Vagabonds Act 1597

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Vagabond Act 1597
Citation39 Eliz. c. 4
Introduced bypromoted by Robert Cecil, introduced by Sir Robert Wroth
Royal assentDecember 1597
Repealedby Vagrancy Act 1713.

The Vagabonds Act 1597 is an Act of the Parliament of England (39 Eliz. c. 4).

The moving force behind the bill was probably Mr Secretary, Robert Cecil who wrote his policy in Notes for the Parliament on the basis of a speech to be made on November 5th. The Ninth Parliament of Elizabeth's reign had opened on October 24th, 1597, and it promised to be one of its most productive. Cecil was concerned that the dearth of corn, high prices, rising homelessness, and "the lamentable cry of the poor, who are like to perish" was causing considerable distress, riot and even rebellion: in London alone there were an estimated 10,000 vagabonds; and 2,000 in Norwich.[1] During 1597 the harvest failed causing widespread suffering and hardship: many thousands were made unemployed by the enclosures which compounded the effects of the famine. One MP Sir Francis Hastings remarked defined the term 'vagabond' calling for them to be arrested, whipped and returned to their place of origin where they would be set to work in a House of Correction.[2] Despite local variations in provision, vagrancy continued to be a national problem.

Cecil promoted the three bills to follow, supported mainly by Puritans. However a majority of the gentry in the Commons rebelled against the social measures; one of these was the flamboyant Sir Walter Raleigh.[3] On 22 November 1597, Chairman of the Grand Committee, Sir Robert Wroth, seconded by Henry Finch, both Puritans three of the greatest pieces of Elizabethan legislation. In December the bill was read for a second time (secunda vice) before being kicked upstairs to the Lords. In Grand Committee it received many amendments, and likewise from the Lords. The bill caused considerable debate in both houses. However the two houses could not agree how categories of prisoner were to be described. On the third reading in the Commons the bill was rejected on a division by 106 votes to 66. Under Elizabethan procedure, the Lords drafted a compromise bill which passed both houses with ease.[4] It introduced penal transportation as a punishment for the first time. During the reign of Henry VIII, it has been estimated that 72,000 people were executed.[5] With the establishment of settlements in North America, an alternative practice (seemingly borrowed from Spain) began of a reprieve of the death sentence should the condemned person consent to be transported to an American colony, and be entered into bond service.[5] However, it is probable that this part of the legislation was never put into force.[6] Another effect of the Act was to lessen the severity of a punishment meted out to strolling players imposed under a 1572 act wherein "all fencers, bearwards, common players of interludes, and minstrels (not belonging to any baron of this realm, or to any other honourable person of greater degree)," wandering abroad without the license of two justices at the least, were subject "to be grievously whipped and burned through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron of the compass of an inch about." [7]

The Relief of the Parish Poor remained in force down to 20th Century, the third act to pass in 1597 was an Act to erect Hospitals and 'working houses for the poor' that became the basis for the Victorian workhouse system; and another was the Act for "the punishment of rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars". Rogues who escaped were arrested, branded and then returned to the House of Correction until the 'governer' could decide when to obtain their release. Since many vagabonds took refuge in these areas, the main change brought in by the act at Clause 3 was the stipulation that vagrants or 'sturdy beggars' should be sent back to their place of origin. They were viewed by Parliament essentially as being migrants, and therefore should be returned from whence they came.[8] The act required every parish to keep a record of every resident, including potential vagrants, who might go wandering across the realm. Unfortunately most of this information was only available in the larger cities. The paucity of quality record-keeping meant it was difficult to interpret how population increases reflected upon rising vagrancy rates during 'The Dearth' of 1590s. The act insisted the "wandering" and "loitering" was designated into two social groups of unskilled poor and unemployed economic migrants: however as no person was forced to "wander" it was thus interpreted as falling hardest on the poorest.[9] [10]

These acts were lasting testaments to Elizabethan religious radicalism that were among the most profound of the many reforms of the period.[a] These were violent times. There were riots and plague in London in 1592, and then in 1596 an armed uprising in Oxfordshire. The Queen's fears and apprehensions were exaggerated by the enclosure acts that drove sheep onto the land, and peasants off it, as described to her by John Manwood in his treatise A Brefe Collection of the Lawes of the Forest (1592); they circumscribed the royal prerogative.[b] The Midland counties of thick afforested areas, such as the Forest of Arden were more disorderly, unruly and more likely to have livestock than the lowland arable areas. The poor would "dwell in woods drones devoted to thievery," whereas "the forests, if inclosed, would be more secure for travellers,...and more beneficial for the Commonwealth."[11][12] The difference gave rise to David Underdown's 'chalk and cheese' description citing immigration, price instability, dearth, and social instability as main factors leading to vagabondage and vagrancy among the lower orders driving out by informal rough justice. The cow pasturage thus represented a border area with woodlands of lawlessness and violence.[13] Marxist historians Christopher Hill and Sharp, have argued that the violence was syptomatic of organized angry resistance mobilised in the iron founding areas, turning out weaponry from secret 'hideaways'. They have contended that far from passive acceptance of their starving condition, the poor sought to fight back against the callous landlords. The foresters were "addicted to crime and violence - all rogues."[14]

