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


General Observations

The collection of the alien subsidies in Yorkshire was a complicated and error-strewn affair, with countless problems in both the assessment procedures and the record keeping. It was seemingly also troubled by the administrative and political geography of the county, and possibly by the turbulent state of the North at various times. The county’s three Ridings were generally assessed and recorded separately (at least in theory), though they were usually accounted together, while the city of York (a separate administrative county since 1396) was administered entirely independently. The town of Kingston upon Hull was also granted county status in 1440, and as such another separate series of assessments and accounts for that town was also produced. Document survival is a major problem. While returns for York and Hull survive in relatively large numbers, information for the three Ridings, especially regarding the names of individual taxpayers, is much more fragmentary, and large gaps exist in both the assessments and the accounts. This is a particular problem for the taxes of 1440 and 1442, where little survives beyond the detailed assessments for the first year, and for those of the 1480s, where the only surviving information is for the 1483 collection in Hull. However, even where documents do survive, the quality and reliability of the information they contain is often extremely suspect.
Almost a complete series of inquisitions survives for Yorkshire for the first year of the 1440 subsidy, the only exception being for the newly-created ‘county’ of Hull, and the returns are, as usual, relatively full and informative. The North Riding inquests (signed, unusually, by the clerk who drew them up, John Grenefeld of Thirsk) show a region where the resident aliens were both numerous and very much scattered across the rural communities, with the only concentrations of any note being in the ports of Whitby and Scarborough. Most of the taxpayers were Scots (some explicitly, others almost certainly), although there were others from more distant regions, such as ‘Beerne’ from ‘Fynnemerk’, assessed in Stokesley, presumably from the region of Finnmark in northern Norway, and a few French and Flemish natives. However national origins were not systematically recorded, and nor were occupations. In the West Riding, the majority of the assessed aliens were French, although other nationalities were present, particularly Scots but also others such as the Icelandic woman resident in Osset, and at least one Gascon. Perhaps the most notable taxpayer listed was the Scottish earl of Mentieth, assessed in Pontefract, a rather harsh assessment given that the earl had been a prisoner in the castle there since 1427, detained as a hostage for the long-overdue ransom of King James I, and was to stay there until finally released in 1453. The East Riding contained by far the most assessed aliens in 1440, comprising over half the county total. Again it shows people living across the whole of the Riding, although, rather surprisingly, perhaps the greatest concentrations were in the northern wapentakes of Dickering and Buckrose, almost certainly the areas with the lowest overall population density. Nationalities and occupations were not generally recorded, but those which were, along with evidence from surnames, again suggest that most aliens were Scots, but with a variety of others in small numbers, mainly people from various parts of France and the Low Countries, and ‘Scandinavians’ from Iceland, the Orkneys and the Isle of Man. The assessment for the town of Beverley, which does give nationalities, appears relatively consistent with the impression of the Riding as a whole, being dominated by Scots, but with numerous others. The appearance of two inquisitions for Beverley (one for the provost’s fee and one for the archbishop of York’s fee), alongside one for the borough of Hedon, shows that, in the East Riding at least, the assessment process was probably being administered along the lines used for the collection of traditional fifteenths and tenths, where the boroughs and ecclesiastical liberties were treated differently to the bulk of the county. How long this persisted is unknown due to the lack of returns, although a separate account for Hedon for the first year of the 1442 tax certainly appears on the account roll. By 1449 Beverley residents were being assessed with the rest of Harthill wapentake, but no Hedon resident is described as such on any of the other surviving documents for the Riding, perhaps another reflection of the economic decline of the borough.

The only other details, accounts or assessments, surviving for the main county for the first two alien subsidies are documents for the North Riding for the first year of the 1442 subsidy. This tax was evidently not collected at the correct time, as a further commission was issued in April 1446, and an inquest held the following August. The return contains the names of 40 householders and 28 non-householders, a fraction of the 75 householders and 231 non-householders recorded in 1440. Places of residence were not noted, but national origins were, the vast majority being Scots. The reason for the delay in collection is not clear, but there may have been serious problems with the administration of this tax across the county. No returns or accounts survive for the East or West Ridings for the first year’s payments, yet, rather strangely, a joint account for those two Ridings does survive for the second year, whereas nothing survives for the North. This is the only known instance when two Ridings were accounted without the third, and suggests that the administration of both payments in the North Riding was significantly delayed.

