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Vagrancy Acts

Vagrancy Acts. Vagrancy was a phenomenon which particularly worried late medieval and Tudor society, not merely because it often led to crime, but because ‘masterless men’ seemed to threaten the whole social structure. The breakdown of the authority of lords of the manor freed men and women to move, and unemployment, demobilization, enclosures, and high prices could combine to produce destitution and vagrancy. London, by far the largest town in the country, produced its own vagrants and imported others from the neighbouring counties. In 1608 Thomas Dekker, the playwright, wrote that suburbs were ‘caves where monsters are bred up to devour the cities themselves’.

One of the earliest government interventions came in 1351, after the Black Death had caused an acute shortage of labour. The statute attempted not only to control wages and enforce contracts but declared punishment for persons fleeing from one shire to another. Another flurry of legislation came after the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. An Act of 1383 authorized JPs to apprehend vagabonds and another Act of 1388 insisted that anyone leaving his abode or service must carry letters patent explaining the purpose of his journey. Tudor legislation on the subject was both frequent and fierce. The Parliament of Henry VII in 1495 enacted that vagabonds should be put in the stocks for three days and three nights on bread and water. Henry VIII improved upon this in 1531 declaring that an able-bodied vagrant should be ‘tied to the end of a cart naked and be beaten with whips till his body be bloody’, and then sent back to his place of birth or last employment. In 1535 it was announced that on a second offence any ‘valiant beggar or sturdy vagabond’ would lose part of his right ear, and on a third offence would be hanged. Branding was introduced in 1547 and the vagabond was to be sold into slavery. By 1572 they were to be flogged and have their ears bored and by 1604 they would be branded on their shoulder with the letter ‘R’ for rogue. Hanging for repeat offences was certainly no idle threat: four vagrants, including one woman, were hanged in Middlesex in 1575/6. Transportation was also introduced after 1597, mainly to the new American colonies. A different approach was Bridewells, where work was provided: opened in London in 1553, they were soon imitated in other towns and counties. After the Restoration the problem of vagrancy diminished, partly because paupers were given help in their parishes of origin, partly because an expanding economy provided better opportunities for employment. The increasing expense of poor relief led in the early 19th cent. to reorganization of the whole system, but vagabondage had ceased to terrify.

J. A. Cannon

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