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


The collection of the alien subsidy in Lancashire as recorded in the surviving documents was almost certainly an administrative and accounting fiction. According to the returns and accounts, only five people were assessed towards each of the three payments of the 1440 subsidy, a ridiculously low and incredible figure for a county of the size of Lancashire – even the much smaller neighbouring county of Westmorland was home to 105 in 1440. Two assessments survive for the tax, both listing the same five taxpayers, and the same five people also appear in 1444, for the second year of the 1442 tax. However, while the same three householders also paid the first payment of that tax in 1443, the inquisition records three entirely different non-householders. The fact that the previous two re-appeared the following year, and the names of the three householders, although evidently the same people, were extremely garbled in 1444, casts serious doubt on the credibility of the returns, suggesting that they may well have simply been copied from documents for an earlier collection, or compiled by someone with a poor memory of those documents. However, this was only the start. Only one person was assessed to pay the first collection of the 1449 subsidy, a man from Chorley called William Fisicus, his ‘surname’ suggesting that he may have been a doctor. Again, this hardly seems credible, and bears unfavourable comparison with the return for the 1450 subsidy on the lands, wages and fees of the general native population, where Nicholas Byron, the sheriff who had only found one alien in the whole county that year, returned an exhaustive assessment raising over £128. Nevertheless, this was lost on the Exchequer, since from this point onwards not a single penny was collected in the county towards the alien subsidies. Only two inquisitions survive for the 1453 subsidy, one covering the first eight collections and the other the thirteenth and fourteenth. Both appear perfectly standard, naming jurors and reciting the grant, but both then provide nil returns. Similarly, accounts survive for all the collections of Henry VI’s reign with the exception of those due in 1458, and again all explicitly record that nothing was raised. Such nil returns were not unusual, with counties such as Worcestershire and Rutland also often claiming that no liable aliens were to be found. However,  other counties did at least manage to submit reasonably full sets of accounts to the Exchequer, and even Rutland managed to find three aliens in the county during Edward IV’s reign. By contrast, no documents or details for Lancashire have so far been discovered for any alien subsidy payments due after Michaelmas 1460, a situation matched only by Northumberland, where at least the troubled state of the border region could be blamed for inactivity.

Quite why the palatine administration failed to administer the tax in this way is as yet unclear. It seems inconceivable that these returns were true, and that so few aliens lived in the county, yet the officials at first assessed only a few people, then simply sent in nil returns, and then seemingly sent nothing at all. Whether the inquisitions recorded in the surviving returns even took place is probably doubtful. Perhaps the officials simply could not be bothered, safe in the knowledge that nothing would happen to them? Yet quite why they would not tax the alien population, but be so assiduous for a tax on the native population, albeit one that would raise far more money than the alien subsidy ever would, remains a mystery, and further investigation is clearly needed.

Jonathan Mackman

Cite this page:

England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 9 December 2022), http://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/sources/alien-subsidies/the-north/lancashire