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Scott Oldenburg, Alien Albion
by Brian Lockey

Oldenburg, Scott. Alien Albion: Literature and Immigration in Early Modern England. U of Toronto P, 2014. 290 pp. ISBN: 978-1442647190. $65.00 cloth. 

Scott Oldenburg’s Alien Albion explores fictional and non-fictional representations of encounters between continental immigrants and the English inhabitants of late Tudor England. In doing so, he presents an alternative to the thesis, advanced by Richard Helgerson and a generation of subsequent scholars, that the Early Modern conception of an English nation emerged largely in response to a recognition of what is non-English. The book attempts to survey how English writers of fiction understood relations between the English and immigrant communities from the 1540s until the beginning of the seventeenth century, with some emphasis in the later sections of the book on the explosive anti-alien hostilities that occurred in the 1590s, which, the author argues, are a necessary backdrop to understanding fictional works by Shakespeare, Thomas Deloney, and Thomas Dekker. According to Oldenburg, evidence of “multicultural collaborations” and “cosmopolitan innovation” can be found throughout the Tudor period, complicating the emerging narrative of English national consciousness, especially the notion that English xenophobia was foundational to English identity (7). In this respect, Oldenburg’s book constitutes an ambitious attempt to understand the emergence of English identity, not as an ideology based on exclusion of the alien, but rather as based on inclusion of the other and even on incipient “multiculturalism,” a term that Oldenburg employs repeatedly throughout this book, and not always to the advantage of the thesis that he is advancing.

A number of recurring themes emerge in Oldenburg’s study. First and most importantly, what allowed Dutch, French, Italian, and other immigrants to be accepted into the polity was the shared religious identity of Protestantism. Oldenburg shows throughout this study that much of the English-immigrant solidarity that emerged during the period was tied to English support for Dutch Protestants in their struggle against the Spanish crown. Indeed, the flip side of such support was the development of an ethic of protection and support for Dutch Protestant refugees at home, which was subsequently extended to French Huguenot refugees and others. As Oldenburg shows, there were significant Biblical inspirations for English hospitality for beleaguered continental Protestants as well—again and again, Protestant writers connect their experience with refugees to God’s instructions to the Israelites “to deal well with all strangers” because of their own exile in Egypt (49). Indeed, Oldenburg illustrates throughout this study the importance of longstanding Christian traditions of hospitality, even if he neglects to explore the suspicion with which Calvinists and other Protestants sometimes perceived the Scholastic origins of such doctrines.

This is not to say that English encounters with continental refugees were devoid of controversy and conflict. In his first chapter, Oldenburg recounts how, at the outset of her reign, Mary Tudor issued a proclamation expelling from the realm all strangers without proper denizen papers. Her intention in doing so was to banish continental Protestants, especially the Dutch, who had taken refuge there during her brother’s reign. During Elizabeth’s reign, attitudes towards strangers were essentially status-based, with well-to-do inhabitants of London offering succor to continental Protestants, while the commoners were often hostile, perceiving strangers as undercutting their own status and the economic well-being of London’s guilds and their members. This leads to a second important theme in this book, namely the way in which commoners in London responded to the economic and social challenges that the strangers posed for the city. Oldenburg notes that English authorities encouraged the influx of immigrants both out of religious solidarity and so that native artisans might learn the specialized skills of their often more advanced peers on the continent. In response to allegations that stranger artisans and merchants circumvented guild restrictions on their crafts, the London companies sometimes sought the complete exclusion of strangers from the city, but in other instances, companies such as the London Weavers attempted to incorporate aliens into the guild as “foreign brethren” or “admissioners” as a way of regulating and even benefitting from their labors (82). Similarly, in cultural terms, English commentators on strangers insisted that strangers integrate into the social and communal fabric of the polity on English terms. As a result, there continued to be a great deal of suspicion throughout this period of stranger churches as well as the way in which most strangers, whether Dutch or French Huguenot, tended to cling to and prefer their own religious traditions to English ones.

