Singing Silky Stories (Part 2: English Version)
ANNETTE TELLS TALES Silkworms Promise Riches in England and Virginia. But Will the King's Dreams Go Up in Smoke?
How Long Is This Post? About 7,000 words, or 35 minutes. A two-part Tale for a rainy day! 🌧️ ☕ 🕯️ 🍰
Note from Annette
Silkworms! Yes, those talented little caterpillars are the unlikely stars of this two-part Annette Tells Tales post, in which I’m riffing on historian Dr. Ben Marsh’s Unravelled Dreams: Silk and the Atlantic World, 1500-1840.
If you missed Part 1, HERE IT IS, conveniently posted for your reading pleasure!
BTW, both of these are available as podcasts:
Sericulture? You say. I’m out of here.
Nooo, that's my only scary long word in this story! Look, sericulture means raw silk farming. Successful sericulture in the 17th century involved thousands of people in a culture of skilled work, growing mulberry trees for silkworm food, raising silkworms, and reeling the silk from silkworm cocoons. Failed sericulture (our subject in this two-parter) happened when a society couldn’t keep sericulture going, or get it started in the first place. See? Now you can throw “sericulture” into conversation and impress people!
Since Non-Boring History is about US and British history, you may be wondering why I wrote last time about sericulture in Spanish colonies that, unlike, say, Florida or California, didn't end up as part of the US.
Welcome to Atlantic World history! Even if you're only here for the US and/or UK, putting those national histories in bigger context really helps us understand them. The 16th century Spanish-American sericulture experience gives us a handy contrast to understand what happens when England pursues its raw silk ambitions in the 17th century, in its usual bumbling way. Both countries fail, but they fail differently!
How? Well, for starters, Spain's colonial sericulture in America succeeds before crashing, unlike England's utter failure to launch. New Spain succeeds for a while for several reasons: Spanish shoppers' enthusiastic adoption of homegrown Spanish silk; The Crown and Catholic Church offered practical and moral support; Silkworms eventually made it alive across the Atlantic; sericulture experts (many of them women) were
flown shipped in from Spain, and most of all, Indians who had survived conquest and disease eagerly embraced a profitable side gig in raw silk as key to independence.
And yet . . . By 1600, the raw silk industry in New Spain was failing. By 1640, thousands of mulberry trees, planted to provide silkworms with tasty leaves, were being torn out. Spanish raw silk in America was over.
What went wrong with sericulture in New Spain? Dr. Marsh points to reasons beyond everyone’s control: Old World disease devastated Indian communities. Climate change damage focused everyone on growing food, not feeding silkworms. And last but not least, cheap Chinese silk goods arrived in Spanish America.
Efforts to create raw silk industries in the Atlantic World often ran into the same sorts of problems, and failed, again and again. But Dr. Marsh notices a big difference between the American silk experiences of sunny Spain, which had long had a successful sericulture at home, and, chilly, wet England, which hadn't a clue what it was doing. This gives the usual result Brits have come to expect: Total cock-up (US: This doesn't mean what you think. Look it up.)
Yeah, looking at you, England. The rise (and fall) of your 17th century raw silk production on both sides of the Atlantic is less initial success scuppered by misfortune, and more Monty Python, or maybe Fawlty Towers, in silk hose and ruffs.
Today, we’re going to follow the rise and fall of raw silk in 17th century England. Then, for Nonnies only, we’ll pop over to Virginia, England’s first colony, to see what happens with silk there. Plus, we’ll discover what makes author and academic historian Dr. Ben Marsh a big deal! Don't miss any of it:
English Silk Fever
A vivid memory of my 1970s British childhood: The smell of wet wool clothing warmed by feeble heat from classroom radiators. It’s a very British memory.
But wool clothing wasn’t good enough for the English of the early 1600s. The King’s adviser Lord Carew grumbled, “There is such a madness in England as that we cannot endure our homemade cloth, but must needs be clothed in silk.”
Silk?? How very unEnglish! How unpatriotic to buy flashy imported silk instead of Proper English wool at Ye Olde WalMarket! How, well, mad, not to support England's leading product, wool! Did people want economic collapse?
In fact, English textiles were doing just fine. Fifty years before, when Lord Carew was but a baby, a depression had hit wool and woolen cloth. But immigrant craftsmen had saved the day, producing popular lighter fabrics, including wool mixes, for export and home.
