In a speech to the Lord Mayor and the governors of Christ’s Hospital in 1676, Benjamin Long demanded that all vagrants leave London so they would no longer ‘infest the Air’ of the city with their ‘noysom breath’.[1] Long’s speech was partly a reaction to the rapid population growth of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which had resulted in a large underemployed migratory labour force.[2] The effects of the glut in the rural labor market meant that England’s towns and cities underwent a period of substantial urban growth, as people migrated from rural to urban areas in search of work. From 1520 to 1700, London’s population increased nearly tenfold, from 60,000 to an estimated 575,000, bringing increased numbers of unemployed or seasonally employed ‘maisterlesse men’ who migrated to the city.[3] Local and national authorities perceived such people as a threat to hierarchical society, and sought to restrict and prevent the influx of the unemployed poor.[4] One method of doing so was to categorise the poor, differentiating between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving, or the ‘impotent poore’ and ‘impudent poore’.[5] ‘Vagrants’ were placed in the latter category. Scorned for their landlessness, mobility, and suspect occupations, vagrants, alongside rogues, vagabonds, slaves, apostates, itinerant ministers, and others, were considered a ‘blemish of our government, and a burthen to the commonwealth’.[6] Authorities placed vagrants under severe legal restrictions that were both popular and increasingly onerous, introducing ‘extreme punishement of all vagarantes’.[7] By the end of the seventeenth century, Long’s perception of vagrants as a ‘verminous brood’ who ‘swarm and poison our streets’ was commonplace, as was his hope that they ‘meet with the lash, and be taught the Lesson of Industry’.[8]

Throughout such debates, authorities used the term ‘vagrant’ to refer to specific individuals, and as a blanket word for the undeserving poor, defined by unemployed migratory status. Occupying the other side of the spectrum were the ‘deserving poor’, who were increasingly provisioned for on a local level through national and parish legislation. The deserving poor included those who were precluded from working due to age, health or familial situations, in need of charity ‘through necessitie and not of choise’.[9] Often the deserving poor were linked to specific parishes, whereas the vagrant was defined by their mobility and a lack of belonging, with early modern descriptions emphasising their placelessness. As early as 1496, statutes were passed ordering parishes to provide provisions for these individuals.[10] At the same time those who were considered to fall within the brackets of these ‘uncomely companies’ of ‘idle vagrants’ were immediately placed beyond the boundaries of poor relief and considered ‘altogether unworthy of any almes’.[11] ‘Swarming like caterpillars’, vagrants were accused of ‘walking without shame, in theft, drunkennesse, and whoredome, in prophanenesse of life, and all ungodlinesse, swearing and cursing, lying and murthering, begetting a monstrous ofspring’.[12] In creating strict legislation against them, authorities hoped to prevent ‘indiscreete and wastfull giving’ to ‘counterfeit poore, or to vagrant and inordinate persons’.[13] Between 1550 and 1700, vagrants expanded to include a variety of professions that were believed to be socially and legally unacceptable: seamen, who lived ‘alwaies as vagarants’, to ‘tinkers’, ‘pedlers’, ‘English fugitives, vagrant in forraine Regions’, ‘Mercenarie preachers’ and ‘Usurers, Brokers … Ruffians, Blasphemers, Tiplers, Churles, Wantons, Pedlers of pernicious wares; Seminaries, Incendiaries, Apostates, Humorists’.[14] Whether considered an individual vagrant or a member of the vagrant grouping, those who were identified by it were seen to be ‘seditious troublers of our peace’ by the legal, political, and religious leaders of Tudor and Stuart England.[15]

Local and national authorities regularly legislated against vagrancy. This served to reminded vagrants of the legal and governmental forces that were vigilant to their presence, and reminded officials to enforce the law and punish those judged to be vagrants. Although parliament had passed statutes against ‘Vagarauntz’ as early as the first half of the fifteenth century, a stream of legislation emerged under the Tudors and Stuarts.[16] Punishment varied and became increasingly harsh. Initially arrested vagrants were given ‘three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water’, a punishment that changed in 1530 to a whipping. Six years later, the punishment for repeat offenders was at first cropping, then execution.[17] The Duke of Somerset’s 1547 Vagabonds Act provided for certain kinds of vagrants to be enslaved for a period of two years, and if caught trying to escape, the slavery extended for life.[18] Although quickly repealed in favour of a previous statute, the act, as Ben Lowe has described it, ‘symptomatic of the desperation’ successive governments felt at the ‘social dislocations that were occurring throughout the realm.’[19]

