Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Vagrants and Vagabonds in Tudor England

by Deborah Swift

Jacques Bellange (c. 1575–1616)
The Beggar Looking Through his Hat 
Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark!
The beggars are coming to town:
Some in rags, some in jags*
And one in a velvet gown 

Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown,
And some gave them a horse-whip,
And sent them out of town.

Tudor London attracted vagrants and beggars from all over England, who were in search of the rich pickings of the city. The Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 led to an increase in the number of vagrants, as the monasteries had been the chief source of charity, and had also provided employment for vast numbers of people who worked for them as agricultural labourers. The nursery rhyme above is attributed to this time. Because travel by horsepower was so slow, it was unusual for people to reside outside their birth town, and so all migrant travellers were treated with a degree of suspicion, especially if they were poor. This is why travelling actors had to procure a licence.

Sites of the Monasteries
There was of course, no police force, so crime was an enormous problem, tackled by extreme punishments designed to act as a deterrent. More than 70,000 people were executed during the reign of Henry VIII, many for what we would consider minor offences. Stealing was a hanging offence, and begging outside your home area was punishable by being tied to a cart and flogged, or locked in the stocks to be pelted by passers-by.

Village Stocks in Beetham Lancashire

There were so many beggars that a law was passed in 1547 which stated that anyone who was homeless could be made to be a slave for a period of two years. Should they run away from their master, they would then be branded with a 'V' and committed to slavery for life. This law was, unsurprisingly, extremely unpopular, and was revoked three years later in 1550. The 1563 Act reaffirmed the policy of whipping able-bodied beggars, but to prevent offenders from persistent begging a further Act stated that vagabonds should be burned through the right ear and, if they were arrested again, they could be imprisoned and executed. These policies of ear-boring and hanging remained the law until 1593.

With draconian punishment the order of the day, many turned to crime. A book published in 1552, 'A Manifest Detection of Diceplay' gives the first written evidence of the criminal underworld operating in Tudor London, and says that 'sleight and crafty deceit ... is common in every corner.' There were five prisons in London, to house the burgeoning number of petty criminals: The Clink, The Compter, The Marhalsea, The King's Bench and the White Lyon. The underworld looked to its own, however, and specific areas, such as Alsatia, and Southwark, became known as places where those on the run from the law could find refuge. And of course they were also the places where any rich man needed to guard his purse.

Beggar being whipped through town

The Poor Relief Act of 1576 was supposed to be the solution, but in fact it divided the poor into two categories:

The Deserving Poor This category was for those people who wanted to work but were unable to find suitable employment. The first category included the old, the sick, and widows, who were provided accommodation in almshouses and orphanages with a productive but sedentary activity such as spinning or weaving, by which they earned their Poor Relief, which was provided by each parish through taxation.
The Undeserving Poor Also called 'sturdy beggars', this category was for those who were physically able to work but chose not to. They gained no sympathy and were to be whipped through the town until they learnt the error of their ways. Many poor workers were harried from town to town as they sought work, and many feigned sickness in order to fall into the category where they would qualify for Poor Relief. The alternative for these people was the 'house of correction', where the able-bodied but persistently unemployed or in debt could be punished.

The first house of correction was Bridewell in London, and many other such institutions were called 'bridewells' after it. Bridewell was opened in 1533 in a former royal palace on the banks of the Fleet River and also housed homeless children. Because of this, it also became the first major charitable institution. The picture below shows it in Tudor times - after the Great Fire of London in 1666, it had to be rebuilt.

However, the main purpose of a house of correction was to punish offenders, so they would correct their behaviour, and not just to be a depriver of liberty. Punishment was usually either hard labour, or whipping which could be observed as entertainment from the public gallery. The most common charges against prisoners were prostitution, petty theft, and something called 'loose, idle and disorderly conduct'. More than two-thirds of the prisoners were female, and many were recent migrants to London. These women, often widows trying to support their families, were also put to hard labour, and a common task for female offenders was beating hemp to make linen. 

The 1597 Act required each town to provide a prison, such as Bridewell, for vagrants and thieves, and paid for by local taxes. In the Tudor mind, there was barely a distinction between a beggar and a thief. Beggars caught offending were punished and then returned to their native parish.This system caused a great burden on parishes where harvests had failed, and whole populations were condemned to one area, unable to seek sustenance elsewhere. Surprisingly, most prisoners in houses of correction were released within a week of their imprisonment, so they could return home and to make room for others who needed this short, sharp shock of a punishment. 

Matters were made worse by a series of bad harvests in the 1590s, and the fact that during the reign of Elizabeth I, the population grew by a third - from three to four million people. By now, London was the biggest city in Europe with a population of somewhere between 130,000 and 150,000. To deal with this, The 1601 Poor Law consolidated all these various acts and laws to form one cohesive whole. It remained largely in place until the 18th-century workhouse movement began at the end of the 17th century. 

Giacomo Ceruti 1720  Little Beggar Girl and Woman Spinning
* Jags - Slashes or slits exposing material of a different colour, and popular during the Tudor period.

The Elizabethan Underworld by Gamini Salgado
Everything You Wanted to Know about The Tudors, But Were Afraid to Ask by Terry Breverton
Life in Tudor England by Penry Williams 
BBC The Tudors
Pictures from Wikpedia, or my own unless otherwise linked.

Deborah Swift is an ex-costume designer for the BBC, and the author of four historical novels, and three more for young adults. She lives in the north of England in a 17th century village, with her husband and lucky black cat. Find out more on her website , where she has a historical fiction blog or follow her on Twitter @swiftstory

You might also like Lowlifes of Elizabethan London, also on this blog.


  1. I sometimes think that if there were public galleries where you could watch whippings or public stocks where you could throw things at the victims in this century, there would be plenty of takers. At this point in time, all they can do is write letters to the paper about those lazy good for nothings living off the taxes of hardworking taxpayers such as the author of the letter. But ah, if they could throw rubbish at beggars or cheer at the whippings! They would.

    1. Hi Sue, I'm rather glad those times have gone. I might have ended up in there!

  2. Terrific picture of the times, and I'm also glad I didn't live there. By the way, the Marshalsea is missing an "s". On the subject of slavery, the only white slaves I was aware of were miners ... no one would volunteer, and it ran in families, sort of a "caste system". What else did the slaves have too do? Serve in the Navy? I recall it was Charles II who freed them ... do you know if am I right?

  3. Great Article Deb..another example of English reformation attitudes. This scene reminds us of the harsh reproach of the Son of Man in the Last Judgment: “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was […] naked and you did not clothe me” (Matthew 25:42-43). Lazarus well represents the silent cry of the poor of all times and the contradiction of a world in which immense riches and resources are in the hands of a few.

    Jesus says that one day that rich man will die: the poor and the rich die, they have the same destiny, as do all of us; there are no exceptions to this. As Rc's we pray of the conversion of England.


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