I watched Panorama a few days ago about the Irish Travellers on Dale Farm and felt my sympathies torn between a marginalised, outcast group struggling to survive in a hostile environment, and the logic and rationality of an argument which asserts that we can't have one law for some and another for others.
Described as the largest illegal traveller site in Europe, Dale Farm in Basildon is on designated Greenbelt land, and the local council said the travellers had broken the law by building on it. As the legal battle raged through the High Court and beyond, activists from across Britain converged on the site ready to defend the travellers' right to remain. For the council, this was the culmination of a legal fight which has cost them millions. For the travellers, it was the last stand to keep their homes.
The fact of the matter is that the Travellers had broken the law. However, it was evident from some of their neighbours' reactions and the reactions of those who sought their eviction that some element of racism and prejudice played a large part in the antipathy and desire for their removal. The story sparked in me an interest in the history of Travellers/Gypsies in England.
Throughout the late medieval and early modern period Gypsies were subject to profound legal oppression across Europe. In England and Wales they were treated under the brutal sixteenth-century vagrancy laws, and were specifically included in the 1597 Vagrants Act.
The English term Gypsy (or Gipsy) originates from the Greek word for "Egyptian", Αιγύπτιοι (Aigyptioi, whence modern Greek γύφτοι gifti). From the fact of their formerly common occupation as tinkers, it has been conjectured by some that they have inhabited these islands from medieval times. "Tinkler" and "Tinker," as proper names, can be traced to the thirteenth century at least; but in those days there seem to have been two classes of tinkers, the one sedentary, and perhaps equivalent to our modern ironmongers, and the other styled "wandering tinkers," who were the itinerant menders of our pots and pans. Bataillard has suggested that Gypsies may have come over to England so early as 1440. Certainly the party which visited Paris in August 1427 took a northward direction on leaving, and as the English were then ruling in the French capital, it is very probable that the Gypsies would hear of these more northerly happy hunting-grounds, and feel inclined to pay them a visit of inspection. Borrow says they first came to England "about the year 1480," which is just half a century before the English Parliament began a series of repressive efforts. Sir George M'Kenzie, who died in 1691, has recorded a tradition that between 1452 and 1460 a company of Saracens or Gypsies from Ireland infested the country of Galloway, in Scotland, and the King promised the barony of Bombie to whomsoever should disperse them and bring in their captain dead or alive. The laird of Bombie's son, a Maclellan, killed the captain, and took his head on a sword to the king. Thereafter Maclellan took for his crest a Moor's head, and for a motto "Think on". Simpson adds: "In the reign of James II [of Scotland], away putting of soruers [forcible obtruders], fancied fools, vagabonds, out-liers, masterful beggars, bairds [strolling rhymers], and such like runners about, is more than once enforced by Acts of Parliament" . In 1449 an Act was passed in which "overliers and masterful beggars" are described as going about the country with "horses, hunds, and other goods" a fact which acquires a further value when compared with the statement of Krantz, that on the Continent the first Gypsies kept hunting-dogs like the nobility.
