Controversies over immigration have dominated news headlines in Britain in recent years, prompting commentators to look to the past to contextualise the issues of the present. In literature exploring the history of immigration, it is not uncommon to encounter the arrival of hundreds of West Indian immigrants aboard the SS Windrush in 1948, the consolidation of a Commonwealth of Nations in 1949, or the arrival of influxes of refugees from Eastern European communist states in the post-war period labelled as watersheds. It is far less common to find literature that contextualises immigration in Britain beyond the twentieth century; a time before the rigours of passports and border control. In the last decade, however, a group of historians launched the England’s Immigrants project, which has established that England was home to tens of thousands of immigrant settlers – known in contemporary terms as ‘aliens’ – from all over Europe in the later medieval period (c. 1300 – 1550 CE).

Whilst the project has realised that particular immigrant communities tended to cluster in specific areas in England – for example, Scots in the north, people from the Low Countries in London and the south-east, and French people in the south-west – it has shown that immigrants could be found almost anywhere in the country. This is certainly true of Southampton, which recorded the third-highest number of ‘aliens’ as a percentage of the local population in England in 1377. Remnants of Southampton as its later medieval immigrant population knew it are still available to occupants of the city today. For example, a walk down Bernard Street in the city centre will take you past the ruins of Holyrood Church, a site which would have been visible from the homes of at least three of Southampton’s immigrant settlers: Andryan Johnson, Gillam Delymag, and Hans Middelburg, who came from Zeeland (a province in the Netherlands).

Ruins of Holyrood Church.

Ruins of Holyrood Church.

Moving to England in the later medieval period came with considerable challenge, as immigrants faced animosity largely as a consequence of two factors. The first was the climate of suspicion that surrounded England’s largest immigrant group, the French, throughout the Hundred Years’ War (1337 – 1453). During this conflict, fought between the English House of Plantagenet and the French House of Valois over the right to rule France, it was not uncommon for French immigrants in England to face accusations of espionage, or hostility from disgruntled English people when events in the conflict did not unfold in England’s favour. Secondly, disputes arose over the alleged economic disparity between English people and their ‘alien’ neighbours, as some blamed their financial misfortunes on immigrants who had stolen ‘their’ trade or jobs. For example, during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, a moment of high socioeconomic tension in England, a group of peasant rioters besieged St. Martin-in-the-Vintry, a London district home to a wealthy community of Flemish weavers. There they enacted, as one contemporary account documents,

‘a very great massacre of Flemings… in one heap there were lying about forty headless bodies of persons who had been dragged forth from the churches and from their houses.’

In stark contrast to the hostility immigrants faced in London and in many other English locations, Southampton makes for an unusual case study. It was Alwyn A. Ruddock, a historian and former lecturer at the University of Southampton, who first made the case for Southampton’s exceptional status in the history of immigration in 1946. She argued that ‘at a time when the rest of England… was displaying great hostility toward [immigrants], the people of Southampton welcomed them to the town, and… provided such advantageous conditions… that many [immigrants]… settled there permanently.’

To understand why the people of later medieval Southampton were so unusually receptive to immigrants, it is first necessary to consider the circumstances that brought people to England in this period. One of the most common reasons was trade, and Southampton’s fortunate geographical position on the south coast made it a prime location for development as a trading port where continental merchants and their staff arrived to offer a variety of prospective imports. Some of these goods were necessities – for example, merchants from the Low Countries often brought materials crucial to the textile industry, including alum and woad (dyes used in cloth-making) – but some were exotic luxuries: merchants from Italy, who comprised the largest demographic group among Southampton’s immigrant population, regularly bore luxury foodstuffs, such as wine or spices including pepper, ginger and saffron. Not only did Southampton serve as a point of entry for imported goods, but as a place where English produce could be offered for export. Throughout the later medieval period, English wool, which accounted for 90% of English trade during the reign of Henry VII (1485 – 1509), was exported through Southampton more often than any other port in the country. Southampton’s local population were receptive to immigrants because their presence stimulated the local economy. For example, Southampton’s emergence as a major international trading port was hugely beneficial to Southampton’s residents in generating jobs: many locals worked in unloading cargo or transporting imports inland and exports to the port ready to be loaded.

