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

‘I saw this camel and thought of you…’

On 15 March 1443, King Henry VI granted the office of the brokerage of the exchanges and securities of carracks, ships, and galleys coming hereafter to England to Nicholas Jone.  This small entry in the Patent Rolls, which comes between a minor ten mark grant to the king’s servant and a more important lifting of the restrictions on Aragonese immigrants, offers us an interesting opportunity to explore the personal interactions between the king and his alien subjects.  It also presents us with the chance to see to what lengths a fifteenth-century alien would go in order to get ahead, and on a wider scale it shows us a sustained interaction with the material cultures of the Middle East.

Jone is described in the document as a merchant from “Boloyne Grasse.” This could be Boulogne-la-Grasse, a small village in Picardy, France, or it could be the city of Bologna in Italy, which is nicknamed “la Grassa” or “the fat one.” The editors of the Patent Rolls believed that it was the Italian city, and indexed it as such. Their supposition is given credence by the appearance in later tax records of a Nicholas de Boleyn or Bolonio, an Italian merchant resident in London’s Tower ward. Jone was married to “a liege of the king in England” but we have no more information about this woman. Her descriptor is a standard one that lacks specificity. It seems likely that she was born in an English overseas territory, such as Calais, but she could also have been born in England. In 1464 Nicholas de Boleyn was not taxed with any dependents, but if his wife were English, and assuming she were even still alive, she would not have been taxed anyway.

Jone’s service to king and his adopted country was a rather ostentatious one. Late in 1442 or early in 1443 he brought the king “three camels and an ostrich from Turkey.” Although today ostriches are not native to Turkey, it does not necessarily follow that Henry and his court had a confused geographical understanding. The Arabian ostrich, which only started declining in numbers in the early twentieth century before becoming extinct in 1966, flourished across Arabia, the Sinai peninsula, and lower Asia Minor, where today the borders of Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Jordan meet. All of the latter area was part of the Ottoman Empire when Henry received his new feathered friend.

There is no record of Henry having expressed a wish for his household to be expanded in this manner. Furthermore, there is no information in the Patent Rolls explaining that these animals were a gift from an overseas ruler or that Jone was merely acting as their escort.  As such, we must presume that these camels and the ostrich were personal gifts from Jone to the king and presented at the instigation of Jone himself.  The lengths to which Jone had to go to get these animals to London can only be imagined. Even today transporting animals is a time-consuming and difficult task. In the Middle Ages when so much less was known about animal welfare and husbandry, simply keeping the animals alive when on dry land was hard enough. Apart from Jone himself clearly being a man of resource, what Jone’s actions do show us though is that these types of animals were obviously more readily available than previously thought.  The Black Prince obtained a lion for his father in Gascony in 1360 but, since Gascony is not known for its native lion population, it was probably already in private hands, perhaps as part of a private menagerie. Furthermore, as the heir to England’s (and potentially France’s) throne, getting the lion was likely not that difficult for him.  Nevertheless, rather than it just being kings and princes who could acquire such gifts, Jone’s exploits could shed some light on how the people of London procured the camel and pelican that they presented to Richard II and his queen, Anne of Bohemia, on Twelfth Night 1393.

Henry was obviously fairly pleased with his gift, as he promptly rewarded Jone with the office of the brokerage of the exchanges and securities of carracks, ships, and galleys coming hereafter to England. Nevertheless Henry was already familiar with ostriches. On 17 September 1437 he had bestowed upon his servant William Lynde the dubious honour and pleasure of the office of the keeping of the king’s ostrich. Lynde was to hold this position himself, or by deputy, for the duration of the ostrich’s life, and was to receive all profits arising from showing the same. Whether these profits were sufficient compensation for custody of a large bird that possessed a kick capable of killing the unfortunate victim is unknown; certainly not all of these animal wardships were greeted with unalloyed delight by their recipients. When appointed Keeper of the King’s Lions and Leopards in 1436, Robert Manfeld declared that his job, particularly the grace and favour apartment, was “Ruynous.” Jone is unlikely to have shared Manfeld’s opinion, however, as the office does not seem to have required much (if any) work. The king retained the right to depose Jone if he felt the need by issuing the grant “during good behaviour” but there is no evidence that he did so. Jone was also able to appoint a deputy if he so desired, but since nobody else ever seems to have been appointed to the office, before or since, it would appear that the granting of the office was something of a token gesture, or a generic title.

