A common figure in early modern life, the ‘rogue’ was part of a negatively-perceived, transient group of people that also contained vagrants and vagabonds. In England, the term developed during a period when the government was increasingly concerned with issues of population movement and ‘[m]asterles Men’, as Tudor monarchs from the mid-sixteenth century onwards increasingly sought to consolidate their power within the realm.[1] Thomas Harman, in A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors, vulgarly called Vagabonds (1567), was one of the first writers to use the term ‘rogue’.[2] According to Harman’s definition, there were two types: one made and one born. A born rogue, according to Harman, was a ‘Wylde Roge’ who had been ‘begotten in barne or bushes’ and was ‘from his infancy traded up in treachery’.[3] This type of rogue had been referenced in John Awdelay’s The fraternitye of vacabondes (1561), where he described them as having ‘no abiding place but by his coulour of going abrode to beg’ and stated that all who do this ‘be properly called Roges’.[4] Unlike a ‘wylde Roge’, the ‘rogue made’ was Harman’s innovation. A rogue of this kind was ‘neither so stoute or hardy as the uprightman’ and despite possibly having to learn this trade there was ‘nothing to them inferiour in all kynde of knavery’.[5] In the seventeenth century, John Cowell built upon Harman’s definition to also include travellers as ‘counterfeit rogues’, as well as describing the ‘Roag’ as an ‘idle sturdie beggar … wandring from place to place without passport’.[6] The rapid development of the term ‘rogue’ during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was therefore closely matched by legal and governmental attempts to define, legislate and restrict the lives and mobility of those considered to be outside the reach of English authorities and policy-makers.

From the mid-sixteenth century, Elizabeth I’s Parliaments attempted to restrict the movement of people and labour across the country to prevent the development of a transient class. The Act for the Relief of the Poor (1563) and the Statute of Artificers (1563) were attempts to prevent the growth in numbers of transient people by regulating the movement of people and labour, and it is telling that these were created around the same time as ‘rogue’ appeared in popular print.[7] The 1572 Act for Punishment of Vagabonds, known for reducing the severity of punishments for wandering players, introduced much harsher punishments for traditional ‘rogues’. According to the act, those ‘Rogues shall appeare to bee dangerous’ and who refused to ‘be reformed of their rogish kind of life’ would not only risk a jail sentence but also, for the first time, could be punished with transportation or impressment in ‘perpetually to the Galleis of this Realme’.[8] The Act also accounted for foreign rogues, ordering that the ‘Mannisk, Scottish, or Irish Rogue’ be sent back to the parish or port that they entered from and ‘be transported at the common charge of the Countrey where they were set on land’.[9] It also became increasingly important to ensure that these laws were enforced, empowering ‘Churchwardens and overseers’ to punish rogues and answering public complaints that constables had ‘in many places in suffering Rogues to wander & beg in the streetes’.[10] Furthermore, the act also ordered that those constables who were found to be ‘negligent, or remisse in the execution of the statute’ were to be punished ‘so farre as the law and authority of the chiefe Magistrate in that place will allow’ and inquiries were to be established.[11] In London, the officers of the cities were given the authority to ‘apprehend Rogues and to punish them’ in twice weekly patrols of the streets within their jurisdictions’.[12]

The marginality and placelessness of figures identified as rogues, ‘uprightmen’, ‘cony-catchers’, or vagabonds, meant that the terms were invariably inflected by class. Patricia Fumerton has pointed out that the sense of estrangement that was associated with vagrants and rogues 'can be seen metonymically to embrace most of the lower orders, not just the indigent and homeless, of early modern England: itinerant laborers, including servants and apprentices, as well as those poor householders from the lowest depths of the amorphous 'middling sort' who were at any time liable to such unsettling change'.[13] When Shakespeare’s Hamlet calls himself a ‘rogue and peasant slave’ (II.ii), therefore, the association between poverty and being a rogue would have been commonplace. Despite the reality of isolation and insecurity, in popular discourse and imagination that placelessness frequently got transformed into visions of rogues and vagrants as virtual ‘strangers,’ representatives of an alternative social order operating simultaneously and beneath the state’s government. As Nandini Das has shown, the fundamental premise underlying the hugely popular cony-catching pamphlets of Robert Greene in the early 1590s, for instance, is the existence of a sprawling criminal underworld inhabited and governed by these marginal figures, with their own rules, laws, and vocabulary (‘canting tongue’). Greene’s cony-catching pamphlets such as A Notable Discovery of Cosenage (1591) ‘presents the English reader with an unavoidable image of himself as a traveller and a stranger in his own land, and offers Greene’s ‘R.G.’ as his only guide’.[14] At the same time, that alterity is also exploited by Greene and his contemporaries like Thomas Dekker, who produced pamphlets such The Bellman of London (1608) and plays like The Roaring Girl (1611), featuring a version of the real-life ‘Mary Frith’ or ‘Moll Cutpurse’. In such texts the ‘rogue’ becomes the stranger at home, whose perspective throws a raking light across familiar social practice and norms.

