Medieval immigrants: moving to England in the Middle Ages

Mark Ormrod looks back at the thousands of foreigners who poured into England in the Middle Ages and examines the kind of reception they got from the natives...

This article was first published in the August 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

Labourers throughout the year, Pietro de Crescenzi’s calendar. (Bridgeman)
Pietro de Crescenzi’s calendar shows labourers throughout the year. (Bridgeman Art Library)

Reading the name ‘Reginald Newport’ in the English records of the 14th century does not immediately lead one to suppose that its holder was a foreigner. To all intents and purposes, the man in question was a full and active subject of the English crown, a minor functionary in the royal household of Edward III, a property-holder in the city of London and rural Berkshire, and an influential public official as regulator of fisheries along the Thames basin.

And yet, when the city of London challenged Reginald’s powers in 1377, it quite deliberately chose to undermine his authority by naming him as “Reginald Newport, Fleming”. Suddenly, we open up a whole new aspect of the life and career of Reynauld Nieuport, as we might now call him. In the middle years of the 14th century, immigrants from Flanders had a particularly high profile in England. They came over, in quite significant numbers, as agricultural labourers, as skilled cloth weavers, and as merchants involved in international trade.

By the 1370s, however, they were increasingly seen as abusing their special privileges and enjoying unfair economic advantages over their English-born neighbours and co-workers. Reginald survived the backlash, but the Flemish communities in London and other English towns were to be the butt of particularly violent popular hatred during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.  

England, we often observe, is a nation of immigrants. The standard story is that of a sequence of early invasions by the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans, followed by the arrival of the Huguenots as refugees from continental Europe during the Reformation, and then the rich mix of ethnicities and cultures brought on by the legacy of empire in the 19th and 20th centuries. An important part of this story concerns migration within the British Isles and the evidence for the movement and interaction of the English, Welsh, Irish and Scots. Much less appreciated are the individual stories of people like Reynauld Nieuport who, in every generation, moved to England from all parts of Europe and further afield. It is only in recent years, with the free movement of people within the European Community, that we have begun to consider the possibility that immigration was a constant reality in pre-modern England.

Finding these everyday immigrants is no easy task. The English state had no comprehensive way of regulating immigration in the Middle Ages, and although it often used the labels ‘denizen’ and ‘alien’, it had no standard means of defining these categories. In the 14th century, the crown began to develop a formal process known as denization, by which an immigrant of good standing in his or her community could renounce allegiance to their former ruler and be given all the rights of an English-born subject.

Denization became quite big business by the Tudor period, but because of the costs involved, it tended only to be sought by relatively prosperous and influential immigrants: craftsmen, merchants, clergymen, wealthy landholders, and so on. The records therefore miss an important part of the story by omitting the little people who were much more numerous, more widely dispersed, and ultimately often more influential in determining popular attitudes to immigration.

 

National security

Fortunately (for us), in 1440, the English parliament inadvertently shone a light into the gloom by imposing a new tax on resident foreigners. Immigrants had paid taxes before this time – the difference was simply that aliens were now to be a special fiscal category. The motivation was ostensibly about finding new funds for the final, faltering stages of the Hundred Years’ War. In reality, the initiative was just as much about regulation. Taking a census of resident foreigners could be a first step to greater controls at a time when there were significant political misgivings both about aliens’ economic power and about national security. In the end, the wider potential of the census was not exploited.

For modern historians, however, it provides an amazingly detailed survey of the geographical distribution, numbers, social status and occupations of foreigners living and working in England in 1440. It also gives us a tantalising glimpse of the human interactions between the native-born and the alien residents of the realm.

How were immigrants identified? Certainly not by the scrutiny of anything akin to passports and official papers. Rather, local juries of English-born men were asked to provide lists of all known aliens living in their communities. In some places, such as London, this was done with great thoroughness; in others, like rural Lancashire, it was hardly applied at all. In general, though, the local jurors were quite assiduous.


