Registers of Licences to pass beyond the seas, 1573–1677

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Early Modern History Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2019), Volume 27

By Fiona Fitzsimons

This collection, the earliest run of travel documents, survives in the Augmentation Office papers in the Exchequer records of the UK National Archives. The Office derived from the Court of Augmentation, a financial court; the safe conduct of travellers was guaranteed by the Crown, for which it was also a useful source of revenue.

The Licences are useful in family history because they contain identifying information on individuals that can be linked to other contemporary sources. Relevant details include the traveller’s full name; place of birth; age and year of birth; residence (town and county); date and port of departure; the name of the ship; and the intended destination. Over half document the traveller’s trade or status and family relationships. Women were defined by their relationship to their closest male relative.

Digital collections allow researchers to combine the records in any sequence. We can search for our person of interest, or group them by family or other cohorts. Using this collection, we can classify travellers by age, occupation, port of departure, destination or the decade in which they travelled. We can even create a cohort of travellers by their stated reasons for migration.

In the early seventeenth century travel was slow and difficult. Even so, we see very many short trips for business and social reasons, including tourism—‘to see the country and friends’. In 1637 John Carter planned to visit Holland ‘to gather up some debts’, while Sarah Tular was on her way to Rotterdam ‘to convey a child to friends’—she expected to return within nine months. These trips were of short duration, often with a defined expiry date.

There is evidence of longer, more permanent migration. In 1624 we find Jane and Arthur Dee travelling to Moscow to join their father, Arthur Dee (1579–1651), who was court physician to Tsar Michael I of Russia. He was the eldest son of John Dee, the mathematician, astronomer, navigator, astrologer, occult philosopher and adviser to Sir Francis Walsingham. John Dee had a role in English settlement in North America, and his work later influenced the scientific revolution.

The Licences emphasise the transnational ties between craft guilds in England and the Low Countries. In the 1620s and ’30s we see goldsmiths and silk-weavers from London and Norwich regularly crossing the channel for work. There is evidence, too, of more permanent settlement, and the rise of ‘migrant communities’ on both sides of the Channel.

The Licences document early migration from Ireland and Britain to the Americas. Between 1633 and 1639 we find records of more than 5,000 travelling from English ports to the colonies of New England and Virginia, and to the Caribbean islands of Barbados, Bermuda, Providence, St Kitt’s and St Thomas. In 1635 we find Irishman Arthur Peach (1615–38) aboard the Plain Joan, bound for Virginia. Within three years of his arrival he was convicted of murder in one of the first jury trials ever held in Plymouth colony.

Above: The Island of Barbados by Isaac Sailmaker—one of the destinations of the more than 5,000 people listed in the Registers of Licences to pass beyond the seas between 1633 and 1639.

Tellingly, in 1633–4 we find 900 people embarking for Ireland from the ports of Chester and Liverpool. If we drill down into the records to view their destination, it’s quite clear that they ventured beyond the plantations. Jane Ohlmeyer has argued convincingly that more money could be made in Ireland at this time than in the North American or Caribbean colonies.

The series ends abruptly at the end of 1639, as political storm clouds gathered for the War of the Three Kingdoms. The collection contains one final sequence of records from 1677—badly damaged and almost certainly incomplete.

Fiona Fitzsimons is a director of Eneclann, a Trinity campus company, and of findmypast Ireland.

Registers of Licences to pass beyond the seas, 1573–1677,

Trial of Arthur Peach, 1638,


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