Skip to main content
The Collation

Who was a refugee in early modern England? The “Poor Palatines” of 1709

Today’s Collation post is a little bit different. It showcases materials held in archival collections at the British Library and the National Archives, both in the United Kingdom. It is the product of an exciting new kind of opportunity—a non-residential fellowship—offered by the Folger Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library to its 2020-2021 Fellows.

In May 1709, Queen Anne received an unusual petition from 512 men and women who were not her own subjects – at least, not yet.

“We miserable people being wholy ruined by the war and other hardships, God the Almighty has [sent] over us, in our Native Country, and having no hopes of any relief, but rather a prospect that much more miseries would attend us, wee were forced out of necessity to leave our habitation, kindred, friends, and all that was dear unto us, and to go & gett our livelyhood in other parts of the world.”

The Most humble Petition of Five hundred & Twelve, miserably by war distressed and ruined German Protestants from the Palatinate, and newly arrived att St Catherins [May 1709]. (British Library Additional MS 61649 fol. 66)

The petitioners, identifying themselves as “German Protestants from the Palatinate,” had chosen England for a reason. They knew that the previous summer, a group of 53 from the Rhineland had been received in London as refugees, subsisted at the Crown’s expense, and transported to New York free of charge. Praising Queen Anne’s “great Clemency, shewed to some of our suffering neighbours,” the 512 petitioners hoped to be received with the same “Compassion” and sent to America on the same terms.1

Likely the work of a translator or copyist, the precise origins of this manuscript are unknown. One scholar describes the petition as “awkwardly worded” with clunky phrases that “sound more German than English.”2 A translation from French is also possible. Some migrants with French names may have been multilingual, like the butcher Peter de Rochefort, the “tobacco planter” Abraham Du Bois, or the Swiss-born agricultural laborer Daniel Thevoux. One man, David Dixion, was even identified as an “Englishman.” The name, age, livelihood, and religious profession of each pater familias and unmarried adult person was recorded by the London-based Lutheran ministers John Tribbeko and George Ruperti, who were assigned to assist the new arrivals and act as intermediaries.

A list of all the poor Germans, lately come over from the Palatinate into this kingdom, taken in St. Catherines the 6th of May 1709. Prepared by John Tribbeko, Chaplain of His late R. H. Pr. George of Denmark, and George Andrew Ruperti, Minister of the German Lutheran Church in the Savoy (extracts). (The National Archives (TNA) CO 388/76/56(ii), pp. 1, 5, 8)


An Abstract of the List of the poor Palatines, who are come over at first, shewing, how many are able or unable to work, either by age or sickness, at St. Catherines the 20th of May 1709. (TNA CO 388/76/62)

The 512 petitioners, accompanied by 282 children under the age of ten, represented only the tip of the iceberg. By October, 13,000 impoverished “Palatines” had traveled down the Rhine and crossed from Rotterdam to London. Dreaming of free land in America, they endured overcrowding, malnourishment, and disease both at sea and in England. Tribbeko and Ruperti told the Board of Trade that “Severall Children died in their passage from Holland for want of room,” that “they are pakt up in such great numbers, we having found very often 20 to 30 men and women together with their Children in one room,” that “a great many of ‘em begin to be very sikly and that severall of ‘em are dead here already,” and that “they are destitute of all comfortable assistance and many really want bread.” And this was still only May. British authorities did not know that another 12,500 desperate people were on their way.

Letters from Tribekko and Ruperti to the Board of Trade, dated 9 & 12 May 1209, concerning the miserable condition of the ‘Poor Palatines’.
(Top: TNA CO 388/76/56 p.1-1v
Bottom: TNA CO 388/76/56 p.2 (left) and TNA CO 388/76/56(i) (right))

This was easily among the largest, most sudden, and most controversial migrations in early modern British history. English authorities, observers, and projectors had a great deal to say about it. With the help of a non-residential fellowship from the Folger Shakespeare Library, I have only begun to scratch the surface of the manuscript material on the “Poor Palatines” at the British Library and The National Archives of the United Kingdom. Much of it, like the reports from Tribbeko and Ruperti shown above, is held at Kew among the Board of Trade papers. The Palatine petition itself appears courtesy of the British Library, where it is housed among the Blenheim Papers in the Additional Manuscripts.

The word “refugee” was new to English speakers at the turn of the eighteenth century, popularized by the large-scale Huguenot exodus of the 1680s. But exile was hardly a new phenomenon. The legal situation of Huguenot “refugees” was built upon that of the “stranger churches” that had existed in England since the mid-sixteenth century. And the assertion of an English duty to help the afflicted Huguenots was supported by pre-existing confessional, biblical, economic, and natural law-based arguments for treating strangers with compassion and offering them shelter, hospitality, or protection in times of need.

What made a non-English person a “deserving” object of English charity and hospitality in the early modern period? If the French Protestant exiles and their sixteenth-century antecedents were the paradigmatic refugees, was one required to be a “refugee” in the same manner as the Huguenots—a Protestant fleeing persecution for adherence to the true faith? Such a purely confessional definition would exclude people like the Palatine petitioners of 1709, who presented themselves as displaced by “war and other hardships.” Like the Huguenots and others before them, the Palatine petitioners claimed to have been “forced out of necessity” to leave their “Native Country.” But unlike the Huguenots, the Palatines never cited religious persecution. This did not stop some British authorities, like the Earl of Sunderland, from willfully misrepresenting the Palatines as good Protestants “persecuted for their Religion.”3 The problems with this claim were immediately apparent: Tribbeko and Ruperti’s meticulous reports demonstrated that a substantial minority of the Palatines were Roman Catholics.