A group of merchants in a c1470 painting. By the mid-15th century,  increasing numbers of foreign merchants were setting up home in  England’s major cities. (AKG Images)

Parliament had taken the view that all those born outside the realm of England should be included, even if, as in the case of Ireland and Gascony, their homeland was under the dominion of the English crown. In Langley Marsh, Buckinghamshire, one of the jurors, Thomas Fisher, was reported as having both an alien servant, named Gelam, and an Irish neighbour – though he could not name the latter. The jurors were not required to give a place of origin for each person named. Sometimes the identity is obvious: “John [the] Frenchman” and “John [the] Scot” are common names in the surviving assessments. At other times, the categories carried rather different connotations from now.

At Elmswell in Suffolk, “James [of] Denmark” was firmly labelled “Dutch”, a term that often simply denotes the speaking of some form of northern European language. In other cases, though, the designations are more specific: alongside the generic ‘French’, we get references to people from Picardy, Normandy and Brittany. And there are many references to minor principalities that were then scattered across the Low Countries and Germany.

While the largest number of those identified by place of origin in 1440 came from Scotland, Ireland and the areas directly linked to England by sea routes across the Channel and the North Sea, there were also significant numbers of people from Iberia and Italy and a small number from the eastern Mediterranean.

Interestingly, the labels used by the jurors and enumerators were linguistic and/or geographical, and ethnicity was not explicitly mentioned. We know from other evidence that there were north Africans and Middle Easterners in England in the Middle Ages, so the fact that the 1440s records are ‘colour-blind’ does not mean that they do not include some members of racial and religious minorities. A husband and wife in London were labelled as coming from “Inde”, which could mean anywhere east of the Holy Land. The fact that their names, Benedict and Antonia, were explicitly Christian suggests that, in most cases, original ethnicity was obscured by identities acceptable to English Catholic culture.

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Meet the ‘aliens’

From the Scandinavian academic to the prominent merchant, five foreigners who called England home in the 15th century

The Irish spinner

Alice Spynner, an Irish woman living and working in England, was assessed for the tax on resident aliens at Narborough in Leicestershire in 1440. Alice’s occupation is evident from her surname. She was a spinner of wool, a job that was vital to the prosperity of the emergent English cloth industry. Many of Alice’s compatriots made their way into south-western and north-western England, though fewer Irish people are found in the east Midlands. She provides a reminder of the importance of women in England’s late medieval economy; indeed, her own trade made the word ‘spinster’ a synonym for the single, independent woman.

The Scottish chaplain

William Pulayn was a chaplain working in the rural parish of Sledmere in the East Riding of Yorkshire in 1440, where the local jurors identified him as a Scot. Since Scotland was a separate kingdom, and often at war with England, those born there were consistently treated as aliens by the English state. Chaplains were jobbing priests who made a living by saying masses; other foreign chaplains in the tax records of 1440 included confessors and schoolmasters employed in gentry households. William was among his own kind: Scots were the largest minority group in the north of England.

The Swedish student

Benedict Nicoll is one of the few people specifically identified in the tax records of 1440 as coming from Sweden. He and five others, including a Magnus and an Olaf, are described as staying with the University of Cambridge. Medieval seats of higher learning were always international in their membership and influence, but those who were full members of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge generally enjoyed exemption from taxation. Whatever Benedict’s status and purpose in Cambridge, he was evidently only a temporary resident, for he had disappeared from the record by the time the second instalment of the 1440 tax was collected.

The Dutch artist

John Danyell was from Holland, in the modern Netherlands, and appeared in England in 1440 as a painter living in the city of Lincoln. The occupation of painter had the same ambiguity in the 15th century as it does today: it could mean a house-painter, or a maker of fine art. John’s presence in one of the most important cathedral cities of England is a vital clue to the patronage of artists from the Low Countries and of their influence on the northern Renaissance. 

