Skip to content Accessibility statement

Immigration into Medieval England 'has lessons for today'

Posted on 17 November 2011

Scholars at the University of York are to launch a major research project focusing on the impact and extent of immigration into England in the Middle Ages.

The study, backed by a £784,545 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, will create a huge database of around 80,000 immigrants who lived in England between 1330 and 1550. Once the database is completed, in 2015, it will be freely accessible to all online and will offer much material that has never been available before outside academia for family and local historians.

Inter-ethnic friction was not necessarily the norm of social and political behaviour in the later Middle Ages

Professor Mark Ormrod

It will investigate the life stories of a cross-section of immigrants, examine England's first regulatory framework on nationality, immigration and naturalisation and its long-term impact on law, politics and culture, as well as evaluating the interaction between English society and racial and religious minorities.

The project, led by Professor of Medieval History Mark Ormrod, will assess the degree to which immigrant communities were integrated, marginalised or persecuted by English society. It also aims to establish how public attitudes towards immigrants were affected by factors such as war, demographic change, social practice and language use. The research team from the University’s Centre for Medieval Studies includes Dr Craig Taylor, of the Department of History and Dr Nicola McDonald of the Department of English and Related Literature.

Professor Ormrod said: “In the broader history of England's immigrant communities, the period between the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the coming of the Huguenots in the mid-sixteenth century is traditionally characterised as one of isolationism and bigotry. But the reality was considerably more complex.

“Our project will explore the full range of the immigrant experience in late medieval England, contributing creatively to the longer-term history of immigration, and provide a deep historical context to contemporary debates over ethnicity, multiculturalism and national identity.”

Contemporary tax accounts for 1440, indicate that there were at least 20,000 registered ‘aliens’ in England – equivalent to nearly one per cent of a total population of 2.5 million. The proportion was as high as six per cent in London. These figures are comparable with levels of immigration still being reported in the 1901 UK census.

The majority were either clustered in the poor areas of larger towns or scratched a living as migrant, seasonal workers in the agricultural economy.

“But in contrast to contemporary suspicion of high-status groups and racial/religious minorities, there is every indication that public opinion and official policy treated the resident alien with a remarkable degree of tolerance,” Professor Ormrod added. “Inter-ethnic friction was not necessarily the norm of social and political behaviour in the later Middle Ages.”

The full database will offer a substantial resources for researchers from local historians documenting the diversity of their communities in the Middle Ages to family historians mining a rich body of evidence for the foreign origins of modern English surnames. Political historians will be able to re-evaluate government efforts to regulate immigration, while economic and social historians will be able to investigate the role of foreigners in the agricultural, manufacturing and commercial economies. Cultural historians will have a powerful body of data on which to base new debates about the integration of foreigners and their contribution to evolving notions of nationality, race and religion.

Notes to editors:

  • More on the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York at
  • More on the Department of History at
  • More on the Department of English and Related Literature at
  • The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC): Each year the AHRC provides approximately £100 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from languages and law, archaeology and English literature to design and creative and performing arts. In any one year, the AHRC makes hundreds of research awards ranging from individual fellowships to major collaborative projects as well as over 1,100 studentship awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.

Contact details

David Garner
Senior Press Officer

Tel: +44 (0)1904 322153

Keep up to date

 Subscribe to news feeds

 Follow us on Twitter