Subsequently this dislocation would encourage the development of the Elizabethan poor laws, which included the 1572 Vagabond Act, which required local ‘Overseers of the Poor’ to survey and register ‘all aged poor impotent and decayed persons and punish the individuals harshly.[20] Yet as with the repeal of the 1547 act mentioned above, the more draconian elements were revised in 1597, as few local authorities were willing to enact punishments, instead favouring ‘vagrants wandrying and misordering themselves’ be punished by imprisonment ‘there to remayne without bayle or maynprise.’[21] However, although the 1597 Vagabonds Act which followed did act as a reprieve to the more gruesome punishments, it also introduced penal transportation as a form of punishment for the first time as well as impressment into the navy.[22] The act also directed local authorities as to how they were to deal with vagrant women and children, ordering them to ‘be placed with the husband’, and if he was dead then the wife and children were to be sent to ‘where she was borne or dwelt.’ Furthermore, if the ‘the vagrant Parents’ of children died, local authorities were ordered that they ‘once setled must remaine there still’ and rely on charity until the age of seven.[23] This series of acts and statutes that had been passed over the sixteenth century by successive Tudor governments highlighted the concerns of English officials to combat growing levels of internal migration. Through a combination of incentives and punitive measures, they emphasise the identification and legal ‘placing’ of a person within a specific locality, and then forcibly encourage them to settle there.

In the final years of Elizabeth’s reign, the 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor refined all previous acts, establishing a national system of poor relief, punishment and correction that fundamentally distinguished between the settled poor and vagrants. The Act set out the Church as the sole enforcer, ordering parishes to provide poor relief and set to work the able-bodied poor, including vagrants, and to send those who refused to ‘the house of correction or common Gaol’.[24] Following the coronation of James I, the Act continued to be enforced, and attempts to bolster its effectiveness included new compedia outlining how to apply the law more forcefully.[25]

In 1656, William Foster produced an account of the law in practice, detailing how various counties across England had enforced the Act. This included a case involving a ‘Vagrant going under the name of a Souldier’ in Kent, who was charged with ‘being an idle person, and intending craftily, falsely, and feloniously to deceive and defraud the Keepers of the Libertie of England’.[26] The 1601 Act required that each parish be responsible for poor relief and the punishment of vagrants, and this led to some concern over the status of migrant people in more generous parishes by the second half of the seventeenth century. The Act for the Better Relief of the Poor of this Kingdom (1662), also known as the Settlement Act, attempted to deal with these concerns by establishing which parish a person belonged to, and so who was responsible for their regulation.[27] The Settlement Act also reintroduced transportation as a punishment to individual vagrants who justices of the peace ‘shall think fit to be transported’ to English colonies.[28] Although Parliament continued to legislate against vagrants, the enforcement of the law varied across the country. Local authorities, such as those in London, interpreted the law in different ways to deal with the pressures created by the poor and vagrants in their constituencies.
The effects of the series of acts that sanctioned the transportation of vagrants to England’s Atlantic colonies were discussed and contested throughout the seventeenth century. Although the policy of penal transportation had its detractors, some viewed the forced transportation of ‘vagrants’ to English colonies as a twin solution: it rid the nation of its perceived undesirables while helping address the low population numbers in developing colonies.[29] Richard Boothby, in his description of Madagascar, suggested that the transportation of vagrants would ‘disburden’ the nation ‘of many unnecessary idle vagrant people’ therefore benefiting ‘English Planters’ and the nation.[30] Likewise, the MP and governor of the East India Company, Josiah Child, noted the juxtaposition that the success of England’s colonies had been ensured by a ‘sort of loose vagrant People.’[31] The early modern vagrant was part of a social category that was always determined to leave the individual on the outside. It often involved voluntary migration, perhaps, but also circumstances that forced movement and travel onto people.

The mass migration of the poor into towns and cities fuelled the dramatic population growth of England’s cities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, meaning those categorized as ‘vagrants’ played a key, although negatively-viewed, part in the growth of urban spaces. In 1643, the City’s Common Council received petitions ‘against a multitude of vagrant persons, men, women and children, which after the manner of Hawkers’ sold pamphlets against King Charles.[32] On another occasion vagrants were accused of committing ‘divers burglaries, robberies, fellonies’, leading the Lord Mayor to order the establishment of watches and searches be mounted ‘for any idle, loose, lewd and suspicious persons’.[33] Such reports not only played into the common fears that vagrants were dangerous to social order, but seemed to confirm it. As noted in the discussion of the related term, ‘rogue’, literature and plays provided a means of both expressing and exploiting that anxiety. The subject of paranoid fixation, vagrants became scapegoats for tribulations that the City and the nation faced. Those who were most vulnerable to the large-scale socio-economic changes of the period, therefore, were also those often more harshly punished for their existence.

