In 1756, the English jurist, judge and Tory politician, William Blackstone, concluded that the residents of England could be split into two distinct legal groups: ‘Aliens, that is, born out of the Dominions, or Allegiance of the crown of Great Britain; or Natives, that is, born within it.’[1] The binary division that Blackstone made in the middle of the eighteenth century between native and foreign-born aliens, also known as ‘strangers’, had a long tradition dating back to the fourteenth century. This division was based on a difference between a native-born ‘natural and perpetual’ allegiance to the monarch, an an alien’s ‘local and temporal’ rights and allegiance.[2] In early modern England, aliens and strangers were defined by their status as foreign-born national residents, who unless endenizened or naturalized, owed their allegiance to someone other than the English monarch. Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the number of migrants who arrived in England increased as religious groups fled persecution and conflict in France, Germany, the Netherlands and the Low Countries.

These alien groups, especially Huguenots from France and the Low Countries, ‘became England’s first minority of real significance in terms of size’ settling in towns and cities across England.[3] Huguenots, like other groups, received a mixed reception from English authorities and local communities. Protestants celebrated their co-religionists’ escape from persecution, but felt threatened by their ‘alienness’, often resulting in their persecution. Moreover, many Huguenots were highly-trained artisans who brought to England new skills and professions, often perceived by local English craftsmen and businesses to be directly competing with them. The historian Ian Archer has pointed out that aliens and strangers were resented in London for not only competing in ‘the same market-place’ as English artisans, but also for evading ‘company regulations’ and producing ‘substandard goods’.[4] Anne Kershen described how once ‘industrious and necessitous’ migrants settled in England, they eventually posed ‘an economic threat to the labour market,’ which — combined with their ‘strangeness’ in language, religion, dress and diet — encouraged the development of a ‘xenophobic vocabulary’ and perception by English people who felt threatened and uneasy.[5] The mixed reception from local communities in England was mirrored by national and local authorities who sought to both protect and regulate against individuals who were foreign-born. In many cases the negative response to strangers and aliens was a combination of fear, jealousy and xenophobia that erupted at times in legislative, political, and even physical persecution.

Fleeing the religious conflicts that ravaged continental Europe during the early seventeenth century, strangers and aliens came to England in substantial numbers in the hope of settling peaceably. They were, however, frequently met with hostility and distrust by the local population upon their arrival. In a speech criticising anti-migrant sentiment following the May Day riot in 1517, Sir Thomas More highlighted the friction in English society that surrounded European migrants arriving in England. So popular and politically relevant was the speech that it was reproduced at several points throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth century. In 1603-4, Shakespeare revised the speech for performance in the play, The Booke of Sir Thomas More written collaboratively by Anthony Munday and others, in which More chastised the aggressive anti-migrant rioters who wished to ‘put down strangers, Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses’. Reversing the typical anti-immigration rhetoric, the character asks the tumultuous crowd that if banished, ‘whither would you go?’[6] Shakespeare’s “More” highlighted the plight of the migrant by inviting the English audience, in an act of collective empathy, to imagine if they were ‘strangers, would you be pleas’d To find a nation of such barbarous temper.’[7] Henry Finch used a similar rhetoric during a parliamentary speech in 1593 where he reminded the his fellow MP’s of the plight of Protestants who had fled England during the reign of Mary. According to Finch, ‘in the days of Queen Mary, when our Cause was as theirs is now’ other nations granted English Protestants sanctuary yet ‘now we seek to deny them.’[8] Like Moore, Finch concluded that English people needed to remember that they ‘are strangers now, we may be strangers hereafter,’ and so ‘let us do as we would be done unto.’[9] Despite emphatic pleas on the stage, in parliament, and in print, anti-stranger sentiment founded in economic hardship and an evolving sense of “Englishness” inevitably continued into the seventeenth century. Petitions to the Cromwellian state from ‘poore protestant Strangers’ echo those delivered almost a century earlier: strangers, who ‘having no libtye to exercise the Protestant Religion in theyr native Countrye they fled into England’ desperately sort the protection of the state so ‘that they may be freed from the violence’ of the English opposed to their presence.[10]

