Landholding in England/Chapter 12

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CHAPTER XII.— THE STATUTE OF VAGABONDS


"If the impotent creatures perish for lack of necessaries, you are the murderers, for you have their inheritance. … If the sturdy fall to stealing, robbing, and revenge, then are you the causers thereof, for you dig in, enclose, and withhold from them the earth out of the which they should dig and plow their living."—An Informacion and Petition against the Oppressors of the Poor Commons, Robert Crowley, afterwards Archdeacon of Hertford.

"Oh ! what a lamentable thing it is to consider, that there are not at this day ten plows, whereas were wont to be forty or fifty. Whereas your Majesties progenitors had an hundred men to serve them in time of peace and in time of wars, with their strength, policy, goods, and bodies, your Majesty have now scant half so many. And yet a great number of them are so pined and famished by the reason of the great scarcity and dearth of all kind of victuals, that the grete shepe-masters have brought into this noble realm, that they are become more like the slavery and paisantry of France than the ancient and goodly yeomanry of England."—Bishop Scory's Letter to Edward VI., printed in Strype's "Ecclesiastical Memoirs," Vol. II. Part ii. 492.


WE thus learn, from the Reformers themselves, that the seizure of the Church lands instantly drove out the smaller holders, or enormously enhanced their rents. Henry had given or sold (more often sold) the abbey lands to his creatures of the new nobility. Most of the lands were granted to be held in capite, subject to all the burdens of fines which this implied. The Court of Wards was erected — that most profitable business of trafficking in the marriages of orphan heirs.

The new race of landowners did not want small tenants—they were rather an encumbrance than otherwise; larger holders, of more substance, would pay more rent; and from this time forth landlords thought only of how much rent their land would bring them in. Sheep-farms—large in extent, and requiring few labourers — had been increased in the first place by the dearth of labour after the Black Death. Henry VII., who grew rich by fining great lords for keeping retainers, gave it another impetus—the great landowners became as anxious to get rid of their villeins as a little while before they had been to keep them. And as soon as enclosure increased, we find statutes against vagabondage instead of statutes of labourers. These causes affected three-fourths of the land ; now the fourth part came under the same conditions, in an intensified degree, because this fourth part was now held by new owners, suddenly come into a possession which they regarded as their own, to do as they would with it. Enclosure came in as with a flood. Vagabondage now became a hanging matter.

There is a frightful tradition that Henry VIII. hanged in all 72,000 persons. The tradition is mentioned by Harrison, Canon of Windsor, who wrote in the reign of Elizabeth, and he quotes from Jerome Cardan, the Italian physician who was called in to Edward. Cardan says that the Bishop of Lisieux told him in 1552 that Henry hanged the 72,000 in the last two years of his reign. Harrison perhaps thought this incredible, and so only says that Henry hanged this number of "great thieves, petty thieves, and rogues, in his time."[1] But the first statute, ordering the hanging of "a valiant beggar," or "sturdy vagabond." is the twenty-seventh of the reign, when Henry had only twelve years more to live, so that at this rate he must have hanged on an average 6000 a year. That the number of executions was very large is certain, and such a tradition does not arise unless public opinion has been impressed. In the Welsh MSS. of Lord Mostyn, there is a statement, that in one district of North Wales, "over 5000 men were hanged within the space of six years." If to the hanging of vagrants at ordinary times we add the executions after the six rebellions, the number would no doubt be very great, though the tradition is probably an exaggeration. Making every allowance for exaggeration, great numbers must have been put to death before such a tradition could arise, so near the time, and when the governing classes of England would have every motive for not spreading it. Another story says that when "Bluff King Hal" was told of the misdeeds of common folk, he used to cry: "Hang them up! Hang them up! "The statutes, by the way, show that the disorderly portion of the vagrants was recruited chiefly by discharged soldiers, returned from Henry's wars in France.

We shall now see how the nobility and gentry, enriched with the spoils of the Church, dealt with the dispossessed people—the people who as every contemporary Protestant writer and preacher confesses were made beggars by their new landlords.

