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

The Gigli: a Family on the Move

In 1604, Martino Gigli left the Italian city of Lucca behind and embarked on a tour of Europe. Part of the following of his uncle, cardinal Antonio Buonvisi, the 43-year-old visited France, England, Flanders, Holland and Germany. On his thirteenth month trip, Martino, who would write down his family’s history during the later years of his life, followed in the footsteps of several of his ancestors. During the previous two centuries, they had spread over the continent in search of honour and financial gain and, in doing so, had covered nearly every aspect of the late medieval and early modern migration experience.

The first one to cross the Alps was Piero Gigli. As so many of his fellow Lucchese had done, he travelled north to sell silks in the Flemish city of Bruges, Northwestern Europe’s prime hub of international trade and banking of its day, during the first half of the fifteenth century. Martino Gigli believed Piero had done so to escape the grasp of Paolo Guinigi, Lucca’s absolute ruler between 1400 and 1430. It must be stressed, however, that the Gigli were among the most faithful supporters of the Guinigi party and that several of its members married into the autocrat’s family.

By the time Piero Gigli died, in 1432, his second son Carlo had already made his own name in Bruges’ silk trade. Between 1430 and 1443, he supplied over 2000 ells of silk cloth, brocades and satin to the court of Philip the Good, the Burgundian Duke who had elevated conspicuous consumption and the display of power to a matter of state. All precious fabrics perking up the festivities for Philip’s wedding with Isabel of Portugal, in 1430, had been ordered from Gigli and his Lucchese colleague Paolo Meliani, earning them the impressive sum of over 30,000 pounds. Carlo was also a member of the prestigious Confraternity of the Dry Tree, where wealthy merchants rubbed shoulders with Burgundian officers, urban notables and the high clergy. His luck did not last though: according to Martino Gigli, the silk merchant fell foul of his ducal patron sometime after 1445.

The dispute might have been the reason for Gigli to ply his trade in England. He obtained a safe-conduct from the Crown in 1451 and, clearly determined to reside in the realm more permanently, took out letters of denization for himself, his wife Camilla Cagnoli and his family in 1460, entitling him to acquire lands and other possessions, to plead in English courts and to pay taxes as other lieges. Providing the perfect example of fifteenth-century chain migration, Carlo could rely on the experiences of relatives who had moved to London before. His elder brother Filippo had lodged with local fishmonger Robert Stratford in the parish of Bartholomew the Less before 1435 and his youngest brother Nicolao, assessed as a merchant stranger, had paid 6 s. 8 d. to the alien subsidy collector in Tower, Billingsgate, Bridge or Candlewick Street Ward in 1451.

It was only after Carlo had moved to the English capital that his literary interests came to the surface. In 1458 he taught poetry and French and sold books to William Worcester, chronicler, antiquary and the secretary of commander and landowner Sir John Fastolf and in the early 1460s he wrote several letters in Latin commenting on the military and political events of the Wars of the Roses to Lucchese merchant colleagues and to Pope Pius II, which suggest a decent education and a basic knowledge of classical authors. It must have been his commercial ambitions that drew him back to Bruges, nevertheless, where he died and was buried next to his father.

Bruges was also the place where, in 1434, during the family’s first period of residence in Flanders, Carlo’s son Giovanni had seen the light. The child of a merchant with scholarly affinities, he was sent to study in Bologna in 1449 and spent time at the university of Oxford in the early 1450s, before becoming a doctor of both laws in Ferrara and at the Studio Lucchese. Drawing on Carlo’s Italian connections, he started a career in the Church and was appointed papal collector and nuncio in England in 1476. Giovanni’s return to the realm where he must have spent part of his youth was officialised by letters of denization in December 1477, necessary to obtain English benefices. He was still assessed in the alien subsidy roll for 1483, paying the householder’s tariff, as were the eight members of staff who lived with him in Coleman Street Ward.

During his stay in London, Gigli pursued the humanistic interests his father had fostered before him: the Bruges born Lucchese acted as a tutor to King Edward IV’s children, helped to distribute William Caxton’s indulgences and has been credited as the writer of the first epithalamium, a poem for the bride on her way to the marital chamber, in England. Already Archdeacon of London at the time of the 1483 collection, Giovanni rapidly climbed the ecclesiastical ladder. From 1490 onwards, he served as the English ambassador at the Roman Curia. He was consecrated bishop of Worcester in September 1497, but could only enjoy his episcopate briefly. Giovanni Gigli died in Rome less than a year later, aged sixty four, without having visited his see.

