The Medieval Ancestor of Today’s Passport

I randomly found a great article on passport history written by Jenny M. McHugh from the Lancaster University, titled The Passport’s Medieval Forebear: Grants of Safe-conduct in Medieval Britain”.

The Misconception of the first British Passport Medieval Ancestor Today’s Passport

The article handles the misconception regarding the origin of the ‘British passport’ often points to a 1414 Act of Parliament during Henry V’s reign, and it’s a pleasure to share an excerpt of the article here, as it is an important topic on passport history.

In these historical accounts, it is commonly asserted that the term ‘passport’ finds its etymological roots in the French expression ‘laissez-passer,’ signifying safe-conduct, and is purported to have made its inaugural appearance within the context of the 1414 Act. It is crucial to acknowledge, however, that these licenses of ‘safe-conduct’ significantly diverged from the contemporary notion of a passport and had been regularly dispensed by the English authorities well before the fifteenth century.

Yet, prior to delving into an examination of these safe-conducts, it is imperative to recognize another pivotal aspect: the genesis of the British passport cannot be convincingly traced back to 1414 due to the absence of a cohesive political entity known as ‘Britain.’ Scotland and various regions of Ireland remained beyond the dominion of English monarchs throughout the latter part of the medieval era, notwithstanding concerted endeavors to assert control over these territories. Medieval Ancestor Today’s Passport

Consequently, it would be factually incorrect, at least until the enactment of the Act of Union in 1707, if not later, to label any such document as ‘British,’ rather than ‘English.’

Safe Conducts and Passports are not the same Medieval Ancestor Today’s Passport

Safe-conducts, to be precise, diverged from passports in that they did not serve as instruments for defining or substantiating an individual’s nationality or citizenship. Rather, these safe-conducts extended protection and specific privileges to foreign travelers during their journeys or stays within a realm, granted at the discretion of the reigning monarch and their governing authority.

A Significant Distinction

between a passport and a medieval safe-conduct was that the latter exclusively pertained to a specific political domain. Individuals venturing beyond these boundaries had to secure multiple safe-conducts to navigate the various borders they would encounter. Given that these documents were subject to the monarch’s discretion, the guarantee of safe passage could swiftly be jeopardized by international conflicts with other realms, rendering them somewhat akin to the contemporary concept of a visa.
Here is an early 15th Century Safe Conduct

Assets of Diplomatic Negotiations

Moreover, safe-conducts assumed a role as valuable assets during diplomatic negotiations for establishing peace. After or amid peace talks, a surge of approved requests for safe passage typically made their appearance within the records of the English administration. In the context of Anglo-Scottish relations during the fourteenth century, the English authorities sanctioned numerous safe-conducts starting in 1357, primarily for distinguished individuals, both nobility and clergymen alike.

In that same year, 1357, Edward III of England and David II of Scotland formalized the Treaty of Berwick, effectively bringing an end to the hostilities that had endured between the two kingdoms since 1332. This newfound accord paved the way for increased mobility between the territories, affording medieval Scots secure pathways through England’s borders, whether by land or sea, enabling travel to England, Ireland, and the distant continent. Medieval Ancestor Today’s Passport

Examples of early English/British safe conducts/passports

James V, King of Scots, 1529
Elizabeth I., Queen of England, 1565
King James I. of England, 1610
English passport 1640 with twelve signatures
Bishop of London-William Juxon, 1640
General John Churchill – 1st Duke of Marlborough, 1710
British Ship’s Passport – Island of Jersey, 1753
King George III. 1781 (in German)

Read the detailed article of Jennifer, here…


incl. FREE guideline!

FAQ Passport History pasaporte passeport паспорт 护照 パスポート جواز سفر पासपोर्ट

1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...

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