Part of a port along Southampton’s coastline today; a potential point of arrival for immigrant merchants in the medieval period.

Part of a port along Southampton’s coastline today; a potential point of arrival for immigrant merchants in the medieval period.

Contemporary recognition of the positive economic impact that immigrant merchants had on Southampton is best exemplified by the city’s response to the Hosting Act 1439. Following the defection of England’s ally Burgundy to the French side in the Hundred Years’ War, English merchants suffered financially from the loss of trade with Burgundy and became acutely aware of the supposedly booming business of their ‘alien’ merchant counterparts in English ports. In response to popular complaints, particularly among Londoners, the government introduced the Hosting Act to curtail the activities of foreign merchants. Having previously been at liberty to conduct their business in England as they pleased, foreign merchants who wished to strike trade deals now had to declare themselves to local authorities upon arrival, in order to be assigned an English merchant ‘host’ who would supervise the business transactions executed by the foreign merchant while they were in England. To persuade English merchants to volunteer as hosts, the Hosting Act stipulated that an English merchant could assert the right to take two-pence in every pound’s worth of merchandise sold by the foreign merchant they were hosting.

Historians studying immigration in the later medieval period have found the enforcement of the Hosting Act a particular source of interest for understanding the relationship between immigrants and English people. In W. Mark Ormrod and Bart Lambert’s evaluation of the Hosting Act, they state that:

‘the 1440 hosting laws were really the initiative of the Londoners, and were of much less interest… in provincial ports, whose own existing arrangements for hosting were much better suited to the needs of the local economy.’

Indeed, Southampton’s civic officials seem to have avoided stringency in their application of the Hosting Act. While there is evidence that foreign merchants were assigned ‘hosts’ upon their arrival in Southampton, it appears that this was nothing more than a formality. In practice, Southampton’s hosts were not particularly proactive in their supervision, perhaps because they recognised that the city’s economic prosperity depended on foreign merchants being at liberty to trade freely.

Research into the implementation of the Hosting Act has revealed more blatant evasions of its conditions in Southampton than anywhere else in the country. For example, alien merchants in Southampton remained able to rent their own houses, whereas the Hosting Act required that they lived in the same property as their designated host. Furthermore, John Bentham, a Southampton resident who acted as host to multiple alien merchants, claimed to the central authorities that he was unable to account for the business of the merchants under his supervision because they were in London. In fact, records reveal that the merchants Bentham was charged with supervising were in Southampton trading vast quantities of wine and tuns and butts (casks used for storing beer). The attitudes of Southampton’s hosts, in being either laissez-faire or, like John Bentham, deliberately evasive in their ‘supervision’, evidence their positive approach towards immigrant merchants in the city and desire to allow them to continue to trade freely.

Though many of later medieval Southampton’s immigrants’ first encounter with the city arose from a commercial context, not all immigrants in Southampton were itinerant travellers who only remained in the city for the short duration of their business trips. On the contrary, many immigrants chose to make Southampton their home. An impression of how many immigrants lived in Southampton can be gauged from an invaluable resource used to study the immigrant population of later medieval England: the alien subsidy records. The ‘alien subsidy’ was a tax levied solely on England’s immigrants, recording the names of the people who paid it and where they lived. Thus, the alien subsidy records act as a prototype census of England’s immigrant population in each county in this period, and they reveal that Hampshire was home to a minimum of 1,900 ‘alien’ residents between 1337 and 1544. As only a minority of the alien subsidy entries record precisely where in the county an immigrant lived, it is difficult to know exactly how many of these 1,900 Hampshire immigrants resided in Southampton. However, as one of the county’s most densely populated settlements and major sources of employment, it is likely to have been a substantial proportion of this figure.

