Unlike many of the other keywords, ‘denizen’ is not commonly used in modern day vernacular. However, in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, ‘denizen’, served as a specific legal term in English that originated from the Anglo-Norman for someone who dwells within a country as opposed to outside of it. The thirteenth-century term came to identify the status of a migrant who had been granted certain rights to settle in the country. Unlike acts of naturalization passed by Parliament, denization was granted by the Crown. Whereas naturalization provided migrants with a full set of rights as an English subject, denization offered a limited set of privileges to the recipient individual or group. In his Expositiones terminorum legume Angliea (1579), John Rastell defined how a migrant became a denizen, and the limitations of this status. According to Rastell, a ‘denizen’ was an alien who had ‘become the Queen’s subject and obtained her letters patents to enjoy all privileges as an Englishman’, though ‘not with standing, he shall pay customs 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 impart, yet more ample benefit, for it gives him power to purchase freehold and inheritance to his own use’ and allows 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’. The status of a denizen was inherently precarious, a ‘status somewhere between native and stranger.’ As Rastell and Bacon pointed out, although they paid homage and swore allegiance to the monarch, denizens remained aliens by birth. This led to the perception that some if not all Denizens were untrustworthy as they had rejected the allegiance and country of his birth and may also do the same again. Alan Stewert has highlighted this issue when discussing Portuguese denizens in London, who although received the status in some official documents were always placed on the list of strangers. As such, they 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. At the same time, however, they were granted the right to start lawsuits, children born post-denization could inherit property, and they could request to have exemption from the customs and tax rates of aliens.
In the earliest records, the distinction between denization and naturalization are blurred. Although the records are rather confused, in 1295, Elyas Daubeny was probably one of the first individuals to be naturalized or granted the status of denizen for his and his family’s service to the Crown, having crossed the Channel in military service for Edward I. It is most likely that Daubeny was endenized, since the grant notes that he was given the right to be heard in all royal courts as an Englishman. Much like a subject, a denizen had to pay homage or loyalty to the Crown. The act of receiving homage could be delegated by the Crown to officials, which included the Lord Chancellor, and borough and local officials. In 1452, the Lieutenant of the North, Commander-in Chief against the Scots and future king, Edward III was invested with the power to grant such status to Scots who paid homage to him. 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 with the Crown, they also needed to be financially able to pay anywhere between 6s 8d in 1560, and 2l 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 wanted permission 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. The first was the inability to hold property in common law and the second higher custom rates. In the Middle Ages, the former was not a concern for merchants, as instead they ‘frequently sought exemption from aliens’ customs’ and which 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 exempting denizens 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.
Between 1550 and 1700, as local and national authorities sought to restrict apprenticeships, the number of denizens began to decline and naturalization began to increase. Unlike the status of denizen, granted through a royal patent, naturalization happened through an act of parliament. Denization was a prospective response to an individual's descent, whereas an act of naturalization did so retrospectively, whereby an alien was given the same status as if they had been born a subject. The growing popularity of naturalization was in no doubt partially to do with the retrospective status it conferred, but also the extensive property and inheritance rights it offered compared 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. This was not a permanent decline, and the numbers of denizens increased following the Restoration. This is particularly the case during the reign of James II, who in the mid- to late 1680s granted denizen status to 1,714 individuals, mostly foreign-born Catholics.
There were ways in which denizen status was complicated further by place. For instance, 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 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 the merchant 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. 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 realm. Concerns were evidently less about individuals belonging to society and more about the circulation of wealth in the realm. However, an increasingly unpopular group in the eyes of civic authorities, resistance towards denizens escalated over the course of the seventeenth century.
Across the Atlantic, the legal foundations of the new world colonies complicated ideas of denization by connecting them to other legal identities such as ‘subject’. In doing so, English authorities were able to manipulate the legal status 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’ continued to ensure the domestic rights of colonists. Unlike in England, the term ‘denizen’, when applied abroad, acquired a much more nuanced and complicated character that merged 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 Ralegh. In both cases, the individuals, including children, who settled in Newfoundland and North Carolina (then part of Virginia) would ‘enjoy all privileges of free denizens and persons native of England’. The merging of these two legal entities continued into the seventeenth century. The second Virginia charter of 1609 declared that ‘every the persons being our subjects’ in Virginia were to ‘have [and] enjoy all liberties, franchises and immunities of free denizens and natural subjects within any of our 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 franchises, and Immunities of free Denizens and natural 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. Settlers viewed themselves as legally English and so owed allegiance to the English Crown. Many, if not most, of the white settlers in these colonies were English subjects, and as such the status of their children would have been beyond question. Yet any child born in the colonies would technically be born abroad, and traditionally would have been considered a denizen. This confusion meant that in both charters there is no distinction made between the two statuses.
By the second half of the seventeenth century, English policymakers 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, the two Carolina charters illustrate how settler status matured after 50 years of colonization. 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 ‘denizon’ status to the residents of each ‘[t]ribe or parish’ in the colony. 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 been 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’, their privileges were the rights of natural born English subjects.