Throughout the seventeenth century, Parliament continued to punish and restrict those they called rogues. In 1603, Parliament reintroduced the act of branding rogues, with a ‘R’ the size of a shilling, with the punishment for repeat offence increased to death without benefit of clergy.[15] Within six months of ascending to the English throne, James I issued a proclamation to combat the threat of ‘Rogues’ who had ‘grow[en] againe and increase to bee incorrigible, and dangerous’.[16] In 1621, a draft bill in Parliament, though never passed, explicitly sought to subject ‘wandering rogues’ to extremely harsh conditions that amounted almost to slavery.[17] Increasingly too, English authorities used deportation as a solution. An Order of the Privy Council detailed that specific nations and geographies where rogues could be deported to, this included ‘the New-found Land, the East and West Indies, France, Germanie, Spaine, and the Low-countries, or any of them’.[18] In 1609, the Lord Mayor of London attempted to establish a fund to remove the city’s idle poor to Virginia, acquiring financial help from the livery companies to do so.[19] Although the scheme did not succeed, deportation to America and the Caribbean became increasingly popular in the seventeenth century, considered to be a solution to both a domestic problem while addressing the population problem in England’s fledgling colonies, where the death rate could be high. By the late seventeenth century, indentured servants and transported felons were both making an appearance in popular English literature. In Aphra Behn’s play, The Widow Ranter, or, The History of Bacon in Virginia (1690), a newly-arrived indentured servant in the colony humorously fails to understand colonial English rich in underworld slang. ‘You Rogue’, Widow Ranter says, ‘‘tis what we transport from England first’.[20] The mobility of ‘rogues’, and the difficulty of ‘placing’ them, made such individuals a focal point for intense debate about state regulation and visions of empire. While some MPs, like the Jacobean Edwin Sandys, saw the sending of ‘rogues’ to the colonies as a method that stabilized the colonies and solved domestic social ills, not all policy-makers advocated transportation. Francis Bacon believed it was a ‘Shamefull and Unblessed Thing’ to transport ‘the Scumme of People, and Wicked Condemned Men’ as the founding populations to American settlements.[21] Bacon warned that ‘they will ever live like Rogues’, for ‘rogues’ would ‘not fall to worke, but be Lazie, and doe Mischiefe, and spend Victuals, and be quickly weary’.[22]

During the War of the Three Kingdoms the term ‘rogue’ was used widely in the political pamphlets of either side, particularly in the Royalist literature, used to describe those who supported and fought for Parliament. The term became synonymous for rebel and was used regularly by royalist forces to highlight what they believed to be the treacherous behaviour of their enemies, or as the royalist commander John Compton, Earl of Northampton described them, ‘base rogues & Rebels’.[23] Parliamentarian forces became closely associated with the term ‘rogue’, as Royalists often used both together in nicknaming them: ‘Rogues and Round heads’, ‘you Roundheaded Rogues’, ‘these Roundheadly Rogues’.[24] As the staunch royalist Walter Balcanquall wrote from Scotland, that was ‘no better names then Rogues, and the base Multitude’ for the ‘offenders in the first uproare’ led by covenanters against the crown.[25] In America, support for Parliament was lukewarm and came mostly from the settlers of Massachusetts Bay. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, many parliamentary supporters resettled in Massachusetts, so much so that one Church of England minister claim that the ‘Governor of Boston’ was a ‘Rogue’ whilst the rest of the colony were ‘were Traitors & Rebels against the King’.