Using the surviving alien subsidy records which do specify Southampton as an immigrant’s place of residence, Jessica Lutkin – one of the historians involved in the England’s Immigrants project – has sought to define the demographic composition of Southampton’s immigrants. She has concluded that, in comparison to other English cities, Southampton’s immigrant population was unusually wealthy, with at least half being foreign merchants or their clerks. This conclusion is quite conceivable given the allure of Southampton’s trading port status for entrepreneurial foreign merchants, but can also be contextualised within the activities of central government in this period. In the 1370s, the English government developed ‘denization’, allowing immigrants to apply for ‘letters of denization’ which granted them an early form of citizenship. It is clear, however, that the denization scheme aimed only to incentivise the migration of wealthier immigrants. Lodging an application for denization came at a cost, so was only available to immigrants with higher disposable income. In addition, the particular rights gained through denization, such as the right to own property in a time where the majority of people were too poor to afford their own property, show that denization was targeted at a wealthier demographic. In light of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that so many of Southampton’s immigrants enjoyed above-average wealth.

Having come from prosperous backgrounds and an elevated social status in their countries of origin, many of Southampton’s wealthy immigrants successfully transitioned to their new local elite. A Venetian man, Damiano de Pezaro, proudly asserted in 1438 that during his fifteen years resident in Southampton, he had been honoured with appointment as a ‘freeman of the city’ by the local authorities. Immigrants also found themselves in a variety of local government posts in Southampton. William Overeye, an Irish immigrant, was twice mayor of Southampton before becoming the city’s Member of Parliament in 1426. In addition, the Venetian mariner Gabriel Corbizzi, much-decorated for his service in the Hundred Years’ War, served as a steward of the city in the 1440s. It is quite remarkable that in a time when, elsewhere in England, immigrants regularly encountered hostility from their English neighbours, that in Southampton they were securing denizen status with ease, integrating seamlessly among the English local elite, and rising to enjoy positions of great influence.

The Medieval Merchant’s House on French Street provides an example of a house similar to that which many among Southampton’s medieval immigrant population would have lived in. It reopens to the public on 22nd May 2021.

The Medieval Merchant’s House on French Street provides an example of a house similar to that which many among Southampton’s medieval immigrant population would have lived in. It reopens to the public on 22nd May 2021.

The unique welcome extended to immigrants by the residents of later medieval Southampton is further exemplified by the city’s response to the nationwide escalation of tensions between English people and immigrants during the 1450s. A spate of outbreaks of violence against foreigners in England in this period began during the ‘Jack Cade rebellion’ in 1450, which saw over 5,000 people launch an uprising that was a culmination of multiple issues, including the perceived socioeconomic disparity between English people and allegedly wealthy immigrants. Though the rebellion mostly occurred in London, other places in England also played host to seditious spirit. In Romsey, Hampshire, a group of rioters conspired to charge into Southampton and attack the city’s wealthy Italian residents. However, whereas elsewhere in the country, violence against wealthy immigrants ensued, the Romsey rioters made little progress: their prompt ejection by Southampton’s authorities demonstrates the value the city’s inhabitants placed on their immigrant community and evidences a preparedness to ensure their protection.

Meanwhile, in London, tensions between English people and immigrants continued to build throughout the 1450s. Here, Alwyn Ruddock documents a development in the city in the middle of the decade:

‘The manifestations of hostility towards [aliens] in London in 1455 and 1456 resulted in a substantial increase in Southampton’s foreign colony. Despairing of carrying on their trade in the capital, the Italians seem to have planned a migration of their entire colony in London to the south coast port. Representatives of the Venetian, Florentine, Genoese, and Lucchese merchants there met together and drew up a bond agreeing that all their compatriots should immediately leave the capital with all their merchandise… They chose Southampton and its vicinity as their new centre.’

This is hugely significant. Whilst Londoners felt threatened by the financial prosperity of their Italian merchant community, Southampton’s residents took the opposite approach, and appreciated the benefits that the presence of wealthy merchants in the city offered to the local economy. For example, merchants from the Italian province of Genoa made a substantial financial contribution, providing two-thirds of the city’s petty customs revenue in 1451. By showing that Italians regarded Southampton a place of refuge when they were facing persecution elsewhere in England, the case study explored by Ruddock here highlights that Southampton’s unique status in the history of immigration is not merely being recognised retrospectively: later medieval England’s immigrant population also understood the city as a particularly receptive environment.

