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London Aliens


During the sixteenth century, London experienced a massive immigration of Dutch, Flemish, and even French Protestant refugees fleeing religious persecution in the European Low Countries.1 From 1567 to 1571, an estimated 18,000 people were executed for their religious beliefs in the Spanish Low Countries, following the Duke of Alva’s2 appointment to Captain-General (Finlay 67). This persecution served to intensify the wave of immigrants escaping the Low Countries. These Protestant refugees created a noticeable alien3 community within London, greatly contributing to the economic innovations and industries that were developing at the time. As a recognized body within London, the refugees were granted the Dutch Church of Austin Friars as a separate place of worship. Prominent alien communities were established in such areas as Westminster, Southwark, Candlewick Street, Lombard Street, Bishopsgate, and the liberties of St. Martin.
Interactions and tensions between alien artisans and the London companies became a heated issue, since many of the immigrants moving to England were skilled workers. Native tradesmen felt threatened by the advanced skills and techniques the aliens possessed, and Dutch and Flemish refugees were often blamed for the economic ills of the period, especially during the severe drought and plague that haunted the 1590s (Pettegree 291). Many guilds and companies petitioned the government for laws against aliens; in some cases, this xenophobia led to outright violence against aliens. Despite these prejudices and fears, alien craft expertise greatly contributed to England’s expanding economy, introducing to London the production of commodities as such lace, and the economically important New Draperies.4 Flemish weavers brought the knowledge of how to create these desirable fabrics that allowed England to better compete in international markets.
In Thomas Dekker’s play The Shoemaker’s Holiday,5 relations between Lacey, who is disguised as the Dutch shoemaker Hans, and the native journeymen that work in Simon Eyre’s shop are presented in an optimistic, even idealized, light. The Shoemaker’s Holiday presents attitudes towards foreigners [that are] at once friendly and satirical (Bevington 111). Dekker’s play fails to completely gloss over social problems. Instead, he satirizes the Dutch character, Hans, and makes references to the actual artisan situation in London. In this and other ways, The Shoemaker’s Holiday acknowledges and exposes the negative feelings that were aimed at sixteenth-century Dutch and Flemish aliens in London.

Aliens and Foreigners

Today the terms alien and foreigner are used interchangeably to describe people who originate from a different country than the one in which they reside. However, during the Early Modern period in England these two terms had different, specific meanings. Early Modern Englanders understood the term alien to mean [o]ne who is a subject of another country than that in which he resides. A resident foreign in origin and not naturalized, whose allegiance is thus due to a foreign state (OED alien, n.3 a). Naturalization was an Act of Parliament by which a refugee could legally become an English subject (Chitty 132). The use of the term foreigner today refers to [a] person born in a foreign country; one from abroad or of another nation; an alien (OED foreigner, n.1.a). During the early modern era, however, a foreigner was [o]ne of another county, parish, etc.; a stranger, outsider. In early use esp. one not a member of any particular guild, a non-freeman (OED foreigner, n.2). A foreigner came from somewhere within the country, but outside the city of London, while an alien originated from a country other than England.

Alien Craft Expertise

Many of the Flemish and Dutch immigrants fleeing the Low Countries brought various craft techniques to England that enriched and revitalized the Elizabethan economy. According to Unwin, the alien immigrants of the 15th and 16th centuries supplied the main factor in an industrial renaissance which had as much importance for the economic development of England as the literary and artistic renaissance had for its intellectual development (Unwin 246). Alien artisans were employed in such areas as goldsmithing, printing, paper-making, haberdashery, tapestry-weaving, shoemaking, bookselling, gardening, and weaving. These communities of artisans set up shop in such areas as Bermondsey, Blackfriars, Southwark, Westminster, and the liberties of St. Martin, St. Bartholomew, and St. Katherine (Unwin 246–247). Other immigrants who sought sanctuary in England were merchants, bankers, engineers, architects, physicians, apothecaries, and victuallers (Norwood 50–52).
A number of innovations in crafts and trades were a direct result of the influx of the immigrant population to England. Refugees from the Low Countries introduced landscaping and gardening techniques that greatly improved the state of English gardens (Norwood 52) and the Flemish were thought to have instituted the brewing of beer with hops in England (Unwin 246). The Flemish immigrants also brought advanced printing techniques and products from the Continent that were far superior to [those] of their English colleagues (Murray 844). English printers were dependant upon Dutch type foundries for the production of typeface up until the eighteenth century. Above all others, the weaving industry benefited from the aliens’ craft expertise.
Although these alien artisans elevated the quality of English products, they felt the antipathy of native artisans, who saw the immigrants as competitors. Through the 1590s, the alien population in London became an easy scapegoat for the social and economic ills of drought and plague that ravaged the country. London’s guilds and companies6 responded to the social anxiety surrounding the alien population by attempting to impose a number of regulations upon alien artisans.


