An Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds, and for Relief of the Poor and Impotent (Vagabond Act), 14 Elizabeth I, c. 5, 1572 Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1572/14Eliz1n5
The Vagabond Act is on display at Norfolk Record Office in Ballots and Bills: Exploring Norfolk's Parliamentary Past. The exhibition explores the history of Norfolk’s representation in Parliament through a series of diverse examples including electoral reform in Kings Lynn, Norwich’s involvement with the development of poor law legislation, the disenfranchisement of freemen and subsequent reform in Great Yarmouth, and the impact of Norwich’s first female MP Dorothy Jewson. More information can be found here.
Why was the Vagabond Act significant?
The Vagabond Act provided measures for poor relief and implemented punishment for “masterless men”. The act is notable for providing the some of the first measures for poor relief, by stipulating that Justices of the Peace were required to survey and register “all aged poor impotent and decayed persons” within their divisions. They were then to introduce a weekly tax to all other inhabitants in order to provide a small allowance to the registered poor.
The act is also notable for implementing schemes of punishment for “masterless men” including “all fencers, bearwards, common players of interludes, and minstrels (not belonging to any baron of this realm, or to any other honourable person of greater degree), wandering abroad without the license of two justices at the least, who were subject to be “grievously whipped and burned through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron of the compass of an inch about.” This greatly affected travelling theatre troupes and players.