Sunday, February 22, 2009

Franklin’s Flemish Forefathers

Benjamin Franklin, in beaver hat, as depicted in a late 18th century French engraving. The French found his combination of modesty, good manners, and home-spun wisdom a compelling personification of an ideal. It is largely thanks to Franklin that the French entered the Revolutionary War and without their material assistance the American Revolution would have been suppressed.

Benjamin Franklin, as most American schoolchildren quickly learn, is one of America’s “Founding Fathers”. In fact, some history books call him the “first great American”[i]. Authors from Herman Melville to Mark Twain, and Philosophers from Voltaire (who met him) to Max Weber (who studied Protestant contributions to capitalism), cast Franklin as the penultimate American.[ii] Modern commentators have been equally emphatic that Franklin’s “contributions to statesmanship, science, philanthropy, and literature were unrivalled both in his time and in ours[iii].” In the heavily status-conscious society of colonial America, where wealth was almost always founded on heredity and lands, Franklin inherited neither, but died the richest man in America.[iv]

Certainly his greatness is tied up in not only with who he became and what he did but where he came from. Many reckon that they know where he came from geographically: born in Boston, became a Pennsylvanian, lived 33 of his last 35 years in Europe. But what they do not know is that underlying all of this is a secret to his past: Benjamin Franklin was born with Flemish DNA.

Norwich in a 1581 map. At this time the Flemish were the largest non-English component in the city and may have accounted for as many as half of the city's total population. The radical Protestant Flemish refugees helped make Norwich an economically prosperous municipality and the center for the religious dissent that lead the Pilgrims to leave for America.

Norwich, Flanders, and Wool
Like many of the 17th century transplants to English colonies in North America, Benjamin Franklin’s Flemish ancestors came from England’s second largest city, Norwich, in the county Norfolk of East Anglia. This is the region of England closest to the North Sea, and an historic hotbed of religious dissent. It is the birthplace of the Separatist Pilgrims and the Puritans. Norwich is where thousands of Flemish Protestant weavers beginning in the late 1560s finally settled after fleeing in waves from the persecution of the Spanish Duke of Alva .

In the 1560s Flanders heaved with dissent. The volatile mix of repression by the Hapsburg authorities, economic dislocation, and John Calvin’s fiery precepts made for an unstable political situation. In 1566 an iconoclastic outbreak of religious statue-smashing (called “Beeldenstorm” in Dutch) started in Flanders and swept through the entire Netherlands. In desperate reaction, the Hapsburg authorities brought in the Spanish general, the Duke of Alva, to restore order and suppress this outbreak of Protestant fervor. Over the next year an inquisition was installed and those found guilty were imprisoned, banished, and sometimes executed, depending upon the perceived degree of criminality. Historians often mark this point as the spiritual start to the 80 year long Dutch Revolt (1568-1648). But more importantly it laid the groundwork for Franklin’s forefathers to flee to England.

Just at this time economic depression hit East Anglia. In part this was because social unrest in Flanders disrupted economic production, which in turn reduced the demand for wool from England to Flanders. In part it was also because Spanish wool was replacing English as a preferred raw material and equally in part it was because the Flemish in the West Kwartier had created more technologically advanced weaving skills that offered lighter clothing suitable for summer that was more attractive than the scratchy old woolens Norwich’s weavers wove. This new cloth was a manufacture of silk and wool called ‘bombazines’.”
[v] When the Pilgrims, fifty years later had learned the technique, it was more commonly referred to as ‘says’ and ‘bays’.

The West Kwartier area of Flanders. This is the region where the most innovative techniques in textile production started and where thehotbed of religious dissent to the Catholic Hapsburgs began in the 1500s. This is also the place where the iconoclasm (Beeldenstorm) began which spread north to the rest of the Netherlands sparking a flood of refugees leaving for England, Holland, Germany and ultimately America.