As yet no positive mention of Gypsies in England earlier than 1505 has been discovered, but in 1492 the Gypsies were expelled from Spain, which would drive some at least into France, if not into England, while in 1500 they were expelled from the German Empire, and on 27th July 1504 they were expelled from France. The first undoubted record referring to Gypsies in Great Britain is: "1505, Apr. 22. Item to the Egyptianis be the Kingis command,vij lib."A few months later, in July 1505, we find the Scottish King, James IV, writing to the King of Denmark to commend Anthony Gagino, a lord of Little Egypt, who, with his retinue, had a few months previously reached Scotland during a pilgrimage through the Christian world, undertaken at the command of the Apostolic See. The draft of this curious letter is preserved in Scotland, and the original is in Denmark. In 1514, at an inquest respecting the death of Hunne in the Lollards' Tower, one of the witnesses mentioned an Egyptian woman who had been lodging at Lambeth, but had gone overseas a month before, and who could tell "marvellous things" by looking into one's hand .Under the date 1517, Edward Hall, in his Chronicles (published in 1548), describes two ladies at a Court mummery as having their heads rolled in a kind of "gauze, and tippers" like the Egyptians "embroidered with gold"; and under the date 1520, he says that at a state banquet eight ladies came in attired "like to the Egyptians," very richly. Between 1513 and 1523 some "Gypsions" were entertained by the Earl of Surrey at Tendring Hall, in Suffolk. About 1517 Skelton wrote his "Elynoure Eumminge," in which occurs her description." Her kirtell Bristowe red,With clothes upon her heade,That they way a sowe of leade,Wrythen iu a wonder wiseAfter the Sarazin's gise,With a whim-whamKnit with a trim-tramUpon her brayne panne,Liice an EgyptianCapped aboutWhen she goeth oute."In October 1521 William Cholmeley gave certain "Egyptions" at Thornbury the large sum of forty shillings, which would be equivalent to about twenty pounds. In 1522 the churchwardens of Stratton, in Cornwall, received twenty-pence from the "Egypcions" for the use of the Church House. In 1526 Skelton published his Garland of Laurel, of which line 1455 reads as follows: "By Mary Gipcy, quod scrips! scrips!" the allusion being to Sancta Maria 'gyptiaca,' showing the early abbreviation of "Egyptian" into "Gypsy," which is also found in Shakespeare. Samuel Eeid, in his Art of Juggling, assigns 1528 as the year when the Gypsies 'invaded' England, stating that it was then (in 1612) about an hundred years ago, about the twentieth year of King Henry the Eighth, when the "Egyptians collected in the south of England, having been banished from their own country, and excelled in quaint tricks and devices. They spoke the right Egyptian language, and got much by palmistry and telling of fortunes, and cheated poor country-girls of money, silver spoons, and the best of their apparel. Their leader was Giles Hather, whom they called King, and Kit Calot was their Queen. They rode on horseback and in Stransje attire." Thornbury says their chief in Henry VIII time was Cock Lorel. Harrison, in his Description of England, which is prefixed to Holinshed's Chronicle, says it is not yet full threescore years since this trade began, and after describing various sorts of cheats, adds : "They are now supposed, of one sex and another, to amount unto above ten thousand persons; as I have heard reported. Moreover, in counterfeiting the Egyptian roges, they have devised a language among themselves, which they name Canting, but others pedlars' French, a speech compact thirty yeares since of English, and a great number of odd words of their owne devising, without all order or reason; and yet such is it as none but themselves are able to understand. The first deviser thereof was hanged by the neck, a just reward no doubt for his deserts, and a common end to ail of that profession."
In 1530, a quarter of a century after their expulsion from France, they had become an intolerable nuisance in England ; and the Act concerniug Egipcions was passed in 1530. It recites that:"Afore this tynie dyverse and many outlandysshe [foreign] People callynge themselfes Egyptians, usyng no Craftc nor faicte of Mercbanndyce had conien into this Realme and gone from Shire to Shire and Place to Place in greate Company, and used greate subtyll and crafty meanes to deceyve the People, beryng them in Hande [persuading them] that they by Palmestre coulde telle IMIenne and Womeus Fortunes and so many tymes by crafte and subtyltie had deceyved the People of theyr IMIoney and also had comytted many and haynous Felonycs and Kobberies to the greate Hurte and Deceyte of the People that they had comyn amonge."