By the end of the 16th century, though, English people clamored for pretty shiny imported silk. Parliament, worried about this new fashion’s impact on sheep farming and the fabric industry, passed a sumptuary law (a law that dictates who can wear what), forbidding non-posh people to wear silk (riff-raff ruffs?)
Skilled immigrants once again came to England's rescue. They began spinning, dyeing, and weaving imported raw silk into finished silk goods. Raw silk was soon England’s #1 import. In 1604, Parliament quietly recognized this new economic reality, and repealed the sumptuary law, just seven years after it was passed.
Lord Carew, writing in 1617, was enough of a realist to suggest that if the English insisted on getting all gussied up in silk, then silk should be cheap.
And nobody was more interested in cheap silk than the King himself. James Stuart, Scotland’s King James VI, was also King James I of England. His cousin Elizabeth Tudor (Elizabeth I) died in 1603 without an heir, leaving James the throne, and very little money to go with it.
Elizabeth, like her half-sister Mary, half-brother Edward, father Henry VIII, and grandfather Henry VII, who had all been monarchs before her, was pretty much broke. This was especially a worry for the Tudor family, who could easily have been labeled Pretendy Monarchs: Elizabeth's grandad Henry Tudor became king in 1485 in a battle in which his men killed King Richard III.
Elizabeth had worked hard and successfully to win the loyalty of English people. She built on the work of her grandad, Henry Tudor, who had become Henry VII (no, not the one with the six wives, that's VIII, his psycho son). As first Tudor monarch, Henry VII had launched the family's public relations campaign, hiring writers to produce flattering “histories” that made him look fabulous, and Richard III utterly evil. This campaign continued through Elizabeth’s reign: Even Shakespeare obligingly wrote a smash hit play depicting Richard III as a murdering hunchbacked psychopath.
Yes, Elizabeth was wildly popular. But then, in 1603, she died, leaving her Scottish cousin as her heir. James I wasn’t Elizabeth. He wasn’t even a Tudor. He was King of Scotland, and his new English subjects despised Scots. Worse, the country he inherited was broke. Not just “pretending to be broke while actually stashing loads of cash in the Cayman Islands” broke, but proper broke.
James realized that if silk weaving become more profitable for craftsmen and merchants, and cheaper for consumers, his popularity would rise. And as silk fabric and clothing sales rose, the taxes would enrich the Crown.
Making money wasn't about James's personal greed, though. Making money was an urgent English national priority because Spain, rich with gold and silver from its American colonies, had invested heavily in military tech, and tried to invade England in 1588. The English Navy’s plucky little ships (another very English story) stopped them, at great expense.
So we might understand why James I was desperate to generate cash, and intrigued by silk’s potential in the generating cash department.
English Silk Dreams
First, England tried to get raw silk for cheap.
The King’s advisers, Lord Carew among them, were keen to buy products direct from the Middle East, cutting out Northern European middlemen who raised prices. Persia (modern Iran) was a long way from England. But going there direct would mean cut-price trade goods, including raw silk, and English merchants could pass on savings to craftspeople and consumers at home.
In fact, English merchants had been working on this problem for decades. They started firms with names like the Turkey Company, the Venice Company, and, most notably, the East India Company (1600), which would go on to change the world, and, yes, we’ll be hearing from it again at Non-Boring History. Raw silk was definitely on everyone’s shopping list.
Indeed, in 1600, silk, silkworms, and mulberry trees were on a lot of English minds. They were mentioned even in Shakespeare (e.g. “Thou owest the worm no silk,” —King Lear). In literature, silk was usually mentioned in the same breath as prosperity, and the potential rise of England on the world stage. If it now seems inevitable that England, and later Britain, would become a global power, think again: That certainly didn’t seem likely at the dawn of the 17th century. England was a broke little island nation, living on past glories, with a new King desperate to be popular and effective. Not that it's like that now, of course. Ahem.
And at this time, in the early 17th century, some bright spark had a clever idea: How about, instead of importing raw silk, England raise silkworms at home?
This had obvious appeal. So long as England imported raw silk for London’s fabric industry, then, in Marsh’s words, there would be “concerns about the volatility of long-distance supply chains”. (Boy, doesn’t that sound familiar!) In a nutshell, if the supply of imported raw silk dried up, England’s fast-growing silk textile industry would collapse, with disastrous economic consequences. A bad economy would make English people discontented—including with the King himself.
