The term ‘citizen’ was used in England from the Middle Ages to describe the inhabitant of a city or town, or the subject of a larger polity who possessed various rights and privileges.[1] In 1275, the Statutes of Westminster granted ‘citieins e des Burgeys’ the right to collect ‘murage’, a toll for building and repairing city walls.[2] This view of citizen status is seen in Henry VIII’s acknowledgment of the rights of ‘citizens and inhabitaunt of the seid Cities and Townes’, their status underlined by the fact that taxes would need to be collected from those ‘Citezens of Cities and Burgeys of boroughes and Townes’.[3] However, early modern ideas of citizenship were heavily influenced by the recovery of the conceptual vocabulary of classical Greek and Roman civitas. The rediscovery of Aristotle’s Politics favoured the emergence of a humanist ideal of civic self-government, sustained by the citizen as an honest, virtuous, politically-educated individual who worked for the common good.[4] Furthermore, the idea of civitas implied a social contract that bound together or excluded individuals from collective bodies or organizations such as guilds, corporations and cities.

The long-established civic traditions associated with the great guilds that had governed commercial and City life during the Middle Ages played a formative role in subsequent English conceptions of the citizen, civitas, and citizenship. Thus in 1642, Thomas Hobbes could argue that ‘every City be a civill Person’ and within the city ‘many Citizens, by the permission of the City, may joyne together in one Person, for the doing of certain thing’.[5] However, Hobbes also noted 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’.[6] 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’ and state mechanisms of governance.[7] 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.[8]

The concept of civic citizenship also related to prevailing religious ideas in post-Reformation England around Christian humanism, Protestant unity, and the role of the reformed faiths in Europe and the wider world.[9] As Francis Bacon asserted when calling for union between the English and Scottish nations, Protestantism religiously and legally connected people across nations as ‘fellow citizens’.[10] 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’.[11] 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).[12] Robert Abbott argued that shared citizenship through Christ marked ideas of belonging and inclusion, since the ‘love of God maketh Hierusalem and the citizens thereof’.[13] 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, 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 that inflected the language of universal Protestantism on the ground.

Even beyond its biblical application, citizenship – steeped in ideas of civic humanism – was, in theory if not always in practice, blind to national identity. Its best-known expression is possibly Deriderius Erasmus’s often-quoted refusal of burghership of Zurich, where he describes himself as a ‘citizen of the world’, and hopeful of entry into the city of heaven.[14] In economic and political domains, entry into guilds, companies, and broader corporate entities, and the oath to the Crown that accompanied incorporation, equally challenged perceptions of nationality as an unchanging, singular characteristic, and ensured that individuals were legally viewed ‘no more [as] strangers and foreigners’.[15] The early modern antiquarian John Stow wrote that ‘the estate of London, in the persons of the Citizens’ was comprised of ‘merchants, handicrafts men, and labourers’, so that citizens were ‘by birth for the most part a mixture of all countries’.[16] Furthermore, he argued, it was in ‘the persons of the Citizens’ that London society was ‘so friendly interlaced’, so that the people were ‘knit in league with the rest of the realme’.[17]

Between 1550 and 1700, commercial and urban expansion and migration provoked by the religious wars in continental Europe contributed to the growth of many English cities, particularly London. Stow 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.[18] English towns like Norwich, Canterbury, York, and Colchester were also commonly associated with large migrant populations.[19] These cities became centres for French, Dutch, and German artisans fleeing confessional conflicts, and gradually functioned as hubs for merchants and traders from Europe and further afield in Asia and Africa.[20] Although the relationship between foreign and English merchants and artisans was at times fraught, coexistence between different cultures and faiths was commonplace in daily life. With an eye on bolstering their trade networks and technical skills, urban authorities, institutions, and guilds often promoted the incorporation of migrants into the world of civic citizenship.[21] In Norwich in 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 coveted positions as city administrators.[22] In London, however, London guild incorporation was strictly governed and guarded, meaning that European artisans were less guaranteed incorporation. For example, the Goldsmiths and Weavers companies accepted Dutch apprentices, whereas the Merchant Taylors did not.[23] 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 seeking to work as artisans and traders were regularly able to enjoy the same civic rights and protections as English citizens, holding public office as well as securing legal and economic protection.[24]

