Tuesday, 9 February 2010

foreigners, strangers, aliens

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” 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” 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.

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 (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” (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 (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 (35-36).

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