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


The Devon assessments for the 1440 alien subsidy show one of the most pronounced reductions in numbers of any English county. In 1440, 675 people were assessed to pay the tax, split reasonably evenly between householders and non-householders, of which 436 actually paid. However, by the following year, the assessors returned only 143 names, and by the third year only 56 people were required to pay, less than a tenth of the original total. The third year’s payments were also significantly delayed. The officials in office at the time, the sheriff Richard Yeard and the JPs, all claimed that the orders to make the collection, issued in November 1442, never arrived, and thus the assessment and collection was not carried out until September 1446, after further orders were issued from the Exchequer. This may also go some way to explain the low numbers that year – many of the taxpayers liable in 1442 may have died or moved in the intervening period, and the revised exemptions applied to the 1442 tax may well have been applied retrospectively to the outstanding collection of the previous subsidy. Indeed, a significant number of the people assessed in 1440 were described as from Ireland or the Channel Islands, natives of which were exempt from future alien subsidies. However, the largest ethnic groupings in Devon in 1440 were clearly the French, not just those described simply as French but also large numbers of Normans, and a number of Bretons and others. Flemings and ‘Dutch’ people were also present, but in rather smaller numbers than the French and Normans, and there were also occasional appearances (particularly in the larger towns and cities such as Exeter, Plymouth and Dartmouth) of people from other places, such as Portugal, Saxony, Zeeland and Gascony. Unfortunately  the subsequent assessments from the rest of the 1440s give far fewer details about the taxpayers than the assessors of 1440 included, both in terms of their origins and their places of residence, and thus analysis of the later returns is much less informative. However, they do seem to suggest that the alien population was concentrated in certain parts of the county, particularly along the southern coast, suggesting that either the assessors only visited certain parts of the county, or the alien population was indeed clustered in the main channel ports of the county. For instance, in 1441, as well as a number of taxpayers in Exeter, many were assessed in East Budleigh hundred, in places such as Sidmouth, and Littleham and Hill near Exmouth, as well as in Totnes, Dartmouth and Dodbrooke in Coleridge hundred, and in Plympton hundred (presumably representing people in Plymouth). Unfortunately very few occupations are listed for the householders, and most non-householders are simply recorded as servants of named masters, and thus their roles in their local communities are difficult to judge.

The numbers of taxpayers rose for the first payment of the 1442 subsidy, with 102 people assessed, but soon fell away again, with only 51 listed for the second year of that tax, and just 26 and 18 for the first two years of the 1449 subsidy. The exemption granted in 1449 to former subjects of the king in the duchies of Normandy and Gascony and his other French possessions may have contributed to this reduction, but clearly the vast majority of the people taxed in 1440 were by now either dead, had moved or were simply not being assessed. Only one nominal assessment survives for that tax, for the second payment, and contains no nationalities or places of residence. However, seven of the eighteen taxpayers were given occupational surnames, suggesting that they may well be a reflection of their actual trades, and if so the list may have included a tailor, a pattenmaker, a purser, a glazier, a goldsmith, a haberdasher and a cordwainer.

Survival of the returns and accounts from the 1453 subsidy is patchy. Only 7 people were assessed for the first three years, with 13 the following year, the first for which the names are known. This fell back to 9, a figure repeated in 1463, but between 1466 and the end of the tax, no more than 5 people are known to have paid the tax. However, rather strangely, while the returns for 1467 and 1468 contain the same names, as do those for 1469 and 1471, no individual appears in both groups. This would suggest that assessments were not made annually, but were copied for a number of years, and when a new assessment was eventually made, the assessors found an entirely different group of taxpayers.

A group of documents survives for the collection of the 1483 subsidy, including not only two detailed inquisitions containing the taxpayers’ names, nationalities and places of residence, but also the particulars of account listing which people had actually paid and which had not. The largest single national grouping was the Flemings, followed by the French and a few Scots, but the people listed were a varied group, including a Portuguese tailor in Barnstaple, a man with the surname Goldsmith from Cologne, and, rather intriguingly, a Jacobus Black, living in Dartmouth and described as having been born in ‘Indea’ or ‘Judea’. Given that the spellings would be indistinguishable, whether this refers to India or Judea (i.e. the area of modern-day Israel) is unclear. Yet again the alien population of the county was concentrated in the south coast ports and towns, most notably Exeter itself, Plymouth, Sidmouth, Topsham, Dartmouth and Totnes, although Barnstaple and Great Torrington in the north were also represented. No details of the 1487 tax are known.

Jonathan Mackman

Citation: Jonathan Mackman, ‘Devon’, England’s Immigrants 1330-1550 website, December 2013 [https://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/sources/alien-subsidies/the-south-west/devon]

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-south-west/devon