Medieval immigration: “They’re heavy drinkers, barbarous and full of guile”

The residents of medieval England didn't always roll out the red carpet for Welsh, Scottish and Irish immigrants. Mark Ormrod and Jessica Lutkin describe the challenges and stereotypes confronting Celts trying to carve out a new life in their adopted home

Officers at the Exchequer, 12th century England

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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In 1413, Henry V’s government offered licences to hundreds of Welsh and Irish residents of England, allowing them to remain in the kingdom under the king’s protection. Those who came forward were a varied and far-flung group. They included the Irishman Thomas Roche, running his drapery business in Oxford; Richard Basset, another Irishman, who worked as a slater in Leicester; three ‘London Welsh’ – John Neuborgh, John Neuton and Thomas Gwyn; and Thomas Phelippes, the Welsh-born priest in charge of the rural parish of Hemingby in Lincolnshire.

This set of snapshots – drawn from a major research project on immigration to medieval England in which we’ve been participating – is a reminder of the complicated relationship that existed between the ‘four nations’ of the British Isles in the later Middle Ages. England and Scotland were independent kingdoms, and were usually at war. Ireland had been a lordship of the English crown since the 12th century, though significant parts of the island were beyond its effective control. Colonisation and conquest had also made most of Wales subject to the English crown by the later 13th century, though resistance continued for many years.

For those who moved from other parts of the British Isles to England, these distinctions had real consequences. There were no immigration procedures and the land and sea borders remained open to all comers. But this also meant that most of those who migrated to England had no formal guarantees of rights. For the Scots, as enemies, this was a particular challenge. The Welsh and the Irish seemed, on the face of it, to have it easier; and yet they too were subject to discrimination.

A tax on foreigners

The licences granted in 1413 were in part a response to the revolt of Owain GlyndŴr in Wales, and the urgent need to provide reassurances to Welsh-born residents in England that they would not be subject to the punishments being meted out against their families and friends back home.

Such measures formed part of a wider package of guarantees worked out for foreign residents during the later Middle Ages. In the 13th century, people born outside England began to be admitted as freemen of self-governing towns. And in the late 14th century, the crown devised the process known as denization, whereby aliens could renounce their original allegiance and become what we would now call naturalised citizens. These were valued and sought-after rights. But they also cost money, and tended only to be taken up as a last resort.

All this explains the disquiet when, in 1440, the English parliament announced a special tax on those residents born beyond the realm. The main aim was to take a census of the continental Europeans living in England. The Scots were also, inevitably, included on the list. Much more controversial, however, was the decision to include those from the wider dominions of the English crown. Suddenly, the Irish and the Channel Islanders, not to mention those from the Plantagenet duchy of Aquitaine, were being treated as aliens. The only group to escape was the Welsh, whose complex legal status left them in a rare position of privilege.

The survey that resulted offers us the most complete picture of the movement of people around the British Isles in the Middle Ages. All told (though excluding the Welsh), about 20,000 people were assessed for the 1440 tax. While the number may seem small, we need to remember that the population of England was little over 2 million at this time; those defined as aliens for this purpose therefore comprised around 1 per cent of the total.

Only around a quarter of this total – just under 5,000 people – were listed with distinct nationalities, and we have to multiply our figures by a factor of four to understand the likely totals. Among those from the British Isles, by far the largest groups came from Scotland (1,046 named, so probably at least 4,000 in total) and Ireland (773 named, and perhaps 3,000 overall). The Scots, not surprisingly, were concentrated in the north of England, though they were also to be found in small numbers in almost every county from Cornwall to Lincolnshire.

The Irish were more widely and thinly spread; the majority lived in the South West, but there was also a significant contingent in Leicestershire and Northamptonshire.

In the survey, 63 Channel Islanders were also assessed (mainly from Guernsey), all but one of them living in the South West.

Personal lives

Beyond these bald numbers, the real fascination of these records lies in the detail they can provide about the personal lives of medieval migrants. Many surnames, presumably acquired in England, denoted the person’s country of origin. Marcus Scot was a fisherman in Whitby (North Riding of Yorkshire), and Nicholas Irissmane was working as a ploughman for St Katherine’s priory, Lincoln. Many other names were occupational: Peter Tailur (Tailor), a Guernseyman living at Leigh in Dorset, was obviously involved in the clothing trade, and had two servants or apprentices, presumably also Channel Islanders, living with him.

In other cases, occupations were specified: John Dondre (or Thunder), an Irish priest, had been living in England for at least 10 years and worked as a chaplain at Woodchurch in Kent. The Scottish couple John and Joan Webster kept a residence and workshop in Cambridge, where John worked as a weaver.

Joan Webster’s case alerts us to the fact that significant numbers of women were caught in the 1440 tax net. Agnes Hirde, an Irishwoman living in Kendal (Westmorland), kept her own household and ran her own baking business. More usually, single women appeared as the dependants of English masters. In Bristol, for example, Anastasia Irissche (Irish) was described as a servant and a kempster (wool comber).