As active members of these organizations, citizens often proudly fashioned themselves according to Renaissance Italian ideals of ‘public service, participation, and activity’.[25] This enabled them to seek their own preferment while also financially and culturally enriching the ‘corporate stock’ of their cities, towns, and nation.[26] In 1637, the Levantine merchant Lewes Roberts connected commerce with patriotism. Civic participation was the essential duty of a ‘Patriot and Citizen...for his Traffick is seen to improve the Countries Commodities’.[27] Trade and merchants, he asserted, ‘wonderfully inriched the City, and increased the power of the Citizens’.[28] While merchants were not significantly comprised of the citizen class, they were a significant group that consciously constructed their identity to their trades, so much so that the late seventeenth-century economist Nicholas Barbon described ‘Citizens estates’ as ‘Trade and Goods’.[29]

Barbon’s comments on the link between citizens and trade also highlights the complex connections that tied political citizenship to rights of property. The socio-political affiliations of those who identified as ‘citizens’ and City merchants implicated the vested interests of Members of Parliament and policy-makers as well as the ‘middling’ sort and their connections to other countries and trade networks, which did not always perfectly align to the interests or authority of the Crown. 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 urbanization, 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’.[30] 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 route 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 naturalized 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 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-autobiographical 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, trade, and a developing ‘English’ identity is at once ridiculed and celebrated.

Although women were publicly excluded from the public realm of politics, they featured significantly in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century citizen plays, as in the realm’s actual labour economy. Female characters banded together to socially advance or dupe their husbands; they were avid consumers of global goods that served to augment their position in society; and they invested or became involved in crafts, industries, and financial projects.[31] Thomas Dekker and John Webster’s Westward Ho (performed 1604) for instance, opens with the bawd, Mistress Birdlime, talking about a stranger woman in the city, ‘Master Justiniano’s wife, the Italian merchant’: ‘The young gentlewoman hath a good city wit, I can tell you. She hath read in the Italian Courtier that it is a special ornament to gentlewomen to have skill in painting’.[32] But Birdlime’s conversation soon erases national boundaries to praise the collective power of citizens’ wives, who could ‘awe their Husbands...control their husbands’, using their status and access to goods to reach certain levels of autonomy and self-assertion in public and private spaces.[33] On the other hand, in his 1635 biblical commentary, Richard Chapman translated the worldly and independent-minded ‘woman of the city’ (Luke 7:37) to the ‘sinne-sunke citizen woman’.[34] However, women, like men, did express their sense of belonging through their spiritual understanding of citizenship: in their piety, they too were ‘cytizen[s] of heaven’.[35]

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 influencing urban and commercial spaces. 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. These regulations were largely aimed at men, since men were responsible for the women in their households; but women also gained status by being the wife of a citizen, both through associations with civil virtue as well as the cosmopolitanism that came with living in cities and accessing new goods and spaces of consumption. Further, behind migrant labour and merchant activity were the hands and skills of women as well as men. The array of surviving material culture in middling households across England, from tapestries using Italian weaving techniques to silk dyes pioneered by Huguenot refugees in Spitalfields, testify to the entangled role played by foreign and domestic artisans and merchants on shaping the cultural life of corporations and civic participation.[36]

Frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes De Cive[37]
1. Citizen, n. and adj.’, Oxford English Dictionary [Accessed 24/03/2020].
2. 3 Edw. I c. 31.
3. 5. Hen. VIII. c. 1; 37 Hen. VIII. c. 25.
4. Aristotle, The Politics trans. by T.A. Sinclair, revised and re-presented by Trevor J. Saunders (Harmondsworth; London: Penguin, 1981), pp. 179-83: ‘[…] the task of all the citizens, however different they may be, is the stability of the association, that is, the constitution. Therefore the virtue of the citizen must be in relation to the constitution […] men praise the ability to rule and to be ruled, and the virtue of a citizen of repute seems to be just this - to be able to rule and be ruled well […] That is what we mean by the virtue of a citizen - understanding the governing of free men from both points of view’.
5. De Cive was published in Latin from Paris in 1642; the English translation under the title 'Philosophicall rudiments concerning government and society' appeared in 1651. Thomas Hobbes, De Cive: The English Version (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983), p. 89.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Phil Withington, The Politics of Commonwealth: Citizens and Freemen in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 10; Withington, Society in Early Modern England: The Vernacular Origins of Some Powerful Ideas (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), pp. 114-118; Henry Turner, The Corporate Commonwealth: Pluralism and Political Fictions in England, 1516–1651 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
9. Margo Todd, Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
10. Francis Bacon, A speech delivered by Sir Francis Bacon in the lower house of Parliament (London, 1641; Wing B326), pp. 13-4.
11. Ibid.
12. Benjamin Austin, Scripture manifestation of the equality of the Father, Sonne, and Holy-Ghost (London, 1650; Wing A4242), sigs. M7r-M8v; John Abernethy, The dignity and duty of a Christian (London, 1620; STC 76), p. 45; ‘An Epistle to the King’ in Henry Adis, A fannaticks mite cast into the Kings treasury being a sermon printed to the King because not preach'd before the King (London, 1660; Wing A581), p. 27; Robert Abbot, The second part of the Defence of the Reformed Catholicke (London, 1607; STC 49), p. 645.
13. Abbot, Second Part, p. 44.
14. ‘Ego mundi civis esse cupio, communis omnium vel peregrinus magis. Utiam contingat asscribi civitati coelesti’, Letter to Zwingli, September 1522, quoted in George Hoffman, Reforming French Culture: Satire, Spiritual Alienation, and Connection to Strangers (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 123.
15. Abernethy, Dignity and Duty, p. 45.
16. John Stow, A survay of London Contayning the originall, antiquity, increase, moderne estate, and description of that citie (London, 1598; STC 23342), p. 479.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid., p. 557.
19. Raingard Esser, ‘Citizenship and Immigration in 16th and 17th Century England,’ in Citizenship in Historical Perspective, ed. by Steven G. Ellis, Guðmundur Hálfdanarson and Ann Katherine Isaacs (Pisa: Pisa University Press, 2006), pp. 237-52; C.W. Chitty, ‘Aliens in England in the Sixteenth Century’, Race, 8 (1966-7), 129-45.
20. Lewes Roberts, The merchants map of commerce (London, 1638; STC 21094), p. 309.
21. Scott Oldenburg, Alien Albion: Literature and Immigration in Early Modern England (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014).
22. Raingard Esser, ‘Citizenship and Immigration’, in Citizenship in Historical Perspective, p. 243.
23. Ibid., p. 245.
24. Anon., The honour of London apprentices (London, 1647; Wing H2596)), sig. AD3r.
25. Phil Withington, ‘Public Discourse, Corporate Citizenship, and State Formation in Early Modern England’, The American Historical Review, 112 (2007), 1016-38 (p.1017).
26. Withington, Society in Early Modern England, p. 118.
27. Roberts, The merchants map of commerce, p. 107.
28. Ibid., p. 12.
29. Nicholas Barbon, An apology for the builder, or, A discourse shewing the cause and effects of the increase of building (London, 1685; B704), p. 33.
30. Withington, ‘Public Discourse’, p. 1027.
31. Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women's Alliances in Early Modern England, ed. by Susan Frye and Karen Robertson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Mark Hailwood and Jane Whittle, ‘Women’s Work in Rural England, 1500–1700: a New Methodological Approach’, Local Population Studies, 96 (2016), pp. 66–71; Adriane Schmidt, ‘Women & Guilds: Corporations and Female Labour Market Participation in Early Modern Holland’, Gender & History, 21 (2009), pp. 170-189; Charlie Taverner, ‘Consider the Oyster Seller: Street Hawkers and Gendered Stereotypes in Early Modern London’, History Workshop Journal, 88 (2019), pp. 1-23; Amy M. Froide, Silent Partners: Women as Public Investors During Britain’s Financial Revolution, 1690 – 1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
32. The Works of John Webster, ed. by Alexander Dyce (London: George Routledge, 1877), p. 209.
33. Ibid.
34. Richard Chapman, Hallelu-jah (London, 1635; STC 4998), p. 80.
35. Marguerite, Queen consort of Henry II, A godly medytacyon of the christen sowle (London, 1548; STC 17320), sig. A6v; The first examinacio[n] of Anne Askewe latelye martired in Smythfelde (London, 1547; STC 851), sig. O2r.
36. On citizenship, craft, and material culture, see Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson, A Day at Home in Early Modern England: Material Culture and Domestic Life, 1500 – 1700 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018); Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture and its Meanings, ed. by Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010); Making Knowledge in Early Modern Europe: Practices, Objects, and Texts, 1400 – 1800 , ed. by Pamela H. Smith and Benjamin Schmidt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
37. Frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes De Cive, engraving by Jean Matheus, 1642 [Paris Edition]
Usage Examples
'Moreover saith hee, the Citizens of London, wheresoever they become, are notable before all other Citizens in civillitie of manners, attire, table, & talke.'