Norfolk in 1338 to escape their French rulers and the Hundred Years War.

WWT Welney aerial

The Wetland Wildlife Trust at Welney, west Norfolk – the straight lines of the Dutch-engineered dykes are clearly visible.

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.

It was Queen Elizabeth I who made the important decision in 1565 to bring back life into the woollen industry in the region by inviting Dutch and Walloon weavers to settle in Norfolk in a proclamation to which she referred to them as ‘Strangers’ and as ‘England’s most ancient and familiar neighbours’.

By the end of the 16th century there were over 4,000 Protestant Dutch refugees in Norwich, accounting for almost a third of the population. On their arrival their first port of call was the merchant’s house. Today it is the Strangers’ Hall museum.

As well as the trades, skills and knowledge of weaving, the Dutch, through a man called Anthony de Solempne, also introduced printing.

Witnessing the plight of the Strangers sparked a new social conscience in the people of Norwich and a growing awareness of the social and religious injustices and led to the city being the first to introduce compulsory payments for poor relief, initiating the basic principles of the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1597. That spirit of reform and social justice continued in Norwich for many centuries.

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

Gorleston aerial Mike Page, Norfolk, UK

The harbour’s mouth of the River Yare at Gorleston-on-Sea.

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).

In the 1650s Dutch engineer Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, an expert in land reclamation, directed major projects to drain the Fens, the first time this has 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. The first was built at Denver in 1651.

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.

Round tower Haddiscoe Church of St Mary's

Haddiscoe church, where you can see an inscription to a Dutch dyke reeve.

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.

And, of course, if one of the symbols of Holland is its windmills, then the same applies to Norfolk – except most of them aren’t windmills at all, they’re wind pumps to keep fields free from flooding. Inspired by the Dutch!

Thurne Dyke windpump

Thurne Dyke windpump in the Broads National Park.