Not all who moved to England found life easy. A significant number of Scottish women, who were scattered across the villages and smaller towns of the north in 1440, were described as vagabonds, a term that denotes a migrant casual worker. For some, prostitution may have been a final, necessary resort.

The insistence of the tax collectors of 1440 that all foreigners should be included in the survey throws up some surprises. At the top end of the social range was the Scottish Earl of Menteith, under house arrest as a hostage of war at Pontefract Castle in the West Riding of Yorkshire. At the other extreme we find the Irishman John Irlond at Milton Abbas in Dorset, described as a beggar. Whether John and others like him were actually capable of paying the tax was of less consequence than the strong desire to ensure that everyone born outside England was included in the census.

Zealous officials

All of this was to the considerable frustration of those who claimed to have been born under the jurisdiction of the crown of England. The Channel Islanders and the Irish, along with the Gascons (from Aquitaine), protested that they were loyal subjects of King Henry VI. They had their way, and were allowed exemption in subsequent collections of the tax – though over-zealous officials continued to assess small numbers of Irish people. In London, where the civic authorities were especially keen, there was even an attempt to tax half a dozen Welsh people in 1441. This may explain why in the same year Meredydd Morgan, originally from Carmarthen, secured letters of denization to reside securely in England.

The special taxes on aliens continued intermittently for more than 40 years, the last being collected in 1487. Generally speaking, the later taxes were notable mainly for the increasing numbers of exemptions allowed and evasions condoned.

In London, however, vigilance prevailed and the level of enumeration remained high. In 1483, the assessors in the capital flushed out 163 Scots. This cross-section of immigrant life included servants and labourers living in multiple-occupation boarding houses, more prosperous men and women keeping their own households and working in the building, brewing and clothing trades, and the occasional professional.

The presence of significant numbers of Scots, Irish and Welsh sometimes created tension. By the 14th century the English had a clear notion of their own cultural superiority over the ‘barbarous’ Celts. Ranulph Higden, a monk of Chester, described the Welsh as heavy drinkers, so lazy that they preferred to steal their food than to grow it. All the Celtic nations were assumed to be deceitful and treacherous: “Watch the Scots,” said the English poet Lawrence Minot, “they’re full of guile.” Language, in particular, was a marker of difference: the English government was constantly vigilant about Anglo-Irish gentry who adopted the Gaelic tongue. Yet none of this rhetoric precludes the real possibility of friendly interaction and effective coexistence.

Most Scots, Irish and Welsh arrived in England not as wealthy merchants or prosperous craftspeople but as unskilled labourers. Some made for places where they knew there were others like them: Irish to Bristol, Scots to Newcastle, Welsh to Shrewsbury, and so on. The most striking feature of the 1440 tax survey is the degree to which people also spread themselves across the English rural landscape. At a time of low population, economic migrants were both necessary and welcome to the agricultural and manufacturing economies.

If Welsh, Irish and Scottish incomers suffered occasional mistreatment at the hands of their English neighbours, none of this stopped a significant number of them from making a success of their lives in a new and not-so-foreign land.


Immigrants at work

How aliens from the Celtic nations and Channel Islands earned a living in 15th–century England

Andrew Desauger: Higher rate taxpayer from Guernsey 

The Guernseyman Andrew Desauger had to pay the higher tax rate as a result of the 1440 tax on aliens. He was recorded as living in St Stephens by Saltash in Cornwall, and may have been a mariner or businessman. The Channel Islands had been annexed by the Duchy of Normandy in the 10th century and remained in English possession after Normandy was lost to France. The Channel Islanders were the first group to achieve exemption from the tax on foreigners, and Andrew therefore disappears from later collection records.

Alice, Joan and  Joan Iryssh: Skilled spinners from across the Irish Sea

While many unmarried migrant women were poor and unskilled, others brought their own distinctive trades to England. Three such – Irish women Alice, Joan and another Joan – worked as spinners in Meriden, Allesley and Warwick in Warwickshire.

Their trade wasn’t highly paid and they ‘lived in’ with their employers. Yet they probably enjoyed more independence than domestic servants. Most Irish women for whom an occupation was recorded in 1440 were in some form of service, and some English craft masters depended on Irish immigrant labour.

James Ramsey: Scottish surgeon enticed to London

As a surgeon living in Billingsgate ward, London, in 1483, the Scotsman James Ramsey was a rather unusual individual. Foreign surgeons and other medical practitioners were not uncommon in England, but most came from southern Europe, and Scottish surgeons were rare. In the same year, two other foreign surgeons were recorded in London – from France and Germany.

It is possible that a man of Ramsey’s skill was enticed to London for its opportunities to cater for the merchant elite, the aristocracy and the royal court.

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Mark Ormrod is professor of history at the University of York and Jessica Lutkin is a research assistant and impact officer based at the National Archives. Both are participating in the AHRC funded project, England’s Immigrants 1330–1550