The English not only conceptualised ‘alien’ and ‘stranger’ in temporal terms, but spiritual ones also. While legally an ‘alien’ was a national outsider, a spiritual ‘alien’ was someone who was made foreign to God through ‘erroneous’ faith and religious practices. The spiritual stranger, like the spiritual foreigner, was a popular motif throughout the early modern period. This pitted Protestants against non-Protestants, but it also emphasised the Protestant, particularly Calvinist, doctrine that sin made all foreign to God. A spiritual foreigner could only be naturalised through redemption and conversion; Ephesians 2:19, for example, states that ‘[n]ow ye are no more strangers and foreigners: but citizens with the Saints, and of the household of God’, and became a popular verse to illustrate both the status of a spiritual stranger, and their transition through conversion into citizens of god.[11]

Jews were particularly targeted for being spiritual aliens by English writers, who through contorted theological argument believed they were ‘aliens from the common-wealth of Israel’.[12] Unlike Catholics who were considered ‘spiritual foreigners’ even if they were born in England, Jews represented a different perspective that highlighted the merging of national and religious strangeness. The Jewish faith not only represented a religious difference from Protestant /Christian Englishmen, but also a national difference, as Jews were thought to consist of their own nation. This blurred line between religious and national allegiance encouraged English authorities to feel uneasy about the presence of Jews and Catholics in the nation. Considered ‘Strangers to the Covenant’ of the nation and the Church, Jews who settled in England faced suspicion and often had their loyalty questioned, frequently leading to persecution.[13] An ‘alien’, then, was often a temporal and a spiritual stranger, and — given the interrelation between Protestantism and the post-Reformation English state — an individual’s foreignness was magnified and refracted in several ways.

Strangers and aliens were often perceived as intruders by governing officials, who viewed any attempt by them to enter English political life with suspicion. Elizabeth I’s successor, James VI of Scotland, represented an alien threat to many English officials who saw his succession to the English throne as hazardous to the country’s socio-political stability. Robert Person, an exiled Jesuit priest, was one of the most vocal critics of James’ succession to the English crown. In a substantial tract concerning the issues of succession, Person criticized James’ claim to the throne as legally weak, and warned that if the alien Scottish monarch be allowed to take the English throne, England could be thrown into instability and even a conflict not too dissimilar to the War of the Roses.[14] According to Person, James was ‘excluded by the common lawes of Ingland from succession to the crowne’ as he was foreign-born, and the ‘said lawes do bar al strangers borne out of the realme, to inherite’ land or property within the country, let alone lay claim to the throne.[15] However, Person’s claims that James, as a stranger, was barred from claiming the throne was both a radical and uncommon position. On the eve of James’ coronation, Andrew Willet, a clergyman and controversialist, proclaimed that since James was of ‘the same religion’, he was ‘no forrainer.’ Moreover, Willet biblically reinforced James’ rights to the English throne, reminding his readers that God had given Israel ‘no stranger to reign over them’ but ‘one of their owne kindred’, for the ‘Lord hath raised unto us a Soveraigne descended of Davids stocke… a prince of the same language, of the Island, of the English royall blood’.[16]

The succession of James I to the English crown not only sparked a lively debate about the right of an alien Scottish monarch to inherit the English throne, but also about the rights of aliens and strangers from Scotland and further afield to live and inherit in England. In the years following James’ coronation, the debate on the rights of aliens and strangers intensified. Often returning to classical or biblical precedents, writers sought to highlight how strangers and aliens had always been dangerous to society. Some years later Nathaniel Carpenter, ‘strangers amongst the Romans’ were called ‘enemies’ whilst the religious radical, John Saltmarsh, used the biblical example of Pharaoh cautioning against dealing too ‘cruelly with strangers’ while warning that if ‘aliens or forraigners multiply and grow numerous and potent besides you, you may have a vigilant eye upon them.'[17] The heightened awareness towards strangers and aliens described by Carpenter and Saltmarsh in the 1630s was in part a reaction not only to religious migration from Europe, but also Scottish migration following James’ arrival into England.

Not everyone agreed with the sentiments of Carpenter and Saltmarsh concerning the reception and position of strangers and aliens in England. In a speech to parliament advocating naturalization of Scottish subjects, Sir Francis Bacon outlined the various degrees of aliens and their status in England. The first degree contained an ‘alien borne under a King, or State, that is enemy’, who were offered not protection whilst in the country.[18] The second degree involved an ‘alien that is born under the faith and allegiance of a King or state, that is a friend’, who, according to Bacon ‘the Law doth imparte a great benefit and protection.’[19] However, Bacon noted that many Scots born after the coronation of James in 1603, also known as ‘postnati’, were not ‘aliens as the rest’.[20] The distinction between the subject postnati and the alien status of those born prior to James’ coronation, the antinati, was legally enforced following the outcome of what came to be known as ‘Calvin’s Case’ in 1604.[21]