The Italian trader

Alexander Plaustrell, or Palestrelli, was a prominent Italian merchant living in London in the mid-15th century. Originally from Piacenza, he had trading connections across northern Italy, including in Lucca and Genoa. His house was in the Board Street area of London. In 1456, at a moment of high tension, he was physically assaulted in an affray at Cheapside, and the episode set off a series of attacks on Italians across the city. It provides us with one of many examples of the tensions between native Londoners and their international business rivals, as well as showing the readiness with which London mobs could target the foreigners in their midst.

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The 1440 records also provide a fascinating glimpse of foreigners’ family and household structures. If the dependants of alien householders – wives, adult children, apprentices and servants – had been born abroad, they too were assessed for the tax. Herman Blakke, who came originally from Munster in Westphalia, appears in Huntingdon in 1440 with his wife and a servant, Adrian. And even when the head of the household was English, foreign dependants could still be liable. Sir John Cressy, one of the MPs at the very parliament that granted the new tax on aliens, kept several foreign servants at his residence in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, who had presumably been recruited during Cressy’s career as a soldierin the French wars.

There is also much that can be gleaned about the occupations of England’s foreign residents in 1440. In major cities and towns such as London, York, Bristol, Southampton and Norwich, we find high concentrations of foreigners, including prominent merchants from the great trading towns of Flanders and northern Italy. But the foreign influence was not only to be found in metropolitan contexts. At Bildeston in Suffolk there were two Aragonese doctors, perhaps drawn to this corner of East Anglia by the large immigrant workforce in the nearby towns of Lavenham, Sudbury and Hadleigh.

The tax records also give us rare glimpses of the influence of foreign artists in England: Henry Phelypp, a Flemish sculptor, was living in the household of John Clopton while carrying out work on the rebuilding of the famous parish church at Long Melford in Suffolk.

Across the country we find unskilled labourers from Scotland, Ireland, France and the Low Countries eking out a living in the agricultural economy. Many in this latter category were casual or seasonal workers. In Northumberland, they were actually described as ‘vagabonds’. Here lies one of the reasons why so many people assessed for the tax actually managed to avoid paying it. One of the hallmarks of the resident alien population was its mobility.

All in all, the survey of 1440 produced around 20,000 named persons of foreign birth. This number may look tiny in comparison with the record of immigration in later centuries, but we have to remember that the estimated population of England at this time was not greatly in excess of 2 million people. As late as the 1901 census, immigrants counted for about 1 per cent of the total population of the United Kingdom. That there was a comparable level in 1440 allows us to consider later medieval England not as an insular culture but as a genuinely multicultural society. To see things thus is also necessarily to admit the resulting stresses and strains.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi of c1300, showing Jerusalem in the centre, Europe lower left and Africa lower right. By the late Middle Ages, people from France, the Low Countries, the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa were living and working in England. (AKG Images)

There is every sign that the taxpayers of 1440 were identified most readily in terms of the languages they spoke and the accents with which they attempted to communicate in English. A story circulated in late medieval England that the rebels of 1381, in seeking out the hated Flemings, had attacked anyone who could not say ‘bread and cheese’ in English. Here is a powerful reminder of the complicated and sometimes perilous existence that foreign-born residents could experience in England.

From the 1440s to the 1480s, parliament continued to impose taxes on aliens, and the Tudor regime included the category in the new, comprehensive subsidies developed from the 1520s. In none of these cases, however, did the numbers of persons assessed reach anything approaching the levels of 1440. This was partly a matter of definition: the Irish and the Gascons successfully made their case for immunity after 1440, and the crown offered a series of exemptions to prominent aliens in later taxes.

But it was also a sign of the real tension that the tax created, and of the sharper differences that it set up between the native and foreign-born populations. In the longer term, the 1440 tax experiment stands as a serious reminder of the high risks involved when governments attempt to grapple with the question of immigration, and of the trail of administrative failure and political disillusionment that so often results.  

Mark Ormrod is professor of medieval history at the University of York, and specialises in the political and cultural history of later medieval England.

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