Immigrants from the Low Countries had a distinct influence on the English weaving industry, with many alien artisans practicing this trade and bringing with them a number of specialized techniques that bolstered the economy. The Flemish and Dutch refugees were credited not only with introducing the techniques of lace-making (Cunningham 177–178) and silk-weaving (Unwin 246) to England, but also with bringing the profitable and economically viable New Draperies7 from the Continent. These fabrics were lighter, cheaper, and brighter than the traditional, heavy English products. The New Draperies first originated in Ypres before being brought to Holland and then to England with the alien refugees (Cunningham 150–160). This cloth was in high demand in the Mediterranean countries, as it was more suited to the climate than the thicker English weaves (Chitty 131). According to guild records, seventy-three alien artisans were registered with the Weavers’ Company in 1583 (Unwin 250–251).
Despite the refugees’ significant contributions to the weaving industry and their noticeable presence within the Weavers’ Company, the Company repeatedly expressed prejudice against alien workers. Any alien wishing to be admitted to the company was required to pay 25 shillings, a comparatively greater amount than the 6 shillings and 8 pence plus a silver spoon that was expected from Englishmen (Norwood 74). In 1582, the weavers campaigned against those freemen who had learned silk-weaving from aliens. There were also a number of petitions and attempts by the guild to regulate the productivity of alien weavers with some of these protests erupting in violence against the alien community. However, Dutch and Flemish weavers often worked as many looms as they wanted, employed as many apprentices as they needed, and even wove cloth outside of the guild (Norwood 76). Furthermore, during the 1690s, Dutchman Anthony Ruyskaert was made master of the weaver’s guild four or more times.

The New Draperies

The New Draperies were lighter-weight cloths that appeared in England in the late sixteenth century and were various combinations of long wool, silk, and linen yarn (Oxford Dictionary of Local and Family History New Draperies). The composition of these English nieuwe draperijen (new draperies) bore a striking resemblance to the Flemish lichte draperijen (light draperies), which were previously found on the continent (Holderness 221). The new draperies were assuredly an innovation of Dutch or Walloons [in England] after 1560, since their arrival corresponded with the sixteenth-century wave of refugees to England and [t]he elements which made up the new draperies were drawn from many parts of the continent (Holderness 233). In England, the production of specific types of the New Draperies varied from town to town but, by and large, the Dutch immigrants chiefly produced says8 and bays,9 while the Walloons introduced a wide range of white sayette, coloured and lustrous textiles, says, serges, rashes, oliots, satins, and also camiant (changéant) cloths (Holderness 219).10 The New Draperies were in exceedingly high demand when they emerged in England and their arrival bolstered the economies of many small English towns and enhanced the overall quality of English fabrics.

Aliens and the Law

The appearance of the alien population in London spurred the creation of a number of new laws and regulations regarding the trades these immigrants practised. In 1524, England’s parliament granted the guilds the right to regulate alien industry in London (Unwin 249). In 1563, Parliament passed the Statute of Apprentices, which required refugees to complete a seven-year apprenticeship under one of the recognized English companies, even if they had previously become masters on the Continent (Norwood 4). This act also attempted to regulate aliens’ wages and prices (Norwood 36).11 Parliament subsequently issued the Court of Assistants Decree in 1585 that insisted that aliens must complete the required apprenticeship and pay all dues if they wished to be admitted to a guild (Norwood 75). These laws were supported, and often petitioned for, by native craftsmen who felt threatened by the new, foreign populace and their skills.
In 1573, the Lord Mayor of London felt the need to respond to the native artisans’ xenophobia and addressed the masters and wardens of the guilds on the subject of molestation of refugees, ordering them to see that no further trouble was given (Norwood 80). One time after Parliament denied a bill petitioning against the alien community, a violent tract was posted on the Dutch Church of Austin Friars, urging aliens to leave London. In a desperate attempt to impose restrictions on refugees, in 1599 the merchants and the Lord Mayor collectively forbid refugees to exercise their crafts in London without company sanction and ordered them to join the companies or face imprisonment if they continued production. In retaliation, the alien community petitioned the Queen for an order banning this treatment. The Queen responded and the order was revoked in April of 1599 (Norwood 81–82).
Aliens were also required to make their presence known to the government upon arriving in England, in addition to adhering to the laws regarding London’s guilds and companies. Refugees or the municipal authorities of an area would write to the royal government, soliciting for a license in the form of a letters patent (Norwood 28). Upon receipt of a licence, a refugee would become part of the community known as alien friends, and would enjoy limited privileges within the country (Chitty 132). Although alien friends were forbidden by law to own any form of property, they were often permitted in practice to buy or lease dwellings for [their] own use (Chitty 132).
Aliens could transcend the status of alien friend by becoming either denizens or naturalized Englishmen (Norwood 35). To become a denizen, an alien had to apply for a letter of denization. Unlike alien friends, denizens were allowed rights to residence but were still forbidden to inherit land (Norwood 35). Both denizens and aliens were subject to a poll-tax from which natives were exempt. In special circumstances, an alien could obtain rights equal to those of a native Englishman through an Act of Naturalization. An Act of Naturalization required an Act of Parliament. Many immigrants did not petition for any form of status, because they hoped their stay in England would be temporary (Norwood 35–36).