Bringing sericulture to England promised exciting benefits, including providing work for unemployed men, women, and children, as they picked mulberry leaves, fed silkworms, and reeled silk from cocoons. Transplanting sericulture to England would mark a big economic, technological, and scientific leap. England's national prestige would grow with the economy, and so would James's own reputation as a modern, with-it King for the new century.
Jumpstarting sericulture in England also offered James a chance to try out a new confident, take-charge Kingly self. Rather than standing on the sidelines, feebly trying to direct the shambolic English nation, blowing his little whistle as everyone ignored him, James wanted to be more like the King of France, who firmly called the shots in his kingdom across the Channel.
By 1609, James would boldly announce in print that God had granted him absolute power over England. One of the things that led the King to this conclusion was that, two years earlier, he had already begun to take charge, directing the arrival of sericulture.
The Royal Goal: Caterpillars for Power and Profit
In 1607, three English ships anchored in Virginia, at a place they soon called Jamestown. That same year, an Englishman named Nicholas Geffe published a how-to sericulture manual (translated from French) that argued strongly for bringing raw silk production to England. Geffe's theme was basically How to Make Our Country Great With Silkworms, and he reasoned with his fellow Englishmen that “we may as well be silk masters as sheep masters.” He suggested planting mulberry trees everywhere, in preparation for feeding silkworms. Geffe gratefully dedicated his book to James I. No wonder: The King had published it.
For advice and assistance, James turned to French
grifters silk consultants, who in turn were very keen to make lots of money promoting sericulture in England, starting with planting mulberry trees. One was a Frenchman who called himself “Monsieur de la Foret”, which means (Marsh is not making this up) Mr. Forest. I mean, can’t you just see that printed on the side of his van, as he pulled up outside the palace?
Mr. Forest was supported by two powerful men in English government who understood exactly how profitable silk could be: One was Robert Cecil, whom the elderly Queen Elizabeth had rewarded for his government service with the massive profits from customs duties on raw silk. We’ll get to him shortly. The other was William Stallenge, an international businessman who had been appointed to the very lucrative post of the government’s Controller of Customs.
Now, in 1606, the King granted Stallenge and Mr. Forest exclusive rights to import 10, 000 white mulberry trees, spread across the warmest counties in southern England. My British readers are now getting their coats on, and clipping leads to their dogs, to pop out and take a look at how many mulberry trees they can spot in their towns and villages. Please note, Brits, that black mulberries had already been brought to England by (who else?) the Romans. Stallenge and Mr. Forest promised to bring white mulberries, the trees they believed silkworms preferred.
The deal between the Government and Stallenge and Forest (Mr.), Ltd. gave the two men an exclusive five-year deal to sell mulberry trees in England. They also promised to import silkworm eggs and provide leaflets on how to raise the insects and reel raw silk from cocoons. They further agreed to a Fair Trade deal in which they would buy raw English silk at a good price.
So the people best placed to make money from sericulture were (oh, the usual story) not hardworking entrepreneurs, up from nothing, but people like William Stallenge and Robert Cecil, who were already close to power, plus their hangers-on (especially Mr. Forest).
James I now launched his massive silk promotion campaign. At the same time as he published the Geffe book, and launched the Mr. Forest/Stallenge tree planting scheme, James fired off a letter to royal officials in every English county. He told them to require every landowner to buy and plant mulberry trees, at a special discount arranged by the government. James’s letter was immediately followed in the mail by a mulberry tree order form sent by (who else?) Mr. Forest. Within two years, Mr. Forest was also selling silkworm eggs
on his website.
Few landowners who obeyed the King and planted mulberry trees shared his enthusiasm for raw silk. But some did, like Robert Cecil (see above), who saw the distinct possibility of big profits. Cecil hired Mr. Forest to plant 500 trees at his home, Hatfield House.
Meanwhile, William Stallenge, Mr. Forest’s business partner, was establishing sericulture in London. He published a how-to pamphlet, translated from French, in 1609. Mostly, he profited from selling to the King himself: The King hired Stallenge's company to install a four-acre Mulberry Garden near the Palace of Westminster.
