Alien subsidies in Medieval England

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An extract from the alien subsidy (tax) inquest, listing names of aliens living in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire in 1441–1442.
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The alien subsidies, a unique fiscal phenomenon in both English and European history, were a series of taxes levied upon first-generation immigrants during the second half of the fifteenth century.

In 1440, the English Parliament levied a tax on ‘aliens’. An alien was defined as a non-native born person residing in England. This was the beginning of a series of taxes levied upon first-generation immigrants into England during the second half of the fifteenth century, and which were unique in both English and European history.

The source is an extract from the alien subsidy (tax) inquest, listing names of aliens living in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire in 1441-1442. This extract features the residents of Langley Marsh in Buckinghamshire. The original language is in Latin. 

English Translation:

(Left column)

Lewis Weren of Langley Marsh                            

John Shepherd of the same, Picard                       

A certain tailor staying next to Thomas Fyssher of the same, Irish                                              

(Right column)

Gelowe, servant of Nicholas Clopton of Langley Marsh

Peter, servant of John Levyng of the same

Gelam, servant of Thomas Fyssher of the same

John de Caleys, servant of John Levyng of the same


A list of all the names that were recorded on the whole document can also be found on the England’s Immigrants database: 

(The image has been provided courtesy of The National Archives. Ref. no. TNA E 179/235/11, m. 3)

'Quiet' migration 

The late middle ages was a period of what we could call 'quiet' migration. There were no large-scale migrations as had been seen in Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman times. Yet migration continued on a small scale, for numerous reasons including opportunities for work and trade, and natural disasters such as the Black Death throughout Europe in 1348–1349 or the St Elizabeth Day Flood in Holland and Zeeland in 1421.

Those who arrived in England in this period came from all levels of society - merchants, craftsmen/women, artisans and unskilled labourers. They came from across the European continent, the Nordic region and Iceland, as well as closer to England - from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the Channel Islands.

Growing tensions

During the 1430s, a string of military and diplomatic setbacks in the Hundred Years War with France had seen a growth in tensions between the native population and ‘foreigners’ living and trading in England. The 'foreigners' in question were mainly the Flemish, especially after the failure of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance in 1436, but also the French and the Scots. Adding to a long-term distrust of the Flemish, tensions were driven by a perception that these immigrants were taking money out of England. Tensions grew as the economic situation in England declined, and as England's fortunes in the war with France worsened and all of England's gains in French territory were lost. 

Parliament was presented with a series of anti-alien petitions, and in 1436, the author of the treatise 'The Libelle of Englysche Polycye' had proposed the imposition of massive restrictions on the freedoms of aliens within the realm.

The Alien Subsidies

Concerns came to a head in the Parliament of 1439–40, when actions were finally taken against what were seen by many as an often unwelcome and even potentially dangerous group within English society.

Measures were first taken against the activities of foreign merchants trading in England. These measures were designed to counter feeling that the nation’s wealth was disappearing overseas and the belief that aliens resident in England possessed greater wealth than native-born people, but were not being taxed proportionately.

The final session of Parliament in 1440 agreed that a tax should be paid by all non-native-born people residing in England over twelve years of age. This was the first time this kind of tax had ever been levied. The tax was an important gesture by the government to show that they were dealing with popular feeling against the perceived alien threat.

The new tax was payable every six months at two different rates: ‘householders’ - generally artisans, tradesmen and other relatively people – were to pay 16d (pence in old money) each per year. ‘Non-householders’ – mainly servants, apprentices, agricultural and general labourers or other migrant workers – were to pay 6d per year.

This was a low rate to pay; a skilled builder, for example, could earn a minimum of 5d per day in 1440, and only the extremely poor were not able to afford the tax. Notably, this was a far smaller sum to pay every six months when compared with the one-off charge for a letter of denization, which at a minimum of £2 cost 30 times more than one payment of the tax. In modern terms, the higher tax rate would be worth about £40 today, and the lower tax rate about £15.

The following categories of alien were exempt from the tax:

- Welshmen were exempt because they were considered to be subjects of the English crown after 1413

- Alien women married to English or Welsh husbands. (Alien wives of alien husbands were not explicitly exempt, but while they are often found recorded with their husbands in the returns, they were not generally charged

- Anyone who had purchased letters of denization from the crown (see Becoming English: letters of denization)

- Members of religious orders (monks and friars), though not priests, chaplains or other parish clergy.

The rate of taxation was too low to discourage alien immigrants from coming to England altogether, and they certainly were not discouraged. It is unknown why the rate was so low, other than, as a poll tax, the aim of the alien subsidy was to get as many people to pay as possible, so the rate had to be affordable.

Identifying aliens for the purpose of taxation 

Justices of the Peace (JPs) were to assess who was liable to pay the alien subsidy. Names were returned to the Exchequer, which would then issue lists to the relevant sheriff or civic officials, ordering them to collect the tax.  The JPs used juries made up of local men to identify the alien residents in their area. A jury was not formed as it is today. There was no fixed number of jurors on a jury, which could number far more than twelve men. It usually consisted of men who were well respected in their local area and had a good knowledge of their community. These local men used their general knowledge to identify aliens in their area. Some aliens were identified by their accent and language, some by their name. Some, whose actual origin may have been uncertain, were simply known not to have been born in England. 