Violence against Aliens

Violence against the alien community originated mainly with indigenous artisans and London’s guilds. Native artisans blamed aliens for many social miseries and for depriving them of business. Evil May Day (dramatized in Sir Thomas More) is the earliest instance of native artisans attacking London’s alien community. In 1514, local artisans petitioned against the government’s decision to allow alien journeymen the freedom to practice in England (Unwin 248). Anyone wishing to run his own business had to first become free of the city, by apprenticeship, inheritance, purchase or (occasionally) by gift of the corporation (Palliser 87). A handbill was then produced in 1516 that accused the King and Council of ruining England by favouring aliens. Finally, in 1517, a particularly vehement sermon against the Dutch community was presented at the Spital Sermons that were preached in Easter week before the mayor and alderman. In response to this speech, a mob hanged a dozen alien apprentices in their doorways and plundered the shops of alien merchants (Unwin 248).
The London guilds’ prejudice towards aliens continued throughout the sixteenth century, although this kind of widespread violence against aliens was not witnessed again. Companies such as the Feltmakers and the Weavers continually petitioned for restrictions against alien artisans. In 1580, the printers urged the Stationers’ Company not to employ foreigners. The Stationers replied that if they did not employ aliens, their customers would proceed to purchase paper and give out their printing direct to the strangers (Unwin 254–255). A group of apprentices organized an attack on aliens after Parliament voted against their petition for restricting aliens, but their actions were quickly subdued (Unwin 255).
Another act of discrimination occurred in 1593 following Parliament’s rejection of a bill against the refugees. In the early months of 1593 a number of tracts threatening the alien population with violence were published in close succession. One of these tracts was pinned to the wall of the churchyard in the Dutch Church, warning the alien community to leave by July or apprentices would rise up against them and commit violence upon the Flemish and strangers (Pettegree 292).

The Dutch Church

On 24 July 1550, the Church of the dissolved Monastery of the Augustine Friars was given to the Dutch Protestant community. Along with the use of the church, Edward VI granted London’s Dutch and Flemish refugees the right to freedom of worship. The church was given the special title of corpus corporatum et politicum (corporate and political body). It was governed by four ministers—two Dutch and two French—and a superintendent, the first being John à Lasco who originally petitioned for the use of the church. The church was intended for use by both the Dutch and the French refugees. As attendance increased due to the number of aliens immigrating to London, the French congregation eventually moved to Threadneedle Street. In good faith, the larger Dutch congregation agreed to pay half of the rent for the French church (Norwood 8).
The Church of Austin Friars was subject to the policies of the different monarchs who ruled England in the sixteenth century. Under Edward VI, the Protestant refugees enjoyed many rights and freedoms. At beginning of Mary’s reign in 1553, many refugees fled back to the Low Countries to avoid further religious persecution. After Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558, most returned to England but were not granted all the rights they had previously possessed (Norwood 11). The church was no longer considered to be a corpus corporatum et politicum and the Church of Austin Friars was not restored to them until 1559 (Norwood 35). In 1574, to appease the Spanish Monarchy and give the impression that England was not harbouring Dutch and Flemish refugees, Elizabeth forbade the church from receiving new members (Cunningham 154). New arrivals were sent to the surrounding towns and areas, where they would be less likely to be noticed by the Spanish ambassador.
The Dutch church became a locus for the community, offering relief for the poor in the form of clothing, money, bread, mattresses, and shoes (Norwood 62–63). As a place where the Dutch community converged, the Church of Austin Friars became a target of the prejudice and violence against aliens when a threatening tract was pinned upon its wall.

