Immigrant Life in Medieval England


Dr Bart Lambert, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium


Six years ago, in early 2012, I started working on the AHRC-funded project ‘England’s Immigrants, 1330-1550’. One of its aims was to digitise the returns of the alien subsidies, a direct tax on each non-English resident in the country, collected between 1440 and 1487. Recording the names, places of residence, origins and, ideally, occupations of the taxpayers, these lists provide us with a unique survey of immigrant presence in England during the second half of the fifteenth century. A couple of months into the project, I received an excited email from my fellow-Research Assistant Jessica Lutkin. Among the hundreds of alien artisans and household servants in the alien subsidy returns for London, she had come across a man named Gervase de Vulre, described as a secretary to the English king. Assessed together with his wife, he was living in the city’s Bishopsgate ward in October 1441. Reading up on him, I discovered that only a few months before his tax assessment, the same Gervase had taken out so-called letters of denization. Issued by the chancery in return for a fee since the 1380s, these documents granted alien newcomers certain privileges which were usually reserved for native Englishmen, including the right to own real estate, to pay taxes at lower rates and to sue in central courts. What puzzled me about Gervase’s letters of denization, was that they stated that the recipient was born in France: having worked on the history of Flanders and my hometown of Bruges before I moved to the United Kingdom, I knew that ‘de Vulre’ was no French surname, but the Middle Dutch equivalent of ‘the fuller’.

Intrigued by the case, I did some searches in the Bruges City Archives during one of my visits to Belgium and found several documents about a man who was also called Gervase de Vulre. Belonging to a Flemish family of scribes, he made a career in the administration of the Burgundian dukes, before completely disappearing from the local sources in the 1430s. Initially, my hypothesis that Gervase the Fleming could be the same person as the secretary to the English king, resident in London in the 1440s, raised eyebrows. Why would a Flemish man from Bruges move to England and claim to come from France during one of the most intense stages of the Hundred Years’ War, when English and French troops opposed each other on the battlefield on an almost constant basis?

These doubts disappeared, however, when the seal (the unique marker of one’s personal identity) attached to one of the documents in Bruges turned out to match exactly with that used by Gervase the secretary in England. Soon enough, further research provided a context for de Vulre’s volte face. After his years as a scribe in Flanders, Gervase worked for the English administration in France. Confronted with the French military advance and the collapse of the English regime overseas after 1435, he decided to follow his employers to England, where he was appointed as a royal secretary. Around the same time, however, the Duke of Burgundy, who ruled over Flanders, abandoned his military alliance with the English and joined forces with the French. This manoeuvre provoked an anti-Flemish sentiment among the English population which, arguably, even outdid the hostility against the French in virulence. Under such circumstances, it made perfect sense for de Vulre to downplay his Flemish origins.

Yet why did he choose to present himself as French instead? It certainly was a credible option, given his time spent in France. More importantly, though, it was a move that paid off professionally. As a royal secretary, Gervase was responsible for all of the Crown’s correspondence with France. As such, experience with French affairs and a thorough command of the French language were highly recommendable. De Vulre is known to have exploited these credentials to maintain his influential and lucrative position. When, in 1450, the Commons in Parliament tried to have him removed from office, he objected that his French background provided him with perfect qualifications for the job, among others being ‘perfectly versed in French’. The parliamentary attack failed, as did later attempts to get rid of him. After a long and successful career, Gervase drew up his will in 1467. With nothing left to lose or gain, the document acknowledged that he was born in Bruges, and not in France.

The case of Gervase de Vulre is illustrative of so many others. Immigrant England, 1300-1550, the book I have written together with Mark Ormrod and Jonathan Mackman, sets out how, during the later Middle Ages, tens of thousands of people from other parts of the British Isles and virtually all regions of continental Europe driven by economic distress, political turnabouts and environmental disasters settled in England. They spread out over the kingdom, living in towns as well as in the countryside and taking work as skilled craftspeople, household staff, agricultural labourers or professionals. They came to a country in which the presence of aliens became increasingly regulated and categorised, encountering specific taxes such as the alien subsidies and legal barriers that could only be overcome by procuring letters of denization. The explosion of record keeping that occurred as a result of these procedures allowed us to trace the individual lives of immigrants in a way that is not possible before that time.

Paradoxically, what emerged most from the study of these experiences was their infinite complexity and the fact that they could simply not be reduced to official categories. Behind almost every entry in the alien subsidy returns or every denization recorded on the patent rolls lay a story such as Gervase’s, in which people had to deal with the implications of having lives and relationships in different parts of Europe, in which perspectives were constantly upended by short-term political changes, in which identities had to be adapted and renegotiated. It is this richness and complexity of immigrant experiences in later medieval England, more than anything else, which I hope our book has managed to capture.


Immigrant England, 1300-1550
is available from Manchester University Press

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About the Author: Dr Bart Lambert is Assistant Professor in Late Medieval Urban History and a member of the HOST research group at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium. His work focuses on migration flows and international trade in Europe between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. He is one of the authors of Immigrant England, 1300-1550 (Manchester University Press, 2018, with Mark Ormrod and Jonathan Mackman) and has published numerous articles on late medieval English migration history.

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