Although he obviously gained some recognition for his actions, these unusual gifts did not bring Jone an excessive level of advancement, so why did he go to all that effort? Perhaps he was hoping to meet with greater success at Henry’s hands and receiving the office in question afforded him considerable disappointment. Alternatively he may not have been bringing the king presents to gain advancement, but rather to atone for previous misdemeanours. We cannot be entirely certain if Jone had caused the king or court great offence, but a reference in the Chancery records could provide an answer.

A case was brought by the merchants John de la Tore and John de Marchanovo (or Newmarket), against Simon Symond, the keeper of the Marshalsea prison. De la Tore and de Marchanovo had stood surety of £200 for the good behaviour of a certain Nicholas de Boloyn, who had been imprisoned in the Marshalsea after losing a debt case in the Court of Common Pleas to the Italian Frederick de Nawfro. However, Symond permitted de Boloyn to leave the Marshalsea, at the instigation of the Duke of Gloucester. De Nawfro subsequently sued Symond, so Symond proceeded to sue de la Tore and de Marchonovo. Was Nicholas trying to make amends for this misdemeanour and the involvement of the duke of Gloucester on his behalf? If he were attempting such a manoeuvre then he had hit on a perfect strategy. At this point in time the Royal Menagerie was in serious crisis. The lions, believed to be linked to the strength of the monarchy, had all died in 1436; the Keeper of the Lions and Leopards was sacked, and the current keeper, the same Robert Manfeld who disliked his apartment, presided over empty enclosures. An ostrich keeper had been appointed in 1437, but whether he and his charge were still in residence when Jone’s gift entered is unclear. When Jone made his gift the Royal Menagerie was almost bereft of large animals, had no large cats of any variety, and was generally in a poor way. It was not until 1445, with the presentation of a lion cub to Margaret of Anjou as a wedding gift from one of Henry VI’s courtiers, that the menagerie would slowly be re-established. In one fell swoop, Jone had single-handedly repopulated the zoo.

Unfortunately, the document recording the merchants’ case bears no date. From internal evidence (the lord chancellor also being the bishop of Bath) it has been dated to the periods 1432-43 and 1467-70, and although the earlier period seems the more likely, it has not been possible to give a more specific date. The duke of Gloucester could be either Duke Humphrey or the future Richard III, who was created duke of Gloucester in 1461. De Nawfro appears as the defendant in a dispute with a Venetian merchant in Michaelmas 1449, and he was taxed as an alien householder in 1441, which again would argue for the case taking place during the earlier period.

Until someone combs the Common Plea records for details of the original case between de Boloyn and de Nawfro, which could take years, it seems unlikely that we will ever know if it was gratitude, fear, or mere whimsy that inspired Nicholas Jone to procure three camels and an ostrich for his adopted monarch. What we can learn from Jone’s gifts is that even aliens from the merchant classes did have considerable access to the highest levels of society, and that they were perfectly able to gain greater footholds and positions in society, even if they chose to employ rather unusual means to do so.

Jen Bartlett


The National Archives, E179/144/42, m. 13, and CP 40/755, rot. 509
Calendar of Patent Rolls 1436-1441 and 1441-1446

Hahn, Daniel, The Tower Menagerie (London, 2003)
Hector, L.C, and B. Harvey (eds.), The Westminster Chronicle 1391-1394 (Oxford, 1982)
Jones, Nigel, Tower (London, 2011)
Peters, James Lee, Checklist of Birds of the World (Cambridge, MA, 1931)
Rothschild, Walter, ‘Description of a new subspecies of Ostrich from Syria’, Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club, 39 (Year?), 81–83

Cite this page:

England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 9 December 2022), http://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/individual-studies/i-saw-this-camel-and-thought-of-you