In late September 1459, a tailor named Giles Morvyle was summoned before the town council of Maldon, a small port town in Essex. Some years before, Giles had been formally sworn in as a burgess of Maldon, taking an oath that he was a denizen of England, born in the Channel Islands in the allegiance of the English king. In the summer of 1457, however, a rumour had arisen among the townspeople of Maldon that Giles was no denizen, but an alien. The Maldon borough town book (a compilation of legal cases, procedures, customs, and charters), which is the source of all of this information, notes that ‘some said he was a Spaniard; some said he was a Breton’.
The bailiffs of the town clearly took this rumour seriously, and brought Giles before them. They told him of the rumours, and asked him to respond. Giles said: “Whoever says I am a Spaniard or a Breton or an alien, I say to him ‘nay’. I will prove that I was truly born in Jersey [in the Channel Islands]. In the meantime, I will put you in possession of my house, with a condition that if I bring sufficient witnesses that I was born in Jersey by a certain date, then I may have again my house; if I do not, you will keep possession of it.” And so he formally made over the house to the bailiffs on the 10th June 1457, and delivered them the keys.
Precisely what happened next is unclear. The writer of the borough book, who until this point in the narrative had been quite meticulous in outlining each detail, merely states that Giles failed to bring his witnesses at the appointed day. He was assigned another day, and another, until seven months later (January or February 1458) he had still not brought his witnesses: ‘by which time it was verily known that he was a Fleming born in Flanders…so the bailiffs keep still their possession [of his house] on behalf of the town.’
This brings us to the gathering of September 1459, at which a substantial number of townspeople were present. The town officers presented that Giles had deceived the council, and broken one of the borough ordinances: ‘no man shall make complaint to no lord nor gentleman of any manner of thing that belongs to the town, in order to avoid the ruling of the bailiffs.’ The council decided that he should pay a forfeit of 20s., as the ordinance specified, and also that he should lose his status as a freeman of the town. This short note strongly implies that Giles had sought outside help in the struggle to get his house back.
Maldon men had an unusual amount of choice in this regard – the two main manors comprising the borough were owned by the Bourchier Earls of Essex and the de Vere Earls of Oxford respectively; the lordship of the borough itself was split between the Bishop of London and the Darcy family. The de Veres in particular might have been sympathetic to Giles’s cause. Just a couple of years before, a Dutchman named John Clayson had obtained a letter from Viscount Beaumont (a close associate of John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford), enjoining the burgesses of Harwich, a de Vere manor, to admit Clayson to their liberty, as he had been ‘brought up in the king’s laws a liegeman’. Perhaps Giles had managed to find similar patronage, even if it did him more harm than good.
In January 1460, the day of the borough elections, Giles finally admitted responsibility, in the words of the town book, ‘for all the offences and contempts that he had done to the town’. He publicly acknowledged his crimes, promised to obey the rule of the bailiffs and town council, and to give up the fight over his house. In return, the town council re-admitted him to the franchise (he paid another 20s. for the privilege), and granted him back his house for an annual rent of 8s; the formal grant was copied into the town book in Latin, and that is the last that it records of the strange case of Giles Morvyle.
The case is indeed strange in a number of ways. Firstly, the story it tells is unusual: we simply do not have many records of how alien status affected the everyday lives of ordinary people. Clearly, Giles was not poor. He was obviously a member of the prosperous bourgeoisie, owning his own house outright, able to pay fairly hefty fines, and apparently well connected enough to enlist the support of a lord or gentleman. But all the same he was just a tailor; he was not, at least by comparison with other aliens in England for whom we have detailed information, rich or powerful.
Secondly, the case shows us that alien status was a fluid, changeable social identity. As Wendy Childs has shown in her study of (much richer) Irish merchants in Bristol, foreignness does not seem to have been an inherent bar to success. Her case study of Henry May provides a useful counterpoint: an Irish shipper who rose to prominence in the city’s politics, May fell foul of the ruling elite after a problem about one of his apprentices escalated into a bitter and drawn-out conflict. May’s Irishness only seemed to become a focus once the dispute had already begun. Although the Maldon town book does not record any previous incidents with Giles, the ease with which the borough dispossessed him of his house and forced him into submission is rather suspicious. In both cases, it seems to me, alien status was a potential weakness; it could be wielded against foreigners when it was expedient for other people to do so.
Thirdly and finally, the fluidity of alien status nonetheless offered rich possibilities for advancement to enterprising foreigners like Giles Morvyle. The Flemish oaths of allegiance of 1436 record a certain ‘Giles Morfeld’, Fleming, of Waltham in Essex (about 30 miles west of Maldon). This is surely the same man. If so, when Giles entered the freedom of Maldon, he was able to portray himself as a denizen of Jersey; the Channel Islands, of course, were French-speaking dominions of the English Crown, whose inhabitants had vocally resisted their initial inclusion as aliens in the first subsidy of 1440 (the decision was quickly reversed). Giles, presumably a Francophone Fleming, was perhaps able to explain away his foreign accent with reference to this constitutional anomaly. Even if the masquerade did not last, the tale tells us a great deal about the way that people could remake their identities (alien or otherwise) after moving to a new community – a point often assumed but rarely proved about post-plague England.
Yet this last piece of evidence from 1436 raises one more question. In that year, all Flemings were required to make an oath of fealty to the English king. Is it possible that Giles, having made the oath, considered himself to some extent an Englishman? Were his lies, in his view, simply a legal fiction covering the essential truth (as he saw it) of his status as a permanent foreign resident? Of course, we cannot know the answers to these rather personal questions; but we do know that the burgesses of Maldon never came to such a view. Giles appears in the subsequent alien subsidy assessments of 1460, 1468, and 1470. Outed as an alien, an alien he remained in their eyes. But, the tale at least ends somewhat happily. On each occasion he was listed as a ‘householder’ – a status that, in his case at least, had an interesting story behind it.
Essex Record Office, D/B 3/1/2, fol. 5r and D/B 4/38/8, m. 10r.
P. R. Cavill, The English Parliaments of Henry VII: 1485-1509 (Oxford, 2009), p. 126.
D. F. Coros, ‘Maldon, Borough’. History of Parliament Online.
Wendy R. Childs, ‘Irish Merchants and Seamen in Late Medieval-England’, Irish Historical Studies, 32:125 (2000), 22-43.
Tim Thornton, The Channel Islands 1370-1640: Between England and Normandy (Woodbridge, 2012).