UK border agency vessel patrolling. Photo credit: Ian Kirk

In December 2018, the UK government published a white paper setting out the guidelines of its future, post-Brexit immigration policy. Central to the proposal is the introduction of a new, skills-based immigration system, giving preferential access to the country to workers with qualifications most needed by the British economy. Most of the changes were made in response to concerns about the impact of immigration on the labour market and the employment opportunities for British men and women, assumed to have been one of the main reasons for people to vote in favour of Brexit in the 2016 Referendum. Tensions about the rights of native and foreign-born workers in Britain, and attempts to deal with them, are not new but have been the subject of public debate for centuries. Even during the later Middle Ages, the influx of alien workers and its implications for the employment of English-born people was high on the agenda, provoking political crises and prompting the central government to issue new legislation.

Petition of artificers and craftsmen and women of sundry places, enrolled on the roll of the parliament of 3-4 Edward IV (1463-1465). TNA, SC 8/29/1412

In 1463, for example, the craftsmen of various English cities and towns petitioned King Edward IV. ‘The great number and multitude of aliens … who are craftsmen’, they argued, ‘give work … to a great number of people of their own nations … by which the said stranger craftsmen are continually and greatly enriched and all the other craftsmen, being the king’s subjects, greatly impoverished and not at work’. This 1463 petition was far from the only one of its kind: ever since the middle of the fourteenth century, guilds of English artisans, most commonly those in London, had complained to the monarch, to parliament or to their local authorities about the activities of newly arrived immigrants and how their work imperilled native workers’ livelihoods. Most of these newcomers were highly-skilled artisans from the Low Countries or the German territories who had moved to England to cater for the increasing demand for consumer goods in the aftermath of the Black Death. The petitioners also proposed solutions to the problem of immigrants’ competition, usually to place limitations on their work or to give native guilds control over their activities. Yet, convinced that the immigration of skilled workers from abroad could be beneficial to the whole kingdom, English kings nearly always dismissed these requests.

Occasionally, however, English craftsmen’s opposition to the activities of immigrant artisans took on more violent forms. In the summer of 1381, for instance, as the Peasants’ Revolt raged over London, about forty Flemings were dragged out of churches and houses in the capital’s Vintry ward and summarily beheaded. According to the Westminster Chronicle, ‘mounds of corpses were to be seen in the streets and various spots were littered with the headless bodies of the slain’. Even though they were never explicitly accused, there are plenty of indications that London’s guild of English weavers, who, for over twenty-five years, had been disgruntled with the success of the Flemish clothworkers in the capital but had seen their requests to obtain control over the Flemings continuously rejected by the king, had a hand in the attack. Aggression against groups of immigrant craftspeople continued in the fifteenth century. In 1468, skinners, cordwainers, goldsmiths and tailors from London were caught planning to molest artisans from the Low Countries in Southwark. ‘For that the Flemings there take away the living of English people’, their ringleader confessed, ‘he purposed to have cut off their thumbs or hands, so that they should never have helped themselves again by the means of crafts’.

Miniature of an armoured prince, seated on a throne, gesturing toward a merchant being escorted out a door by men-at-arms. British Library MS Harley 4605 f. 95 (London, 1434).

Still, it was only in the later fifteenth century, when the campaign against alien artisans gained more political traction in parliament, that the English crown bowed to the lobbying of the London craft guilds and agreed to introduce protectionist legislation. The most far-reaching measures were taken in 1484, when a statute was passed that only immigrants with letters of denization – costly documents that allowed aliens a number of rights usually reserved for native people –  could henceforth exercise a craft or manual occupation or employ servants other than their own children. However, the most pressing issue facing native artisans was ignored. What the petitions of London’s craft guilds throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries actually reveal is that many English producers had become uncompetitive and that the goods manufactured by their immigrant colleagues were more popular with English consumers than their own. Other evidence corroborates this preference for alien skills. In the Essex village of Havering atte Bower in 1469, for example, an English man asked a friend to recommend him a mason, but specified it had to be a Dutchman or Fleming, as those were better at building brick chimneys than Englishmen. Even the crown, who implemented the protectionist measures of 1484, bought most of its luxury items from London’s alien craftsmen, rather than from their native colleagues. Failing to address this problem, the legislation of 1484 had little or no effect. The same measures were reissued repeatedly in the early Tudor period, but the complaints about the unemployment of English manufacturers and the responsibility of the immigrant population for these issues continued.

The debate about the rights of native and immigrant workers, and the responsibility to manage these, has a long history. Governments in later medieval England, too, struggled to regulate the employment of alien newcomers and to control the impact of immigration on the labour market. While drawing direct parallels to the modern day might be misleading, reflecting critically on the ways these issues were dealt with in the past, and why they remained unresolved, can be instructive. If anything, the history of immigration control in England during the later Middle Ages suggests that measures restricting the opportunities for immigrants to work in the country may appease public concerns in the short term but remain ineffective as long as the underlying causes of the unemployment of native workers are not tackled, sustaining, or even aggravating, the problem.

Bart Lambert is an assistant professor of late medieval urban history and a member of the HOST research group at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He is the author of numerous articles on the history of immigration in England during the later Middle Ages. In December 2018, Manchester University Press published his Immigrant England, 1300-1550, written with Mark Ormrod and Jonathan Mackman. Providing a historical perspective to contemporary debates, it offers the first comprehensive account of the experiences, identities, nationalities and occupations of first-generation immigrants to England during the later Middle Ages. The data which this book is based on, unique in Europe before the nineteenth century, can be freely searched online at England’s Immigrants.

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