Vagrancy Acts

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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.

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. 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. 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.

Subjects: British History.

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