Images, Incunabula, Papers

The ‘Libelle of Englyshe Polycye’: An English view of Europe in the Fifteenth Century

It can be useful to take a non-linear approach to events – to look back and see our present reflected in the past. The debates filling newspapers and website about the forms British trade with Europe could or should take have made me cast my mind back to the subject of a paper I gave in 2014, in which I looked at the portrayal of merchant life in London in the late Middle Ages. My attention was caught by an anonymous poem which appeared in the middle of the fifteenth century. It was called the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye.

It can’t have been fun, being a foreign merchant in late-medieval England. There were frequent attempts to control the merchant population by ever-increasing taxes, by restricting them from carrying more than half of their income out of England – that is to say that they had to spend half of what they made in England and, briefly, in the middle of the fifteenth century, there was an ordinance which stated that while they were in England, they had to live with a host. In Robert Bale’s Chronicle of London, we read: ‘In the which parliament was ordeyned that the lumbardes shuld goo to host for VII yer’. That is to say that for the next seven years, any Lombards entering the country had to stay with an English sponsor. He also reports that that ‘all maner alienes enherite in the land shuld yerely pay a tribute to the kyng’ (p. 114).

But it’s the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye which is really of interest to me here, and I’d like to pull out a few sample quotations. Its opening, for example, is as follows:

Here beginneth the Prologe of the processe of the Libelle of Englyshe polycye, exhortynge alle Englande to kepe the see [sea] enviroun and namelye the narowe see [the Channel], shewynge whate profete commeth thereof and also whate worshype and salvacione to Englande and to all Englyshe menne

Sixteenth-century map by the Dutch cartographer, Christiaan Sgroten. Source: Wikipedia.

The poet goes on to recommend bluntly (and in a rather repetitive manner) ‘that we bee maysteres of the narowe see’. Towards the end, he describes the sea as:

the rounde wall,
As thoughe England were lykened to a cite
And the wall environ were the see.
Kepe than the see, that is the wall of Englond,
And than is Englond kepte by Goddes sonde

In addition to promoting keeping tight control over the Channel, the poet also lists the various commodities of foreign merchants, and how to take advantage of them. The poet is particularly unflattering about Florentine and Venetian merchants, who – so he says – bring nothing of value into the country, but remove many costly goods in exchange. Perhaps this was a way around being required to spend half their earnings in England. Their imports are, apparently:

Nifles, trifles, that litell have availed
And thynges with whiche they fetely blere oure eye,
Wyth thynges not endurynge that we bye

The goods which they take away, however are another matter. The Italians:

bere hens oure beste chaffare
Clothe, woll and tynne, whiche, as I seyde beforne,
Oute of this londe werste might be forborne

The poet then provides a substantial amount of text outlining what he considers to be deceitful behaviour on the part of the Florentines and Venetians. They are not, though, the only objects of the poet’s ire. He treats as many nations as possible in a similar fashion – including Scotland:

Therefor if we wolde manly take on honde
To kepe thys see fro Flaundres and fro Spayne
And fro Scotelonde lych as fro Pety Bretayne,
Wee schulde ryght sone have pease for all here bostes,
For they muste nede passe by oure Englysshe costes

This rather negates his later recommendation that, with England’s ‘wall’ secured:

thus shuld everi lande, one with another,
Entrecomon as brother wyth his brother,
And live togedre werreles in unite
Wythoute rancoure in verry charite

He is, however, careful to follow these pious wishes with a reiteration of his opening lines:

Here endithe the trewe processe of the libelle of Englysshe policie, exhortynge all Englande to kepe the see environ and namely the narowe see, shewynge whate worshipe, profite and salvacione commeth thereof to the reigne of Englonde, etc

The message is clear: peaceful coexistence means interacting as little as possible with your neighbours.

Setting sail in late-medieval Europe (from Fortunatus). Source:

About fifteen years after the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye, in 1456, there were riots in London against the Italian merchants. These were recorded in William Gregory’s Chronicle of London as ‘the rysynge and wanton reule of þe mayre and the mercers of London a-gayne the Lombardys’, which resulted in many Italian merchants leaving London. Many were incarcerated, and Gregory comments that ‘the comyn talkynge and noyse was that they shulde nevyr be delyveryd butt contynue in perpetualle preson’ (p. 199). Robert Bale describes the aftermath of the riots – Londoners were punished for their parts in riots, but this only led to more discontent (pp. 143-144):

And the Saterday folowyng were endited of ffelony a sherman dwelling at algate and a noþer man of the citee and a lordes man for a rising and riflyng that was made upon lumbardes and þen after they wer hanged. Wherwith the peple sore grucched

Caroline Barron suggests a couple of possible reasons for these riots: partly the fact that Italian merchants were doing well, and this made them easy targets, and partly the fact that they had previously disappeared from London in the fourteenth century, ‘and their re-emergence provoked resentment’(p. 113). Words reflect, or are reflected in, contemporary sentiments and actions.

