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More on the Sixteenth Century English Background

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Sixteenth century England saw a massive redistribution of wealth, largely as a result of the land sales following the dissolution of the monasteries throughout the 1540s. Steadily increasing numbers of men, some of them successful in the law, others in business, profited from ever rising inflation. It is therefore natural that purchase of status symbols, testimony to conspicuous consumption, should also be on the rise.  

© Hilary L Turner

However, Englishmen possessed few of the skills required to make luxury objects; as early as the 1530s one commentator observed that an Englishman was compelled, if he 'wyll have anythinge well peynted, kerved or embrawdred to abandone our owne countraymen and resorte unto straungers.'

He might also have included tapestry weaving. It was practised extensively - almost exclusively - in the Low Countries, modern Belgium and the southern parts of Holland , with the largest centres in Bruges , Oudenarde, Enghien, Brussels , Antwerp and, much later, in Delft and Leiden. Any one in the sixteenth century who wanted tapestry, or arras - which included gold and silver threads - therefore, had to buy abroad. In turn, this contributed to a problem already exercising the minds of the English chattering classes - the balance of payments. Plenty of men, William Sheldon amongst them, thought that a large number of the imported luxury goods could perfectly well be made in England, tapestry amongst them. If, somehow, the skills could be acquired, then the problem would be solved.

How better to solve the problem than by inviting and encouraging the settlement of the skilled foreigner, as was being done in other trades?

This thought, coupled with the aim of trying to counteract the localized depression then engulfing south Warwickshire, once the centre of the woven woollen capping trade, was the thinking behind William Sheldon's plans set out in his will.




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