Medieval Migrant Workers and the Building of Herstmonceux Castle

In 1441 Sir Roger Fiennes was granted a licence to ‘enclose, crenellate and furnish with towers and battlements his manor at Hurst Monceux’.[1] Along with wanting to show off his wealth and status, Sir Roger was following the wider consumer movement of investing a higher proportion of his income in his home. This trend was heavily influenced by building work on the continent and by the increased availability of higher quality building materials, including brick. By the beginning of the fifteenth century brick had been adopted as the favoured building material by the king and his royal court, most notably those lords like Sir Roger Fiennes who had served in the Hundred Years War. The elites’ interest in brick building work was copied by other consumers and soon attracted craftsmen from the Low Countries and the German territories who began to introduce decorative features such as diapering and ornamental chimneys.[2] The long pink bricks and diaper brick work that make up the castle’s fifteenth century walls have long been a subject of local fascination. It is believed to have been the work of Flemish craftsmen, but what evidence is there for the presence of Flemish workers at Herstmonceux in the later Middle Ages? 

The diaper (diamond-shaped) brick work at Herstmonceux Castle, image author’s own.

Between 1440 and 1487 a series of taxes were levied upon first-generation immigrants living and working in England. These Alien Subsidies were a unique fiscal phenomenon in both English and European history. The reasons for these subsidies can be found in the 1430s where a string of military and diplomatic setbacks in the Hundred Years War witnessed a growth in tensions between the native population and foreigners who were living, working or trading in England. A series of anti-alien petitions had been presented to Parliament and in 1436 the author of The Libelle of Englysche Polycye advocated for restrictions of the freedoms of aliens in the realm. In the Parliament of 1439-40 these tensions reached breaking point and actions were taken against England’s immigrant population; the decision was made that a poll tax should be paid by all non-native people over the age of twelve.[3] This tax was to be payable at two rates with one rate for ‘householders’ (including artisans and tradesmen) at 16d. a year and another for ‘non-householders’ (including servants, apprentices and labourers) at 6d a year. There were some exemptions from the tax including the Welsh, anyone who had purchased a letter of Denization, and alien women who had English or Welsh husbands.[4]

Originally the grant for taxation was set up to run for three years but in 1442 a second parliamentary grant extended it for a further two years. While the assessment for the first grant of taxation in 1440 was good, the actual payment of the tax was less so with only approximately 50% of those who were assessed paying the tax. 

In Sussex a decent number of records survive for the alien subsidies, and they reveal that there were 1,749 resident immigrants in the county in the second half of the fifteenth century. The majority of these individuals are found in the county’s Cinque Ports, including Pevensey and Hastings, and the towns of Chichester and Arundel.[5] The largest number of resident immigrants for Sussex was found during the first and second collections of the 1440 subsidy which reveals a total of 877 individuals. By the first and second collections of the 1442 subsidy this number had fallen to just 123 and by the first collection of 1449 it was at 51. It is important to note that these falling figures to not represent a decline in the number of immigrants calling Sussex (or indeed England more broadly) their home, rather it reflects the difficulties officials had in collecting the tax and the increasing number of exemptions that were granted. 

Agricultural Calendar from a Manuscript of Pietro Crescenzi, c. 1306, available under the Creative Commons Licence.

In 1440, just one year before Sir Roger Fiennes was granted his licence to fortify his manor at Herstmonceux, we know that there were 44 immigrants living and working in the Foxearle Hundred.[6] As with most medieval records, the vast majority of the aliens recorded in these subsidies were male. In Sussex only 93 women in total are recorded in the alien subsidies; two were recorded as the wives of aliens and therefore not taxed and the remaining majority were working as servants. In 1440 we do have two women recorded for the Hundred of Foxearle: Joan who was the servant of John Roweland (an immigrant from Flanders who was living in Herstmonceux) and Perot Mountagu (wife of Peter Mountagu who is recorded as a non-householder in the Foxearle Hundred).[7] Perot and Peter Mountagu moved soon after this initial assessment and so presumably were working as servants or labourers. 

