The Shotley Bridge Swordmakers and the Solingen Indictment

We know the Solingen swordmakers who defected to Shotley Bridge did so in 1687. One of the reasons we know this for certain is because the Solingen court issued an indictment against the Shotley Bridge swordmakers. It is dated 26 September 1688 by the clerk of the court, and it refers to the swordmakers having left Solingen over a year ago. The exact date of their arrival in Shotley Bridge is not (currently) known, but for the purposes of my book about the swordmakers, The Running Wolf, I show them arriving in Shotley Bridge in August 1687.

Cover of The Running Wolf against an apricot background. The book has a black background with gold lettering. It shows the running wolf etched on gold, a Dutch warship under a starry sky  and a sunray made of 9 swords.
The Running Wolf by Helen Steadman

Many of the authors who have written about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers mention the Solingen court order (e.g. David Richardson, John G. Bygate, Richard H. Bezdek, Douglas Vernon and David Atkinson). Richardson’s account is perhaps the most interesting as he not only translates the court order, he also discusses its more recent history.

Richardson notes that the document was found in the Mulheim Stadthaus (town hall), which is less than 30 miles from Solingen. It was then stored in the Köln archives (Richardson, The Swordmakers of Shotley Bridge, 1973, p. 22).

Historical Archive of the City of Köln (Cologne)

During my research, I tried to see this document for myself. However, the Köln archive building collapsed on 3 March 2009, tragically killing two men in an adjacent building.

Following the collapse of the Köln archive, 10% of documents were not retrieved and repaired. Fortunately, the archives kept microfiche records for safekeeping in the Barbarastollen underground archive (fascinatingly, this appears to be a former silver mine).

When I contacted the archive about seeing the document during my research trip to Solingen, they advised me that the indictment was one of those affected by the collapse, so I wouldn’t be able to view the actual document but could order a digital version from the archive website.

When I clicked on the trolley sign to buy a copy, the website told me I needed to register. Despite many attempts, I was not able to register and eventually had to email the archive and they sent me a form to fill out. In all, it only took a few days and if memory serves, it cost me about £16 all told (£10 standard fee, £4 digitisation fee and £2 bank charge for converting currency). A couple of weeks after I got the document, I received an invoice through the mail, which I paid by bank transfer. Of course, this was all pre-Covid, so the process and fees might have changed since.

The digital version I received is a photo of the original document in pdf form. Because of copyright, I’m not allowed to share that photo, but I can describe it.

I received photos of the indictment against a folder of other documents. The document is black ink on white paper, which is landscape orientation, and it looks to be about two-thirds the size of a piece of A4. There’s an illuminated capital W at the top left. It looks as though it’s a form, with text added in by hand (perhaps suggesting lots of these were issued). There are also handwritten notes in the margins. What is perhaps most curious is that, in the photo, someone appears to be holding a second piece of paper over the bottom of the text, which cuts off a bit of the text (I think it’s just the date). It’s not clear whether this is by accident or design. I contacted the archive to ask if it would be possible to see the document without the piece of paper covering the bottom.

Over the course of a few emails, the archive staff advised me that the digital copies sent to me came from a microfilm that was produced before the archive building collapsed. In order to create new digital copies, the documents still have to go through various restoration processes (such as dry cleaning, digitisation, documentation, etc.). The archive advised that these processes can take many months. Since the document has not yet been recovered, (that is, it hasn’t yet been identified following the building’s collapse), the archive staff cannot see the original yet or put it through any restoration processes.

Archive staff have promised to let me know if and when the document is identified and recorded. When this happens, I’ll update this article accordingly. As this was written in 2020 and the building collapsed in 2009, I’m not sure this will be very soon…

Translation of the Solingen Court Order against the Shotley Bridge Swordmakers

Fortunately, Richardson read the original document in its entirety almost half a century ago and translated it. He describes the court order issued against the swordmakers as being made ‘under the impressions of the court’s and lay assessor’s seals’ and dated ‘26th September 1688 by the clerk of the court – Johann von Marcken’ (Richardson, 1973, p. 23), and he provides a translation, as follows:

‘We, William Vassman, judge of the Solingen court, Matheus Wundes, Wilhelm Dinger, Wilhelm Voss, Johann Gansland, Peter Voess, all lay assessors of the town and parish of Solingen give recognition that Clemens Hohemann over a year ago led away to the Kingdom of England various craftsmen resident and bound by the district court, and still more had incited them to abscond and since the affair had become notorious and had been recognised as in the highest degree culpable, let him, Clemens Hohemann be charged here as a culpable seducer together with all the persons involved – Hermann Moll, Abraham Moll, Johannes Clauberg, Clement’s son from Widdart, Clemens Knetchen, Peter Tiergarden, Johannes Voes, Vurckelt, Johannes Voes, Adolph Kratz, Joann Wupper zu Feld, Heinrich Wupper, Theiss’ son, Johannes Wupper, Johannes son zu Hesson, Arnd Wupper, Heinrich Keuler, Adam Ohlig’s son, Johannes Hartcop, Engel Schimmelbusch and Peter Kayser, Peter’s son.’ (Richardson, 1973, p. 22)

Richardson says that the court order then goes on to say:

‘Through written summons “ad vallas” (meaning “on the doors”), the cited persons each and all of them were for the first, second, third and last time decisively called upon to employ themselves in the next six weeks and three days in this same place or produce firm reasons for your refusal and defection through yourselves in person or order sufficient powers of attorney. Warning – do these things or if you do not, that thereupon after the expiry of such appointed time, upon further appeals being calculatedly made to proceed against you, thereupon proceedings will be taken according to law.’ (Richardson, 1973, pp. 22–23)

Other Court Orders

There is evidence of other court orders in this vein and Richardson refers to subsequent defections to Strasbourg (1730 and 1743), which he says was a treasonable offence, and these defectors were denounced from the church pulpit, with threats of forfeiting their belongings, and worse:

‘…defectors’ names were read out from the pulpits. Their children – if left behind – were deprived of their rights and privileges. If the ‘defectors’ were discovered in or around their homes they were to be punished on their bodies…”‘ (Richardson, 1973, p. 23).

