Elizabeth I’s second parliament, which met early in 1563, embarked on a busy legislative programme. There was an act reinforcing the royal supremacy, another regulating the navy and the famous Statute of Artificers, which set out the regulative framework for the economy and what we would now call industrial relations. There were also statutes making witchcraft and ‘buggery’ (covering not only male homosexual acts but also bestiality) felonies punishable by death. The twentieth statute passed by this parliament was an ‘act for further punishment of vagabonds, calling themselves Egyptians’.
This legislation, building on earlier statutes of 1531 and 1554, was directed against not just so-called ‘Egyptians’, or Gypsies, as they subsequently became known, but also people born in England who ‘are or shall become of the fellowship or company of the said vagabonds, by transforming or disguising themselves in their apparel, or in a certain counterfeit speech or behaviour’. Such individuals, living ‘upon the spoil of the simple people’, needed to be ‘condignly met withal and punished’. The act stipulated that anybody adopting an ‘Egyptian’ lifestyle, along with ‘Egyptians’ proper, should suffer death by hanging. Gypsies were clearly considered a problem in Tudor England.
David Cressy’s excellent new book describes how Gypsies fared in Tudor times and thereafter, in the face of the continuing tendency of officialdom and settled society to regard them as problematic. Almost certainly of Indian origin, these dark-skinned people began to appear in central and western Europe in the late