The Passport’s Medieval Forebear: Grants of Safe-conduct in Medieval Britain

Jenny M. McHugh | Lancaster University

It is a general misconception in public histories of the ‘British passport’ that the earliest reference to a travel document akin to that which we might recognise today comes from a 1414 Act of Parliament during the reign of Henry V. This misconception is stated on the Home Office’s blog, a Guardian article on the topic in 2006, and several short pieces on the topic. In these accounts, the term ‘passport’ is said to have come to us from the French ‘laissez-passer’, meaning safe-conduct, and was first used in the 1414 Act. Licenses of ‘safe-conduct’ were quite different from the modern passport and were issued frequently by the English government before the fifteenth century. But, before we turn our attention to a discussion of safe-conducts, it is also worth noting that the origins of the British passport also cannot date to 1414 since there was no established political community called ‘Britain’. Scotland and regions of Ireland remained outside of the control of the English kings throughout the later middle ages despite various campaigns to conquer these territories. Therefore, until the Act of Union in 1707, if not later, it would simply be inaccurate to describe any such document as ‘British’ instead of ‘English’.

Safe-conducts were not, strictly speaking, the same as the passports since they did not define or evidence an individual’s nationality or citizenship. Instead, safe-conducts offered foreign travellers protection and certain rights while travelling or residing in the kingdom, bestowed at the discretion of the relevant monarch and their government.

Let it be known that we have accepted the petitions of David de Bruce for John Barbour, archdeacon of Aberdeen, to come with three scholars in his retinue into our kingdom of England for the reason to study in the university of Oxford and the same conduct [allows] for the scholars to stay and thereafter to return individually to Scotland in our protection and defense, in our safe and secure conduct.

This safe-conduct was granted to the chronicler John Barbour, author of the The Bruce, in August 1357 to travel from Scotland to England to study at the University of Oxford. Many of these safe-conducts for Scots travelling to England appear in the Scotch Rolls, a medieval record of the English government that recorded all business relating to Scotland.

Long before 1414, the issuing of safe-conducts to migrants wishing to travel within the English kingdom and Englishmen wishing to travel abroad had become a standard administrative practice. The 1414 Act merely made it high treason to break a promise of safe conduct. In fact, the offering of ‘safe passage’ via official documents has a long history. In England, safe-conducts had been issued in greater abundance by the 1100s in response to the sharp increase in mercantile trade. In 1157, Henry II granted a safe-conduct and protection to the merchants of Cologne in London as if they were his ‘men and friends’. Yet, these grants and assurances were certainly not grants of ‘free travel’. Clauses were often included to ensure that the kingdom would benefit from the presence of foreigners. Safe transportation was usually contingent on whether the named individual ensured that they paid all the expected customs due to the local authorities. As a result, coastal towns such as Bristol and Norwich in England, and Berwick-upon-Tweed in Scotland, profited from the customs they were able to charge.

A key difference between a passport and a medieval safe-conduct was that the latter only applied to a distinct political jurisdiction. For those travelling further afield, multiple safe-conducts accounting for the multiple borders that would be crossed had to be obtained. Because these letters were issued at the discretion of the monarch, safe passage could be disrupted by international disputes with other kingdoms overnight. In this sense, they were perhaps more akin to the modern visa. Sanctions against French subjects in England, for example, were applied by the Crown during Edward I’s war with Philip IV in 1294, the War of Saint-Sardos between 1323 and 1324, and the Hundred Years War from 1337. However, a migrant could prove their trustworthiness to the king by paying taxes, having guarantors provide character references, or swearing an oath, to protect them against such measures.

Safe-conducts were also used as bargaining chips during diplomatic discussions for peace. After or during peace negotiations, an influx of approved requests for safe passage usually appear in the English administrative records. In the context of Anglo-Scottish relations in the fourteenth century, the English administration approved numerous safe-conducts from 1357 for various noble- and clergymen. In 1357, Edward III of England and David II of Scotland agreed to the Treaty of Berwick, which ceased the hostilities between the two kingdoms that had begun in 1332. With these two nations at peace, freer travel between the two territories could be facilitated. For medieval Scots, safe passage through England’s borders, whether via land or sea, offered secure routes to England, Ireland, and the continent beyond.

The majority of grants of safe-conduct that appear of the Scotch rolls, a collection of government documents recording the English king’s business in Scotland, were granted to Scottish clergymen rather than secular lords. The most common reasons for such travel requests were either to visit a pilgrimage site or to study at a university. In the 1360s, the Scottish king and his court appear to have been particularly interested in the cult of St Thomas Beckett in Canterbury. In October 1362, safe-conducts were obtained by Bishop William Landallis of St Andrews and William, Earl of Douglas, to visit ‘the glorious martyr Thomas, formerly archbishop of Canterbury’. David then obtained such a grant himself in November 1364 to visit the same shrine, which poses some questions about how David’s royal status was viewed by the English king. (Monarchs of equal status did not usually require conducts in each other’s realms).

The first grant of safe-conduct to be awarded after the Treaty of Berwick was issued on 13 August 1357 to the archdeacon of Aberdeen, John Barbour, which was quoted earlier. Barbour was accompanied by three others and travelled to Oxford University to study. Until 1413, Scotland did not have a university recognised by the papacy based in the kingdom, making foreign travel a necessity for those seeking such an education. Before 1296, Scots would usually travel to Oxford and Cambridge as the nearest and cheapest way of obtaining degrees. During the Wars of Independence, Scots were expelled from English universities and had to seek education elsewhere. Surprisingly, this does not appear to have affected the educational ability of the Scottish clergy overall, and several scholars, such as Andrew Barrell and Donald Watt, have noted the high percentage of university-educated clergymen in the Scottish Church when compared to England or elsewhere. Instead, degrees were obtained from the universities of Paris, Orléans, and Bologna for this period. The number of requests of safe conduct to study after 1357 to study in England highlights that Oxford and Cambridge were still considered the preferred choice for Scottish students because of their accessibility, facilitated via safe-conducts.

While the medieval safe-conduct was quite different from the modern passport, it demonstrates that there was a certain about of free movement of people during the medieval period. This was, of course, restricted to the upper echelons of society and confined to those kingdoms at peace with an individual’s home territory. Yet, such documents facilitated overseas travel, the expansion of mercantile trade and academic education.

Further Reading:

  • W. Mark Ormrod, Bart Lambert and Jonathan Mackman, Immigrant England, 1300 – 1550 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019)

  • David Ditchburn, Scotland and Europe: The Medieval Kingdom and its Contacts with Christendom, 1214 – 1560 (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2001)

  • P. Chaplais, English Diplomatic Practice in the Middle Ages (London: Hambledon, 2003)

Jenny M. McHugh is a doctoral researcher at Lancaster University, researching the loyalty and identity of the Scottish clergy during the Second War of Scottish Independence, 1332 to 1357. She is supervised by Dr Sophie Ambler and Dr Fiona Edmonds.   Twitter: @jmc_hughy