Irish vagrants travelled in bands like a circus, and often assumed the title "gypsies" which was affected. There is little evidence of gangs of aggressive beggars roaming Elizabethan England, except in as much as "gentlemen of the road" and other soubriquet are mentioned in Shakespeare's legendary works. Informative though it was, much of the literature was based on the romanticism of the Robin Hood, as the lawless vagabond and thief. In one clause beggars were punished for 'subtle crafts' proscribing palmistry, fortune-telling, minstrelling or unlicensed acting, most often associated with illiterate itinerant communities.[15] By contrast the English tended to travel in ones and twos frequenting along the way at familiar haunts, such as a refreshment house, barn, or lodging-house. No Gaming was allowed and the Innkeepers were expected too keep a good house. The Quarter Sessions were a binding cognizance against "harbouring rogues, vagabonds and others without passports."[16]

Typically young adults, predominantly men, either looking for work or engaged in petty crime. Officials prescribed that they "deserved to be whipped or stocked" as a punishment for transgressions.[17] Those that were not punished were integrated into town life "to save the town harmless." Towns suffered from relatively high mortality rates, and so new 'blood' was always welcomed to boost numbers.[18] By the Jacobean Parliament of 1610 it was noted that "thieves, rogues and beggars" had threatened local populations by coming out of the woods, from whence they had earlier taken refuge in times of The Dearth.[19] The act also made those listed in several categories liable for impressment in the service of the fleet. Jacobean statute reversed the requirement to send people home, perhaps in recognition of a New World circumstance in which Transportation helped to satisfy demands for colonists. Indeed Australian law has traced the origins of the commutation of labour to Macquarie Harbour down to the 1597 act and a Privy Council decision of 1602. When “lesser offenders adjudged by law to die” [to] be punished instead in a manner that will correct them “and yield a profitable service to the Commonwealth in parts abroad...”.[20] The Vagabond Act 1597 was repealed by section 28 of the Vagrants Act 1713.


  1. ^ for example, the Mayor of Exeter had to make provision for those sick from the plague in 1587, 1591, and 1598; and Winchester in 1593; Salisbury suffered similarly from an influx of population. In both 1591 and 1605 after the acts were passed the City Fathers had to raise Special Poor Rates.
  2. ^ vividly portrayed in Shakespeare's fictional comedies As You Like It and Love's Labor's Lost.


  1. ^ F G Emmison, Elizabethan Life: Disorder, (Essex County Council, 1970) p.200-202
  2. ^ Gillian Maitland, "Sixteenth Century Poverty And Elizabethan Legislation", unpublished, Worcester College of Education, p.64
  3. ^ J.E.Neale, Elizabeth I: and her Parliaments 1584-1601, Jonathan Cape, London, 1957, p.348-349
  4. ^ Sir Simond D'Ewes, Lords Journal, vol.ii, pp.203-220.
  5. ^ a b 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Capital punishment
  6. ^ Sources in the National Archives for research into the transportation of Irish convicts to Australia (1791-1853) : Introduction
  7. '^ '1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Theatre
  8. ^ Slack, p.360, 376 n4.
  9. ^ Vagrancy Act (Acts of the Privy Council, 1597-8, pp. 388-9
  10. ^ 1596-7, x629-30, and 1647-8 were years of high grain prices. Thirsk, J., ed. (1967). The Agrarian History of England and Wales. vol.IV, 1500-1640. Cambridge. pp. 820–1.
  11. ^ Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (New York: Viking, 1975, p. 41.
  12. ^ Philip Pettit, The Royal Forests of Northamptonshire: A Study in their Economy, 1558-1714 Gateshead: Northumberland Press, 1968, p.133.
  13. ^ Walter, John (1985). "A 'Rising of the People'? The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596". Past and Present. vol.107: 90–143.
  14. ^ As You Like It and the Enclosure Riots, p.9
  15. ^ Dean, David (2002). Law-Making and Society in Late Elizabethan England: The Parliament of England, 1584-1601. Cambridge University Press.
  16. ^ Emmison, p.203.
  17. ^ P.R.O. SP i6/388/7(xxiv, xxxvii), TNA
  18. ^ Slack, p.367
  19. ^ Foster, E. R. (ed.). Proceedings in Parliament i 6i o. vol.I. New Haven. p. 966; II, 28 I.
  20. ^ Langbein, John (1976). "The Historical Origins of the Sanction of Imprisonment for Serious Crime". Journal of Legal Studies. vol. 5: 35–60.


  • Statutes of the Realm, 39 Eliz. c. 4, clause III.
  • Beier, A. L. Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560-1640. pp. 36–7, 39, 72.
  • Slack, Paul A. "Vagrants and Vagrancy in England, 1598-1664". Economic History Society: 360–378.
  • Sharp, Buchanan (1980). In Contempt of All Authority: Rural Artisans and Riot in the West of England, 1586-1660. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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