Friday, 30 May 2008

Early trade, early invasions

One senses a society that was emancipated with emancipated sources of income. Before Ceasar there are continual reference to the tribes of East Anglia and Essex having close ties with others in northern France and what is now Holland and Belgium. Colchester was known to have been a significant settlement as far back as seventh century BC. If it was not a political alliance, it most certainly seems to have been a trading one. Possibly it was this unrecorded seaborne activity that sustained the English east coast through the Middle and Dark Ages and beyond. The Vikings might have been just one violent manifestation of this traffic. The Danes too “invaded” England. In the 9th century solders from Surrey, Kent as well as Essex had to march on Colchester and reclaim it from the foreigners. But only 100 years later the same city was wealthy enough to have its own mint.

By the 17th century Colchester – presumably like the cities in Holland - was notably prosperous. A travel writer Celia Fiennes described it respectfully at the time.

“It is a large town. You enter the town by a gate. There are four in all. There is a large street which runs a great length down to the bridge, its nearly a mile long. Through the middle of it runs another broad street nearly the same length in which is the Market Cross and Town Hall and a long building, like stalls, on which they lay their bays, exposed for sale. Great quantities are made here and sent in bales to London. The whole town is employed in spinning, weaving, washing, drying and dressing their bays in which they seem very industrious. The town looks a thriving place judging by the substantial houses. It has well paved streets, which are broad enough for 2 coaches to go abreast'.

Maldon also had mysterious sources of wealth. It seemingly had more land owning merchants with no apparently obviously land based business to go with them. Further north Ipswich which had Felixstowe and Harwich as it harbours and is rich in recorded by laws that denote how merchants should behave and be treated. Horsey Island, now a bird sanctuary was well known as a safe haunt for Thames barges to hide smuggled booty away from the customs. Between the better known Clacton and Frinton lies Holland-on-Sea, just south of Great Holland. If a small town like Colchester could flourish, by comparison a capital city like Amsterdam could boom.

Periodically there are references to Dutch and Belgian raiders coming for Essex and Kent oysters. Equally the low countries in the 1500s had their own abundant resources of oysters and similar references are found of English and Scottish boats plundering. Whether this was part of a general trade, piracy and pillaging or a sub text of pre-arranged trade is not clear, but obviously the ports along these stretches of coast were of significance. The wine trade to Ipswich also illustrates that boats would have been coming from France, Spain and Portugal. Herring was important to all these coastal towns. So too probably cod and other fish. Grain might have been an export. Certainly the main business was wool and both sides of the water shared a long history of weaving and cloth making.