Vagrancy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England

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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 This legislation was the policy for over twenty years until it was repealed in 1593 for being too strict.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 It is important to note the history of these laws since many of them were never entirely repealed.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).

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