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


General Observations:

The survival rate of assessment documents for Northumberland is rather mixed. A good series of returns survives for the county until 1458, but nothing at all thereafter, while various documents survive for the town of Newcastle upon Tyne until the end of that tax in 1471. However, unfortunately nothing at all has survived for town or county for the taxes of the 1480s.

A set of 16 inquisitions survives for Northumberland for the first payment of the 1440 tax (one of which has been newly-discovered during the course of this project), and these contain the names of the vast majority (around 523) of the 577 taxpayers recorded in the account roll. At least one further inquest is still missing, but a fragmentary list of taxpayers, drawn up from the inquisitions, also survives for these payments, annotated with details of those who had paid, moved away or died, and the names of a further 39 non-householders, presumably those named on the missing inquest(s), can be extracted from that roll. Those 39 do not give any indication of nationality, but, with the exception of a single Fleming, all the other people listed in the inquests were, not surprisingly, described as Scots. More interestingly, perhaps, is the large proportion of those taxpayers who were single women, taxed on their own account, suggesting that significant numbers of migrant female workers were travelling south across the border during this period. These women were also scattered across the county, in settlements of various sizes, but a huge proportion of them may have moved back home following the assessment, or at least evaded the payment, as only around a third of those assessed actually paid the tax. By the second year, only 98 people were assessed, and that number had fallen to just 42 by the final year. In common with most areas of the country, the numbers assessed continued to fall over the years, until stabilising at around 20 during the 1450s. Many of the returns also describe the non-householding alien taxpayers in general as ‘vacabundi’, a term not seemingly used elsewhere in the country. Whether this was consciously meant to indicate the type of people living in Scotland (migrant workers with no fixed place of residence, travelling around the county) or was just a turn of phrase used by the scribe (possibly in a pejorative sense) is unknown, although it seems unlikely that it truly applied to every non-householder taxpayer.

Newcastle upon Tyne was administered separately from the rest of the county, and has its own series of records. The origins of the most of the alien population of the town were not specified in 1440, but it is probably safe to assume that the vast majority of the 107 people assessed in the town were again Scots. There were other nationalities present – at least one Irishman and a ‘Dutch’ man in 1440, and six ‘Dutch’ men by 1451 – but from their surnames, the majority were evidently Scots. Perhaps the most striking feature was again the large number of single women assessed. Of the 60 assessed householders in 1440, 18 were women (to add to the 9 wives assessed with their husbands), and of the 47 non-householders, a staggering 33 were women. Most of the non-householders were described as servants, together with the names of their masters and, occasionally, their master’s trade, including two cordwainers, a spurrier, a mercer and a tailor. However, very few of those assessed in 1440 remained in the town by the time it was collected; only 13 of the 47 non-householders assessed paid the tax, but perhaps more surprisingly only 12 of the 60 householders remained behind to contribute, the others perhaps being rather more transient inhabitants than might be expected of supposed ‘householders’. Whether the threat of imminent taxation was enough to drive them back over the border, or whether they were just successful in avoiding the collectors, is unknown.

The later returns for both county and town are relatively uninformative, usually containing little more than the names of the individuals and their payment category. However, the people taxed  in these years remained relatively stable, with some individuals appearing consistently in returns over a number of years. In the county returns it is perhaps slightly odd that the majority of the people taxed in the later returns lived in Coquetdale ward, which comprised only around a quarter of the county by area. It seems unlikely that the alien population should necessarily be drawn to this one ward, and thus it may be that the assessment process in the rest of the county was not as rigorous as it might have been – further investigation of this phenomenon is needed. In Newcastle, this consistency was also very much in evidence, with people like Peter Beerbrewer and Andrew Dawber appearing time and again, but the emphasis on assessment may also have moved away from the Scottish population and onto the other, ‘non-British’ residents. In 1452, of the 7 people assessed for the final year of the 1449 tax, only 3 were Scots, with the other 4 being described as being from Holland, a very different proportion from a decade earlier (albeit with a much smaller sample). It seems unlikely that the Scots had truly all gone back home, or that they could all avoid detection, so perhaps the assessors were simply less inclined to tax Scottish people, either because they did not view them as true ‘aliens’ or perhaps simply because experience had shown that they were unlikely to pay anyway? Again, further analysis of this is needed.

The lack of nominal returns for the county from the later period may not be entirely a matter of chance, since accounts for the county also only seem to survive until 1458, after which no enrolments appear on the account roll, and no particulars have been found in the E 179 series. The accounts for the first three years’ payments of the 1453 tax (accounted together as usual) seem to indicate that none of the 33s. 6d. due was ever paid, and the revenue for the seventh and eighth payments, due in 1456, was not received until November 1459. The next year’s payments were also received around two years late, and although the eleventh and twelfth payments were seemingly collected without trouble, there is no evidence that any further collections were ever made. The records may simply have been lost, but it may have been deemed too difficult to collect it during the troubles of the Wars of the Roses, and particularly after Edward IV’s accession, when disturbances continued in the county for a number of years after the end of the main phase of the wars. Again, further research into the administration and yields of the later taxes is needed.

Jonathan Mackman

Cite this page:

England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 6 October 2022), http://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/sources/alien-subsidies/the-north/northumberland