Browse through early registers of licences and discover your early ancestors who travelled from Britain across the sea to Europe, New England, or other colonies.
This collection comprises TNA series E 157 entitled Registers of licences to pass beyond the seas, 1573-1677. There are two main register types in this collection:
Statutory oath of allegiance taken under the Act of 1609 by soldiers before leaving to serve in the "Low Countries" (1613-1633)
Licences for individuals traveling to Europe (1573-1677)
Additionally, there are included some registers pertaining to individuals traveling to Barbados, New England, and other colonies from 1634 to 1639 (and one register from 1677).
You can narrow your search by year and archive reference number. The images may be able to provide you with names, birth years, ages, residences, and departure and destination information.
Common destinations include Maryland, Virginia, Barbados, St Christopher’s, Austria, Holland, and Scotland.
The American genealogist James Savage LLD published his Gleanings for New England History in 1843, in which he wrote the following:
"During the summer months of 1842, in a visit to England, I was chiefly occupied with searching for materials to illustrate our early annals; and although disappointment was a natural consequence of some sanguine expectations, yet labor was followed by success in several… Perhaps the acquisition most valuable in the opinion of our local antiquaries is my copious extracts from a MS [manuscript] volume in folio at the Augmentation Office (so called), where Rev Joseph Hunter, one of the Record Commissioners, presides, in Rolls Court, Westminster Hall. It contains the names of persons, permitted to embark, at the port of London, after Christmas 1634, to the same period in the following year, kept generally in regular succession. This was found only a few months since, and may not have been seen by more than two or three persons for two hundred years."
The Augmentation Office proper was subsumed within the Exchequer from 1554, and no longer existed in 1842 when Savage was visiting London (hence his parenthetical "so called").
According to The National Archives’ Discovery catalogue (which can be accessed in the Useful links and resources section), "Up to 1793 the records [of the Augmentation Office] were kept in an “ancient and inconvenient brick building” adjoining the Court of the Exchequer in Westminster. They were removed from there to five rooms above the King's Bench Treasury in Westminster. They were stored, cleaned and listed at Carlton Ride prior to their transfer to the Public Record Office [now The National Archives]."
Savage may have viewed the manuscripts at the King’s Bench Treasury. Alternatively, he may have meant Rolls House, although in 1842 this was in Chancery Lane and not in Westminster. In 1840, records from the Pell Office were, according to Wikipedia, "taken to the Comptroller of the Exchequer's Office in Whitehall Yard, where they were thoroughly cleaned and re-bundled. They were then placed on racks in Rolls House in 1841 where they were catalogued and labelled. They were then transferred to the new Public Record Office in Chancery Lane."
The individual described as the then custodian of the manuscripts – "Rev Joseph Hunter, one of the Record Commissioners" – was indeed an Assistant Keeper of Records in the early days of the Public Record Office.
In any event, whatever their history and location, Findmypast has found these records at The National Archives in Kew where they were accessioned as series E 157 and are known correctly as the Registers of licences to pass beyond the seas, 1573-1677. These have been carefully scanned and indexed and are being made available online for the benefit of researchers for the first time.
Savage was, of course, primarily interested in early passenger lists showing immigrant ancestors to the Americas. He skipped over, and did not transcribe, the many accompanying records showing departures to destinations other than those in the Americas. Those records are for residents of England and Wales traveling by sea to the near continent (especially the Netherlands) but also to Ireland and even Scotland.
A good proportion of these are soldiers, including mercenaries, taking the oath of allegiance before departing English shores to serve in the Low Countries with the Protestant side during the Dutch Revolt. However, others are unemployed or under-employed artisans looking for work (for example, weavers), or people visiting family and friends, or simply travelling for the pleasures of touring itself. Others are Protestant refugees from the Low Countries visiting relatives.
After 1609, all travelers over the age of 18 had to take an oath of allegiance to the monarch, which was registered by the Clerk of the Passes and led to the issuing of a licence. There was an expectation that the licence would be used quickly and, indeed, some were time-limited and required return to England within a specific period of time. The dates shown in the records are the date of the oath or the date of issue of the licence – not the date of actual departure.
Returning to Savage’s focus, the records showing passengers licensed to embark to the Americas are tremendously rare early survivals. We see parties bound, for example, for Barbados, for St Christopher, for Maryland, and for Virginia, mostly within the 1630s but with some outliers such as 1677.
Researchers should remember that these early records are dated by the old calendar, when March 1634, for example, would be immediately followed the next month by April 1635.
View a map of the principal destinations given in series E 157 – both civil (individuals travelling from England to the Low Countries to visit family or on business) and military (soldiers, including mercenaries, engaged on the Protestant side against the Catholics during the final stages of the Dutch Revolt or Eighty Years War) – located in the Useful links and resources.
All the surviving documents within this collection are written in the so-called secretary hand current at the time. This may seem unfamiliar at first but a little practice will make the text increasingly legible to you as you become familiar with the shapes of the different letters in both upper and lower case. However, some of the papers are damaged or faded, which adds to the difficulty in interpretation.
Secretary hand features abbreviation and elision (the omission of certain letters, usually signaled by a bar mark or suspension bar – a horizontal line – placed above the part of the word where letters have been missed out). Forenames are subject to abbreviation and, in most cases, we have expanded these, e.g. "Jno" to John, "Ric" and "Ricd" to Richard, and "Willm" to William. However, the abbreviation "Jo," which will usually refer to John, has been left abbreviated in case some instances refer to Joseph (which, however, is normally abbreviated as "Jos").
