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

John Balbat: An Illegal Immigrant in Fourteenth-Century England

In the summer of 1366, when King Edward III of England was residing at Beaulieu Abbey in the New Forest during one of his regular hunting parties, news reached the court of the arrival into the realm of a man named John Balbat (or Baldack: the sources vary) who claimed to be the son of the ‘king of Inde’. ‘Inde’ was a very vague, catch-all term that was variously used not just for the Indian sub-continent but also, at times, for Africa and the Middle East. For Edward III, though, the resonances were obvious. The ‘high king of Inde’ was understood in fourteenth-century cultured society as an emperor-like figure who presided over the various peoples who inhabited the lands to the east of the Mediterranean. In one literary tradition that circulated at Edward’s court, the high king Porrus was supposed to have done obeisance to Alexander the Great. It is likely that John Balbat was attempting to play on Edward III’s own expansive view of English dominion and seek protection and favour from the English monarch.

At first, Edward seemed more than happy to play along with such pretensions. The visitor was escorted with honour from Breamore in Hampshire to London and placed, at the king’s expense, as a guest in the household of the lord treasurer, John Barnet. But suspicions were evidently aroused in government circles, and Balbat was put to investigation before the council. Quite what criteria and questions were applied is difficult to discern at a time when those coming into the realm did not routinely need letters protection or official identification. But we can perhaps guess that there was a debate about the man’s appearance, ethnicity and linguistic range, as well as some detailed questioning about his political knowledge and credentials. Whatever the case, Balbat was exposed as a fraud and transferred to confinement under the supervision of the king’s sergeant-at-arms, Thomas Staple.

The documentary trail runs dry after this and we know nothing of the eventual fate of the mysterious John Balbat. But the range of possible outcomes seems quite narrow, and the likeliest scenario is that he was deported from the realm. We know a lot about mass expulsions from medieval England: for example, the enforced deportation of the Jews in 1290, and various attempts in the later Middle Ages to expel enemy Frenchmen or alien clergy. But the dynamics of individual cases can often tell us just as much about the complex motivations that lay behind such acts. In order to have convinced the court at the outset, Balbat must have been of an ethnicity that made him appear convincingly non-European. But there is nothing in the records to suggest that his likely deportation was argued or justified simply on racial grounds. It was not uncommon in the Middle Ages for the sons and daughters of ruling families from far-flung climes to be paraded as exhibits before European monarchs and then baptised as Christian converts. Had he convinced the council that he was the genuine article, it is more than likely that John Balbat would have gone through just such a ceremony. So it is much more credible that this imposter was expelled from England on the grounds that he was what would today be called a security risk: that is, that the so-called ‘son of the king of Inde’, by gaining access to the court, had threatened both the personal safety and the political reputation of the king. The case therefore stands as an interesting example of the ambiguities of identity in an age of comparatively free movement across political boundaries, and of the often pragmatic ways in which the English medieval state distinguished between desirable and undesirable aliens.

Mark Ormrod

Bibliography:

W. Mark Ormrod, ‘John Mandeville, Edward III, and the King of Inde’, Chaucer Review 46 (2012): 314-339.

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England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 23 October 2017), http://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/individual-studies/john-balbat-an-illegal-immigrant-in-fourteenth-century-england