England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 Resident Aliens in the Late Middle Ages


England’s Immigrants 1330-1550 is a major research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which has run between February 2012 and February 2015.   We are exploring the extensive archival evidence about the names, origins, occupations and households of a significant number of foreigners who chose to make their lives and livelihoods in England in the era of the Hundred Years War, the Black Death and the Wars of the Roses. The project contributes creatively to the longer-term history of immigration to England, and helps to provide a deep historical and cultural context to contemporary debates over ethnicity, multiculturalism and national identity.

The project is a collaboration between the University of York, The National Archives and the Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield.

This project has focussed on four key sets of questions, which together constitute its principal research strands:

People. Who were England’s immigrants in the period 1330-1550? Where did they come from? Where did they live and work? How did they relate to other incomers and the native population? How long did they stay? How did they relate to the structures and institutions of English society?

Rules. How did central government, and its local representatives in town and country, define and regulate immigrants and immigration? How did ideology, international politics, the state of the economy and public opinion influence policy-making?

Work. What were the roles of immigrants in the agricultural, manufacturing and commercial economies of late-medieval England? How was their economic contribution viewed? What connections can be established between availability of work and immigration?

Culture. To what extent were immigrants integrated into the host society? What formal or informal types of ‘ghetto-isation’ were applied to them? How did English interactions with ‘strangers’ inform ideas of ethnicity and nationality?

Existing scholarship on the lives and experiences of people entering and living in later medieval England has tended to focus on four high-status groups: nobles and courtiers; clergy; merchants (particularly Hanseatics and Lombards); and craftmasters and artisans (clothworkers, ironworkers, goldsmiths, etc). However, it is evident from various sources that a remarkably diverse range of immigrants entered England during the later Middle Ages, from other parts of the British Isles, from the near-continent, and from other, more distant locations. It is also clear that these people were drawn from a far broader variety of social and economic backgrounds than just the upper echelons on which modern research has concentrated. Obviously this focus has reflected the far greater survival and availability of source material relating to these richer and better-connected people, and the ability of historians to reconstruct details of the lives of individuals in ways for which it is simply not possible for those from lower down the social scale. A limited amount of research has also been conducted into the regulatory system applied in late medieval England, especially in relation to groups such as the Scots, merchants and clergy, but in general, mainstream historical accounts remain almost entirely uninformed of the size and significance of the immigrant presence in England between the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 and the arrival of the Huguenots and other Protestant émigrés in the latter part of the sixteenth century.

However, there are ways in which historians can look into the origins, activities and experiences of this particular section of late-medieval England’s population, using sources which have hitherto been used only in a sporadic and limited manner. The greatest, and most valuable, is undoubtedly the records of taxes paid by the alien population of England from the mid-fifteenth century onwards. From 1440, a series of specific taxes, known as the ‘alien subsidies’, were levied upon first-generation immigrants resident in most parts of England, and the returns for these provide a vast amount of information regarding their names, places of residence, origins, occupations and gender. In the following century, the revolutionary new subsidies levied by the Tudor monarchs also contained provisions for the taxation of resident aliens, and their records can also provide similarly useful insights into the immigrant populations of particular areas. The appearance of resident aliens in the latter records has hitherto been largely ignored, while the only attempt at national-level analysis of the fifteenth-century material remains that of Sylvia Thrupp, whose 1957 article surveyed the records of the first such tax (collected between 1440 and 1442), and calculated the numbers and origins of the taxpayers. There have also been a small number of studies into the immigrant populations of specific individual towns and regions, drawing at least in part on the alien subsidy material, and into the distribution of particular national groupings, most notably the Scots but also the Irish who, although technically subjects of the English crown, were often regarded and treated as aliens.

Nevertheless, there remains no comprehensive or systematic analysis of the available statistical data, or any concerted attempt to draw all these various strands together. More recent analysis by Jim Bolton, and preliminary work for this project, suggests that Thrupp’s initial estimates of the numbers of alien taxpayers in England in 1440 require significant upward revision, perhaps by a factor of 10% or more, a change which could bring the resident alien presence in England in 1440 to something approaching 1% of the total population, and perhaps as high as 6% in London. These are figures comparable with levels of immigration still being reported in the 1901 UK census. Moreover, Thrupp’s analysis, and evidence from local studies conducted since her time, has suggested a relatively wide geographical dispersion of the immigrant population, with individuals appearing not only in the major towns, ports and other economic centres, but in villages and smaller settlements across the country. This in itself would suggest that a remarkably large proportion of late-medieval English society must have had at least some direct human contact with non-native people, a situation which poses a number of interesting and significant questions regarding the attitudes and reactions of the native population towards the foreigners living within their communities, and their interaction with them.

In addition to the taxation material, there are a number of other significant sources which can add to our picture of immigrant life in late-medieval England. On various occasions, the government took action against, or made demands upon, certain sections of the resident alien population. For instance, in 1436, people from the Low Countries were required to swear an oath of allegiance to prove their loyalty; in 1394, the patent roll contains a list of Irish people who purchased licences to remain in England following the general expulsion ordered by Richard II’s government; and from the outbreak of the Hundred Years War onwards, there were numerous attempts to identify resident subjects of the king’s foreign enemies, both lay and clerical. From the 1290s onwards, the government also issued letters of protection and denization, offering resident aliens (or at least those willing and able to pay) the opportunity to buy the right to remain within the realm, and to receive partial or total rights of naturalisation.

These sources, taken together with a wide variety of other primary and secondary material, will form the basis of a large new searchable database of resident aliens living in England between c.1330 and c.1550, containing information on the names, nationalities, places of residence and origin, occupation and status of a broad range of people from across the country. This will be available for public consultation at the end of this project, and from this we aim to investigate and analyse the nature, origins and lives of the various groups and individuals who comprised this important but extremely under-researched sector of England’s medieval population, as well as to draw a distinction between fully-naturalised subjects, long-term alien residents, those for whom migration may have been part of a professional or life-cycle experience, and those for whom mobility across frontiers was not a choice but a practical necessity. It is our aim to reveal and highlight the diversity of the medieval immigrant experience, and in so doing to contribute an important historical dimension to current debates about immigration to Britain from Europe and the wider world.

Selected Bibliography

Bolton, J.L., The Alien Communities of London in the Fifteenth Century (Stamford, 1998).
Bolton, J.L., ‘Irish migration to England in the late middle ages: the evidence of 1394 and 1440’, Irish Historical Studies, xxxii (2000), pp. 1-21.
Giuseppe, M.S., ‘Alien Merchants in England in the Fifteenth Century’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, n.s. 9 (1895), pp. 75-98.
Kerling, N.J.M., ‘Aliens in the county of Norfolk, 1436-85’, Norfolk Archaeology, xxxiii (1965), pp. 200-215.
Ruddock, A.R., ‘Alien Merchants in Southampton in the Later Middle Ages’, English Historical Review, 61 (1946), pp. 1-17.
Thrupp, S.L., ‘A Survey of the Alien Population of England in 1440’, Speculum, xxxii (1957), pp. 262-73.
Thrupp, S.L., ‘Aliens in and around London in the Fifteenth Century’, in A.E.J. Hollaender and William Kellaway (ed.), Studies in London History presented to P.E. Jones (London, 1969), pp. 251-72.

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England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 10 December 2022), http://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page