Unlike many of the other keywords, the term ‘denizen’ is not commonly used in modern day vernacular. However, in England during the early modern era, ‘denizen’, a specific legal term in English, was a common status granted to migrants who had settled in the country. Unlike an act of naturalisation which was passed by Parliament, denization was granted to individual — and occasionally groups of — migrants by the Crown. Whereas naturalisation provided migrants with a full set rights as an English subject, denization offered a limited set of privileges. John Rastell in his Expositiones terminorum legume Angliea defined how a migrant became a denizen and the limitations of this status. According to Rastell, a ‘denizen’ was an alien who had ‘becommeth the Quéenes subject and obteyneth her letters patentes to enjoye al priviledges as an Englishman’, though ‘not with standinge, he shall paye customes and divers other things as aliens doe &c.’ Over half a century later, Francis Bacon similarly defined denizens as the third of four degrees of legal subjecthood. Like Rastell, Bacon highlighted how denization ‘doth imparte, yet more ample benefit, for it gives him power to purchase freehold and inheritance to his owne use’ and allow his children to also do so, yet they could not ‘make title’ as the ‘[l]aw thinks not good to make him the same degree, with a subject born.’ As Rastell and Bacon pointed out although they paid homage and swore allegiance to the monarch, denizens remained aliens by birth and so were prohibited by law from inheriting land as well as bequeathing land to any children born before they became denizens. Furthermore, they were required to pay customs and taxes as aliens. On the other hand, they were granted the right to start lawsuits, whilst children born post-denization could inherit property, and individually they could request to have exemption from alien rates of customs and taxes.
In the earliest records, the distinction between denization and naturalisation are blurred. Although the records are rather confused, in 1295, Elyas Daubeny was probably one of the first individuals to be naturalised or granted the status of denizen for his and his family’s service to the Crown. It is most likely that Daubeny was endenized as the grant notes that he was given the right to be heard in all royal courts as an Englishman. Much like the subject the denizens had to pay homage or loyalty to the Crown, in doing so aliens were granted denization. At different times the act of receiving homage could be delegated by the Crown to officials, which included the Lord Chancellor, Boroughs and local officials. In 1452 the Richard, Lieutenant of the North, Commander-in-Chief against the Scots and future king was invested with the power to grant such status to Scots who paid homage to Edward IV. Many of these early denizens formed two distinct groups. The first and rarer were people like Daubeny who were ‘highly favoured individuals’ granted at royal discretion rights as ‘Pure English.’ Not only did individuals in the sixteenth century need to have a favourable position next to, or response from, a petition to the Crown, they also needed to be financially able to pay anywhere between 6s. 8d in 1560 and £2 12s. 4d in 1582, well above the means of an ordinary alien. The second group dealt with individuals who were already citizens of English towns and wished conformation from the Crown to pursue interests across the country. Initiated by the Carta Mercatoria in 1303, which granted protection to foreign merchants and the freedom to trade, demands for rights by aliens increased as privileged groups sought to obtain exemption from the rates and customs duties that foreigners were forced to pay.
The increase in the numbers of denization can be linked to the arrival of foreign merchants and the granting of concessions by the King concerning tariffs and taxes. The legal historian Clive Parry has argued that foreign merchants were constricted by two issues: firstly, the inability to hold property at common law and higher custom rates. In the medieval period the former was not a concern for merchants, as instead they ‘frequently sought exemption from aliens’ customs’ and were granted to individuals from France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany and the Low Countries. However, although many denizens obtained exemption from these customs, this was granted as an individual privilege and not automatically granted upon denization. Over the sixteenth century the cases involving denizens being individually exempt from paying customs duties became less common, as attempts were made to prevent foreign involvement in English trade. In 1529, parliament ratified a decree made by the Star Chamber which ordered that all foreign strangers, apart from denizens, were prohibited from establishing and maintaining shops. The following year, parliament declared that denizens were to pay the same rates as all strangers for ‘subsidies, customs, tolls, duties and other sums of money for their ware, merchandises.’ Towards the end of the century, the Court of Common Council, London’s primary decision-making body, went further to prevent foreign born people from entering trades limiting apprenticeships to individuals born in England with an English father.
As local and national authorities began to restrict apprenticeships between 1550 and 1700, the number of denizens began to decline and naturalization began to increase. Unlike the status of denizen, granted through a royal patent, an individual was naturalised through an act of parliament. The difference between the two was that denization dealt with an individual's descent prospectively, where as an act of naturalization did so retrospectively and an alien was given the same status as of they had been born a subject. The growing popularity of naturalisation was in do doubt partially to do with the retrospective status it conferred, but also the extensive property and inheritance rights it offered in comparison to denization. Jacob Selwood has recorded that between 1558 and 1640 there were 2,778 patents of denization: 1,962 of these took place during the reign of Elizabeth I, whilst under James and Charles I there were only 530 and 286 respectively. However, this was not a permanent decline, and following the Restoration the numbers of denizens increased. This is particularly the case during the reign of James II, who between 1685-88 granted denizen status to 1,714 individuals, mostly to foreign-born Catholics.