The production of the Flemish innovation of says and bays devastated the English weaving sector. Town authorities at Norwich were eager to reverse this decline. They enlisted the help of the Duke of Norfolk (a close confidant and relative of Queen Elizabeth I and the Lord of the county that Norwich was in) and her de facto prime minister, William Cecil, and sought out as well the aid of the “Dutch” (really, Flemish) Church in London.
[vi] Royal letters patent issued forth on November 5th, 1565 for 24 Flemish (and 6 Walloon) master craftsmen to relocate under favorable conditions to Norwich.[vii] Most of the Flemish in this and subsequent waves came from the city of Ypres (Dutch: Ieper).[viii]

The church in Diss, Norwich where John Folger, Benjamin's great-grandfather, married about 1616, the same time the Pilgrims in Leiden were beginning their plans for emigrating for America and King James was thinking of getting rid of religious dissenters the same way as criminals: exile to distant lands.

Meet the Folgers and the Strangers
Franklin’s ancestors were among these religious refugees. While the details of their actual arrival in Norwich are uncertain, Jan Foulger and his future wife (Elisabeth) were both born there (in 1569 and 1571, respectively). Their son, John Folger (b.1593), and grandson Peter Folger (b.1617) were also born in Norwich and both listed their profession as weavers (a mostly hereditary profession). But although the English authorities welcomed these immigrants with their highly sought after skills they did not make them feel at home. The Flemish immigrants had strict rules to follow in trade, social interactions with their English neighbors, and in worship. Violators were always at risk of expulsion back to Catholic Flanders - or worse.

More specifically, from 1550 on the ‘Strangers’ – as foreigners were then called in England – were required to conduct their worship in their own, segregated churches. They were strictly prohibited from mingling with their English neighbors. But of course over time they did, especially in a place like Norwich where, at any time from 1570 to 1600, they made up between 25% and 50% of all inhabitants. The Folgers (at least initially) likely attended what was known first as the Flemish Church and later as the Dutch Church (for the language spoken there – not for the modern-day national origin).

The Stranger population in Norwich was: 300 in 1565; 1500 by 1568; 2826 by 1569; and 3,900 by 1571. Records show that 2482 died in the plague of 1578-1579 but the population of Strangers was back up to 4,679 by 1582. By 1620 the numbers were around 4,000 and by 1650 the number of Strangers had dropped (through emigration and assimilation) back down to 1500 souls.
[x] When Benjamin Franklin later visited his Norwich cousin, Thomas Folger, a century later, the Folgers were outwardly no different than their English neighbors. They had forgotten Dutch, and instead attended the local parish church and conformed to the local customs.

The Church in Norwich where John Robinson preached before leading the Pilgrims to Leiden in 1607. It is not far from where benjamin Franklin's grandfather lived and is where the "Dutch" Church in Norwich met for services as well as where the Flemish set up Norwich's first printing press.

Leaving Laud
When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, the sentiment towards and treatment of the ‘Strangers’ worsened. Some fled back across the North Sea to Leiden (English: Leyden) or Middleburgh where Flemish exiles accounted for more than 50% of the population
[xi]. Others saw the hope of a better life waiting in the New World. The final push came in the 1630s, when Archbishop Laud tried to force ‘conformity’ on the ‘Stranger’ churches in Norwich, John Folger, reportedly decided to follow his grandparents’ example and flee.

In 1635 John, his son, a controversial half-Flemish preacher by the name of Hugh Peters
[xii] (who later would hang for his role during the English Civil War for condoning the regicide of Charles I) and others (including Peter’s servant, Mary Morrill, whom Peter ‘purchased’ for £20, and who later became the 18-year old Peter Folger’s wife in America) boarded the ship ‘Abigail’ for New England. They were part of a great exodus that emptied out the Eastern Counties of England. So much so that later historians claimed 2/3 of all those claiming English descent in America could trace their ancestry from East Anglia.[xiii]

In the New World the Folgers prospered. John (a widower) married Mirabah Gibbs (another Norfolk native). Although we do not know Mirabah’s ancestry, as one historian put it: “Two generations had now passed since the great immigration [from Flanders] to Norwich and by this time a very large proportion of the citizens must have acquired a share” of Flemish DNA.[xiv]

Mirabah’s brother-in-law, the Reverend Thomas Mayhew, was instrumental in settling Martha’s Vinyard in the 1640s. By 1642 John and Mirabah had 5 acres of land in Watertown, MA and two young daughters. When John passed away in 1665 his will excluded his only son Peter, which suggests their relationship may not have been ideal.

Peter himself by that time had moved away to Nantucket and had his own success. Besides a large and thriving family (9 children), Peter kept busy by working as a surveyor, miller, schoolteacher, machinist, blacksmith, eyeglass maker, published author (and poet), interpreter and preacher (sounds a lot like his grandson Benjamin!).