The Shoemaker’s Holiday

The Shoemaker’s Holiday exposes social tensions between alien and native artisans in sixteenth-century London by satirizing the play’s Dutch character and using language that alludes to actual industrial and economic conditions in England. The play was staged on 1 January 1599/1600, following more than a decade of social discord and strife (Seaver 87). Given the period, Thomas Dekker would have been well aware of the rampant xenophobia amongst the native artisans. The Dutch shoemaker Hans, who is actually the disguised gentleman Lacey, is comically degraded in the play through his connection with the grotesque. Dekker chooses to employ [r]epresentations of uncontrolled bodies Gap in transcription. Reason: Editorial omission for reasons of length or relevance. Use only in quotations in born-digital documents.[…] as a means of reinforcing the low status of the socially powerless and those who threatened conservative social hierarchies (Arab 183). Even though the same acts of eating and drinking that deride Hans work simultaneously to unify the shoemakers’ community, characters’ speeches elsewhere refer to divisions in the artisan community. The play’s language also gestures to real economic problems and conditions faced by the artisan community, revealing that Dekker’s Holiday fails to completely elide the social discord surrounding aliens in early modern London.
The Shoemaker’s Holiday degrades Hans and the Dutch community by associating them with excessive drinking, sexual deficiency, and food. The song Hans sings when he first appears aligns him with the stereotypical image of the drunken Dutchman (Hoenselaars 230). He sings,
Der was een bore van Gelderland,
Frolick si byen;
He was als dronck he could niet stand,
Upsee al sie byen.
Tap eens de canneken;
(Drincke, schoene mannekin [Dekker 4.40–45])
The subject, a man from Gelderland (a Dutch province), is connected with alcoholism, impotence (could niet stand [Dekker 4.42]), and castration through the diminutive epithet mannekin (Dekker 4.45). However, Dekker is, in some ways, quite generous in his depiction of Hans, as he does not go so far as to map the character of the incontinent Dutchman onto him, sparing him further humiliation and degradation (Hoenselaars 228).
Dekker reinforces Hans’ association with the grotesque through Firk, who is the most verbal embodiment of a conflicted attitude towards immigrant workers (Bevington 485). Firk pairs Hans’ ethnicity with the consumption of alcohol, exclaiming at this speech, Nails, if I should speak after him without drinking, I should choke (Dekker 4.77–78). Margery, Firk, and Oatley all call Hans a butter-box, a common slang term for Dutch or Flemish people (Dekker 4.55, 7.146, 13.54, 16.42). Dekker chooses to depict the Dutch as sites of monstrous and unlimited consumption. In another comment, Firk asserts, [t]hey may well be called butter-boxes when they drink fat veal, and thick beer too (Dekker 7.145–147): the Dutch are so ravenous they even drink solid food. Firk’s derogatory remarks, which link Hans and food, align themselves with the plays’ overall perspective on food.
The Shoemaker’s Holiday generally encodes consumption and connections with food as negative through the way comments and insults are deployed in relation to characters other than Hans. Lincoln tells Oatley that his nephew Lacey grossly over-spent while he was abroad, and thus consumed his credit (Dekker 9.42). In much the same way food is used to insult the Dutchman Hans, Eyre alternately uses Dutch food references to insult Margery. Eyre debases Margery by calling her a brown-bread tanniken, which is a kind of coarse Dutch bread (Dekker 7.66).
The Shoemaker’s Holiday attempts to nullify social anxieties in a reassuring vision of coherence and community (Kastan 325), but still preserves external and internal divisions in the shoemakers’ group. In the shop, Firk creates a hierarchy that valorizes the work of the shoemakers over others, stating [l]et us pray for good leather, and let clowns and plowboys and those that work in fields pray for brave days (Dekker 4.25–27), emphasizing the boundaries of the community. Hodge and Firk threaten to leave Eyre’s shop for refusing to hire their brother shoemaker (Dekker 16.98)—a completely a-historical depiction of the relationship between native and alien journeymen that projects an image of artisan solidarity—but Hodge welcomes Hans with a warning that alludes to the violence against aliens that blossomed during the 1590s: Hans, thou’rt welcome. Use thyself friendly, for we are good fellows; if not, thou shalt be fought with, wert thou bigger than a giant (Dekker 4.107–109). Firk also regards Hans as a possible threat in the context of drinking, but then moves to assert his and Hodge’s seniority: he’ll give a villainous pull at a can of double beer, but Hodge and I have the vantage; we must drink first, because we are the eldest journeymen (Dekker 4.97–100). Hans is ushered into the shop through the exchange of alcohol—he buys a round of beers for the shoemakers—just as Ralph is given a drink when he returns from France, but Hans is immediately placed in the lowest position in the shop hierarchy.
The Shoemaker’s Holiday uses humour and satire both to deflate conflicts between alien and native artisans and to mask the actual contributions aliens made to English crafts. When Hans appears, Hodge remarks that Eyre shall be glad of men, an he can catch them (Dekker 4.57–58). As a master, Eyre would be very concerned with maintaining the company’s influence and catching aliens by assimilating them into the guild. Firk’s desire to learn some gibble-gabble (Dekker 4.50) that will make them work the faster (Dekker 4.51) imagines Hans as a source of entertainment rather than as a competitor. Firk’s insistence that Eyre hire Hans to teach us to laugh (Dekker 4.125) overrides Hodge’s judgement of Hans as a fine workman (Dekker 4.60–61), but Eyre’s products and shop would benefit from any foreign knowledge or skills that Hans might possess. Hans is then hired and buys a round of beer for his fellow artisans, to which Firk exclaims, [t]his beer came hopping in well (Dekker 4.125). That Hans and the beer—both sources of pleasure in the shop—appear simultaneously also reminds us that Flemish immigrants started the brewing of beer with hops in England. Language in The Shoemaker’s Holiday thus alludes to the spectre of threatening alien craft expertise only to negate it through the use of deflation, deflection, and humorous epithets for Hans.
The Shoemaker’s Holiday likely appealed to the working class, native artisans of London through its comic treatment of alien characters and its devaluation of alien craft innovations. The grotesque representation of the Dutch shoemaker, Hans, and his association with over-consumption of both food and drink, cast him in a derogatory light. Dekker presented his audience with a play that allowed them to assuage their fears in regards to the alien population and view this populace as both humorous and harmless.
See also Borer, Earle, Fisher, Kastan, and Luu.


