Vagrancy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England
Throughout the work An Account of the Travels, Sufferings and Persecutions of Barbara Blaugdone, there is a common occurrence of imprisonment. Wherever Blaugdone traveled, she seemed to come across some confrontation with the law. This should not be surprising, for in the time period when this work was written many laws, statutes, and acts had been established to thwart the spreading of unpopular Quaker views. Many acts were established primarily to prevent the ministry of Quakerism; however universal laws, especially those to prevent vagrancy, were also used against traveling Quakers.
Vagrancy had always been a concern in sixteenth century England, resulting in the passing of four anti-vagrancy bills in 1547 alone. This resulted in legislation so harsh that a person charged with vagrancy could be sentenced to two years enslavement, which could be extended to life enslavement if they tried to escape. When these bills did not seem to prevent the occurrence of beggars on the street, the Vagrancy and Poor Relief Act of 1572 was instated. This act called for a “three strikes and you are out” policy, where on a person’s third vagrancy offense they could be rightfully put to death (Woodbridge 272). This legislation was the policy for over twenty years until it was repealed in 1593 for being too strict. In 1597, the new Vagrancy Act authorized the government to banish anyone caught offending the vagrancy laws. After a 1598 statute reestablished slavery as the proper punishment for vagrancy, there were a number of years where periods of leniency and harshness of punishments alternated. It is important to note the history of these laws since many of them were never entirely repealed. However, it was in the early seventeenth century that a particular legislation finally became the common law that would rule for centuries.
In 1601, England passed the Act for the Relief of the Poor, which would be the commanding authority on this issue until 1834. This act established the church as the sole establishment responsible for the care of the poor. If a family was not able to get by, it was the responsibility of the area parish to ensure that the family was taken care of (Woodbridge 272). However, it also established the deserving from the undeserving poor. Common traits of those considered deserving included the hard-working, the disabled, the locals, the householders, and the settled. The undeserving poor were the idle, the ones that feigned disability, the foreign, the homeless, and the wanderers (Woodbridge 22-23). Those that were considered undeserving were the ones targeted for vagrancy. This act was particularly detrimental to any traveling Quakers like Blaugdone, who in the eyes of seventeenth century society, were idle, foreign, and most importantly they wandered from location to location without a household to call their own. During this period the punishments for vagrancy, relative to those of previous decades, were actually pretty lenient.
Punishments differed for men and women after the passage of the Act for the Relief of the Poor. Building off of early laws, men who were caught and charged with vagrancy or roguery were branded with either the Roman “R” or a “V” which became their mark for life. If a branded person was caught again it could result in a stricter punishment. The government still had the authority to banish or enslave violators. Women, on the other hand, were more commonly whipped. The theory during the time period was that the punishment must fit the crime. Vagrants were consistently seen as sexually promiscuous, and the act of whipping, especially women, seemed appropriate relative to the sexual kinkiness that is generally associated with spanking and whipping (Woodbridge 273). However whipping, similar to branding, also left a mark on a person’s body that would also serve the same stigmatizing effects as does branding.
Many Quakers were beaten and branded as a result of these laws. While the Poor Laws remained in effect for over 200 years, statutes were continually added to the original legislation. Additional vagrancy acts were issued in 1656 to specifically affect to traveling Quaker ministers. However, while vagrancy charges were always a possibility, many Quakers, like Blaugdone were charged with violating many of the other multiple laws designed specifically against Quakers.
Woodbridge, Linda. Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature.
Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.