Indeed, the administration of the alien subsidies seems to have deteriorated further from this point, and while documents for the 1449 subsidy were returned, they are extremely muddled and confused. The assessment for the first payment in the North Riding only appears to list people resident in the wapentakes of Birdforth and Langbaurgh and the town of Scarborough, a highly unlikely distribution of the alien population, and unfortunately gives no indication of national origins beyond generic surnames such as ‘Ducheman’ or ‘Scott’. However, the West Riding assessment, which only contains 28 names, includes a number of people who were clearly residents of the North Riding, mainly from the area immediately north of Ripon. This would suggest that the officials, while ostensibly dividing the assessments between the Ridings, were not especially concerned with recording the taxpayers in the correct one, safe in the knowledge that they would eventually be accounted together anyway. Yet things became even more confused by the time of the third collection. Again, the ‘North Riding’ assessment only included people from part of the Riding, but this time also bore an incomplete date and a number of eccentric, ambiguous and occasionally unidentifiable personal and place names. Meanwhile, in the ‘West Riding’ assessment, all those people for whom a place of residence was given were from places in the North Riding; some were described as ‘formerly’ of those places, but others were not, and while it is possible that some could have moved westward, it seems extremely unlikely that all had done so. Furthermore, the East Riding assessment, supposedly compiled under the auspices of the sheriff Robert Ughtred, was dated three months before Ughtred was even appointed to that office. This confusion even continued onto the account roll, with the account for the fourth payment being associated there with the third, despite, again, being made in the name of a sheriff (Ralph Bygod) who was only in office for the later collection, and the roll also containing another (correct) entry for the third payment.

These flaws in the administrative procedures got even worse with the 1453 subsidy. A bundle of documents for the first three years’ payments includes three inquisitions, each claiming to cover a different Riding and recording inquests supposedly held at places within, and before the JPs for, those Ridings (each Riding had an entirely separate peace commission). However, on closer inspection, all the people listed in all three inquests were noted as living in settlements within the East Riding. The ‘East Riding’ inquest itself records people who were almost exclusively from Dickering wapentake, while that supposedly for the ‘North Riding’ lists people from the East Riding wapentake of Buckrose, and the ‘West Riding’ inquest, supposedly compiled in Doncaster, listed people from the wapentakes of Howdenshire and Ouse and Derwent, again in the East. Moreover, the ‘North Riding’ inquisition contained the names of 48 taxpayers and five wives, yet 53 people were accounted as paying, indicating that those wives, exempt from payment, were seemingly being charged regardless. Again, there were clearly serious flaws with either the assessment or the record keeping processes, though what caused this confusion is unknown, and why the officials decided to send in ridiculous, if not fraudulent, documentation is, as yet, equally puzzling.

Doubts as to the accuracy of the records continue with the seventh and eighth payments, where the assessments and accounts both record that no householders whatsoever were assessed in any of  the three Ridings, extremely unlikely given that 66 had been recorded the previous year, and 66 were also found the following year! The records for the remaining collections of the 1453 tax are also difficult to interpret. Survival of both assessments and accounts is patchy, but given that the same numbers were often accounted in successive years, often when assessment documents only survive for one, it seems likely that the officials did not actually bother to produce annual assessments, and may have re-used earlier findings. No returns or accounts survive for 1459 and 1460, suggesting that the troubles in the North may have prevented collection, though another similar gap in 1468 and 1469 is less easy to explain. As with most counties, the numbers of people assessed declined markedly, but rather than the gradual decline experienced elsewhere, the numbers of people assessed fluctuated much more wildly. If the records can be believed, 179 people were assessed for the first three years of the 1453 tax (possibly in only four wapentakes of the East Riding), and 170 for the fifth year, but this then fell to 79 in 1458, and just 23 paid when the tax was resurrected by Edward IV in 1463. The next surviving figure, for 1465, was (rather conveniently) exactly the same, yet in 1466 the assessors found 73 people, before falling back to 39 in 1467. In 1470, despite the renewal of war, it had actually risen to 47, but fell back to only 26 in 1471. This fluctuation  may have been a product of the troubled state of the northern counties at this time – there are no records at all of any collections being made in Northumberland or Westmorland after 1459 – and it is probably unlikely that it represents any real and significant changes in the actual alien population of the county across this period. Instead, it probably reflects a lack of attention or concern from the officials charged with collecting the tax. Overall, it is difficult to know what, if anything, contained within these Yorkshire documents can truly be regarded as accurate, and for some of the returns it can only be assumed that the people whose names appear in the documents did actually exist, and that they did indeed live in the places, come from the countries and perform the occupations recorded. With the exception of those from 1440, it seems highly unlikely that these documents give anything approaching a complete and accurate picture of the alien taxpaying population within Yorkshire, and for the first years of the 1453 subsidy, it is perfectly possible that much of it might well be total fabrication.