  1. Low Countries: A term used to describe the loosely-defined area that is now comprised of Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands (Oxford American Dictionary Low Countries). (BN)
  2. I.e., Fernando Álvarez de Toledo. (KL)
  3. Alien: A term used in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for individuals who migrated to London, and England, from the European continent (OED alien, n.3.a). (BN)
  4. New Draperies: Lighter-weight clothes that were introduced to England in the sixteenth century by craftsmen from France and the Low Countries (Oxford Dictionary of Local and Family History New Draperies). (BN)
  5. See MoEML’s excerpts from The Shoemaker’s Holiday. (KL)
  6. Company was used to describe an organization that gathered together artisans in order to regulate wages and ensure quality products within a specific trade. This term was commonly used during the reign of Elizabeth I. The label of guild was commonly used sometime before the Reformation (Palliser 89). (BN)
  7. New Draperies: Lighter-weight clothes that were introduced to England in the sixteenth century by craftsmen from France and the Low Countries (Oxford Dictionary of Local and Family History New Draperies). (BN)
  8. Says were a cloth of fine texture resembling serge; in the 16th c. sometimes partly of silk, subsequently entirely of wool (OED say, n.1.a). (BN)
  9. Bays were a material made of coarse wool of a finer lighter texture than what we would now consider a baize (OED bay, n.7). (BN)
  10. Sayette, serge, rash, and carrel were all various fabrics usually worn by the poorer classes in the sixteenth century. (BN)
  11. In an unrelated event, a curfew of 8:00p.m. was passed on aliens in London due to complaints about drunkards wandering about the streets late at night. (BN)


Cite this page

MLA citation

Norris, Beth. London Aliens. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022, mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/ALIE1.htm.

Chicago citation

Norris, Beth. London Aliens. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022. mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/ALIE1.htm.

APA citation

Norris, B. 2022. London Aliens. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/editions/7.0/ALIE1.htm.

RIS file (for RefMan, RefWorks, EndNote etc.)

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

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ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - London Aliens
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 7.0
PY  - 2022
DA  - 2022/05/05
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  - https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/ALIE1.htm
UR  - https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/xml/standalone/ALIE1.xml
ER  - 

TEI citation

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