There is, however, one notable exception to this. The ebbing tide of the wave of xenophobic sentiment that coursed through England in the 1450s momentarily infiltrated the city. In 1462, John Payne – renowned for his callousness and irrational hatred of immigrants – was elected mayor. Payne used his position of power to launch a vendetta against immigrants, confiscating the merchandise of ‘aliens’ arriving in the city’s port, and subjecting long-standing immigrant residents of Southampton to arbitrary imprisonment. However, Payne’s rule proved so unpopular that he was ousted from office before his one-year term came to an end. Though there is no evidence which explicitly links Payne’s premature removal from office to popular opposition to his treatment of immigrants, it is quite feasible to conclude that as Payne’s tenure was characterised by his campaign against the ‘aliens’ deemed crucial to the success of Southampton’s local economy, this provided the main impetus for hostility to his rule. Though the election of John Payne marked the nadir in relations between Southampton’s English inhabitants and their immigrant neighbours, his ousting heralded a swift return to the unusually positive relationship they enjoyed.

As sources providing insights into individual attitudes and opinions towards immigrants in the later medieval period are sparse, it is difficult to know exactly what the population of later medieval Southampton made of their immigrant neighbours. Whilst documentary evidence exists of clashes between English people and their ‘alien’ counterparts in London, the same does not exist for Southampton. Instead, however, we can perhaps interpret these archival silences. There is no doubt that Southampton’s long-standing residents experienced contact with immigrants the same as London’s long-standing residents did, and not just in commercial environments. Within Southampton, English people and immigrants seem to have interacted comfortably in places of worship, places of employment, and sometimes, within their homes: Edmund Holland and his Italian wife Lucia provide just one of numerous examples of intermarried couples who lived in the city. In contrast to other English cities, the absence of evidence of disputes between Southampton’s residents and their immigrant neighbours suggests that relations between them were unusually harmonious.

Port on Southampton’s coastline today.

Port on Southampton’s coastline today.

When reflecting on the long history of immigration in England, later medieval Southampton’s individuality as a case study should be appreciated on two levels. Firstly, it provides an early instance of immigrants being welcomed into an English community and experiencing positive social integration with their English counterparts that was atypical of the period. Beyond this, however, Southampton’s unique receptiveness to immigrants in the later medieval period is hugely important to the city’s heritage. Next time you pass Southampton’s port, you might remember the immigrant merchants who were crucial to its development as a major global destination. Equally as important to remember, however, is the debt the city’s success owes to the English population of later medieval Southampton, who recognised the benefits immigrant merchants brought to their local economy and, in turn, to their own lives. The cordial welcome they extended to both permanent settlers and travelling traders undoubtedly bolstered England’s reputation overseas, and for this, Southampton’s exceptional status in the history of immigration should be celebrated.

This guest post is by Natasha Brande, Danielle Fennell, Olivia Price, Frankie Pugh, Kate Ryan, Madeline Smith and Imogen Tozer, undergraduate History students at the University of Southampton. 



Sources and further reading:

England’s Immigrants project website,

For more on the Hosting Act 1439, see

R. B. Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: Macmillan, 1970)

J. A. Lutkin, ‘A Survey of the Resident Immigrants in Hampshire and Southampton, 1330 – 1550’, Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society, 70 (2015), pp. 155 – 168

W. M. Ormrod, B. Lambert and J. Mackman, Immigrant England, 1300 – 1550 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018)

A. A. Ruddock, ‘Alien Merchants in Southampton in the Later Middle Ages’, The English Historical Review, 61:239 (1946), pp. 1 – 17

A. A. Ruddock, ‘Alien Hosting in Southampton in the Fifteenth Century’, The Economic History Review, 16:1 (1946), pp. 30 – 37