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

Ralph Cavelario: An Intellectual Immigrant, 1523-1572

Ralph Cavelario’s letters of denization were issued on 23 August 1552, when he was twenty-nine years old.  By this point in his short life he had been a convert, a religious exile, an archbishop’s favourite, a husband and father, and an internationally renowned scholar.  While he was clearly no ordinary man, his experiences as an alien, and as an asylum-seeker, in Tudor England reveal how – in certain cases – one’s foreignness could be a distinct advantage.  They also offer us an opportunity to see how small immigrant populations were benefiting, and more importantly acknowledged as being of benefit to, the English population at this time.

Cavelario’s early life is well documented.  Originally a native of Normandy, he studied Hebrew in Paris at the Collège de France.  He converted to Protestantism and, fearing persecution in Catholic France, fled to England some time before 1550.  Around this time he came to know the German Reformer Martin Bucer and the Italian Paul Fagius, a fellow Hebraist, although one of considerably more eminence than Cavelario at that time.  Both of these men were distinguished scholars and, under their aegis, Cavelario became acquainted with the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer.  Cranmer had a history of scholarly patronage and various illustrious intellectuals – English and alien – had enjoyed his protection, including the Wakefield brothers, Bucer, Fagius, and the great Erasmus.  The young Cavelario was taken into Cranmer’s household and lived there for over a year, impressing the archbishop with ‘very many proofs of his eminent piety and his surpassing ability.’

He may have been pious, but Cranmer’s protégé was also ambitious.  He moved to Cambridge, where he was swiftly taken to the heart of the intellectual community.  His earlier patrons and housemates had associations with the university: Fagius had been appointed to a readership in Hebrew (although he died in 1549, a mere matter of months after receiving the position), and Bucer was the regius professor of divinity there.  Cavelario became the coadjutor for Immanuel Tremellius, an Italian convert from Judaism who had succeeded to Fagius’s post.  He assisted Tremellius in his Hebrew lectures, even lodging with him, and he eventually married Tremellius’s stepdaughter, Elizabeth de Grimecieux, on 1 December 1550.  As well as his collaboration with Tremellius, Cavalario gave daily readings in Hebrew at the university for free, ‘to the great satisfaction and advantage of his hearers.’ Royal circles were also potentially in his grasp; Cavelario may have been supplementing his income by tutoring Princess Elizabeth. It has always been assumed that Cavelario could potentially be identified as the ‘Mr Antony’ who taught her French—a perfectly logical assumption to make of a Normandy native—but the registry entry noting Cavelario’s burial describes him as the princess’s teacher of Hebrew. Certainly in Cranmer’s circle he was known as Ralph or Rodolphe [Radalphus] rather than Antoine or Anthony, but it is perfectly possible that the burial register entry reveals another equally plausible (if potentially erroneous) assumption, this time on the part of the local residents. Knowing Cavelario to be a teacher of Hebrew, and believing him to be a former tutor of the queen, what could be more natural than to conflate the two?

While Cranmer and the bishop of Ely supported him during this time, Cavelario was determined to win royal patronage and at his bequest, Cranmer appealed to Edward VI for financial assistance on his behalf.  In this respect, Cavelario’s alien status proved extremely useful.  Cranmer’s affection and esteem were no doubt genuine, as presumably was Edward’s desire to support learned individuals, but, this regard aside, Cranmer entreated the young king to patronise Cavalerio simply because he was a foreigner.  He reminded Edward that ‘concerning such persons Moses expressly saith “God loveth the stranger, giving him food and rainment; therefore love ye the stranger”.’  Although expressing his conviction that Edward would ‘spontaneously’ be filled with good-will towards Cavelario ‘because of [Cavelario’s] excellent endowments’, Cranmer obviously thought that garnering a little more sympathy would not go amiss.  He made no appeal to Edward as monarch or ruler, nor did he suggest that Edward should be an exemplar to his court or subjects.  Instead Cranmer appealed to Edward’s piety, and his desire for ‘an everlasting kingdom’ in Heaven.  Here then we find the dual attraction of immigrants.  Not only would they materially benefit their adopted community through their labour or expertise, but they also offered their hosts an opportunity for spiritual advancement.  Accepting aliens such as Cavelario constituted an improvement in both this world and the next.

Unsurprisingly, Cranmer’s appeals fell on fruitful ground.  When Cavelario’s letters of denization were issued, Edward VI also granted special powers to Sir Anthony Cooke and George Medele, allowing them to confer the next available advowson of any canonry or prebend in Canterbury cathedral on to him, partly as a reward for his skill, and, according to the Patent Roll entry, partly with the express intention of helping ‘the community of letters.’

