Immigrants in Urban Politics in Later Medieval England

This article accompanies Bart Lambert’s ‘Citizenry and Nationality: the Participation of Immigrants in Urban Politics in Later Medieval England’ in History Workshop Journal– which is open access.

The ability of immigrants to have a say in their host countries’ political decisions is a hotly debated topic. In the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election, both the Republican and Democratic Parties were hit by virulent accusations of either suppressing or promoting immigrants’ political rights for electoral gain. In the UK, the inability of the country’s three million EU citizens to vote in the 2016 Referendum was (and still is) a major point of contention between the advocates and the opponents of the British departure from the European Union. In many parts of the world, the political participation and representation of immigrants is seen as a key aspect of these newcomers’ integration into their new societies, another subject of heated debate.

Just how much immigrant newcomers should have a voice in the political life of their new communities is a question that has occupied people for centuries. In my article in issue 90 of History Workshop Journal, I investigate to what extent foreign-born residents were involved in politics in England during the later Middle Ages. At the end of the thirteenth century, the English crown introduced the category of the ‘alien’, that is, anyone who lived in the kingdom but was born abroad. People who fell under this category had different legal, fiscal and economic rights than native Englishmen and -women. Drawing on the returns of the alien subsidy, a tax imposed specifically on all residents born outside the country, a recent research project has demonstrated that, around the middle of the fifteenth century, aliens constituted up to 1.5 percent of England’s total population. The highest concentrations of these immigrants could be found in cities and towns: in London, they made up around seven percent of the population, in Southampton and Bristol up to twelve percent. Most alien residents originated from Scotland, Ireland, France, the Low Countries and the German territories, with smaller numbers from the Channel Islands, Iceland, the Italian city-states, the Iberian Peninsula and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Detail of the alien subsidy return documenting the immigrant residents of London’s Castle Baynard and Farringdon Without wards in 1483. The National Archives, E 179/242/25, m. 16.

The involvement of England’s immigrant population in political life on a national level was limited. Even though they were also subject to royal taxation, arguably even more so than the country’s native residents, aliens did not have a distinct representation in the English parliament, the institution where grievances from different parts of society could be discussed and presented to the monarch. This does not mean that immigrants never set foot in parliament. The Gascon Edmund Arnold, for example, a resident of Dartmouth, served as an MP four times between 1395 and 1415. Aliens like him, however, went to Westminster as representatives of their English place of residence, not of their fellow immigrants. Alien individuals and immigrant groups did raise problems by sending petitions to parliament, to the crown or to the royal councils, as many of their English-born co-residents did. When, for example, in the second half of the fifteenth century, the native weavers of London tried to force the capital city’s alien cloth workers to join their guild, the latter complained to the king and the commons in parliament. The monarch sided with the immigrant petitioners and ordered the English weavers to back off, a decision that ultimately had rather disastrous consequences.

The political participation of aliens in many English localities was more substantial. In most cities and towns, immigrants obtained burgess or freeman status, which was a requirement to set up in trade and sell by retail, but also to take part in political discussions, to vote and to be eligible in civic elections. In the city of Exeter, aliens were freemen only slightly less often than the town’s general population, even though the fee to be paid to enter the freedom was significantly higher for immigrants than for English-born entrants. In a fair few places, we see these immigrant burgesses engaging with local citizen politics in a myriad of ways: aliens sat on juries, securing the proper functioning of civic courts; they attended meetings of the assemblies, which elected civic officers and discussed matters of importance; and they protested when decisions of the civic government damaged their interests. Immigrant residents are known to have stood for civic office and to be elected, even to the highest offices in town. In York, Bristol, Lincoln and Dartmouth, aliens served as mayors in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Southampton was governed by the Irishman William Overey around 1400 and by the Florentine Christopher Ambrose (né Christoforo Ambruogi) in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. Sometimes, citizens even elected immigrant office holders against the directives of the central government. At the height of the Glyn Dŵr rebellion against the English domination of Wales (1400-1415), for example, the English parliament and the crown instructed that no Welsh residents could hold office in the towns of the Marches, or the borderlands with Wales. In Chester, the citizenry ignored the order and elected Welshman John of Ewloe as their mayor five times in a row. The aliens engaging with citizens politics in late medieval England did come almost exclusively from the economic elites, earning their living predominantly as merchants or craftspeople, and were all male. Yet the same applied to native-born residents: the citizenries in English cities and towns hardly ever included women or economically marginal people.

Lower Bridge Street in Chester, heart of the city’s late medieval Welsh community and home to John of Ewloe, who was elected mayor five times against the instructions of parliament. Copyright Peter Barr and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.


Whereas alien residents were able to participate urban political life in the same way as native residents did in most of the country, a handful of places did pass ordinances that prohibited aliens as a whole or immigrant groups of specific origins from becoming burgesses and, thus, from engaging with citizen politics or from holding civic office. In exceptional circumstances, these measures were taken for security reasons. In 1419, for example, the governors of York responded to the threat of a Scottish invasion in the north of England by deciding that it was no longer allowed for Scottish residents in their city to take part in the common assembly, where all political matters were discussed. In London, Norwich and Ipswich, however, measures that restricted immigrants’ political involvement were introduced with no apparent military risk. Were these places characterised by a stronger anti-alien sentiment than the rest of the country? Most evidence suggests that the majority of their populations had no problems with the immigrant residents in their midst. What seems to have mattered was the economic interests of some of the governing elites. In all of the cities and towns in question, native craftsmen and merchants were strongly represented in the governing bodies. In the fifteenth century, many of these producers and traders struggled with the economic competition of outsiders. Several sources indicate that they saw immigrant artisans and merchants as a particular threat. Dealing with these economic competitors may have been the main motivation for them to pass the restrictive statutes, which not only excluded alien producers and tradespeople from the local political decision-making process, but also denied them the economic privileges of freemen, such as trading retail and engaging in certain occupations. In many cases, these measures were taken in tandem with more openly protectionist regulations, such as restrictions on the hiring of apprentices by immigrants. It thus seems that while alien status in itself was not enough for people to be excluded from urban politics in these localities, it still constituted a fault line that could be mobilised in order to serve other interests. This is known to have occurred in only a very small number of places though. In most cities and towns in later medieval England, immigrants’ alien birth had no impact on their involvement in local political life.


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