By 1593, London had developed its own category of denizen. Of the 1,930 strangers listed in the capital, 70 individuals are listed as being ‘free denizens.’ This ambiguous term most likely indicated that individuals had both the freedom of the City of London and actual patents of denization. In 1628, the Privy Council accepted a petition from Sir William Courten to be relieved from customs duties as an alien. Courten not only used his own credentials in the petition, but also those of his Dutch father who had been made a ‘free denizen’ of London who paid taxes whilst also accruing a substantial fortune. In his petition, Courten used his father’s position as a ‘free denizen’ but also drew on his reputation, wealth, and achievements to highlight what he thought made him legitimately English. The Privy Council accepted his petition, stating that the favourable decision should serve as ‘an encouragement to him to trade more amply for the King’s profit, and his own’. Denizens were therefore tied to the political economy of the land, as concerns were less over individuals belonging to society and more about the circulation of wealth in the realm. The average seventeenth-century denizen’s identity was positively shaped by different influences, and in particular the religious political environment they lived in: for example, in 1650 the congregationalist minister Jeremiah Burroughs wrote that ‘all that are in Christs Kingdom, are Free-man, they are delivered from bondage … now being brought to the Kingdom of Christ’, and in doing so they were made ‘free Denizons of Heaven’. Ten years later, James Duport, the classical scholar and Regius Professor of Greek at Trinity College, wrote that all ‘Christians are free denizons of heaven’ and like the Courten and others made citizens of London, all Christians were ‘citizens of the holy citie, of the heavenly Jerusalem.’ However, an increasingly unpopular group in the eyes of civic authorities, resistance towards denizens escalated over the course of the seventeenth century.
The Atlantic colonies, through their legal foundations, complicated ideas of denization by connecting them to other legal identities such as the subject. In doing so, English authorities were able to manipulate the legal status to order to ensure loyalty to the nation and Crown. Despite domestic unpopularity towards denizens, the Crown used denization to address the colonists’ problematic relationship to the English state. In four charters pertaining to America and spanning most of the seventeenth century, ‘denizen’ as a status continued to ensure the domestic rights of colonists. Unlike in England, the term ‘denizen’, when sent abroad, acquired a much more nuanced and complicated character that merged together ideas surrounding the acquired privileges of foreign-born aliens and the natural rights of English-born subjects. In the second Virginian and the New England charters, for example, the distinction between ‘denizen’ and ‘subject’ is blurred: the language defines the rights of the subjects and the rights of denizens as similar or the same. The earliest recorded cases of the conflation of both ‘denizen’ and ‘subject’ appeared in the charters of the late sixteenth century, granted to Humphrey Gilbert and Walter Raleigh. In both cases, the individuals, including children, who settled in Newfoundland and North Carolina (then part of ‘Virginia’) would ‘enjoye all priveleges of free denizens and persons native of England.’ The merging of these two legal entities continued into the seventeenth century, in the second Virginia charter of 1609, which declared that ‘everie the persons beinge oure subjects’ settled in Virginia was to ‘have [and] enjoye all liberties, franchesies and immunities of free denizens and naturall subjects within anie of oure other dominions.’ A decade later, the charter for settlement in New England ensured that all children born on the other side of the Atlantic would ‘enjoy all Liberties, and franchizes, and Immunities of free Denizens and naturall Subjects within any of our other Dominions’. These charters highlight the legal confusion surrounding the statues of children born abroad in the early period of seventeenth-century Atlantic settlement and colonization. Thus denizen identity is difficult to examine because the Crown, merchants, traders, and settlers did not have set definitions of their status in this unprecedented historical moment of change. England’s new Atlantic territories defied domestic conventions as they were, in the eyes of the English, legally England and so owed allegiance to the English Crown. Yet any child born there would be technically born abroad, and traditionally would have been considered a denizen. Furthermore, many if not most of the settlers were English subjects, and as such the status of their children would have been beyond question. This confusion meant that in both charters there is no distinction made between the two statuses.
By the second half of the century, English policy-makers had more experience with colonization, and a more developed legal apparatus used to justify and govern colonial endeavours. Granted by Charles II soon after the Restoration of the monarchy, the two Carolina charters illustrate how settler status matured after 50 years of Atlantic colonisation. Unlike previous American charters, the Carolina charters of 1663 and 1665 firmly defined the status of children born to English settlers as denizen. Using identical language, both charters stipulated that the heirs, children and descendants of individuals ‘transported or to be transported into the said province’ were to be ‘denizens and lieges of us.’ In the same year, the Concessions and Agreements of the Lord Proprietors of the Province of Carolina named the status of the residents of the ‘Tribe or parish’ in the colony as ‘denizon.’ However, unlike the limited privileges afforded to denizens in England, settlers in America used their own legislative bodies to acquire the rights of English subjects. For example, the concessions and agreements in Carolina allowed denizens to elect representatives to the council, something that denizens in England could not do. This right was firmly entrenched in many of the Atlantic settlements by the end of the century, none more so than in Quaker Pennsylvania, where enfranchisement depended on whether individuals were ‘free denizens of this government.’ Unlike in England, the status of denizens in English settlements in America adapted to incorporate broader rights that in England would have only be granted by naturalization. These Atlantic charters, patents and constitutions illustrate a legal disjuncture that developed between the domestic realm and the periphery, as the English travelled and settled across the world. Unlike earlier documents, the Carolina charters clearly outline the legal status of settlers and their children in the eyes of domestic English authorities. However, this clear definition was not necessarily shared by those who settled in America, and who had developed different ideas of what Englishness was. Despite continuing to use the language of the charters defining their legal persons as ‘denizen’, they maintained that they shared the same rights and privileges with natural born English subjects.