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

Aliens and Religion in Suffolk, c. 1330-1550

‘Seely Suffolk’

Suffolk is a corner of Britain which can often seem, as Mark Bailey delicately puts it, a ‘pleasant but undistinguished backwater’. Though this might be true today, little was further from the truth in the medieval period. During the late Middle Ages, Suffolk grew to become one of the most important regions in the country and enjoyed great affluence in the Tudor period; religion was a major factor in medieval urban growth. It was the home of one of the largest monastic houses on the continent, the longest continually inhabited town in the country and, by 1524, three of the country’s wealthiest towns. Its nickname, corrupted to ‘Silly Suffolk,’ is in fact a reference to the strong Christian tradition in the county, the word ‘Seely’ originating from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Selig’, which means holy. Suffolk’s economic strength led to continental connections; the county played host to a great many ‘aliens’ during the late medieval period, mainly through its connection with the Low Countries and the important port of Ipswich. The Alien Subsidy returns, which have been made available through the England’s Immigrants project, highlight the importance of Suffolk as a portal to Northern Europe.

The records of the Alien Subsidy provide an important demographic analysis of the alien population in medieval Suffolk with which to begin. Though the survival of the subsidy returns is sporadic, Suffolk reports a higher number of returns overall than its surrounding counties of Cambridgeshire, Essex and Norfolk, widely asserted to have been the home of many more immigrants. The nationality of those aliens has now been more accurately designated by the England’s Immigrants project which enables better analysis of the alien population, and the reasons why they may have been in England.

Integration and Influence

Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries the influence and integration of foreign, religious trends were manifested in many ways: Anglo-French politics and the Alien Priories left a lasting effect on the religious landscape of Suffolk, particularly in the notable example of Stoke-by-Clare Priory; the introduction of the feast of Corpus Christi for the first time in England, possibly in Ipswich in 1325; aliens in the north of the county were inciting heresy in the fifteenth century; and religious communities of women that resembled continental beguinages appeared in the fifteenth century. These trends and ideas, which made their way into England through East Anglian ports, played an important part in the English Reformation.

However, aliens were not always well received; documents included in the England’s Immigrants database record that from 1330-1380, 449 letters of protection were procured for immigrants living and working in England. In Suffolk, only three letters of protection were obtained, which is about the average for counties, excluding London. Denis le Eyre, who lived in Eye, took letters of protection in 1336 and 1337. His first letter of 1336 states that he ‘had domicile for over thirty years but fears he may be molested because he was born over the seas.’ It suggests, at the beginning of this period, that there was a level of animosity between immigrants and natives. This attitude appeared not to have changed much a century later; in 1485, after the election of alien Gylys Johnson as burgess, it is recorded in Bacon’s Annals of Ipswich that ‘no stranger borne out of England, shall hereafter at any time be elected burgess of this town.’

‘In the name of God, Amen’

Downey Bek, a resident alien in Easton Bavents on the northern coast of Suffolk, bequeathed in his will of 1528, £22, a significant sum, to the local church for a silver cross. His return in the 1524 subsidy indicates his wealth was in goods, and assessed his wealth at 20s. He was obviously a great deal wealthier, as his will indicates that he left a ship, The Blythe, to Joan Thomas. He must also have been a fervently religious man to make such a significant bequest to the church. His will is also an excellent example of the different types of piety in pre-Reformation wills, with detail of how he wanted his money to be spent.
Wills are an invaluable source for assessing the financial contribution of individuals to churches and religious foundations, and often can provide an indication of the level of religious piety; ‘deathbed piety’ was in fact ‘the icing on the cake’. Unfortunately, there are not many matches for the Alien Subsidy database and Suffolk will registers; Downey Bek is a rare case. This is due to a number of factors, such as the nature of the alien population, which seems to have been largely in flux. The wills can tell us about three main areas of financial contribution: gifts, tributes of piety and offerings for restoration or beautification.

The most common bequest in pre-Reformation wills is to pray for the testator’s soul, which had developed into a more contractual form of devotion from a hopeful alms-giving in light of the expansion of the doctrine of Purgatory. Piety was the way in which souls’ passage through Purgatory could be quickened. Peter Gylys of Sizewell, who appears in the subsidy for 1524, left money for five masses to be sung on the day of his burial. Though earlier wills may focus on emendation and beautification, Gylys’ bequest for five masses shows a strong doctrinal devotion on the eve of the Reformation.

Church and Community

A further way to quicken the souls’ passage through Purgatory was good works. John Yermouth of Southwold, who appears in the 1524 subsidy as an alien, left £10 to ‘good works’ in Southwold, in a will proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. That it was proved at the PCC indicates that he was a man of some standing or wealth; his will details that he was the part-owner of two ships, and therefore he also left £10 for the repairing of the haven at Southwold. This type of piety, which we might call ‘civic piety’, was identified as being common in the Deanery of pre-Reformation Dunwich. Downey Bek also leaves five marks to the making of Kessingland bridge. Though not contributing to the religious life of the churches, this civic piety demonstrates the economic and social aspects as the church at the focal point of the community and the importance of salvation, which could be achieved often by quite secular means.

In the context of the rebuilding of many of the churches in Suffolk, a common feature of wills in the second half of the fifteenth century is leaving money for the reparation of the church. Though not as grand a gesture as elevated members of society were able to make, Middleton-Stewart asserts that the smaller bequests can often be more informative about the parishioners’ concern for the church. Downey Bek left as much as 40s. for the reparation of the church of St Edmund in Southwold. Two aliens in Blythburgh, William Ramesey and William Hardy, both of whom are assessed as aliens in the 1440 subsidy, left 26s. 8d. and 6s. 8d. respectively to the new chancel at Blythburgh Church, both significant bequests.