Frustratingly, very few occupations are listed for the alien residents of Sussex. From the occupations that are listed we see most immigrants were working as servants. There were also some aliens recorded as men of religion along with other occupations including tailors, smiths, labourers, clerks, a barber and a gaoler. 107 of the recorded alien residents in Sussex were French, which is perhaps unsurprising given the county’s proximity to France, while a further thirty are recorded as being Dutch or Flemish.[8]

Three individuals of note worth further investigation are John Bavord, John Roweland and John Stase, all listed as hailing from Brabant in Flanders and living in Herstmonceux in the 1440s. All three men appear in the records on 18th April 1436 swearing an oath of fealty to King Henry VI.[9] John Roweland also appears as ‘John Rowland’ in the alien subsidy dated c. 28th May 1440 and as ‘John Roland’ for the alien subsidy dated 15th October 1442.[10] John Stase also appears in the records from the alien subsidy dated c.28th May 1440 as ‘John Stacy’.[11] Unfortunately no information is given about the status or occupations of the three men but it is possible that they may have been involved in the building work at Herstmonceux Castle given their country of origin and the dates that they are recorded as living in the village. 

Immigrants from the Low Countries and the German territories were well-known for their skills as brick makers, brick layers and masons. The earliest surviving brick building in England known to have involved alien masons was the chapel tower at Stoner Park, Oxfordshire, where Flemings worked in 1416-17. Alien brick makers and brick layers were also involved in the construction of Henry V’s Charterhouse at Sheen, Tattershall Castle and parts of Eton College.[12]

Rueland Fruheof the Younger, Bavarian Stone Masons, c. 1505, available under the Creative Commons Licence.

While we cannot definitively prove that the diaper brick work at the castle was created by Flemish brick layers, it certainly seems likely. According to the Alien Subsidies, there was an active migrant community in the Foxearle Hundred including the three Flemings known to be living in Herstmonceux at the time the castle was built. For more information about England’s Immigrant population in the Middle Ages in your local area please visit the England’s immigrants database here.

Dr Claire Kennan, History Lecturer and Research Coordinator at the BISC. 


[1] CCR, 1427-1516, pp. 13-14. 

[2] W. M. Ormrod, Bart Lambert and Jonathan Mackman, Immigrant England 1300-1550 (Manchester University Press, 2019), pp. 133-4; M. J. Moore, ‘Brick’, English Medieval Industries: Craftsmen, Techniques, Products (London, 1991), 211-36, (pp. 212-4); T. P. Smith, The Medieval Brickmaking Industry in England 1400-1450, British Archaeological Reports, British Series, 138 (1985)pp. 4-22. 

[3] See England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (englandsimmigrants.com) [last accessed 25/10/21]. 

[4] Letters of Protection and denization were issued to immigrants and other non-English people throughout the later Middle Ages. These letters granted specific rights of what we would consider citizenship to individuals. 

[5] For  more information about the immigrant populations of the Cinque Ports see: England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (englandsimmigrants.com) [last accessed 25/10/21]. 

[6] CCR, 1427-1516, pp. 13-14; [6] See England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (englandsimmigrants.com) [last accessed 25/10/21]. A Hundred was a subdivision of a shire which had its own court, in the Middle Ages Herstmonceux was part of the Foxearle Hundred which also included Ashburnham, Wartling and parts of Dallington and Warbleton. 

[7] TNA E 179/184/212, rot. 3.

[8] England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (englandsimmigrants.com) [last accessed 25/10/21]. 

[9] CPR, 1429-36, p. 539. 

[10] TNA E 179/184/212 rots. 3-8d; E 179/235/17, rots. 7-8d.

[11] TNA E 179/184/212, rots. 3-8d.

[12] TNA E 179/73/109, m. 2; E 179/242/24, m. 1; E 179/136/215, Part 2, m. 2; Ormrod et al. Immigrant England, p. 134.

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