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Living and working together: England’s immigrants in the Middle Ages

Posted on 17 February 2015

A major new research database revealing extraordinary data on immigration in England in the late medieval period is launched today by the University of York, in partnership with the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield and The National Archives.

Map showing results by Residence: County (credit: http://www.englandsimmigrants.com)Map showing results by Residence: County (credit: http://www.englandsimmigrants.com)

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded the three-year project directed by Professor Mark Ormrod, of the University of York’s Centre for Medieval Studies, who headed a team of researchers based in York and London.

It reveals evidence about the names, origins, occupations and households of a significant number of foreign nationals who chose to live and work in England in the era of the Hundred Years War, the Black Death and the Wars of the Roses.  The project contributes to debates about the longer-term history of immigration to Britain, helping to provide a deep historical and cultural context to contemporary debates over ethnicity, multiculturalism and national identity.

The database contains the names of a total of 65,000 immigrants resident in England between 1330 and 1550.  In one year, 1440, the names of 14,500 individuals were recorded – this at a time when the population of England was approximately two million.  Taking into account gaps in the records, the researchers estimated that one person in every hundred was a foreign national.  They were found in all counties, from Cornwall to Northumberland, in hamlets as well as in major ports.  Their nationalities ranged from people from other parts of the British Isles, including Scots, Irish and Channel Islanders, to mainland Europeans from Portugal to Sweden, from Greece to Iceland. 

In many cases the occupation of the individual is known, from highly skilled craftsmen such as goldsmiths, to weavers – many of whom were Flemish – to agricultural labourers. Three Flemish weavers from Diest in Belgium lived and worked in St Ives, Huntingdonshire, in the 1330s; and John Lammyns, a goldsmith from Antwerp, lived in Bristol in the 1430s and 1440s. The research reveals that aristocratic households brought back foreign servants from English-occupied France at the end of the Hundred Years War: Sir John Montgomery of Faulkbourne, Essex, had five foreigners working in his household in the 1440s. Many ordinary families of traders, artisans and workers chose to migrate to England.  Walter, a minstrel from Germany, settled in London in the late fifteenth century with his entire family, including his mother, wife, three sons and three daughters.

One of the surprises revealed by the research is the number of resident immigrants who lived and worked in rural areas, rather than in towns and cities.  The research reveals how such people integrated – and sometimes clashed - with English people, suggesting much about how our ancestors used language, dress and behaviour as symbols of national identity.

Professor Ormrod says:  “The England’s Immigrants project transforms our understanding of the way that English people and foreign nationals, of all levels of society, lived and worked together in the era of the Plantagenets and early Tudors. The research provides a deep historical context for modern debates about the movement of peoples and the state’s responsibilities to regulate immigration.”

The database is accessible to all at www.englandsimmigrants.com and is a fully searchable and interactive resource, from which data can be downloaded.  The website also supports the researcher with guides to the various counties and documents, and provides case studies of interesting individuals demonstrating just how much we can learn from our immigrant ancestors.

Further information:

  • For more information on the England’s Immigrants project, please visit www.englandsimmigrants.com
  • More on the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York at www.york.ac.uk/medieval-studies/     
  • More on the Department of History at www.york.ac.uk/history/     
  • More on the Department of English and Related Literature at www.york.ac.uk/english/
  • The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. 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. Find out more at: www.ahrc.ac.uk

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