Although the 1440 alien subsidy was initially to be collected for three years, it was decided that the tax should continue. In 1442 a second parliamentary grant extended the tax for a further two years. The rates applied and the collection process remained relatively unchanged, but exemptions were quickly broadened specifically to include the Irish and the Channel Islanders, both of whom had protested successfully that, as subjects of the English king, they should not be liable. 

The tax continued to be renewed and revived sporadically until 1487, but significantly the enthusiasm for the collection of the tax diminished very quickly, and very few people contributed to these later payments. Between the years 1440 and 1487, the names of over 55,000 resident aliens were recorded, and these statistics suggest that between 1% and 2% of England’s population was alien. Collection of this tax is likely to have slowed because it was very labour intensive to administer on a regular basis and, in the main, locals were no longer as thorough as they were at the start. There were also no penalties for the JPs if they did not collect the tax, so there was little incentive for them to keep going. It is also likely that many of the immigrants were so well integrated within their local communities that there was little drive to keep singling them out for taxation. In London, rates of collection steadied, perhaps because a higher percentage of the population was alien, they were less likely to have integrated within their local communities. 

Alien subsidies in the archives 

The records of the alien subsidies survive because they were sent to and kept by one of the main government departments, called the Exchequer. These documents are now kept at The National Archives in Kew and can be seen by the public. They are an important source because they tell us about the many immigrants who lived in England during the fifteenth century. They were the first attempt to take account of the immigrant population, something which would not happen again until after the introduction of the modern census in Great Britain in 1801. In this regard, they give an unprecedented and indispensable view of immigration in medieval England, and mark an important milestone in the history of British immigration.

The main source (pictured above) is an extract from an alien subsidy document and shows how the names of resident aliens were listed by their English assessors. The records offer very little detail, and these seven names are just a drop in the ocean of names and unidentified immigrants. Some tell us where the alien came from, but not when they came, why they came, and for how long they stayed. These documents instead provide a snapshot of the immigration story of England: people who came to England for any number of reasons and stayed in various communities, in this case a small village in Buckinghamshire. One of the immigrants listed in the main source, who we know very little about, is the man who was recorded in 1441 as:

‘a certain tailor staying next to Thomas Fyssher’

The tailor was noted as an Irishman and householder, living in Langley Marsh.  However, we can deduce more about the community in which this Irish tailor lived. In the same document one Gelam is recorded as the servant of Thomas Fyssher, living in Langley Marsh. 

Thomas Fyssher himself was one of the members of the jury who carried out the assessment.  It appears that Fyssher, a resident of Langley Marsh, had an alien servant (whose origin was uncertain), and an alien neighbour.  Fyssher did not know his neighbour’s name, but was sure that he was Irish.  Perhaps this scenario suggests that there was a certain amount of hostility, at least from Fyssher, against his alien neighbour.  Although he did not have his neighbour's name, he made certain that he was still listed in the assessment to pay the higher tax of rate. After all, the other alien residents of the village were named. Or perhaps the tailor was new to the village and had not yet assimilated as much as the other aliens?

The identities of the other alien men of Langley Marsh in Buckinghamshire have but small stories to tell. Neither Lewis Weren nor John Shepherd is recorded again in later alien subsidy documents. Indeed, no more identifications of aliens living in the village were made after 1441. This does not mean that such people left the village, the county or even England altogether. Rather, it suggests that, after making the identification once, the alien residents of Langley Marsh were not bothered by the tax again, either because the locals were not interested in singling them out for the special tax as they were a part of the community, or because there was a loss of interest in the tax altogether.

The four servants identified in the source – Gelowe, Peter, Gelam and John de Caleys – represent a common occurrence in fifteenth-century England: English households had immigrant servants. A ‘servant’ did not necessarily mean a domestic servant, but could just as easily mean someone assisting a craftsman with their work. This small group represents a wider picture of immigrants finding employment in English households, so while there was hostility towards the concept of the immigrant population, locally immigrants were assimilated into their communities.

England's Immigrants 1330–1550: a database

The unidentified immigrant tailor in the above source can be found on the England's Immigrants database. He is just one of thousands of other immigrants who were assessed to pay the alien poll tax in the fifteenth century. For others, we have far more information – their names, their jobs, whether they had families in England, and for how long they lived in the kingdom. The England's Immigrants 1330–1550 database tells the stories of migrants who chose to live in England in the late medieval period. The database holds the names of 64,000 people who were not native born (including Scots, Welsh and Irish people), and the individual case studies highlight some of the stories which the research project has been able to uncover. The database is easy to navigate and has many visual functions, including graphs and maps that can be generated from the data. The site also has a section for teachers with links to teaching resources. 

Later sanctions on aliens

After the last alien subsidy grant in 1487, sanctions did still occur but not on the same scale. In the Tudor subsidies, which were taxes paid by natives and non-natives, people of more than a certain wealth had to pay the tax, and what they paid depended on their wealth. Aliens were expected to pay double what natives paid. Then in 1544 aliens who did not have letters of denization were required to buy them, but this only affected those who lived on or near to the southern coast of England because of the threat of war with France. Other small schemes were introduced later that impacted some aliens, but nothing like the alien's subsidies of 1440 has ever happened again. Indeed, the next time we have any systematic record of non-native-born residents of England is in the United Kingdom's 1851 census, which recorded origin for the first time.

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Questions and Student Activities
  • What do alien subsidies tell us about responses to alien migrants in this period? 
  • What does this article tell us about the experiences of migrants in their destination country?