To fulfill his duties as a Baptist preacher – he converted to this very Flemish form of worship (a logical evolution of the Anabaptists) after arriving in the New World – Peter Folger mastered the Wampanoag language to better preach to the native Americans around Nantucket. He espoused religious and ethnic tolerance (in an age of witchcraft trials), demonstrated personal bravery during King Philip’s War (without carrying weapons) and was several times elected to serve as clerk of the court. He was esteemed by his neighbors, jailed for sticking up for the rights of others, respected by the Indians (who called him “white-chief’s old young-man” in recognition of his judiciousness and thoughtful demeanor), and especially adored by his youngest daughter, Abiah.

Peter died in 1690, sixteen years before Benjamin Franklin was born, so they never knew each other. Clearly Abiah treasured her Anglo-Flemish father’s memory and passed it along to her youngest child Benjamin. Naturally, she did so genetically – Benjamin would grow up to embody many of his maternal grandfather’s Flemish traits of modesty, intellectual curiosity, razor-sharp wit, and relentless energy. But she must have also told him tales of her Flemish grandfather since he wrote, in his Autobiography, of Peter Folger’s “decent plainness and manly freedom” as well as Folger’s stories “in the home-spun verse of that time and people”.

Today Benjamin Franklin’s likeness graces the highest denomination U.S. currency in general circulation (the $100 bill), a mark of official recognition. Franklin’s achievements in science, diplomacy and other areas still stand after centuries. Franklin’s legacy to the establishment of modern democracy as well as the United States is immeasurable. And all this is due to the flight of hard-working Flemish weavers, who fled their homeland with little but a dream for a better life in a new land and the hope to practice their faith that might lead to the afterlife.

What more fitting way, then, to remember the contribution of Benjamin Franklin’s Flemish ancestors than to conclude with the words of his Flemish grandfather:

“Thus, reader, I, in love to all, leave these few lines with thee,

Hoping that in the substance we shall very well agree.”

- Peter Folger, A Looking Glass For the Times, (Nantucket, 1676)


[i] Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), p. 481 quoting Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous 1887 quote.
[ii] Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, (New York: Penguin, 2005), pp.2-8.
[iii] Jill Lepore, “The Creed: What Poor Richard cost Benjamin Franklin” in The New Yorker, January 28, 2008, sourced online at
[iv] Ralph Frasca, “The Emergence of the American Colonial Press”, Pennsylvania Legacies, The Pennsylvania Historical Society, no date, sourced online at .
[v] John J. Murray, Flanders and England: The Influence of the Low Countries on Tudor-Stuart England, (Antwerp: Fonds Mercator, 1985), p.152
[vi] K. J. Allison, “The Norfolk Worsted Industry in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries”, Bulletin of Economic Research, Vol 13, No 2, p. 61
[vii] Ibid [viii] Charles Boardman Jewson, Transcript of Three Registers of Passengers From Great Yarmouth to Holland and New England: 1637-1639, (Baltimore: Clearfield Reprint, 1990), p.15
[ix] See letter from Captain Jacques de Hennebert to Lord Walsingham, April 10, 1587, From: 'Elizabeth: April 1587, 1-10', Calendar of State Papers Foreign, Elizabeth: April-December 1587, Volume 21, Part 3 (1929), pp. 1-14. URL: Date accessed: 16 January 2009.
[x] K. J. Allison, op cit, p. 61-62
[xi] See Dr. J. Briels, Zuid-Nederlanders in de Republiek 1572-1630: Een Demografische en Cultuurhistorische Studie (Sint-Niklaas: Danthe, 1985) for the authoritative source on Flemings in the Northern Netherlands.
[xii] Hugh Peters father was also a West Flemish emigrant with the surname of Dyckwoode who married an Englishwoman in Southampton.
[xiii] John Fiske, The Beginnings of New England: or, The Puritan Theocracy and its Relations to Civil and Religious Liberty, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1898), p.57
[xiv] Charles Boardman Jewson, op. cit., p.15
[xv] Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, A Biography, (New York: Bramhall, 1987) reprint of 1938 Viking edition, p.9 quoting Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, no date or publisher cited, pp.231-232.

Copyright 2009 by David Baeckelandt