This brings us to the third prominent historical theme of this book, namely Oldenburg’s discussion of what he calls the “provincial globalism” of the English response to immigration (11). On the one hand, interactions between the English and immigrant communities were one-sided affairs, in which the natives demanded that strangers conform to the economic rules and cultural mores of England itself. Despite such nativist demands, Oldenburg persists in referring to such encounters as evidence of Early Modern “multiculturalism,” even while documenting that the assimilation of strangers into the realm occurred strictly on English terms, thus making the phenomenon very different from twenty-first century multiculturalism or pluralism (7). On the other hand, he notes the intensely local and provincial characteristics of the English response to immigration—most often such encounters occurred in the city of London or in other prominent English cities, in which civic customs and regulations proved to be more important than those of the kingdom or the nation. Thus an important contradiction at the heart of Oldenburg’s study—and one that I have explored with regard to Anthony Munday’s dramatic works and pageants and the prose works of Sir John Harington—is that the civic cultural production of London, or the provincial culture of other English cities, were as cosmopolitan, i.e. linked transnationally to continental Europe, as they were linked to the emerging discourse of English nationhood.[1] Thus, Oldenburg argues that Thomas Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday places guild solidarity with a character he takes to be a Dutch shoemaker above loyalty to the English polity. In a subsequent chapter, Oldenburg argues that Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan and Haughton’s Englishmen for My Money presents immigrant women as a threat to stable national identity but he also shows that cultural differences are often celebrated as much as they are condemned. Finally, his reading of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and Sir Thomas More, on which Shakespeare was a contributor along with Munday, Dekker, and Chettle, stresses the themes of civic and provincial hospitality, which ultimately emerges as an important component of Englishness itself in such plays.

Oldenburg has written an important and timely monograph on the place of immigrants and immigrant communities within the English literary imagination. He does an admirable job of placing the plays in their historical context, and his readings of the prose and dramatic works of Marlowe, Deloney, Dekker, Marston, Haughton, and Shakespeare are generally careful and well-written. Of the outstanding readings of works of Early Modern fiction found here, his analyses of prose works by Deloney and dramatic works by Dekker, Marston, and Haughton are most impressive, even if at times such analyses are compromised by a tendency to overlook clear evidence of xenophobia in order to present these authors as displaying enlightened hospitality towards the stranger. A second weakness with this study is Oldenburg’s tendency to apply presentist concerns to the English-immigrant encounters he describes, repeatedly discussing these encounters as evidence of “multiculturalism,” even while having to distinguish them from the twenty-first century meaning of that term.

There are two points to be made here. First, these encounters really have nothing to do with twenty-first century notions of multiculturalism (a term Oldenburg unfortunately employs repeatedly) or modern notions of pluralism (a term that he does not use). As Oldenburg recounts, continental immigrants were expected to conform to the letter of civic and guild regulations and cultural mores and traditions that had existed in England prior to their arrival. While immigrants often resisted such demands for conformity, there was no official, semi-official, or even counter-ideology of celebrating the retention of such differences that might be analogous to the official or semi-official celebrations of diversity and multiculturalism within contemporary American, British, and Western institutions, schools, universities, and corporations. This brings up the question of why Oldenburg persists in using such anachronistic language, which leads to my second point. Oldenburg’s account suggests that such immigrant communities were able to retain their foreign institutions and religious traditions not because of enlightened English tolerance of otherness but rather because the English, particularly the well-to-do English, were conscious of a shared Protestant solidarity that cut across cultural and linguistic difference. It was this shared Protestant solidarity that, by Oldenburg’s own account, seemed to inspire English tolerance, and to provide a counterbalance to the irruptions of anti-alien violence that occurred periodically for economic reasons.

Oldenburg’s frequent discussion of this shared Protestant solidarity is fascinating, but unfortunately, he does not go into much depth about the specific contours of this mutual support between English and continental Protestantism. A number of questions inevitably come up—to what extent were transnational or cosmopolitan notions of Protestantism based on the traditional Medieval notion of Christendom and to what extent were they a rejection of that papal-headed polity? To what extent was such shared solidarity based on pragmatism and to what extent was it a positive response to continental theorizations such as the anonymous Vindiciae contra Tyrannos (1579), which imagined Protestant Europe organized around mutually supporting Protestant princes? We know for example that the Lutheran princes of the Holy Roman Empire were never exactly sure what Elizabeth’s religious views were: some were convinced she was a Calvinist, others that she was a Zwinglian, and still others that she was a Catholic. Similarly, many Protestants on the continent had a not inaccurate sense that English policy was driven by independent dynastic and nationalist, not religious, aims.[2] At one point, for example, the German princes accused her of entering into the French civil war, not for religious but rather for political motives. In this respect, how was English solidarity with Protestant refugees in London and elsewhere in England related to such continental perceptions of the English Church? Were the attempts by French Huguenots and Dutch refugees to retain their religious traditions in England a response to confusion about exactly what kind of religious entity the Church of England was? These are just some of the many questions that are left unanswered by Oldenburg’s otherwise rich and stimulating book. 

Brian C. Lockey
St. John’s University

[1] Brian C. Lockey, Early Modern Catholics, Royalists, and Cosmopolitans: English Transnationalism and the Christian Commonwealth, Ashgate, 2015, pp. 93-148.

[2] E.I. Kouri, England and the Attempts to Form a Protestant Alliance, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1981, p. 166.


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Cite as:

Brian Lockey, "Scott Oldenburg, Alien Albion," Spenser Review 46.2.15 (Fall 2016). Accessed March 20th, 2018.
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