On the one hand, the Palatines did find advocates in England, including Queen Anne herself, whose appeals on their behalf deliberately elided the question of religious persecution and drew more closely on the Palatines’ own account of their misfortunes. Blame was quickly assigned to “the French, the Common Enemies of Christendom, who have frequently Invaded their Country, Plunder’d their Houses, and Sword and Fire made many Places Desolate.”4 The most famous advocate for the Palatines, Daniel Defoe, author of the The True-Born Englishman, insisted that the minority of “Papists” among them were still “refugees,” having fled the same calamities as the rest, and expressing “very moderate Principles” in comparison to the more sinister category of “Frenchizfi’d or Spanioliz’d Papists.”5

On the other hand, the fate of the Palatines was not a happy one. For months, they huddled in overcrowded barns and tent camps on the outskirts of London that had been hastily set up by unprepared British authorities. To say the migrants received bad press in England would be an understatement. As one historian has put it, they were “catapulted into public debate with an intensity the Huguenots never encountered.”6 They were vilified not only as duplicitous Catholics, but as lazy freeloaders, ‘slavish’ serfs, and useless unskilled laborers. More than 2,000 of the Roman Catholics, disappointed to find no freedom of religion, were shipped back to Rotterdam at the Crown’s expense. The majority of those who were resettled were transported as bound laborers in Ireland and New York, not freeholders in Carolina. Most of these people, realizing they had been duped, soon deserted their new settlements.7 The 650 who were sent to Carolina as settlers were even more unfortunate: one half died during the voyage, while the remainder were settled in what quickly became a deadly war zone.8

By November 1709, immediate deportation had become the policy for unexpected newcomers. Notices were posted in Rotterdam that Britain was closed. When a few small groups ventured farther up the coast to land at Sunderland and Great Yarmouth, the Crown’s response was straightforward:

“Her Majesty is of the opinion, that the most effectual way to prevent the coming over of any more is, is to send these back immediately, especially since publick Notice has been given in Holland, that no more should be received till those who were then here could be provided for.”

Letter from Earl of Sunderland to the Commissioners for the Palatines, 22 Nov 1709. (TNA SP 44/108, f. 170)

In 2020, this terse deportation order has a darkly familiar ring to it. The 13,000 ‘Poor Palatines’ of 1709 remain less well-known than the Huguenots of the 1680s. But their experience has just as much to tell us. It suggests that a quarter-century after the Huguenots, a group of distressed foreigners could make a valid appeal to English charity or hospitality without claiming to have been persecuted for the Protestant religion. But it also shows us just how tenuous that appeal was. Without the familiar cause of confessional solidarity to fall back upon, the moral case for seeing the Palatines as refugees could still be made. But it was much harder to defend from its critics, who likened the Palatines to “vagrants” and able-bodied paupers—a particularly restless species of the so-called “undeserving poor.”


  1. On the causes of the 1709 Palatine migration, see Philip Otterness, Becoming German: The 1709 Palatine Migration to New York (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004); Marianne S. Wokeck, “Rethinking the Significance of the 1709 Migration,” in A Peculiar Mixture : German-Language Cultures and Identities in Eighteenth-Century North America, eds. Jan Stievermann and Oliver Scheiding (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2013), 23–42.
  2. Otterness, Becoming German, 57.
  3. See, for example, Sunderland’s letter of 4 June 1709 to the Mayor of Canterbury, BL Additional MS 61649, fols. 70-71. This dubious claim was repeated in circular letters by the bishops of Oxford (William Talbot) and Worcester (William Lloyd), which can be found in Abel Boyer, The History of the Reign of Queen Anne, Digested Into Annals: Year the Eighth (London, 1710), appendix, 43–9, 52–3.
  4. “Letter of the Lord Bishop of Ely [John Moore] to the Clergy of his Diocese,” in Boyer, History, appendix, 51–2. On “Christendom” as a non-confessional term in this period, see Tony Claydon, Europe and the Making of England, 1660-1760 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), chap. 3.
  5. Daniel Defoe, A Brief history of the poor palatine refugees, lately arriv’d in England (London, 1709), 23; Daniel Statt, “Daniel Defoe and Immigration,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 24, no. 3 (1991): 293–313.
  6. Alison G. Olson, “Huguenots and Palatines,” Historian 63, no. 2 (Winter 2001): 269–85, at 281. See also William O’Reilly, “Strangers Come to Devour the Land: Changing Views of Foreign Migrants in Early Eighteenth-Century England,” Journal of Early Modern History 21, no. 3 (June 2017): 153–87.
  7. On the desertion of the Ireland Palatines, see BL Additional MS 35933, ff. 12-20. For the New York Palatines, see Otterness, Becoming German.
  8. David La Vere, The Tuscarora War: Indians, Settlers, and the Fight for the Carolina Colonies (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), chapters 1 & 3.


I came upon this entry as I conducted a search for ancestor, a Palatine in the first group . His name is Mark Oberholtzer and is listed in this Manuscript MS61649 of which you have included several pages in a photo. I would very much like to know exactly where I can find this MS and if I can in fact acquire a photocopy of it for my own family history use. I believe that his group of German Emigrants was referred to as the THE BOARD OF TRADE LIST OF FIRST PARTY OF PALATINES IN LONDON, MAY 3,1709.

Harlan Overholt — March 13, 2022


Hi – thanks for your question! That manuscript is held at the British Library. It is Add MS 61649, and is part of the correspondence and papers of the 3rd Earl of Sunderland. It does not look like that manuscript has been digitized, so you should reach out to the reference librarians at the BL with your inquiry:

Abbie Weinberg — March 21, 2022


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *