Economic migrants from Brittany in early 16th century Cornwall

The lay subsidies of the early 1500s are lists of taxpayers. In the published versions (1524-25 and 1543-44) we find entries such as John Breton, at Truro in 1525. John was also classed as an ‘alien’. These entries therefore provide us with a valuable insight into the presence of Bretons in the Cornwall of the early 1500s.

I’ve mentioned this movement elsewhere, in relation to Cornwall’s demographic history, but have now revisited the data and dug a little deeper. The vast majority of ‘aliens’ enumerated in the lists are Bretons.  Most of the time they are described as such as was John at Truro. But around a third are not, men such as Alyn Teage, William Otis and John Maryat, ‘aliens’ living at St Anthony in Meneage on the Lizard in 1543. However, comparing these with earlier lists we see that the addition of ‘Breton’ was not universal, with many ‘aliens’ having a second name and being described by that as well or instead, such as John Coke Breton at Paul. We can also see that many not explicitly described as Breton nevertheless had Breton first names, such as Udyn or Yvo. For all intents and purposes therefore, I’ve assumed all those described as ‘alien’ were Bretons.

Their parish by parish distribution is shown on the following map.

Bretons were working in almost every parish in mid and west Cornwall, with noticeable concentrations in the towns of Newlyn, St Ives, Helston, Penryn, Truro as well as Bodmin in the east.

This confirms what we already know. However, in eight parishes in West Penwith, in the 1520s the ages of younger ‘aliens’ was also provided. These parishes hosted a total of 45 ‘aliens’ at that time. Of those, 19, or almost half, were aged between 15 and 20 with most of them (13) being 16 years old. The bulk of Breton migrants were very young.

Given their ages, it comes as little surprise that, when an occupation is added, it’s most likely to be ‘servant’. But we also find tailors, two described at Gwinear as ‘treher’, the Cornish for a tailor, while a third was given the English description of ‘tailor’. Other Breton craftsmen can be identified from their second names, such as Alan Hatmaker and John Cotemaker at Bodmin.

There is some evidence of family movement. Peter Bysak and ‘Alan his son’ at Penryn and Simon Sadeler and ‘Alan his son‘ at Mawgan in Meneage hint at fathers and sons moving together. One unknown is how many women accompanied them.  Some did, as suggested by a Margaret Bryton listed at Budock in 1543. In general, women were not listed separately in these records but hidden in households so there may have been others. However, it looks as if this migration stream was composed primarily of young, single men seeking temporary work.

The name Bryton or Breton, given to them in the lists, did not become a hereditary surname in Cornwall. While some inter-marriage and permanent stays no doubt occurred, this is further evidence for a temporary movement, with most migrants returning home after short stays. This migration, common since at least the 1460s, faded once the religious Reformation of the 1530s and 40s and the incorporation of the independent Duchy of Brittany into the French state in 1547 made them more suspect in changing political times. Economically, the resumption of population growth in Cornwall from the 1500s onwards would also have solved the labour shortage.

The arrival of Bretons in the 11th century has been called the Armorican Return, as the Britons who left Greater Cornwall in the 500s to colonise Armorica, turning it into Brittany, came home. This should more accurately be termed the First Armorican Return. Moreover, the First Return involved noblemen and their families, vassals and allies of the conquering Normans. The Second Armorican Return in the period from the 1460s to the 1540s brought ordinary Bretons attracted by the higher wages available in Cornwall. It also for two or three generations at least breathed new life into the culture zone that included Cornwall and Brittany, one that had existed for almost a millennium.

6 thoughts on “Economic migrants from Brittany in early 16th century Cornwall

  1. My family Noall as it is now, previously de Noailles, Noal and other variants arrived in Paul area around 1530 and were described as aliens. The name soon changed to Noall and are mostly in the st Ives area. The motto is tout au rein which I all or nothing, which is on a shield in st Ives and matches a coat of arms from the de noailles family in France. The rumour was two brothers arrives, still not proved


  2. A truly fascinating account. I love to learn things like this. Two queries. First, I have just read a very interesting article on the appearance of “Egyptians” (gypsies) in Britain and the first known reference is actually in 1505 in Truro. I wonder if you have explored this topic.

    Second, surely the (1st) Amorican return is something of a misnomer, in particular the idea of people “coming home”. If people left in the 500s from C’wall to Britanny then 500 years or so later people went from Britanny to Cornwall this could not, for them, have been “coming home”. I really cannot believe they would have had a sense of that, or even known that their foreparents may once have come from Cornwall.


  3. This is really interesting, we think our ‘Cuttance’ ancestors who lived in St Keverne in the 1700s had French routes, but I’ve not traced them back further, and I wasn’t aware of this economic migration. This now gives me an avenue to explore.


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