This original Palace of Westminster burnt down in 1834. But James I’s Mulberry Garden is still nearby. It later became a “pleasure garden” (an ancestor of theme parks, aimed originally at the wealthy, just like Disney parks today) Today, the Mulberry Garden is part of the grounds of Buckingham Palace. And, incredibly, one of the trees is an original that was installed by Stallenge on behalf of James I. Stallenge also hired silk workers for the King, and supplied silkworm eggs. Together, they produced 9 lb of silk in 1611.
Installing the King’s Mulberry Garden earned Stallenge £1, 300 over four years, a small fortune, plus £60 a year after that, to maintain the trees and silk production. Even after Stallenge’s death, his nephew, Jasper, carried on the business, producing silk in the King's Garden.
Once the five-year exclusive contract granted to Stallenge and Mr. Forest expired, French horticulturalists were given permission to import mulberry trees from France, and set up tree nurseries in England. It was all go. Sort of.
Given that women were the traditional workforce for raw silk around the world, it seems odd that English silk was an all-guy production so far. Stallenge, it seems, was skeptical about what he had read in French about women’s talents with silkworms. These included popping the eggs between their boobs to hatch. Stallenge suggested instead popping the eggs in little blankets, something men could do, too. Maybe Stallenge simply wanted to appeal to the biggest possible workforce, regardless of sex. As we’ll see, though, it turned out to be a mistake to ignore women's silk expertise.
Stallenge planted mulberry trees for the King, his best customer, at other royal palaces in London, including St. James’s Palace, and, most notably, Greenwich Palace, where the King and Queen toured the new silk production facilities. Silk fascinated the Queen just as much as it obsessed her husband: She was painted wearing a dress decorated with silkworms. The Queen even set up her own raw silk enterprise at Oatlands Palace, in Surrey (near London), including a luxury two-story heated building for “the Queen’s silkworms”. There, Dr. Marsh slyly notes, the little caterpillars could enjoy attractive and tasteful surroundings. I wonder if they had little uniforms?
For the rest of his life, King James I promoted silk, including by taking silkworms and their carer on an annual summer road trip, showing them off to everyone he met.
But the King’s promotional efforts would have been useless without French consultants. Three Frenchmen, for example, were hired to supervise Royal silkworm experiments. The whole idea was to import French sericulture to England, lock, stock, and silkworm, but there was a shortage of French experts to make that happen. As you might imagine, “how-to” books were a poor substitute for teachers. Even Stallenge, who had published a book on the subject, admitted he didn’t know how to explain how to reel silk from cocoons. No wonder English raw silk producers struggled with troubleshooting issues. And yet French women experts were still not invited to England.
The greatest challenges to English sericulture, you may not be surprised to learn, came from English weather. Imported white mulberry trees preferred a Mediterranean climate (If you ask me, they were four centuries too early: They would like the climate in, say, Kent today). They didn’t like late frosts. They weren’t happy in lots of rain. In England, they produced leaves too late for hatching silkworm eggs. Someone suggested feeding silkworms on good old English lettuce, but I don’t think that worked out. I doubt they would have enjoyed Wagon Wheels, either. [US readers: That was a little joke for my UK readers. It’s untranslatable. Sorry.]
What about planting more English black mulberry trees instead? Black mulberry trees already lived in England, so why not? Especially since observers noted that silkworms enjoyed their leaves just fine?
Here’s where we get to see how long-lived the impact of good historians can be. To answer those questions, Dr. Marsh turned to the late historian Joan Thirsk, who had died years before he wrote his book. Turns out, Thirsk suggested in 1997 that because English grain exports were booming, there was less incentive to plant even black mulberry trees for silkworms.
Regardless, Dr. Marsh concludes, “The English did not fail at silk raising because they had the wrong trees; they failed mostly because they possessed the wrong weather.”
Mulberry trees lived on in England, as a visible relic of English sericulture. One, supposedly planted by William Shakespeare, was later cut down and turned into souvenirs, like pipes, goblets, and tobacco boxes.
But there were other, more important positive legacies of England’s silk failure. Trying to get sericulture off the ground had brought together loads of people to start a new industry that could have benefited the nation, without endangering any other national product. That was a great model for future efforts to promote the national economy and the national interest. And experiments with producing raw silk in England would continue.
In fact, the English had already tried to raise English silkworms in their very first American colony. Let’s head over to Virginia, and see how that went.
The Usual Shambles: Introducing Silk in English Virginia
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