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


It is without question that London had the largest number of alien residents in the middle ages in England. As Prof. J. Bolton discussed in his introduction to Alien Communities in London in the Fifteenth Century, the immigrant population was somewhere in the region of 6% of London’s total population. The surviving alien subsidies for London reveal 18,000 names of resident aliens across the City. Some have left a great deal of detail on who they were, where they came from, to whom they were connected, and what they did. The City is shown to have the largest mercantile population that was mainly Italian, although there were some Germanic merchants also resident in the City. However, the vast majority of aliens in the City were not merchants, but rather craftsmen and servants. They were tarred with the same brush as the wealthy merchants, but were certainly not a financial threat to the English residents, as immigrants were perceived to be, even though they were fairly numerous.

The surviving records of the alien subsidy for London are extensive, and in some cases quite detailed. Inquisitions were often carried out by ward, rather than the City as a whole, which provides useful detail on the distribution of aliens throughout London. This occurs between 1441 and 1449, and then again in 1451 and 1483. Unfortunately most of the records only give the name of the individual, their spouse and their servant(s) – often occupation can often only be guessed by the surname. The alien’s origin is also only recorded on a limited number of assessments. However, the 1483 collection is the most detailed, giving origin, occupation and household groups within wards.

London was a heavily populated city, so it is not surprising that the resident alien population was also significantly larger than elsewhere in the country. In 1440, 1392 individuals were recorded in London, which rose to 1797 in 1442. Subsequent assessments show a fall in numbers, down to a low of 399 individuals in 1463. The number of individuals assessed then rose again to 650 in 1467, and then hit another peak of 1595 in the 1483 subsidy. These figures are comparable with the early figures for some entire counties, such as Hampshire, which in 1440 recorded 1127 resident aliens for the county, including the major port of Southampton. However, after initial high numbers in many counties, the number of those assessed fell dramatically, unlike in London. By 1469 in Hampshire and Southampton, only thirty-one resident aliens were assessed. Clearly London is exceptional in its resident alien population.

Indeed, one of the most notable aspects of the London data is that the number of individuals assessed in the City never fell below 350. Compared to the other counties studied so far, that is an extraordinarily high number of individuals. Between 1440 and 1444, each assessment saw the return of over 1000 names, a number that was surpassed again in the 1483 subsidy. In total, the names of over 18,000 individuals were assessed in London between 1440 and 1487.

The most heavily populated ward was Langbourn Ward, despite it being a rather small ward. However, it covered much of the Leadenhall Market area, which was perhaps a draw for aliens. Where identified, the most frequently found alien occupations in the ward were merchant and goldsmith, although it was also heavily populated with servants. It was also a dominant area for Italians, although there was also a large Teutonic/Dutch presence as well. The least populated ward was Bassishaw Ward, home to only sixteen aliens at most in 1442. This is not surprising, for the ward was the smallest in the City. The majority of the aliens were Teutonic or Dutch, although two Icelanders were recorded there in 1483. Occupations were predominantly servants.

The later collections, after 1455, assessed the City as a whole, loosing the depth of information that can be gleaned from the earlier records. However, with the many hundreds of names returned, there is still valuable information contained within the records. The 1483 subsidy resumed the practice of assessment by ward, yet again providing great depth to the data. It is also one of the most detailed documents, including information on the origin and occupation of the individual, and listing them in family and household groups. Another unusual feature of this return is that alien women married to alien men were taxed separately (usually at 2s as a non-householder). In all other returns, when the alien wife is named, only the alien husband is taxed. This return has been published in J. L. Bolton, Alien Communities in London in the Fifteenth Century (1998).

For the south-east of England, there is an unusually high proportion of women in the records, and even more unusually they are visible in all the assessments. 16% of London’s resident aliens were women – wives, widows and single-women. Other home counties returned a much lower proportion of women. In Buckinghamshire 4% were female; 3% in Essex; 9% in both Berkshire and Bedfordshire; and no women were recorded in the Oxfordshire returns.

With 18,000 names of resident aliens, the London data needs to be treated with great caution when viewing the national statistics, especially as they currently make up 28% of the England’s identified resident immigrants on the project’s database. The aim of the current project was to focus on the non-urban picture of England’s immigration, and while cities like London do need to be considered, they are not the primary concern. Therefore a related project is currently being devised at the Centre for Metropolitan History at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, by Prof. Matthew Davies and Dr. Jessica Lutkin.

Jessica Lutkin

Cite this page:

England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 10 December 2022), http://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/sources/alien-subsidies/the-south-east/london