One remarkable and ominous change there was when Edward VI. was crowned. For the first time at the coronation of a king of England—not excepting the coronation of the great Conqueror himself, the people were not asked if they would have him to be their king. They were only asked to give their assent and goodwill to his coronation, as they were bound by their duty of allegiance.[2]

The reign of Edward VI. was the reign of a child. The Lords of the Council, the sixteen persons to whom Henry had committed his kingdom and his son, ruled the country, and at first the young King's uncles, the Seymours, had the predominance. They had risen on Anne Boleyn's fall, and many believed they had compassed that fall. The whole conduct of the Duke of Somerset during the life of Henry is worse than dubious, but it cannot be denied that when, for a short time, he was supreme in England as Protector, he espoused the cause of the people. That he did so was one great cause of his ruin, for he offended the new possessors of abbey lands. Somerset had abbey lands himself, and his wanton robbery of Church property scandalises even Strype, the apologist of the Reformation.[3] Somerset even contemplated pulling down Westminster Abbey to build Somerset House, But he was less utterly vile than Warwick (afterwards Northumberland), who overthrew him, and I think we must believe that he really pitied the people. More especially he set himself against the clearing of the people off lands they had held from time immemorial.

The last instalment of these lands—the chantry and gild lands—had been sold at a vast price. But a curse seemed to rest on these gains. In 1549 the debts of the Crown amounted to £1,356,687, reckoning in the cost of the war with Scotland, the fortifications, and King Harry's debts. The rebellions in Norfolk, Cornwall and Devon cost £27,000, and when Somerset fell he too left debts.

The practical result of the change was to increase enormously the evils of "engrossing"—against which statutes had been made by Henry VII. and Henry VIII., because it was found that it decreased the number of men fit to bear arms. "Engrossing" meant throwing a number of small holdings into one large one. "Enclosing" at first meant the enclosing of the common pasture, but it now came to mean the enclosing of the "open fields," or "town lands," belonging to every village. Both processes cleared the people off the land. Indeed, it was the deliberate purpose of the new landlords to get rid of them. We always find statutes against vagabonds and statutes against enclosing and engrossing going together. It was never denied that the people were turned off the land, and suffered misery in consequence. But the more they were turned off, the more ferocious the statutes became. We need not suppose that men must be monsters of depravity if when they lose their work and their living they take to evil ways. To demand of thousands of men and women that they shall meekly lie down and die in the nearest ditch that gentlemen may grow rich by selling wool, may possibly be what they ought to do, but we may be quite sure that they will never do it. The framers of the Act 1 Edward VI. c. 3 speak as though their wickedness were phenomenal.

The first Act of the first Parliament of the Reformation was to pass the Act for uniformity in public worship—under pain of imprisonment for life and forfeiture of goods. Its third was the Act "for the punishment of Vagrants, and the Relief of the Poor." Under this innocent title was put forth the most frightful Act ever framed by any government in the world against its own people. If it had been enacted by William the Norman, 500 years before, after a foreign conquest, it would inspire horror, history would ring with it. But it was framed by Englishmen against Englishmen, by robbers against those they had just ruined ; and the Englishmen who framed it boasted that they had newly received the pure light of the Gospel.

The preamble starts by referring to the "godly Statutes" made by the King's "noble progenitors," which statutes have done no good, partly because of "foolish pity and mercy" on the part of those who ought to have carried them out, partly because there have always been more idle and vicious persons in England than "in other regions," and more "perverse." "If they were punished with death, whipping, and other corporal pain it were no more than they deserve." But on second thoughts the framers reflect that it is better to make them "profitable." So now:

Any person who brings before two Justices of the Peace "any runagate servant, and any other which liveth idle and loitering by the space of three days, shall have him for a slave." The justices shall cause him to be marked "with an hot iron on the breast, with the mark of V.," and adjudge him to be "the slave" of the person who brought him, or of that person's heirs and assigns, for two years; "and he shall take the said slave and give him bread and water, or small drink, and refuse meat, and cause him to work, by beating, chaining, or otherwise, in such work and labour as he shall put him unto, be it never so vile." And if "such slave" absent himself within the two years for fourteen days, then two justices shall adjudge him "to be marked on the forehead or the ball on the cheek with an hot iron with the sign of an S., and further shall be adjudged to be slave to his said master for ever." And if he runs away a second time, he shall be adjudged a felon—that is, shall be hanged. "It shall be lawful for any person, to whom shall be adjudged a slave, to put a ring of iron round his neck, arm, or leg." A Justice of the Peace may bind "a beggar man's child" apprentice up to the age of 14, and a woman-child up to 20 years of age. And "if the said child run away," his master may use him for the said term "as his slave." A "clerk convict or attainted" (perhaps for refusing to admit the supremacy in matters spiritual of the child Edward) was to be "a slave for one year" to any who would become bound for him, and to be used as a vagabond. This, if he could make his purgation. If he could not by law, then to be a slave for live years, and used in all respects except the branding as a slave.

