Early modern ideas of citizenship were heavily influenced by the recovery of the conceptual vocabulary of classical Greek and Roman ideas of civitas. The rediscovery of Aristotle’s Politics favoured the emergence of a humanist ideal of civic self-government, sustained by the citizen, an honest and virtuous politically educated individual who worked for the common good. Furthermore, the idea of civitas implied a social contract that bound together or excluded individuals from collective bodies or organisations such as guilds, corporations and cities.
The long established civic traditions that were associated with the great guilds that had governed commercial and city life during the middle ages also played a formative role in English conceptions of the citizen, and the associated concepts of civitas and citizenship. As Thomas Hobbes would write in 1642, ‘every City be a civill Person’ and within in the city ‘many Citizens, by the permission of the City, may joyne together in one Person, for the doing of certain things.’ However, Hobbes would also note how the expansion of trade, urban life and England’s global presence over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries complicated the traditional legal and social interpretations of such terms. According to Hobbes these groups of ‘civil persons’ could band together to make ‘companies of Merchants, and many other Convents’ but they were not a city themselves because ‘they have not submitted themselves to the will of the company simply, and in all things, but in certain things onely determined by the City.’ Although these companies developed as quasi-independent authorities with their own jurisdictions and legal rights over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they and their members remained ‘civill Persons subordinate to the City.’ Nevertheless, the figure of the citizen can be linked to the various forms of corporate communities that inhabited, governed and structured the developing English cosmopolitan cities.
The concept of civic citizenship and of the citizen were also associated with prevailing religious ideas in post-reformation England related to Christian humanism, Protestant unity and the role of the reformed faiths in Europe and the wider world. As Francis Bacon asserted when calling for union between the English and Scottish nations, Protestantism religiously and legally connected the people of the two nations as ‘fellow citizens.’ Moreover, the privilege of citizenship in the church with individuals as ‘Naturalizants of the heavenly Jerusalem’, could be shared by ‘all people, of all languages, and Linages’ so long as they were ‘common of Saints.’ Like Bacon, numerous early modern authors adopted a pan-Christian model of citizenship, describing themselves, in the words of the Apostle Paul, as ‘fellow-Citizens of the Saints’ (Ephesians 2:19). Robert Abbott argued that their shared Christianity marked the character of their citizenship, writing that ‘The love of God maketh Hierusalem and the citizens thereof.’ However, the relationship between religious conformity and the rights of citizenship was a complicated, and at times contradictory one. In the context of colonial and commercial expansion, questions over the rights and status of various indigenous groups encountered through English interactions with peoples in the Atlantic, India, and the Levant, for example, and differences in attitudes to religious governance and confessional practices in places as diverse as Massachusetts Bay, Maryland or the South Sea, illuminate the practical variances ‘on the ground’ that inflected the language of universal Protestantism.
Even beyond its biblical application, citizenship — steeped in ideas of civic humanism — was, at least in theory, blind to national identity. Entry into guilds, companies, and other broader corporate entities, and the oath to the crown associated with incorporation, ensured that individuals were legally viewed ‘no more [as] strangers and foreigners.’ The early modern antiquarian John Stowe wrote, ‘the estate of London, in the persons of the Citizens’ was made up of ‘merchants, handicrafts men, and labourers,’ importantly noting that these citizens were ‘by birth for the most part a mixture of all countries.’ Furthermore, he argued that it was in ‘the persons of the Citizens’ that London society was ‘so friendly interlaced’ and in doing so the people were ‘knit in league with the rest of the realme.’