When describing non-English individuals, the term ‘vagrant’ also came to be associated with wandering pastoral life, rather than poverty and subversiveness. In his travel compendium, Richard Hakluyt noted the existence of vagrant peoples in Russia, particularly the Tartars. As in England, Tartars were described as ‘living a wild and vagrant life’ by refusing to submit to Russian authorities, yet Hakluyt conjectured that the origin of the term ‘Tartar’ must ‘signifieth a Shepheard or one that followeth a vagarant and wilde kinde of life’.[34] This notion of ‘vagrant’ as related to the pastoral was nonetheless less frequent than associations with forced or desperate migration. In his account of the Ottoman Empire, Richard Knolles associated vagrants with political exiles who ‘lead a poore exiled and vagrant life’, ‘banished’ and destined to ‘lead a miserable and vagrant life’.[35] The English view of vagrants as individuals who were both recalcitrant and at times sympathetic figures often featured in accounts of foreign lands, particularly those where the English considered the governing regimes to be particularly corrupt. Overall, however, the English attitudes towards their own ‘vagrants’ remained severe, pitting them as a challenge to established law.
Vagrant being punished through the streets in Tudor England (c.1536)[36]
1. Benjamin Long, An oration spoken in the grammar-school of Christ's-Hospital before the right honourable the Lord Mayor (London, 1675; Wing O366), p. 8.
2. Keith Wrightson and David Levine, Poverty and Piety in an English Village: Terling, 1525—1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 4; Philip Stubbes, The second part of the anatomie of abuses (London, 1583; STC 23380), p. 367.
3. Peter Clark and Paul Slack, English Towns in Transitions, 1500—1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 83; Wrightson and Levine, Poverty and Piety, p. 4.
4. A. L. Beier, Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560—1640 (New York, NY: Methuen, 1986).
5. Nehemiah Rogers, The good Samaritan; or an exposition on that parable (London, 1658; Wing R1823A), p. 91.
6. John Downame, The plea of the poore (London, 1616; STC 7146), p. 38.
7. Thomas Harman, A caveat for commen cursetors vulgarely called vagabones (London, 1567; STC 12787), p. 3.
8. Long, An oration spoken, p. 8.
9. Downame, The plea of the poore, p. 38; Rogers, The good Samaritan, p. 91.
10. 11 Hen. VI. c. 2.
11. Robert Allen, A treatise of christian beneficence, and of that like christian thankefulnese which is due to the same (London, 1600; STC 367), A2r.
12. William Westerman, Two sermons of assise (London, 1600; STC 25282), p. 23.
13. Allen, A treatise of christian beneficence, p. 67.
14. Richard Barckley, A Discourse of the felicitie of man (London, 1598; STC 1381), p. 367; Anno quinto et sexto Eduardi Sexti Actes made in the session of this present parlament, holden upo[n] prorogacion at Westminster (London, 1552; STC 9433), xxx; George Whetstone, The English myrror (London, 1586; STC 25336), p. 173; Francis Johnson, An answer to Maister H. Jacob (London, 1600; STC 14658), p. 164; Thomas Adams, The devills banket described in foure sermons (London, 1614; STC 110.5), p. 13.
15. Adams, The devills banket, p.13.
16. Rolls of parliament (Rotuli parliamentorum), V. 113/1.
17. 11 Hen. VI c. 2; 22 Hen. VIII c. 12; 27 Hen. VIII c. 25.
18. 1 Edw. VI c. 3; C.S.L Davies, ‘Slavery and Protector Somerset; The Vagrancy Act of 1547’, The Economic History Review, 19 (1966), pp. 533-49.
19. Ben Lowe, Commonwealth and the English Reformation: Protestantism and the Politics of Religious Change in the Gloucester Vale, 1383—1560 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), p. 135.
20. 14 Eliz. I c. 5.
21. Anno xiiij. reginae Elizabethe at the Parliament begunne and holden at Westminster the eyght of Maye, in the xiiij. yere of the raigne of our most gratious soveraigne lady Elizabeth (London, 1572; STC 9477a.5).
22. 39 Eliz. 1 c. 4; see also An acte for punishment of rogues, vagabonds and sturdie beggers (London, 1598; STC 8261.7).
23. Ibid.; see also By the Queene. A proclamation for the due observation of fish dayes, suppressing of unneccessary number of alehouses, and for the better execution of the late acte for punishment of rogues, vagabonds and beggers (London, 1600; STC 8271).
24. 40 Eliz. I c. 2.
25. The complete justice (London, 1637; STC 14887.5), pp. 132, 177, 223-6.
26. William Foster, The lay-mans lawyers revieved & enlarged (London, 1656; Wing F1611), p. 67.
27. 14 Car. II c. 12.
28. Ibid.
29. Francis Bacon, ‘Of plantation’, in The essayes or counsels, civill and morall (London, 1625; STC 1148), p. 199.
30. Richard Boothby, A briefe discovery or description of the most famous island of Madagascar (London, 1647; Wing B3744), p. 29.
31. Josiah Child, A discourse about trade (London, 1690; Wing C3853), pp. 170-2.
32. City of London, An Act of Common Councell, for the prohibiting of all persons whatsoever, from crying or putting to sale about the streets within this city, and liberties, any pamphlets, books, or papers whatsoever, by way of hawking, to be sold and for the punishment of the offenders therein, according to the custome and law of this city (London, 1643; Wing L2851P).
33. Ibid.
34. Richard Hakluyt, The principal navigations (London, 1598-1600; STC 12626a), pp. 475, 490.
35. Richard Knolles, The generall historie of the Turkes (London, 1603; STC 15051), pp. 13, 160, 867.
36. Vagrant being punished through the streets in Tudor England, woodcut by unknown artist (c.1536)
Usage Examples
'Vagrants, begone! and no more infest the Air of London with your noysom breath. It is pity, that such a verminous brood should swarm and poyson our streets.'