This influential suit deliberated whether the three-year-old Robert Calvin (actually called James Colville), born in Scotland of Scottish parents, could inherit property in London under English common law. The judges decided the postnati had the legal right under English law to be considered naturalized English subjects owing their allegiance to both the Scottish and English crowns. The antinati, however, were still considered aliens. At the same time as not sharing that same legal status as English subjects, ‘an Alien’ was still bound by allegiance to conform ‘to the Laws, and an obligation not to attempt any thing against the King.’[22] Although still suspicious of aliens and strangers at the end of the seventeenth century, English authorities had attempted to legally bind them in a form of allegiance to the state. By doing so, they reconciled some of the fears that had been raised over the century concerning the presence of aliens and strangers and the threat they posed to the stability of English society.

English authorities attempted to bind aliens and strangers in allegiance by either naturalising or conferencing the status of denizen upon them. The immediate distinction between the two statuses was that an act of naturalisation was passed and granted by Parliament, whereas denization was granted to individual — and occasionally groups of — migrants by the Crown. As today, naturalisation comprehensively provided migrants with a full set rights as an English subject. The rights bestowed through denization on the other hand were limited, to enjoying ‘al priviledges as an Englishman’, though they still have to ‘paye customes and divers other things as aliens doe &c.’[23] Although denizens payed homage and swore allegiance to the monarch, they, unlike naturalised strangers and aliens, remained aliens by birth and as such were prohibited by law from inheriting and bequeathing land to any children born before they were endenizened.

Another factor in the development of English perceptions of alien and stranger identity was the expansion of English global commerce. English commercial expansion in this period had brought substantial numbers of non-English merchants into England. Like other alien communities, ‘merchant strangers’ were perceived as having both negative and positive influences on English society, with some suggesting they deprived England of trade, and other claiming such commerce only encouraged its growth.[24] The East India Company merchant, governor, and politician, Josiah Child, advocated the extension of greater freedoms to the merchant strangers. Child proposed following Dutch trading practices towards aliens and foreigners as a means to encourage English trade; ‘if all Strangers had free Liberty to enter into any of our Incorporated foreign trades’ like the Dutch, then ‘it would greatly increase our Trade, and improve the value of the Land’.[25] Child was not the first to advocate the adoption of Dutch commercial practices. Some 27 years earlier, an anonymous author praised Holland for offering ‘great freedom … to all strangers’, relating this to how the Dutch had grown ‘so potent in Trade and Wealth beyond other Nations’.[26] The political writer Roger Coke noted how the lack of liberty afforded to merchant strangers or aliens placed undue constraint on trade, as a ‘[d]efect’, and highlighted that parliament had attempted to rectify this by giving ‘Liberty to bring in a Bill for a General Naturalization of all Alien Protestants, and allowing them Liberty to Exercise their Trades in all Corporations’.[27] Many advocated ‘naturalizing Aliens’ in order to encourage merchants ‘to come hither, to bring their Stocks, their Wealth, their Trading, their Manufactures hither.’[28] This position was often met with aggressive opposition, particularly from English manufacturers. If English manufacturing was ‘delivered ever to Aliens’, this would leave the ‘English impoverish'd’ and their jobs given to ‘Strangers’ who had beaten Englishmen and women ‘out of their Trade, and eaten them out of their Country.’[29] In the same year, another author argued that the primary reason against establishing a land bank for the naturalization and denization of aliens and strangers was that ‘the advancing Aliens in Riches and Honour’ lead to the ‘impoverishing the native Subjects’.[30] Debates concerning the level of rights afforded to stranger and alien commercial communities would continue well into the eighteenth century. Yet by this point, the place of commerce in English society had been firmly established, as too had the role of merchants and aliens in continued growth. This came to be accepted as a response to the English appetite for foreign goods; in an almost defeatist tone, the merchant and politician John Pread highlighted observed how ‘Alien Impositions are so much greater than ours on Exportation’ because ‘to our unnatural shame’ the English were ‘more inclined to Alien Commodities, than Aliens are to ours’.[31]

