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Émigré Tapestry Weavers in London

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When the Barcheston story was put together in the 1920s a large body of evidence was ignored. Only very recently was it discovered, from official documents long available in print, that émigré tapestry weavers lived in London.

One man, very clearly not English, had been employed by William Sheldon. He was called Henrick Camerman . A London-wide survey of foreign residents in November 1571 described him as a 'bachiler, a man of xxix yeares, borne in Bruxells, came into England in June 1564 to serve Mr Sheldon, where he hath dwelled vi yeares, and the rest here; he ys an arras worker and lives with Erasmus Abbot, clothworker'.

If, by 1571, Camerman was 29 years old, he would have been around 21 when he first entered Sheldon's service, an age when he is likely only just to have completed his apprenticeship. Was he perhaps part of a team who came to England with Richard Hyckes as its Master?

Further investigation revealed that Camerman was far from being alone. There were at least 110 émigré tapestry weavers - and maybe, because records are incomplete, double that number, working in London. Nineteen of them came from Brussels, nineteen from Oudenarde, three from Bruges and one each from Aelst, Diest, Emden , Liège and Ypres.

They came because the wars fought by Philip II, king of Spain, across their homelands in the Low Countries disrupted trade, deprived them of materials, made their own lives insecure and discouraged purchases. They came at differing ages and so with different levels of experience. Four were lucky enough to find a patron - Richard Hyckes with the Sheldon family; Peter Wallys from Ypres was appointed to train apprentices chosen from the children at Christ's Hospital, London's orphanage. Two others served in noble households, Denis van Alsloot with the earl of Sussex and Michael Otes with the earl of Pembroke.

Many of the émigrés worked, at one time or another, in a department of the royal household in the Great Wardrobe, still a street name south of St Paul 's. They repaired the tapestries owned by Queen Elizabeth, inherited from her forebears.

Some men set up for themselves, for example Anthony van der Meulen who was described as a coverlet maker; Margaret Knutte born in Ghent, who employed one stranger and two English apprentices, and Jois Offeilde from Bruges who set one journeyman and three apprentices to work. Only a few seem to have prospered - their wills survive to tell us about the way they lived, if not the details of their workshops, their commissions or their handiwork.

©Hilary L. Turner


The implications of these discoveries are clear. Barcheston was not the only production centre in England, as was thought in the 1920s. However, there is as yet no way to distinguish tapestries which might have been made there from work that might have been made in London. The label 'Sheldon' does not necessarily carry a distinctive association with Barcheston.

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