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


A complete (if damaged) set of inquisitions and the sheriff’s collection roll both survive for Cambridgeshire for the first payment of the 1440 subsidy, providing a detailed picture of the county’s alien population for this year. Separate lists were drawn up for the town of Cambridge and for the hundreds which comprised the Isle of Ely, although the whole county was then accounted together. 158 people were recorded in total, 67 of these being from Cambridge itself, and only in the Isle of Ely were nationalities not routinely recorded. The largest national grouping was evidently the French, followed closely by the ‘Dutch’, but quite a few Irish people were also assessed. The only others noted were a single Scot and two Flemings. Occupations were not regularly noted, but if surname evidence can be taken as indicative (and the format of the documents suggests that, in this case at least, it probably can), then these included a number of people involved in the cloth trade – weavers, tailors and possibly even a capmaker. The non-householders were mainly domestic servants, or possibly tradesmen’s workers. The Cambridge return is perhaps the most interesting, and is certainly the fullest, including what were almost certainly the occupations and nationalities of almost everyone listed. The vast majority of the immigrants in the town were ‘Dutch’, with 13 of the 23 householders and 33 of the 44 non-householders being described as ‘Ducheman’. Most of these were either cordwainers, tailors or weavers, and many of the non-householders were the servants of alien masters listed earlier in the roll. Of the others, the householders included seven Irishmen, only two Frenchmen, a Scot and a Picard, while the non-householders included two Frenchmen, two Irishmen, and Maria Portyngale, presumably from Portugal. The other five, together with one of the Scots, are perhaps the most interesting, since they are specifically described as staying within the University, and include a Gascon, a Swede, and two others with clearly Scandinavian forenames (Magnus and Olav). All six seem to have left between Easter and Michaelmas, since they did not make the second payment, but their business within the university is as yet unknown. Strangely, while various wives were noted, only 2 of the 44 taxpayers in Cambridge were women.

Unusually, the total numbers assessed for the second year of the 1440 tax remained almost the same, with only six fewer people paying, although the number paying as householders did fall. In Cambridge itself, the overwhelming majority of taxpayers were again Dutch, with just a few Irish, an un-named Scottish scribe, and a few French. The list is again dominated by the Dutch cordwainers and their servants, but other trades included a fishmonger and a barber, surnames such as Glasswright, Currier, Pardoner and Mason suggest other trades, and the list also included Trinity Hall’s French chef! In the rest of the county, the alien population was a much more diverse mix of French, Scots, Irish and Flemings, but no occupations were noted, with only the occasional surname of Taylour, Webster and Brewer hinting at possible trades. No returns or accounts survive for the collections made in 1442 or 1443, but the account for the final payment of the 1442 subsidy notes that only 19 people paid across the county, a fraction of the 158 people assessed only 4 years earlier. The absence of both nominal returns and enrolled accounts for the intervening period may hint at a breakdown in the administration similar to that in some other counties over this period. Returns do survive for all four payments of the 1449 tax. 77 people were assessed for the first payment, but only 18 the following year, and 27 in 1451. However, the return for the final payment of this tax appears to have been a fiction, since not only does it contain the names of precisely the same taxpayers as that for the second payment, but both were dated on the ‘Monday after Michaelmas’ (only the year was different), before almost the same JPs (one was added in 1452, though the Cambridgeshire bench had not changed since 1448), and perhaps most tellingly, before exactly the same jurors. This is an extremely unlikely situation for documents supposedly produced two years apart, and suggests that the sheriff, Thomas Tresham, and his officials did not hold a new enquiry, and simply copied an old return (for further discussion of problems with Tresham’s account, see the study for Huntingdonshire).

Numbers of taxpayers, if not their names, survive for most of the collections of the 1453 subsidy. 56 were assessed for the first three years, but this fell to just 35 the following year. The 7 who paid in 1457 probably owed more to administrative failures than any change in the immigrant population, but the numbers only rose back up to 18 the following year. 39 were taxed in 1464, but this increase was short-lived, falling into the 20s in 1466 and 1467, 11 by 1469, and for the final payment at Easter 1471, the sheriff reported that there were no aliens in the county liable to pay – again, a highly unlikely situation. On most occasions, separate inquests were held for the city and the county, often weeks if not months apart, and many of the same individuals appeared in these over many years, showing a degree of continuity. However, there was often no consistency in how they were recorded; for instance a Scottish smith living in Wetherley hundred was variously called John Scotte, John Smith or other variants, and over the period was recorded as a resident of three different neighbouring villages, Wimpole, Barrington and Arrington. He may have moved, but it is perhaps equally likely that the assessment procedures were not of the highest quality! Other taxpayers were also given a variety of similar names or nationalities, while the headings of the documents themselves often claimed that all the taxpayers were Scots, but then described them as ‘Dutch’ or gave their surname as ‘Frenchman’.

No returns survive for the 1483 subsidy. An account for the 1487 tax shows that 40 people were assessed to pay that subsidy, of which 22 actually paid, but no details of the names or identities of those taxpayers have been discovered.

Not surprisingly, throughout the period of the alien subsidies a large proportion of the taxpayers lived in the town of Cambridge, both householders and non-householders. There are relatively few examples of people associated with the university colleges being assessed, but the town was clearly home to a substantial community of Dutch shoemakers. The other taxpayers were scattered across much of the county, in numerous small towns and villages, although some hundreds were home to more than others, such as the south-western hundreds of Armingford and Wetherley, and Chilford hundred in the south-east. However, such impressions can be distorted by multiple appearances of the same or related individuals. Moreover, while 26 individuals were assessed to pay the first year’s payments of the 1440 tax within the hundreds of the Isle of Ely, which comprised the entire northern part of the county, thereafter not a single person in those hundreds was ever assessed to pay these subsidies. This seems to mirror the situation in the other liberty associated with Ely, the liberty of St Etheldreda in Suffolk, whose residents were again taxed in 1440 but not thereafter. It seems likely that, after the initial assessment in 1440, the church of Ely managed to secure exemption for the people within both their great liberties, or at least took steps to prevent the royal officials from administering the taxes there.

Jonathan Mackman

Cite this page:

England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 20 February 2017), https://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/sources/alien-subsidies/east-anglia/cambridgeshire