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

Letters of Denization and Other Sources

While the alien subsidies may have provided the vast bulk of its the information, some of the most detailed data within the England’s Immigrants database has been gathered from a variety of other sources, covering the entire period between 1330 and 1550.

Possibly the most important of these sources are the letters of protection and denization enrolled in the records of central government, issued to individuals coming into England, either permanently or temporarily, from foreign lands. The earliest of these are the letters of protection. These letters, the vast majority of which were issued to English people travelling abroad, often on royal business or in the king’s armies, were designed primarily to grant the recipient protection from being prosecuted (maliciously or otherwise) in the royal courts during their absence, and gave legal protection to their goods, chattels, lands and other property for what was usually a strictly defined period. However, such letters were also issued to foreigners, both those coming into and remaining within the realm (for whatever reason) and those receiving rights or offices in England in absentia, such as prebends, benefices or royal gifts.

Letters of denization, which in certain ways developed out of these letters of protection, were issued by the Crown from the 1370s onwards. Recipients would pay a fee and take an oath of allegiance to the Crown, and in return were to be treated and considered in the same way as any English subject born within the realm. They, and any foreign-born descendants, were entitled to acquire lands, tenements, rents and other possessions in England, and to resort to and plead in English courts, and were also expected to pay taxes, tallages, customs and subsidies in the same way, and at the same rates, as native born Englishmen. They were therefore technically exempt from paying the alien subsidies (as stated in the statute), and should have paid the later Tudor subsidies at native rates, but the reality was often different, and there are clear examples of people in receipt of such letters still being taxed as aliens, despite the clear provision to the contrary.

Letter of denization issued to Godfrey van Upstall, born in Brabant

Letter of Denization

Many of the letters of denization noted in the England’s Immigrants database have been extracted from printed primary and secondary sources: the Calendars of Patent Rolls, the Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII, and William Page’s Letters of Denization and Acts of Naturalization for Aliens in England, 1509-1603, printed in 1893. However, three documents covered by Page were deemed sufficiently important for them to be entered directly from the original manuscripts. These contain the names of hundreds of individuals granted letters of denization during the 1540s, a period of heightened tension amid invasion threats from France, when Henry VIII’s government ordered that all foreigners, especially those living on the south coast, were to take English denization or leave the country. Two of these documents are preserved at The National Archives, and while one (TNA, C 67/73) contains little more than a list of names, the other (TNA, C 67/72) includes various details of nationality, length of residence in England, marital status and other such information. However, by far the most informative document, now held in the archives of Westminster Abbey (WAM 12261), contains the names of over 2,600 individuals, often together with extensive details of their home towns, marital status, children, occupations, as well as other incidental information. The latter two rolls do tend to overlap, and users of the database should be careful to take this into account, but together these rolls provide a valuable insight into England’s sixteenth century immigrant population, and particularly that of the southern maritime counties.

In addition to the enrolled letters known to have been granted to aliens seeking denization in this period, the English government records also contain evidence from an earlier stage in this process, including petitions from individuals seeking such letters, and warrants or other procedural documents ordering their issue. To avoid duplication, details of these have, where discovered, been entered into the Notes fields for the resultant letters wherever possible, but occasionally no record of the grant is known to survive (the recipient may well not have paid for it to be enrolled), and in those cases details from these earlier documents have been included in the database instead.

The printed calendars also contain occasional references to other grants made to individual immigrants or other foreign nationals, such as grants of liberties or offices, and licences to do things such as keep servants or acquire lands. These clearly fell well short of denization, but have been included in the database where found.

As well as people in receipt of formal letters from the Crown, the England’s Immigrants database also contains references to individual migrants recorded for certain specific but more occasional reasons. On various occasions, usually at times of military or diplomatic turmoil, orders were issued for specific groups to leave the realm, unless they ‘proved their loyalty’ by purchasing exemptions or swearing oaths. The Welsh and the Scots were occasional targets of such orders, but the group most commonly treated in this way were the Irish. From the 1390s onwards, successive governments issued injunctions ordering Irish people, and particularly Irish clergy, to return home, partly for the good of their homeland and partly to remove often confrontational and violent groups from England, and especially from the university towns. There is little evidence that such orders had much effect, but licences purchased by individuals to allow them to remain were regularly enrolled on the patent rolls, and these provide often extensive details of the recipients, their places of residence within England and their occupations. On a similar theme, in 1436, following the breakdown the Anglo-Burgundian alliance against France, people from the Low Countries were seen as a potential threat to national security, and were required either to leave or to take an oath of fealty to the English Crown. The names of those who chose to take this oath were again enrolled on the patent rolls during 1436 and 1437, over 1800 in total. These records are amongst the richest included within the database, since they often contain not only the individual’s name, but also some or all of their nationality, occupation, place of residence, and even their town or city of origin, a relatively rare detail in other records. Moreover, coming just four years before the introduction of the alien subsidy, and with this oath most certainly not amounting to full denization, many of the people taking the oath can also be traced in the subsidy records, and thus the combined details often provide a much more detailed picture of a particular individual and their background.

Cite this page:

England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 9 December 2022), http://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/sources/letters-of-denization-and-other-sources