[26] During the domestic conflicts of the 1630s to the 1650s, then, the term ‘rogue’ was widely associated with undesirable political allegiance and rebellion, particularly against the state. Following the restoration of the monarchy, Parliament once again acted to prevent people from becoming ‘incorrigable Rogues’ by legislating for the better relief of the poor, declaring that it was ‘for the good of the Poore’ that ‘Lawes and Statues as have formerly beene made for the apprehending of Rogues’.[27] Eight years later, Parliament passed an act in which local constables of towns and cities were to apprehend ‘rogues’ found begging or wandering and to punish them severely.[28] The fixation on trying to resolve the issue of transient people continued into the eighteenth century, with proposals for finding employment for the poor what would keep ‘all Rogues … kept and set to Work’.[29]

When used abroad in the colonies, the term ‘rogue’ developed similar connotations, while interactions with foreign peoples, cultures, and faiths imbued the term with a wider range of usages and meanings. Territorial and commercial expansion increased opportunities for English men and women to encounter, and even transform into, another type of rogue, the apostate. Alongside commercial and diplomatic interactions with India, the Levant and Persia, or ‘roguing nations’, religious exchanges with numerous faiths were an everyday part of life abroad. Rogue apostates not only highlighted the danger to the nation of cultural exposure abroad, but also presented a danger for the future reputation of the nation in tempting others to follow them. One example was in Constantinople, where the Levant Company reported that a, 1650, who refused to convert to Islam whilst in captivity, did so upon his release at the persuasion of yet another unnamed English apostate, disappearing from the English records all together.[30] However, it was not just conversion to Islam or Hinduism that the East India Company and Levant Company guarded against: they were also ever conscious of the presence of Catholicism. In 1648, one of the factors at Fort St. George reported back with great urgency to the East India Company that the grandson of the founder of the Fort had ‘turn’d Papist rogue’ and fled to Sao Tome.[31] Some years later the consul at Tripoli, Thomas Baker, described one Englishman who converted to Islam and having been ‘admitted into that accursed Superstition’, was ‘secured’ aboard a ship before the end of the day ‘like a Rogue’.[32] Similarly, Sir John Chardin recalled meeting a Georgian who had converted to Islam, describing him as a ‘rogue’ as he was a ‘Traytor’ to his faith and people.[33] The religious convert, much like the anti-royalist rogue or the ‘self-made rogue’, was an individual whom others perceived as having, through their deliberate actions, abandoned part of his or her national identity. This action was articulated as treachery against the state, against English laws, and the Protestant faith. The ‘rogue’, whether he travelled through Virginia or Shropshire, was always believed to operate outside national interests.
French painting of a Bellange beggar, or Beggar Looking through His Hat[34]
1. Matthew Sutcliffe, The practice, proceedings and lawes of armes (London, 1593; STC 23468), p. 64.
2. Thomas Harman, A caveat for commen cursetors vulgarely called vagabones (London, 1567; STC 12787), pp. 13-5.
3. Ibid., p. 15
4. John Awdelay, The fraternitye of vacabondes (London, 1561; STC 994), sig. Aiiiv
5. Harman, A caveat for commen cursetors, p. 13.
6. John Cowell, The interpreter (London, 1607; STC 5900), sig. BbIr, Mmm2v.
7. The Act for the Relief of the Poor, 5 Eliz. 1, c. 3; Statute of Artificers, 5 Eliz. 1, c. 4.
8. 39 Eliz. 1 c. 4; see also An acte for punishment of rogues, vagabonds and sturdie beggers (London, 1598; STC 8261.7).