Between 1550 and 1700, both commercial and urban expansion, and the religious wars in continental Europe, had encouraged migration into, and the growth of, English cities, particularly London. Stowe described London as being ‘but a citizen’ itself, becoming the focus of large-scale migration as people sought to take advantage of its developing trading and commercial networks. Other English towns such as Norwich, Canterbury, York and Colchester were also commonly associated with large migrant populations. These cities became centres for French, Dutch and German artisans fleeing confessional conflicts, and gradually became hubs for merchants and traders from Europe and further afield in Asia and Africa. Although at times the relationship between foreign and English merchants and artisans was fraught, the urban authorities, institutions and guilds often promoted the incorporation of migrants into the world of civic citizenship. In Norwich, throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, wealthy Dutch and Walloon merchants were able to purchase their citizenship, often using their commercial wealth and power to secure positions as city administrators. However, in London the strong presence of the guilds’ incorporations was strictly governed, and meant that European artisans were often more uncertain about their chances of being incorporated. For example, the Goldsmiths and Weavers companies accepted Dutch apprentices, whereas the Merchant Taylors did not. This presented problems for many migrants, since apprenticeships and membership to the London guilds was legally required for citizenship. Nonetheless, whether through purchasing citizenship or acquiring it through an apprenticeship, European migrants were able to enjoy the same civic rights and protections as English citizens throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, holding public office as well as securing legal and economic protection.
Whether born inside or outside of England, the idea of the citizen was ‘infused and enthused by Renaissance notions of public service, participation, and activity’ commonly associated with notions of urban and national civic advancement. It was believed that citizens, as active members of these organisations, would enrich both financially and culturally the ‘corporate stock’ of their cities, towns and nation. The Levantine merchant Sir Lewes Roberts connected the link between commerce is an essential duty of a ‘Patriot and Citizen … for his Traffick is seen to improve the Countries Commodities.’ Trade and merchants, he asserted, ‘wonderfully inriched the City, and increased the power of the Citizens’. While merchants did not exclusively comprise of the citizen class, they were a significant group that consciously constructed their civic identity so much so that the seventeenth-century economist Nicholas Barbon described ‘Citizens estates’ as being in ‘Trade and Goods.’ Barbon’s comments on the link between citizens and trade also highlights the complex connections that tied political citizenship to ideas rights of property.
During the middle ages, property was a marker that delineated the privileges of individuals to political representation in England. However, as early modern England underwent radical changes that saw the expansion of commerce and rapid urbanisation, property and its protection became increasingly linked to the idea of incorporation and citizenship. Key to the privilege of citizenship was the idea of incorporation into a corporate body, whether civic or commercial. Through incorporation, individuals and their property obtained the important civic privilege which allowed them to be ‘represented both at law and in Parliament.’ Furthermore, citizenship acquired through incorporation, came with other benefits including access to trade in certain goods, and the right to own and inherit property. Although birth was one root to obtaining these advantages, the incorporation of individuals as citizens provided a mechanism to broaden and tighten access to these civic rights.
The articulation of the complexities inherent in citizen identity left its mark on the English imagination on stage and print as well. In plays such as Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London (1584) and William Haughton’s Englishmen for my Money (1598), a mixture of English, foreign, and naturalised characters of foreign descent or ancestry engage in the transactions that make up the fabric of civic life in their contemporaneous London. The popular sub-genre of the ‘city comedy’ or ‘citizen comedy’ which playwrights such as Thomas Dekker, Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, and others subsequently developed, often tread a thin line between the celebratory and the satiric, playing with the multiple claims on the citizen’s identity and loyalty. Similarly, from the early citizen romances and prose fiction of Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, and others in the 1590s, to Francis Kirkman’s semi-autobiographic The Unlucky Citizen (1673), the citizen figure is regularly identified as a non-aristocratic member of the middling classes, whose ambivalent relationship with social hierarchy and trade as part of a developing ‘English’ identity is at once ridiculed and celebrated.
Ideas surrounding the identity of the citizen in early modern England developed in response to the political, social and legal pressures that rapid commercial and urban expansion had on English society. As middling classes emerged, their position in English society, whether imagined, political or legal, was defined by their incorporation as citizens of England. The concept of the citizen became a civic identity that not only benefited the nation but was also a means of policing the entry of foreign entities and influences into the English urban and commercial space. By encouraging, forcing, or prohibiting foreign artisans and merchants from establishing their trades or from seeking apprenticeships and therefore entering civic life in a way that would enable them to offer their civic duties to the state, early modern authorities created a means to regulate foreign incorporation.