English commercial expansion and its growing reputation in early modern Europe as a destination for religious migrants, meant that aliens and strangers became increasingly common in Tudor and Stuart society. Many celebrated their presence, whilst others felt threatened by their foreignness and the competition they created in the business market. The result was that this often led to persecution. As the numbers of aliens and strangers migrating into England increased over the the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, English authorities had a mixed response to their presence. Their status as foreign-born nationals raised serious questions about allegiance, and unless made a denizen or naturalized, English officials often felt threatened by their presence. Similarly national and local authorities conscious of local opinion often legislated to regulate against foreign-born individuals in certain professions. In many cases the response to strangers and aliens was a mixture of celebration of escape, freedom and at times fear, jealousy and xenophobia which throughout the early modern period resulted in an inconsistent social legal and political response.
Tympanum above the door to the French Protestant Church, Soho London[32]
1. William Blackstone, An analysis of the laws of England (London, 1771; ESTC T56692), p. 24.
2. Ibid.; Matthew Lockwood, ‘'Love ye therefore the strangers': immigration and the criminal law in early modern England', Continuity and Change, 29, (2014), 349-71 (p. 351).
3. C.W. Chitty, 'Aliens in England in the Sixteenth Century', Race & Class, 11, (2016), 129-45 (p. 130).
4. Ian W. Archer, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 131.
5. Anne Kershan, Strangers, Aliens and Asians: Huguenots, Jews and Bangladeshis in Spitalfields 1666 – 2000 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004), p. 191.
6. The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore (1601-04), British Library, Harley MS 7368, f. 8r.
7. Ibid.
8. Quoted in Scott Oldenburg, Alien Albion: Literature and Immigration in Early Modern England (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), p. 156.
9. Ibid.
10. 'Petition of the French and Dutch Protestant strangers in or near Hatfield Chace level, in Counties York, Lincoln, and Notts, to the Protector, 15 April 1656', The National Archives, SP 18/126, f. 159.
11. Thomas Paynall, The piththy [sic] and moost notable sayinges of al scripture, gathered by Thomas Paynel (London, 1550; STC 19494.3), sig. Liv; Robert Bartholomew, A blow for the pope (London, 1615; STC 21096.5); John Downame, The summe of sacred divinitie briefly & methodically propounded (London, 1625; STC 7148.3), p. 517.
12. Joseph Bentham, The Christian conflict a treatise (London, 1635; STC 1887), p. 101.
13. Robert Ball, The mirror of pure devotion (London, 1635; STC 1323), p. 71.
14. William Allen & Robert Person, A conference about the next succession to the crowne of Ingland divided into two partes (Antwerp, 1595; STC 19398).
15. Ibid., p. 111-2.
16. Andrew Willet, Ecclesia triumphans (London, 1603; STC 25676).
17. Nathanael Carpenter, Geographie delineated forth in two bookes Containing the sphericall and topicall parts thereof (London, 1635; STC 4677), p. 207; John Saltmarsh, The practice of policie in a Christian life taught from the Scriptures (London, 1639; STC 21639), p. 52.
18. Ibid., p. 19.
19. Ibid., p. 18.
20. Ibid., p. 17.
21. 'The Case of the Postnati, 1608', 7 Coke Report 1a, 77 ER, p. 403-4.
22. Theophilius Downes, A discourse concerning the signification of allegiance, as it is to be understood in the new oath of allegiance (London, 1689; Wing D2082), p. 8.
23. John Rastell, Expositiones terminorum legume Angliea, ed. and trans. William Rastell (London, 1579; STC 20706.5 ), p. 58.
24. Ephemeris parliamentaria (London, 1654; Wing F2422), p. 142.
25. Josiah Child, A discourse concerning trade (London, 1689; Wing D1590), p. 5.
26. Short notes and observations drawn from the present decaying condition of this kingdom in point of trade, laid down in twelve particulars (London, 1662; Wing S3608A), p. 5.
27. Roger Coke, Reflections upon the East-Indy and Royal African Companies with animadversions, concerning the naturalizing of foreigners (London, 1695; Wing C4890), p. 16.
28. Sundry considerations touching naturalization of aliens (London, 1695; Wing S6178), p. 3.
29. Ibid., p. 9.
30. Reasons humbly offered against the clause intended in the act for the establishing the land-bank for denizing or naturalizing of all aliens that shall subscribe 500 l. to the said bank (London, 1695; Wing R527) [single sheet].
31. John Praed, An essay on the coin and commerce of the kingdom trade and treasure (London, 1695; Wing P3163A), p. 20.
32. Tympanum above the door to the French Protestant Church, Soho London designed by Aston Webb (1893)
Usage Examples
'What country, by the nature of your error, Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders, To any German province, Spain or Portugal, Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England, Why, you must needs be strangers'