Without question, the young Ralph was an extremely talented linguist and a welcome addition to any scholarly community.  As well as his mother tongue and (presumably) English, he possessed ‘singular erudition’ in the sacred languages of Hebrew, Greek, Chaldean and Latin, particularly Hebrew.  However, it is possible that in this area too he benefitted by not being English.  At this point in time England was lamentably short of Hebraists, and had even fewer worthy of the name.  Simply knowing the Hebrew alphabet and having the ability to recognise a few key words would entitle one to claim the term Hebraist, and before 1525 especially, even this small amount of knowledge was hard to come by.  Indeed, the majority of England’s competent and able Hebraists were educated abroad, and most of them were foreign-born as well.  Being a foreigner would again have worked to Cavelario’s advantage as he would have instantly been perceived as an excellent scholar.

Unfortunately for this Cambridge circle of Protestant intellectuals, their comparative peace and productivity was shattered in 1553, when the fervently Protestant Edward VI died and the equally fervent Catholic Mary took the throne.  The majority of foreigners fled, some to Frankfurt in Germany, and others to France.  Cavelario himself was granted a professorship in Strasbourg, where he stayed for two years before moving on to Geneva and then to Caen. His promised prebend must have seemed like it belonged to another, halcyon world.

However, the Protestant Elizabeth ascended England’s throne after Mary died childless and, as Ralph Cavelar, he eventually succeeded to the seventh prebend of Canterbury Cathedral, being installed on 27 January 1569.  It is unclear why there was this delay.  Perhaps Elizabeth cared to bestow her favours on those other than her erstwhile teacher?  Or perhaps Cavelario had no desire or inclination to return to England’s shores?  Although he eventually returned primarily to seek help for the Huguenot cause, he was persuaded to stay and accept a professorship at Cambridge, replacing Thomas Wakefield, an English Hebraist and brother of the celebrated Robert.  This move was fairly lucrative.  Peterhouse College paid him 12s. per annum for his lectures, while King’s College paid him £3 per annum, and he also drew a salary from St John’s College.  Aside from this financial appreciation, there is evidence that his pupils had considerable respect for his teaching and valued his linguistic skills.  Nevertheless, the generosity of Cambridge notwithstanding, Cavelario left England in 1572 to return to France, but fled his native shore after the St Bartholomew’s day massacre in August, mere months after his arrival.  Intending to head back to England, he made it to the safety of Guernsey, where he died in October 1572. In the register of deaths at St Peter’s Port he is listed as Raoul Le Chevalier teacher of Hebrew to Princess Elizabeth, just one small facet of his extraordinary life.

By bringing their considerable intellects and a willingness to enrich the universities with their knowledge, Cavelario, Tremellius and others like them really did, as Foster Watson has noted, create a scholarly community that would establish a Hebrew learning and education in Tudor England and beyond.  Arguably, it was the combination of their work and their ready acceptance by the English intellectual community that would eventually make possible large linguistic projects such as the authorised King James Bible by educating a generation of students to far higher standards than before.  Sadly for Cavelario’s legacy, his most eminent student, Hugh Broughton, was excluded from the Bible translation, probably on account of his extreme irascibility, although, thanks to Cavelario’s teaching, he was widely acknowledged to be the leading Hebraist of his day.

Jen Bartlett


Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1550-1553
Registres des enterremens  de l’église de Saint Pierre Port, 1566-1642

Cox, John Edmund (ed.), Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer: The Works of Thomas Cranmer Volume 2 (Cambridge, 1846)
Dowling, M., ‘Cranmer as Humanist Reformer’ in Thomas Cranmer: Churchman and Scholar, ed. by Paul Ayris & David G. Selwyn (Cambridge, 1993), 89-114
Hall, Basil, ‘Cranmer’s Relations With Erasmianism and Lutheranism’ in Thomas Cranmer: Churchman and Scholar, ed. by Paul Ayris & David G. Selwyn (Cambridge, 1993), 3-38
Hasted, Edward, The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 12 (1801)
Lloyd Jones, G., ‘Chevallier, Anthony Rudolph (1523–1572)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004)
Watson, Foster, Religious Refugees and English Education (London, 1911)


Cite this page:

England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 10 December 2022), http://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/individual-studies/ralph-cavelario-an-intellectual-immigrant-1523-1572