The household assessed in London’s Coleman Street Ward not only included cooks, butlers and servants, but also two sons of Giovanni’s uncle Nicolao. Sebastiano was categorised as a merchant residing in England for longer than three months, commercial activities probably being the reason why he took out letters of denization in 1485 as well. He returned to Italy to settle Giovanni’s business but was certainly back by 1491, when he became one of the few known to have received denization papers on two occasions. In 1494 he settled in Lucca, where he took up office and died young five years later.

Silvestro, listed as a servant on the Alien Subsidy roll, was born in Lucca in 1463 and pursued a career very similar to that of his 1483 host. A graduate in law, he accompanied Giovanni to Italy, where he collected benefices and revenues. In 1498 he succeeded his cousin as bishop of Worcester, a see which, he too, would administer by proxy. Silvestro was the papal legate who brought the dispensation for Prince Henry’s marriage with Catherine of Aragon to England in 1505, as Thomas Wolsey’s agent in Rome he fought bitter rivalries with cardinal Christopher Bainbridge, and according to some also had him poisoned, and he helped Erasmus procure papal dispensations, earning him a dedication in the humanist’s work.

Continuing the family’s tradition of nepotism, Gigli must have had a hand in the appointment of Felix Massarozee, his nephew on his sister’s side, as rector of Tredington in the diocese of Worcester. Massarozee, probably named after the village of Massarosa in the Lucchese countryside, was granted letters of denization in 1516. Five years later, his uncle died and was buried in the church of the English Hospice in Rome. His death marked the end of the eventful history of the Gigli on English soil. Until Martino Gigli packed his bags.

Bart Lambert


London, The National Archives, E 179/144/64 & 25 (Alien Subsidies).
Lucca, Biblioteca Statale, MS 1008, Martino Gigli, Descrizione della famiglia dei Gigli copiata da una fatta da me Martino di Martino di Niccolò di Martino Gigli il 1618.

The Alien Communities of London in the Fifteenth Century. The Subsidy Rolls of 1440 and 1483-4, ed. Jim Bolton (Stamford, 1998).
Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1452-1461, 1476-1485 and 1485-1494.
Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts in the Archives and Collections of Milan: 1385-1618, ed. Allen B. Hinds (London, 1912).
Letters of denization and acts of naturalization for aliens in England, 1509-1603, ed. William Page (Lymington, 1893).
Paston letters: original letters, written during the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III by various persons of rank, ed. John Fenn (London, 1840).

Bianchi, Rosella, ‘Il mercante Carlo Gigli, Pio II e le Guerre delle Rose’, in Rosella Bianchi, Intorno a Pio II: un Mercante e Tre Poeti (Messina, 1988), pp. 69-122.
Bradley, Helen, ‘Italian merchants in London, c. 1350-c. 1450′ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of London, 1992).
Clough, Cecil H., ‘Gigli, Silvestro (1463–1521)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).
Clough, Cecil H., ‘Three Gigli of Lucca in England during the Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries: Diversification in a Family of Mercery Merchants’, The Ricardian: Journal of the Richard III Society, 13 (2003), pp. 121-147.
Hughes, Jonathan, ‘Stephen Scrope and the Circle of Sir John Fastolf: Moral and Intellectual Outlooks’, in Christopher Harper-Bill and Ruth Iarvey (eds.), Medieval Knighthood IV: Papers from the Fifth Strawberry Hill Conference 1990 (Woodbrige, 1992), 109-146.
Lambert, Bart, The City, the Duke and Their Banker: the Rapondi Family and the Formation of the Burgundian State (1384-1430) (Turnhout, 2006).
Lambert, Bart, ‘Se fist riche par draps de soye. The Intertwinement of Italian Financial Interests and Luxury Trade at the Burgundian Court (1384-1481)’, in Bart Lambert and Katherine Anne Wilson (eds.), Luxury Textiles in Italy and the Low Countries during the late medieval and early modern period (Aldershot, forthcoming).
Meek, Christine, Lucca, 1369-1400: Politics and Society in an Early Renaissance City-State (Oxford, 1978).
Tournoy, Gilbert and Thoen, Godelieve, ‘Giovanni Gigli and the Renaissance of the Classical Epithalamium in England’, in Dirk Sacré and Gilbert Tournoy (eds.), Myricae: Essays on Neo-Latin Literature in Memory of Jozef IJsewijn (Leuven, 2000), pp. 133-193.

See also J. B. Trapp, ‘Gigli, Giovanni (1434–1498)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

Cite this page:

England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 9 December 2022), http://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/individual-studies/the-gigli-a-family-on-the-move