David Atkinson goes a step further and suggests that defecting could result in capital punishment:

‘…court proceedings were likely to take place against the miscreant if he could be caught up with, as did happen in 1613 with a namesake of one of the Shotley Bridge immigrants, Johann Knechtgen. The death penalty was clearly feared for this offence; whether or not this was an exaggerated fear is not clear. The likely penalty, particularly if the fugitive could not be caught, was the seizure of all his property and assets in Solingen. Unfortunately, there is no record of what steps were taken against these particular rebels, but it is known that Dinger and Wundes, two members of the court, were both well-known bladesmiths and might be jealous of the rebels’ opportunities, and therefore disinclined to be merciful.’ Atkinson (1987, p. 4)

According to Franz Hendrichs, there is a decree from 1616, from Ernst von Brandenburg and Count Palatine Wolfgang Wilhelm, which permits the Solingen guild to punish anyone leaving for England as a deterrent to prevent further swordmakers from leaving (Hendrichs, 1933, ‘The History of Solingen Industry’, p. 123).

Why the Delay in Issuing the Solingen Indictment?

The Solingen indictment was not issued until a year after the swordmakers left, which begs the question as to whether the authorities had: a) failed to notice the swordmakers’ absence; b) chosen to ignore it until it was brought to their attention, forcing them to react out of embarrassment, or so they were seen to be doing something; or c) aimed to deter further defectors. In addition, it is also questionable whether the court order was treated seriously since there is documentary evidence of Hermann Mohll returning to Solingen and leaving again on at least one occasion because he was imprisoned in Morpeth Gaol in Northumberland on his return from Solingen.

Swordmakers had been leaving Solingen for centuries, departing for many different destinations. The lack of earlier court orders indicates something anomalous about this departure. Vernon cites Rhys Jenkins, who suggests that not all swordmakers were guild members and that freelances were free to leave, which may explain why not all swordmakers leaving Solingen were subjected to these orders. It might also explain why Hermann Mohll was able to return to Solingen and leave again (Jenkins, 1922, cited in Vernon, 2003, p. 95).

In terms of why it took at least a year to object to the swordmakers’ departure, Richardson suggests resistance to the persecution of Lutherans would be admired and that ‘Disappearances would be common at that time because at that time purges were common. Officialdom would merely close one eye. If not in sympathy then in understanding’ (Richardson, 1973, p. 18).

Bygate speculates that the swordmakers would have travelled by water rather than by land, given the proximity of water-ways and the relative ease of leaving without detection. He argues that this explains why the Solingen authorities did not issue the court order until a year after the swordmakers had left. Bygate posits that the swordmakers’ properties in Solingen were left intact and quotes the historian Robert Surtees as saying that at least one swordmaker had bequeathed his estate in Germany, which suggests that property was not seized (Bygate, p. 16). Conversely, Richardson states that Solingen admits to property confiscation, but denies making death threats, although no source is provided for either of these claims (Richardson, p. 16).

The question of death threats does seem to have gained a foothold in England, however, as they are alluded to in the royal charter of 15 September 1691 by King William III:

‘Our said subjects, at their great charge and management, have imported from foreign parts, divers persons, who have exercised in their own country the said art of making hollow sword blades by the use of certain newly invented instruments, engines and mills and by the contrivance of our said subjects, have prevailed upon them to expose themselves to the hazard of their lives to impart to our said subjects their art and mystery.’ (Bezdek, 2003, p. 21)

In any case, whether threats were made or not, they were not carried out, because, as will be discussed in further articles, Hermann Mohll and his family returned to Solingen and then left again for England at least once. Since he left Solingen carrying possibly well over a thousand blades, it seems unlikely his presence there would have gone unnoticed by fellow bladesmiths, or the authorities.

References

Atkinson, David, ‘The German swordmakers of Shotley Bridge’, North East Centre for Education About Europe (Occasional Paper no. 2), 1987. (This paper is quite hard to find, but Durham Record Office holds a copy.)

Bezdek, Richard. H. (2000) German Swords and Sword Makers: Edged Weapon Makers from the 14th to the 20th Centuries. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press.

Bezdek, Richard. H. (2003) Swords and Sword Makers of England and Scotland. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press.

Bygate, John G. (1999) [2003] The Hollow Blade: The German Swordmakers of Shotley Bridge. Durham: Durham Miners’ Association.

Hendrichs, Franz (1933) ‘The history of Solingen industry.’ Association for Technology and Industry. Bergische Verlags-Aktien-Gesellschaft, Solingen-Wald.

Richardson, David. (1973) The Swordmakers of Shotley Bridge. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Frank Graham.

Vernon, D. (2003) Thread of Iron: A Definitive History of Shotley Bridge and Consett and District, County Durham with Particular Reference to Iron and Steelmaking. Knebworth: Able Publishing. [Please note that this book is being reprinted by the Land of Oak & Iron on 12 September 2020, which will make it easier to find. However, the page references may well differ to the original version I used.]

 

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