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

Dorset & Somerset

The assessors of the first payment of the 1440 subsidy in Dorset and Somerset found large numbers of aliens in the two counties, 243 householders and 515 non-householders in Dorset and 180 householders and 110 non-householders in Somerset. However, unfortunately the names of only a few of these people are now known. In Dorset, only the inquest listing the names of the non-householders now survives, the names of the householders presumably appearing in a separate, now lost document. The surviving inquest is also rather patchy in the level of detail it gives. Most taxpayers were servants, and were listed together with the name of their master (though whether that person was a native or an alien themselves is only specified once), but very few taxpayers are given a surname, most just being known by their forename. Nationalities are rarely recorded, with the exception of a relatively large number of people described as ‘Guernseyman’. It can only be assumed that these people did actually come from Guernsey, but since no-one is described as from Jersey, and one ‘Guernseyman’ had the surname ‘de Alderney’, it could well be that ‘Guernseyman’ was being used to describe Channel Islanders in general. The taxpayers seem to have lived in all parts of the county, although as expected of non-householders in particular, the largest numbers were to be found in the towns, such as Poole, Bridport, Melcombe Regis, Wimborne Minster and Bere Regis, as well as in the villages of the Isle of Purbeck. No details of payment are recorded, but the accounts show that 379 of the 515 non-householders paid, a reasonably high proportion of the total. 178 of the 243 householders also paid.

In Somerset, again, only one of at least two inquisitions survive, but here, while this relates to both householders and non-householders, it only covers the western hundreds of the county, together with the town of Taunton. Unfortunately the document is stained, with some of the information now illegible, and the level of detail is very variable, suggesting that it was compiled from earlier documents drawn up by different people with differing views on what was required. The taxpayers appear grouped by hundred, but few towns and villages are noted, nationalities are given only very occasionally, and although servants are generally listed with their master’s name, few other details are then added. Given the lack of nationalities it is difficult to distinguish many patterns, but those that were specified were mainly French, with Gascons, Bretons, Irish and Dutch people appearing occasionally, and also more Channel Islanders, though far fewer than in neighbouring Dorset.

For the second year only an account survives, giving the combined figures for the money raised in the two counties. However, numbers had clearly fallen, the number of householders in the two counties falling from 423 to 258 and the non-householders from 712 to 397. As with many parts of the county, the third year’s collections were delayed, and were administered and accounted together with those of the first year of the 1442 subsidy, all being assessed in the spring of 1443. Even here, numbers fell significantly between two assessments ostensibly made only four months apart. The number of householders in Dorset fell from 77 to just 53, and the non-householders by even more, from 169 to just 96, while in Somerset the figures fell from 77 to 60 and 66 to 44 respectively. Nominal assessments survive for both payments in both counties, but in all four lists the level of detail is relatively poor, with most entries containing little more than the name and an indication of that person’s taxation status. A few places of residence are given, especially for the last payment of the 1440 tax, but very few nationalities, and although entries for servants again generally include their master’s name, householders are usually described simply as ‘husbandman’, a word the scribe was evidently using simply to denote a householder rather than as a true ‘occupation’. Many of the householders described as husbandmen had occupational surnames, suggesting that those may have been their true occupations, while one man was described as both a husbandman and a rector, a highly unlikely combination! In the same way, non-householders who were not described as either servant or labourer were often referred to as ‘singleman’ or ‘singlewoman’ (although relatively few women appear in any capacity), again probably used to indicate the rate at which they were to pay the tax. Rather unusually, for the second year of the 1442 subsidy in Dorset (for which only the accounts survive), the assessors found fewer non-householders than householders, only 48 compared to 67 paying the higher rate. Yet in both counties, despite the assessments being made only a few months apart, the level of duplication in the names between the two is relatively low. The increased exemptions applied to the 1442 subsidy would account for some of the reduction, but many people taxed in the later document clearly do not appear in the first (or at least not under obviously identifiable names), although the low level of detail makes certainty difficult.

By the time of the 1449 subsidy, however, a combination of exemptions and apathy had reduced the sums collected still further. 16 people paid the first year in Dorset, but only 8 in 1450 and just 2 in 1451. 12 paid the final year, but this still seems scarcely credible in a county where over 750 taxpayers had been assessed just a decade earlier. In Somerset meanwhile, 43 people paid the first year of this tax (15 householders and 28 non-householders), but only 11 paid the second year, and despite the numbers rising back to 20 in the third year, it dropped back to only 10 for the final payment. Again, few details were recorded beyond the names of the taxpayers, although the names in Dorset would suggest that most were either Dutch or French, and of the 8 taxed in 1450, two were from Shaftesbury, one each from Dorchester, Cranborne and Sherborne, and another from ‘Sturminster’, although which village of that name is unclear. The Somerset returns again give little more than the names, although many of those assessed seem to have distinctly Dutch or German-sounding names, and apart from a few citizens of Wells, no places of residence are noted. However, the Wells residents did include John and Nicholas Delffe, natives of Delft in Holland who had appeared on numerous returns over many years. Indeed, John had been in England since at least 1436, when he was required to swear the oath of fealty required of all ‘Dutch’ people that year. No assessments survive for either county for the final two years.

Numbers increased slightly in Dorset for the first few years of the 1453 subsidy, with 20 paying in the first four years and 18 in 1457, but again, only the names of the taxpayers were recorded, nothing more. In Somerset, 18 were taxed for the first three years, but numbers then rose up to 25 in 1456, before falling back to 22 in 1457. From this point there is a gap in the surviving records, after which assessments survive again from 1465, but by this point numbers had fallen dramatically, with only 5 people assessed in Dorset each year between 1465 and 1468, and 9 in Somerset. However, the accuracy of the returns for these years seems doubtful. The inquests for both Somerset and Dorset for 1466 were dated on precisely the same days as those for 1465, with only the regnal year changing, but more tellingly they bear the names of the same jurors and taxpayers (with one exception in Somerset), identical to the extent that all the names were given the same spelling, an extremely unusual occurrence. The later inquests are clearly little more than copies made from the earlier ones, with the officials concerned seemingly not bringing themselves to hold new inquests and instead just re-using old ones. No inquests survive for the following year, 1467, but the accounts again show precisely the same numbers in both counties, suggesting that the same copying exercise was undertaken, and the inquests for both counties in 1468 again list the same taxpayers, although these do at least bear different dates and different sets of jurors. This might suggest that the information may have had some truth, despite its obvious shortcomings, but the differences in the spellings of the taxpayers’ names are reminiscent of copying errors, rather than legitimate variations recorded by assessors, so it would seem that the officials were simply getting a little more imaginative at covering up their shortcomings! Rather tellingly, the inquest for Dorset in 1469, just a year later, names 7 individuals, all entirely different to those supposedly paying consistently over the previous four years, while Somerset tells the same story, with the 1469 inquest including the same John Delff who had appeared in various assessments in the 1440s and 1450, but who had been inexplicably absent throughout the previous four years of dubious assessments. Clearly, as with many parts of England, there was a large degree of administrative mismanagement or neglect taking place in these two counties, shortcomings which were seemingly never picked up by the Exchequer.

Little is known of the later subsidies. A return for Dorset survives for the 1483 tax, accounting for just 6 people, but unfortunately the list of taxpayers is damaged and most of the names are now lost. No details are known from Somerset, and nothing from either county for the 1487 tax.

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-south-west/dorset-somerset