Becoming a citizen: naturalizations and denizations in the seventeenth century

In the context of discussion both of ‘the Windrush generation’ and the citizenship aspects of the Brexit negotiation, Dr Vivienne Larminie of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section and co-editor of the ‘James I to Restoration’ blog page, discusses the often difficult process of becoming an Englishman or Englishwoman in the seventeenth century. This blog is part of our new series considering immigration to England and Britain as well as migration to former British colonies and their parliamentary connections…

Twelve years after his arrival in England from the Netherlands, in 1628 artist, art dealer and political agent Balthasar Gerbier attempted to set the seal on what had turned into a promising career this side of the Channel by becoming an Englishman.  He had not only collected prestigious pictures for his patron, George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, and been responsible for architectural remodelling visible on the fashionable Strand in Westminster, but had also accompanied the duke and Charles I, when prince of Wales, on their ill-fated trip to Spain in search of ‘the Spanish match’, and had undertaken secret treaty negotiations for the crown.  On 14 June 1628 Gerbier’s bill of naturalisation duly passed in the House of Lords, but then disappeared from view.  As reported by Sir Francis Nethersole, MP for Corfe Castle, the bill was one casualty of the House of Commons’ hostility towards the duke of Buckingham.  It was another 13 years, and the next Parliament, before Gerbier had the chance to renew his application: on 3 August 1641 MPs heard the reading of naturalisation bills from ‘Sir Balthasar Gerbier, born in Zealand’ and others.  That once again Gerbier’s efforts apparently went for nothing is illustrative of what then, as now, could be a long-drawn-out and frustrating experience.

Records of a formal process whereby a foreign-born man or woman became recognised as a subject of the English crown go back to the reign of Edward I.  From an early date a distinction was drawn between those granted naturalization (which carried the full rights of English-born subjects) and those granted denization (who faced higher taxes, employment restrictions and curtailment of some other rights and opportunities).  Originally such grants were conferred mainly by the crown through letters patent, with occasional confirmation in an Act of Parliament.  However, in the wake of the first wave of Huguenot and other Protestant refugees from the continent, from the late sixteenth century the focus of shifted towards Parliament, with the monarch continuing to grant denizations, often on very specific individual terms, but with Westminster taking over naturalizations.

The accession to the English throne in 1603 of James VI of Scotland encouraged what some contemporaries considered a flood of immigrants from north of the border seeking citizenship, and provoked some celebrated lawsuits, most notably ‘Calvin’s case’ of 1608 (which related to the right of James Colville, grandson of a Scottish courtier, to inherit English land).  Soon anti-Catholic sentiment in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot led to an Act (7 Jas. I c.2) requiring the aspirant Englishman or Englishwoman to provide evidence of participation since his or her arrival in England in the sacrament of Holy Communion and, if they were 18 or over, to take the Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy to the monarch as head of the Church of England.  The fact that the authority to administer that oath was given for this purpose to the lord chancellor (acting for the House of Lords) and the Speaker (acting for the House of Commons) served to underline the role of Parliament.

Unsurprisingly, after an eleven-year gap in Parliaments during which only denizations were possible, in 1640 there was a queue of applicants for naturalization.  No visible inroads were made in the three weeks of the Short Parliament, but despite other pressing business, the early months of the Long Parliament witnessed some progress, albeit agonisingly slow and mostly inconclusive.  On 27 November 1640 there was the first reading of a bill to naturalize James Boeve, a merchant who had had an abortive bill in the spring.  On 22 December Boeve, his wife Susannah, Matthew Boeve ‘gentleman’ (perhaps his brother) and three other merchants took the oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy, according to the Journal ‘as the manner is, before their bills can have a second reading’.  That second reading took place on 15 January 1641.  On 14 July the bill was reported from committee, but then disappeared from sight.  This result was common.  Indeed, only one bill from this period can be said with certainty to have soon passed into legislation, and it is surely significant that it related to the infant daughter of a peer, Henry Spencer, 3rd Baron Spencer of Wormleighton.  Dorothy Spencer (later wife of Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st earl of Shaftesbury) had been born in July 1640 in the privileged location of the English embassy in Paris and was thus far too young to incur suspicion of religious heterodoxy.  Having first appeared in the Lords on 6 February 1641 and in the Commons on 3 March, her bill was placed in a commission to receive the royal assent on 27 May.

More typical of the bills which finally succeeded were those relating to the families of Bogan and Kirk.  On 12 January 1641 the Lords’ Journal recorded that the Bogans had ‘qualified’ for naturalization before the second reading of their bill.  Richard Bogan, merchant, had taken the oath on 7 January, while his daughters Esther and Magdalen took it on the 12th, ‘at the End of the Wool-sack where the Lord Keeper sits, in the Presence of the Speaker; the Clerk of the Parliaments reading the Oaths’; Richard had testified on the 11th that his son Christopher, also included in the bill, was residing in France and was under the age of 18.  Appended was a certificate from the curate of St Peter, Broad Street, London, that the young women ‘did receive the Communion on Christmas Day last… and have ordinarily received the same every month since their coming into the said parish’.   Yet despite the appropriate documentation, they and the Kirks (who supplied equivalent paperwork) were still under consideration by the Commons in August 1642, when the outbreak of civil war appears to have called a prolonged halt to all naturalization proceedings.

Such business re-emerged to an extent in 1648 and under the commonwealth, not least in relation to recognising the contribution of army officers to the war effort.  For example, naturalization was granted in 1651 to the German wife and foreign-born family of Major-general Philip Skippon (MP for Barnstaple) as part of the rewards for his military service.  But the Bogans and the Kirks had to wait until 1656-7, when the second protectorate Parliament gave naturalization more sustained attention.  Although, by no means for the last time, attempts to cut red tape by establishing a general naturalization Act failed, significant numbers of petitioners were finally successful – even if some were rejected.  In the meantime the attendant costs had increased.  On 30 August 1649 the Rump Parliament fixed the fee to the clerk of Parliament ‘from everyone that is to be naturalized’ at 13s. 4d.  Four years later payment was specified as £1 to the serjeant at arms and 5s. ‘to his men’.

The later seventeenth century witnessed further developments. The Restoration brought the problem of exiled royalists returning with their foreign-born children.  From the 1680s the second, much greater wave of Huguenot refugees threatened to overwhelm the system, and seems to have led to a relaxation of procedures.


For further reading see:

  • Journals of the House of Lords and Journals of the House of Commons, both available via British History Online at ;
  • Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland quarto series, especially volumes viii (Letters of Denization and Acts of Naturalization for Aliens in England, 1509-1603), xviii (Letters of Denization and Acts of Naturalization in England and Ireland, 1603-1700) and xxxv (A Supplement to Dr W. A. Shaw’s Letters of Denization and Acts of Naturalization).  See esp. vol. xviii at 


For the more blogs by the James I to Restoration team, see here

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