Spiritual Creativity: ‘Ad maiorem Dei gloriam’

During the closing years of the fifteenth century, Holy Trinity, Long Melford was completely rebuilt, mainly financed by Sir John Clopton. An immigrant sculptor, Henry Phelypp, is recorded by the Alien Subsidy to have been living in Melford with Clopton in 1483 and was almost certainly working on the large-scale rebuilding. It is significant that some of the most beautiful work in the rebuilding of churches at this time may have been reserved for foreign hands and suggests that the difference that foreign craftsmen made to the performance and experience of religion was also significant.

The contribution of craftsmen such as Phelypp is an important way in which aliens might have had an impact on the experience and performance of religion in Suffolk. Second only to ‘servant,’ craftsmen occupy a large proportion of aliens in the subsidies. The boom in church building in the second half of the fifteenth century, as the economy in Suffolk began to grow quickly, was supported by some of these craftsmen, such as John Glacier, a Scottish glazier with two apprentices living in Wickham Market in 1483 or Anthony Lammoson, a painter living in Long Melford in 1483 who may, along with Phelypp, have been working on the new church.

The buildings and fabric of religious buildings tell us perhaps more than any other source about the nature of religion; one need only drive around Suffolk to gather an image of the importance of the parish church; the flat landscape ensures that the towers are easily visible in the Suffolk skyline. The professions of faith that are churches such as Long Melford and Lavenham demonstrate that religion in Suffolk was a thriving and popular cause in the late Middle Ages. The influences that continental trends had on the fabric of the buildings were, in their specific cases, significant and it is likely that the destruction of the Reformation lost many other pieces of equal worth to those in this chapter.


The religious landscape of Suffolk was undoubtedly altered completely by the effects of the Reformation. However, it was a landscape that had already been changed through the late Middle Ages and into the sixteenth century, a large portion of which was owed to the migration of people and ideas between the continent and East Anglia. As Redstone asserts, Ipswich had ‘literary importance’ in the first years of the English Reformation; its links and proximity to the Low Countries meant that books were smuggled into the town, and some were bound there by John Hawus, a Dutchman. It is important to note that the church in Hadleigh, Suffolk, was among the first to celebrate the mass in English.

It seems that the Reformation in Suffolk was also readily embraced by Suffolk people. For longer than two hundred years, their religion had adapted and developed through contact with the continent. The focus of Suffolk’s religion being the church in its physical sense meant that the people were more willing to accept those changes. This community was inclusive; resident aliens contributed equally to the native population. Even the ruling elites were able to impose the Reformation due to the absence of weighty ecclesiastical control. What is most telling is the enthusiasm for what might be called ‘catholic’ endeavours on the eve of the Reformation such as the Long Melford Reredos or the rebuilding of churches, showing an appreciation of the fabric of the church first and foremost.
Perhaps the auctioning of church goods at Holy Trinity Church, Melford in 1547 is most indicative of the religion of Suffolk; while the worship could no longer include icons or images, those parts of the fabric of the church, which were contributed within the context of the community, including resident aliens and craftsmen, were bought to be preserved. The nature of the Reformation in Suffolk indicates that its alien connections were fundamental to the changing of the experience and practice of religion.

Jonathan Hanley

Select Bibliography:

Amor, Nicholas, Late Medieval Ipswich: Trade and Industry (Woodbridge, 2011).
Bailey, Mark, Medieval Suffolk: An Economic and Social History, 1200-1500 (Woodbridge, 2007).
Barrow, Julia, ‘Churches, education and literacy in towns 600-1300’, in D. M. Palliser (ed.), The Cambridge Urban History of Britain (Cambridge, 2000).
Bates, David and Robert Liddiard (ed.), East Anglia and its North Sea World in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2013).
Burgess, Clive, ‘Late medieval wills: a reassessment’, in M.A. Hicks (ed.), Profit, piety and the professions in later medieval England (Gloucester, 1990).
Cautley, H. Munro, Suffolk Churches and their Treasures (3rd edn., Ipswich, 1954).
Dymond, David and Clive Paine (ed.), Five Centuries of an English Parish Church: ‘The Sate of Melford Church,’ Suffolk (Cambridge, 2012).
MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Suffolk and the Tudors: Politics and Religion in an English County 1500-1600 (Oxford, 1986).
Middleton-Stewart, Judith, Inward Purity and Outward Splendour: Death and Remembrance in the Deanery of Dunwich, Suffolk, 1370-1547 (Woodbridge, 2002).
Redstone, Lillian, Ipswich through the Ages (Ipswich, 1969).
Richardson, W. H. (ed.), The Annals of Ipswich by Nathaniell Bacon, AD 1654 (Ipswich, 1884).
Swanson, R. N., Catholic England: Faith, Relgion and Observance Before the Reformation (Manchester, 1993).
Thompson, Benjamin, ‘From “Alms” to “Spiritual Services”: the Function and Status of Monastic Property in Medieval England’, in J. Loades (ed.), Monastic Studies 2 (Bangor, Wales, 1991).

Cite this page:

England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 9 December 2022), http://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/individual-studies/aliens-and-religion-in-suffolk-c-1330-1550