I’m writing this post with a sequel in mind. I first discovered the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye when I was reading the German Fortunatus of 1509. The narrative tells of a young man who travels far and wide, eventually acquiring a purse which is constantly refilled with money. Early on, he falls in with merchants in London, with near disastrous consequences. In my next post, I’ll take a quick look at that episode – it seems that an English reputation for mistreating foreigners had by this point taken root in popular imagination.

The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye – online text
Caroline M. Barron, London in the Later Middle Ages : Government and People, 1200-1500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Ralph Flenley (ed.), Six Town Chronicles of England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911)
James Gairdner (ed.), The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London in the Fifteenth Century (London: Camden Society, 1876)
George Warner (ed.), The libelle of Englyshe Polycye: A Poem on the Use of Sea-Power (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926)


Visiting Scottish Church Ruins

I’m taking advantage of a pause in the final stages of my thesis to upload a much-delayed blog post about a couple of Scottish ecclesiastical ruins which can be visited for free. As a researcher of the English and German Middle Ages, Scotland is not my area of expertise, but I tend to seek out medieval ruins wherever I go! I originally only intended to post about St Anthony’s Chapel in Edinburgh, which I visited last month. The site is freely available to anyone who is happy with walking and some scrambling, and its visitors are rewarded by a spectacular view of Edinburgh.

Through the arch at St Anthony's Chapel

What remains of it stands in the middle of Holyrood Park overlooking St Margaret’s Loch, and as you can see, there isn’t much left – part of the chapel and a small section of a possible store room:

St Anthony's Chapel and St Margaret's Loch St Anthony's Chapel Distance

Sadly there isn’t much information available about it. The information board has a visualisation of its original appearance, and suggests that the chapel was built no later than the early fifteenth century, but doesn’t hazard a guess as to how much older it could be. The certainty that it existed in the fifteenth century comes from the record of a grant from the pope for repairs to the chapel in 1426. Its last chaplain is recorded in 1581. As you can see, its location is striking, and this website expresses surprise that there should be such a lack of information about a building ‘whose construction must have been witnessed by people for miles around’, and, moreover, a building designed to be prominently visible.

Visualisation of St Anthony's from the information board at the site
Visualisation of St Anthony’s from the information board at the site

St Anthony's Chapel Close UpSt Anthony Wall

The information board also tells us that, until the sixteenth century, Holyrood Park was shared by the abbeys of Holyrood and Kelso, and that St Anthony’s Chapel is in the area which probably fell under the control of Kelso Abbey. Undiscovered Scotland (linked above) though, points out that it is linked to Holyrood Abbey by a stone track which is still in evidence.

Kelso Abbey, which I visited last year, is another ruin with free entry, and if its surroundings are less dramatic than Arthur’s Seat, its remnants themselves are quite spectacular.

Kelso Abbey Front Kelso Abbey Arch

Indeed, Historic Scotland describes the church ruins as ‘one of the most spectacular achievements of Romanesque architecture in Scotland’ – fittingly, for one of the wealthiest religious houses in the country. It was founded in the twelfth century, by Tironensians invited by David I, and disestablished in 1560, by which time it had come under periodic attack for nearly three centuries (beginning in 1296), thanks to its location in the Scottish borders. After disestablishment, the parish used what remained as a kirk until 1771. The ruins have long captured people’s imaginations – in September 1880, there was a discussion of its architectural peculiarities in Notes and Queries. It must certainly have been striking, having had two towers and four transepts. Although the site hasn’t been fully excavated, there is plenty of easily accessible information on Kelso Abbey. The main purpose of this post is to encourage passing medievalists – or anyone else who is interested – to visit, or to enjoy these photos, if you aren’t planning a trip to Scotland!

Kelso Abbey Doorway Kelso Detal Kelso Abbey Back Kelso Abbey interior Kelso Romanesque Kelso Arch Perspective