The City of York

The City of York was administered entirely separately throughout the life of the alien subsidies, and returned its own sets of documents to the Exchequer under the authority of the city’s JPs and sheriffs. As usual, a large proportion of those assessed in 1440 had disappeared by the time the collection was made – only 42 of the 83 people assessed actually paid – but thereafter the numbers, and the names, remained relatively consistent throughout the 1440 and 1442 taxes. Most of the same people were assessed from one collection to the next (unusually the city returned separate inquisitions for most individual collections), and taken together, they can help build up quite a detailed picture of that proportion of the city’s alien population which was being taxed. Most of the householders were listed together with their parishes of residence at least once, but fluctuations in the details suggest either that some people moved within the city during the period, or that they or the assessors were uncertain precisely where the parish boundaries lay. Most of the non-householders were recorded together with their trade or master, providing interesting details regarding the economic life of the medieval city. Relatively few nationalities are recorded in the returns, but of those where national origins can be judged, most were Scots, with a few ‘Dutch’, one Frenchman in 1440 and two Normans in 1443.

The later taxes were administered far better in York than in the rest of the county, and information (numbers of taxpayers, if not names) survives for every collection up until the final payment of the 1453 tax in 1471. Far fewer people were taxed towards the 1449 subsidy than in earlier years, the 22 for the first payment being followed by only 9 each for the second and third, and 12 for the fourth. Unfortunately only one nominal return survives, but again many of the same people appear as were taxed in earlier subsidies, and although no nationalities were explicitly given, three had the surname Scott, and one was called Fleming. 26 people were assessed for the first payments of the 1453 tax, but thereafter the numbers followed the usual pattern, gradually reducing to only 6 in 1470, and just 3 for the final payment in 1471. Again, only a few Scots were specifically noted, but forename and surname evidence suggests that the returns included ‘Dutch’ and Flemish people, two people presumably from the Orkneys, and a woman called Ragg Halderdoghter, her name suggesting probable Icelandic origins. No returns or accounts appear to survive for the 1483 and 1487 taxes.

Kingston upon Hull

As noted, no assessment or accounting documents have been found for the town of Hull for the first year’s payments of the 1440 tax – the only place outside Lincolnshire for which no information is known to survive. The East Riding inquisitions and accounts for that payment show that Hull’s inhabitants were not included with the rest of the Riding, so either the documents were lost or, with the county administration being set up in the same year the tax was due, it may simply not have been collected or the documentation was not returned in the usual manner to the Exchequer. However, in the following year 18 householders and 41 non-householders paid, so if the Hull numbers reduced between the two years in line with other parts of the country, a total figure of around 110 taxpayers may be a reasonable estimate for the first payment. Indeed, 121 people were assessed towards the second payment of the 1442 subsidy (unusually the first and second collections were assessed separately), but only 39 paid the first payment, and only 31 paid the following year, casting doubt on the accuracy of all three assessments. However, after this initial loss, information for Hull survives for every collection of every subsidy up to and including that levied in 1483, with nominal assessments surviving for many of those payments. The numbers of people assessed in the town after 1449 varied, fluctuating between a high of 77 in 1456 and a low-point of 25 in 1470, while only 18 were assessed in 1483. However, there was not the same gradual and inevitable decline seen in many other regions, and it was only in the last few years of the subsidy’s life that the numbers consistently dropped below 30. It is also clear that many of the people concerned were long-term residents, with the same names appearing in assessments over a number of years – though, interestingly, sometimes with gaps, suggesting they may have avoided the assessors on occasions, or have been absent elsewhere, or that the assessors were not as rigorous as they could have been. Nationalities were recorded only sporadically, but surname evidence suggests that the town, like its hinterland, contained the usual mix, with large numbers of Scots, a few Dutch, French and Flemings, and the occasional person from other areas. However, the most obvious difference in Hull was the appearance across the period of a relatively large number of Icelanders, and especially Icelandic women. For instance, in 1466, at least 11 of the 33 people named were either described as Icelanders or had distinctively Icelandic names. Presumably these people were drawn to Hull by fishing or trading connections, but some clearly stayed in the town for many years, and presumably formed a notable community within the town.

Jonathan Mackman

Cite this page:

England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 27 February 2017), https://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/sources/alien-subsidies/the-north/yorkshire