Medieval migration

As Europe’s migration crisis continues, Dr Hannes Kleineke, Senior Research Fellow on the Commons 1422-1504 section, explores the medieval House of Commons’ approach to immigration…

If the 18th century was concerned with the question of ‘mass migration’ from the Palatinate, the House of Commons had a longer tradition of considering questions of immigration. In the later middle ages, petitions for royal letters of denization came before the House on a regular basis, and more often than not were presented by Members who had often lived in England for many years and even represented their communities in Parliament, regardless of their alien status.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it was in England’s sea ports with their large transient communities, including many foreign visitors, that a number of immigrants made their home. One such man was Edmund Arnold, a Gascon-born merchant trading in wine and other mediterranean products, who established himself in Dartmouth, and represented that town in four Parliaments between 1395 and 1416. Arnold distinguished himself in naval warfare, and rose to become a deputy to the Admiral, Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter.

A number of other men who made their homes in the ports had Welsh roots. The Glamorgan origins of John Gregory, an MP for Dartmouth in 1437, are betrayed by the name of Walsh by which he was more commonly known, while Morgan Meredith, who settled at Dover (which he represented in 1445) came from Carmarthen, as did John Hore, who made for himself an extensive public career in the Dorset town of Bridport, and was sitting in his third parliament for the borough when in 1437 he decided to enlist his fellow Members’ support for his petition for his denization. All of these men became established members of their communities and the anniversaries of Gregory’s and Arnold’s deaths were commemorated in the Dartmouth church of St. Saviour there until the Reformation.

Trade and the professions helped some immigrants to establish themselves in their new home. In the case of Lewis John, a Welshman of questionable origins, it was his trade as a vintner that evidently brought him to the attention of the chief butler of England, Thomas Chaucer (son of the well-known poet) and allowed for his denization in the Parliament of 1414 of which Chaucer was speaker, while the Welsh-born lawyer David Holbache rose through the ranks of his profession to become one of the Crown’s principal law officers in Wales. In other instances, though, immigrants brought particular skills to their new home: William Veysy, who represented two Dorset boroughs in Parliament in the late 1440s, may have been of German origins. His unusual skills in brick-making and beer-brewing were possibly what recommended him to the English Crown, and saw him appointed not only as Henry VI’s official brick-maker, but also as surveyor of beer-brewers throughout England – an office which he held for over 20 years.

Other MPs, while themselves English-born, were married to immigrants. Joan, successively the wife of William Brokesby (a one-time MP for Leicestershire who had fought at Agincourt in the King’s immediate retinue) and Sir William Mountfort (a distinguished parliamentarian who represented Warwickshire in at least eight of Henry VI’s Parliaments) saw no need to seek naturalization on account of her Breton birth until after her second husband’s death (even though he had himself gone to the trouble to petition for royal letters in Parliament not long after their marriage). Indeed, a number of MPs’ foreign-born wives saw no need to seek denization in their own right until after their husbands’ deaths. This was true of Margaret, the wife of Robert Warner (MP for Middlesex in 1425), probably of Italian origins like her previous husband, the Luccese merchant Davide Galganetti, and also of Margaret, the wife of London’s long-serving common clerk, John Carpenter (MP for the city in 1437 and 1439), who was born in Zeeland. Conversely, a number of MPs themselves went out of their way to secure their wives’ naturalization, some of them seeking the support of their fellow Members: like Mountfort, Henry Hussey, MP for Sussex, did so in 1425 on behalf of his wife Constance, one of Queen Joan of Navarre’s Spanish ladies in waiting.

As successive English monarchs took as their consorts foreign princesses, so a steady stream of retainers entered their realm in their wake. The brothers Sir John and Sir Nicholas Dabrichecourt (respectively MPs for Derbyshire and Hampshire in the 1390s) were descendants of Sir Sanchet Dabrichecourt, a founder knight of the Order of the Garter, whose family had come to England from Hainault as part of the retinue of Edward III’s queen, Philippa. More importantly, however, both distinguished themselves fighting on the English side in Edward III’s French wars, and it was not until 1407 (more than a decade after he had first sat in the Commons) that Sir John saw any need to sue out letters of denization. Their experience illustrates what was perhaps the single most important factor in any medieval immigrant’s quest for denization: service to the King of England, more often than not, on the battlefield.

As the example of the Dabrichecourts demonstrates, such service could qualify for naturalization even a man not born in one of the King of England’s other territories, such as Wales or Gascony. This was also true of the Dane Sir Andrew Ogard, knight of the shire for Norfolk in 1453, was fighting on the English side in the Lancastrian kings’ French wars from an early date, and was knighted in the aftermath of the duke of Bedford’s great victory at Verneuil in 1424. He went on to become the duke’s chamberlain and was granted letters of denization by Parliament in 1433.

The petitions for denization presented to the late medieval Commons illustrate the factors that were expected to carry weight with both the Commons and with the King and his councillors. John Gregory stated that he had lived in England for 30 years and more, and intended to remain for the rest of his life. Edmund Arnold for his part claimed 20 years’ residency, while Sir John Dabrichecourt claimed to have lived in England ‘from the time of his youth’ and to have loyally served first Edward III and then various members of the house of Lancaster. Rather more colourful was the petition of David Holbache who asserted that he, like his ancestors, had always been a true and faithful subject, and that as a result of the rebellion he had lost estates in Wales worth 200 marks annually together with moveables he valued at 2,000 marks, and had thus been reduced to poverty.

Many of the petitioners for their part seem to have lived peaceful lives in England, unmolested by their neighbours, and were apparently only driven to seek denization by particular crises. What these might be, is exemplified by the experience of John Aport, MP for Salisbury in 1467, who in 1466 was deprived by the King’s officers of his extensive property portfolio in the city, when it was discovered that his Breton-born father had lived in England for 40 years without ever being naturalized, and that he himself was also an alien, according to the law.

For more on England’s medieval immigrants, see


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