Never before did any civilised government (or any uncivilised ?) give its poor subjects to its rich ones, to be slaves without wages, to be branded with "S" for "slave," to be whipped, chained, have a ring round their necks as though they were dogs, and be hanged if they tried to escape. England must have been a hell for the poor, and for the thousands of evicted and ruined peasant farmers, in the days of Edward VI. The monks were reviled for having fed the poor; the reforming Government made them slaves—not even wincing at the word, and incited their owners to beat them and chain them up. The words "or otherwise" are a direct incitement to actual starvation and torture.

The great soldier and statesman whom we call "the Conqueror" is handed down to execration because he cleared out fifty villages to make the New Forest. But what was that to this? And this Act was passed by the first Parliament of the Reformation—a Parliament which had just passed the Act for uniformity of worship—an Act stuffed with pious expressions and texts of Scripture, and satisfaction at the pure light of the Gospel shining at last upon England, and dispelling the old superstitions. One of those superstitions was that any poor starving beggar might be the Lord Himself, come back to earth to see how His brethren were treated by His disciples.

This Act has not much about the impotent poor. It says vaguely that they are to have convenient houses provided for them, in the places where they were born, or lived three years, "by the willing and charitable dispositions" of the parishioners; and it was evidently thought that these dispositions would chiefly show themselves in licences to beg.[4] To some extent this infamous Act defeated itself. Even the Ministers of Edward VI. saw that it would not do, and it was not put in force, as to its very worst features, for much more than a year.

Nothing was wanting to complete the misery of the people : the coinage was debased, provisions were dear, there was a dearth. The streets and alleys of London were full of poor creatures, some of them positively dying in the streets. Latimer says he cannot "go to his book" for the poor people who come to complain to him. The evidence shows an actual diminution of population. Three years later so much of the Act cited as "tendeth to make vagabonds slaves" was repealed, but all the rest was left. The reason seems to have been that the local authorities shrank from carrying out so atrocious a law. But the spirit of the lawmakers remained unchanged; in 1559 Elizabeth contemplated the revival of this slave law "with additions."

"To preach the Gospel to the poor, deliverance to the captives, to set at liberty them that are bruised." What greater contrast could there be between that first Gospel and this? That made the poor its first concern; this gave the poor the statute against vagabonds.

But it was not religion that prompted the 1 Edward VI. c. 3. It was greed. When Henry VIII. and the Government of Edward VI. seized the lands, to distribute them among the rich as their private property, they opened the floodgates of covetousness. It is pitiful to hear Latimer, Lever, and Gilpin uttering their futile denunciations of covetousness and oppression, as though they thought that vultures could be talked into relinquishing their prey. The prize was too great. Such a prize had never been dangled before the eyes of any body of men since the Norman Conquest ; and with a few sporadic exceptions (such as the New Forest), the effect of the Conquest itself was not to choke the highways with dispossessed and starving "out-o'-works." The preamble is a wholesale indictment of the English lower orders from time immemorial, but, the admission that "foolish pity and mercy" was felt for vagabonds shows that they were not regarded by the public as public enemies.

When Edward VI. succeeded his father it was ten years since the suppression of the smaller houses, and nearly seven since that of the larger. Many must have died in the interval, and many more must have become "sickly" and diseased from privation. It is certain that the misery was unparalleled. It appalled every man who was not himself an encloser. And, from whatever motive, the Protector Somerset signified his own death-warrant by attempting to relieve it.


  1. Alfred Marks, "Tyburn Tree," pp. 142, 143.
  2. Eachard.
  3. Strype wrote in the early eighteenth century, but he consulted original documents, and in spite of his strong bias in favour of the Reformation, he is very severe on the oppression of the new landlords and the unspeakable misery of the people in the reign of Edward VI.
  4. John Stow, the historian, was kindly granted a licence to beg by James I.