9. Ibid.
10. Certaine articles concerning the statute lately made for the reliefe of the poor to be executed in London, by the churchwardens and overseers of every parish, according to the effect of the same statute (London, 1599; STC 9494.9).
11. Ibid.
12. Orders prescribed by her Majesties commandement by aduise of her counsell (London, 1595; STC 8243).
13. Patricia Fumerton, ‘“London's Vagrant Economy: Making Space for “Low” Subjectivity’, in Material London, ca. 1600, ed. by Lena Cohen Orlin (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), pp. 206-26 (p. 208).
14. Nandini Das, Renaissance Romance: The Transformation of English Prose Fiction, 1570—1620 (Ashgate: Burlington VT, 2011), p. 136. On the response to rogues in early modern English literature in general and an useful review of scholarship, see Rogues and Early Modern English Culture, ed. by Steve Mentz and Craig Dionne (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2006).
15. Vagabonds Act, 1 Jac. I, c. 7.
16. By the King a proclamation for the due and speedy execution of the statute against rogues, vagabonds, idle, and dissolute persons (London, 1603; STC 8333).
17. ‘Proposed bill in Parliament, condemning to servile work persons convicted of petty larcenies, rogues, &c, February 1621', The National Archives, SP 14/119, f. 132.
18. Ibid.
19. C.J. Ribton Turner, A History of Vagrants and Vagrancy and Beggars and Begging (London: Chapman and Hall, 1897), pp. 141-4.
20. Aphra Behn, The Widow Ranter, or, the History of Bacon in Virginia (London, 1690; Wing B1774), sig. Cv.
21. Francis Bacon, Of Plantations’, in The essayes or counsels, civill and morall (London, 1625; STC 1148), p. 199.
22. Ibid.
23. James Compton, The battaile on Hopton-Heath in Staffordshire, betweene His Majesties forces under the Right Honourable the Earle of Northampton, and those of the rebels (London, 1643; Wing B1162), p. 4.
24. Captain Aiscogh, A relation of the actions of the Parliaments forces (London, 1642; Wing R811), p. 3; A narration of the expedition to Taunton (London, 1645; Wing N158), p. 4; Gods revenge upon his Parliaments and peoples enemies (London, 1643; Wing G961), p. 6.
25. Walter Balcanquall, A large declaration concerning the late tumults in Scotland (London, 1643; STC 21906), p. 30.
26. Charles Thornton Libby and Robert E. Moody (eds), Maine Province and Court Records, Vol. II (Portland, MA: Maine Historical Society, 1928), p. 141; Jenny Hale Pulsipher, Subjects unto the Same King: Indians, English, and the Contest for Authority in Colonial New England (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), p. 54.
27. 14 Car. II., c. 12.
28. 22 and 23 Car. II., c. 7.
29. Proposals for making provisions for setting the poor on work (London, 1700; Wing P3728), p. 2.
30. 'Levant Company Records, c. 1650', The National Archives, SP 105/74, f. 281.
31. 'Thomas Ivy at Fort St. George to the President and Council at Surat, 17 January 1648', in English Factories in India, 1618—1669, Vol. VIII, ed. by William Foster (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1914) p. 298.
32. C.R. Pennell (ed), Piracy and Diplomacy in Seventeenth-century North Africa: The Journal of Thomas Baker, English Consul in Tripoli, 1677—1685 (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989), p. 126.
33. Sir John Chardin, The travels of Sir John Chardin into Persia and the East-Indies (London, 1686; Wing C2403), pp. 178-9.
34. French painting of a Bellange beggar, or Beggar Looking through His Hat, unknown artist (c.1615)
Usage Examples
'Roag (rogus) seemeth to come of the French (Rogu, i. arrogans) It signifieth with us an idle sturdy begger, that wandring from place to place without pasport'