Spelling at the time these records were created had not settled, and was still relatively fluid and phonetic. The same forename can be spelt several ways – e.g. Henerie, Henrie, and Henry are all the same name, as are Gregorie, Gregory, Grigorie, and Grigory. In many cases, we have silently standardised such forenames (i.e. to Henry and Gregory), for ease of searching. You may expect to see the variants when viewing the images.
We have not normalised the spelling of surnames, because of the high risk of error in so doing. Thus, for example, “Haieward” is the usual spelling of Hayward in these records, while the surname Harris may also appear as Harrice, Harries, and Harriss. Please exercise care when searching; you may wish to use name variants and/or wildcards to optimise searching.
Many words were pronounced differently in the 17th century, and this is reflected in spelling. For example, "au" was often used where today we have the single vowel "a" – for example, "Frauncis" for Francis, "Launcelot" for Lancelot, and "Fraunce" for France. "Souldier" was the common spelling of soldier and appears frequently in E 157 spelt that way. Where we were able to do so confidently, we have silently modernised such spellings.
The great majority of travellers – over 20,000 – were passing over the sea to what are today Belgium and Holland. The destination may be given in very general terms (e.g. Low Countries, Netherlands) or as a specific region (e.g. Brabant, Flanders, Gelderland, Gulikland, Holland, Kleveland ("Cleveland") or Zeeland), or as a particular port or town. The majority of Belgian and Dutch places were spelt phonetically by the English, and not always in a standardized form. For example, Dordrecht is invariably given as Dort, while Zierikzee usually appears as Sirrickseas but with multiple minor variants. The more difficult the place name, and the less familiar to English ears, the more likely it is to be misspelt. Finally, some place names are not unique – e.g. Bergen (Berghen), which usually but not always refers to Bergen op Zoom, and Bommel / Bomell, which usually but not necessarily exclusively refers to Zaltbommel.
Where the modern counterpart of a place name is clear, we show the current name followed in brackets by the most frequent spelling of the name in these records – e.g. s-Hertogenbosch (Bosh) and Zwolle (Swaull). Tergoes and its several variants (Tergoe, Tergoo, Tergooe, Tergoose) in E 157 may refer either to Goes, a town in Zeeland known as Tergoes, or Gouda, a town in South Holland also known as Tergow. Unless we were certain which place was meant, we combined the two places as "Goes (Tergoes) or Gouda (Tergow)" in the dropdown list. The Channel port of Calais was pronounced "Callis" by the English at this time, and usually is spelt Calis, Callis, Callice or similar. However, it has been indexed by us simply as Calais.
The most common destinations, such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam are often abbreviated, to "Amstm" or "Rott" or similar; where possible, these have been expanded by us to the full form of the place name. Hamburg (Hambro, Hamburgh) appears to have been another frequent destination. However, not only was it spelt and abbreviated in many different ways, but unfortunately there are some other place names in the Low Countries with which it could be confused – e.g. Heimbach, which was spelt ‘Hambagh’ at the time. Therefore, please keep an open mind to the destination in question for a particular person not being the port of Hamburg but some other similarly named place.
A proportion of travellers to the Low Countries are described as visiting friends and family. In this regard, some will have been Flemish, Walloon and Dutch immigrants, and their issue, who had arrived in England from the 1570s as part of the “First Refuge” and formed “Stranger” communities in towns such as Canterbury, Colchester, London, Maidstone, Norwich, Sandwich and Southampton. However, it’s worth mentioning that there were English settlers in the Low Countries too. For example, there were permanent English garrisons in the so-called ‘cautionary towns’ of Flushing (today Vlissingen) and Brill (today Brielle) from 1585-1616. The garrisons of these towns governed by the English would have had attracted migrants to service them, some of whom would have stayed on after the withdrawal of troops. Other native English sojourned in the Low Countries to improve their skills in the weaving or drapery trade. Some travellers would have been going on business, with no intention to remain.
There were also large numbers of soldiers, including mercenaries, travelling to fight on the Protestant (Orange) side in the ongoing Dutch Revolt against the Spanish Catholics. Such soldiers needed to sign an oath of allegiance and supremacy before crossing the Channel. In some cases, the destination of soldiers is given as "the leager." A "leager" or leaguer was a siege. It is not necessarily clear from the context whether a soldier is going to help relieve a Dutch town beleaguered by Spanish forces, or to reinforce Dutch troops laying siege to a city or fort held by the Spanish.
There are also passenger lists for almost 900 persons travelling to Ireland, from the ports of Chester and Liverpool, in 1632/33. These are rare survivals and are believed to relate to settlers on the so-called plantations.
The Irish also appear in the lists of names for the Continent, and especially for the Low Countries. Whereas most English and Welsh travelers are often given an address (typically in the form of either a London street or parish, or a provincial town and county), the Irish seem customarily to be described simply as "Irish people" or "Irishmen" without indication as to their place of origin. Irish names are often rendered phonetically, with an uncertain and irregular use of patronymics. Note that among the soldiers heading to the Low Countries to fight the Spanish are Irish Protestants.
The more than 5,000 passengers bound for the Americas include the following destinations:
The years for which records survive within the archive series E 157 are 1631, 1632, 1633, 1634, 1635, and 1637, with a handful for 1677 (Barbados only).
Among the travelers in 1635 is a group for Providence Island, a Caribbean island initially settled by Puritans
Only a small number of the records give the name of the ship on which the travelers would be sailing. The fortunate exception is the Americas: here the great majority of records do give the names of the immigrant ancestor ships. These have been indexed and are individually searchable. For example, one can search just for persons traveling aboard the Robert Bonaventure or the Hopewell.