In order to stop further immigration, it was enacted that: "From hensforth no suche Psone be suffred to come within this the Kynge's Realme." If they did, they were to forfeit all their goods, and to be ordered to quit the realm within fifteen days, and to be imprisoned in default. Further, if "any such straunger" thereafter committed any murder, robbery, or other felony, and, upon being arraigned, he pleaded not guilty, the jury was to be "alltogether of Englysshemen" instead of half Englishmen and half foreigners (medietatis linguw), which they were otherwise entitled to claim under Henry VI. All Egyptians then in England were to quit it within sixteen days after the Act was proclaimed, or to be imprisoned and to forfeit their goods; but if any of those goods were claimed as stolen, then they were upon proper proof to be forthwith restored to the owner; and, as an inducement to execute the Act zealously, all Justices of the Peace, Sheriffs, or Escheators, who seized the goods of any Egyptians,were to retain half of them as their own, and to account in the Court of Exchequer for the other moiety, and they were not to pay any fees or other charges upon rendering the account. This Act is duly noticed in L' office et audorytc des Justices de Peas, London, 1538.In 1530 the "Egyptianis that dansit before the king [James V of Scotland] in Halyrudhous" received forty shillings. No trace exists of another Act of Parliament which Hoyland alleges was passed in 1535. He states that, after a recital similar to that of the Act passed in 1530, it was enacted that they should quit the realm within a month, or be prosecuted as thieves and rascals, and any one importing them was to be fined £40. It is probable that Mr. Hoyland has made a mistake in the date, and meant 1555.
In 1531 John Popham was born at Huntworth or Wellington, in Somersetshire. He afterwards rose to be Lord Chief-Justice of England, and tried Guy Fawkes. While still a child he was stolen by a band of Gypsies, and "for some months," according to Campbell, or "for several years," according to Eoberts, was detained by them. They disfigured him, and burnt on his left arm a cabalistic mark; but their wandering life strengthened his previously weak constitution. About December 1536 "a company of lewd persons, calling themselves Gipcyans," were convicted of "a most shamefull and detestable murder commytted amonges them," but received the king's pardon, in which was " a speciall proviso, inserted by their owne consentes, that, onles they shuld avoyde this his grace's realme by a certeyn daye, . . . yt shuld be lawful to all his graces offycers to hang them . . . without any further . . . tryal." This pardon was filed in Chancery ; but the Gypsies, having recovered their liberty, were in no hurry to leave the country. Thomas Crumwell (Lord Privy Seal) wrote on December 5, 1537, to my lorde of Chestre, president of the Counsaile of the Marches of Wales," to "Laye diligent espiall throigliowte all the partes there aboutes you and the shires next adjoynyng whether any of the sayd personnes callin themiselfes Egipcyans or that hathe heretofore called themiselfes Egipsyans shall fortune to enter or travayle in the same. And in cace youe shall here or knowe of any suche, be they men or women, that ye shall compell them to repair to the next porte of the see to the place where they shall be taken and eyther wythout delayeuppon the first wyaide that may conveye them into any parte of beyond the sees to take shipping and to passe to outward partyes, or if they shall in any wise breke that coniniaundement without any tract to see them executed . . . without siwring uppon any commyssiou licence or placarde that they may shewe or aledge for themselfes."In 1542, twelve years after the first Act was passed. Dr. Andrew Borde, described the Gypsies of those days as: "swarte and disgisyd in theyr apparel contrary to other nacyons"; he adds, "They be lyght fyngerd and vse pyking; they have little maner and euyl loggyng, and yet they be pleasnt daunsers . . . there money is brasse and golde ... If there be any man that wyl learn parte of theyr speche, Euglyshe and Egipt speche foloweth." He gives thirteen sentences.
In the summer of 1544 Eobert Ap Kice, Esq., the Sheriff of Huntington, caused a large band of Gypsies, owning seventeen horses, to be apprehended under the Act passed in 1530. They were tried at a special assizes, a fact which probably indicates that the capture was one of unusual size and importance. They were convicted and sentenced to be taken in the custody of William Wever to Calais, the nearest English port on the Continent. A ship belonging to John Bowles was hired by the Admiralty for the purpose, the freight being £6, 5s., and the cost of victualing £2, 18s. The total expense was £36, 5s. 7d., but was reduced by the sale of the seventeen horses for live shillings each. The accounts were set out by Mr. Hoyland from the Book of Receipts and Payments of 35 Henry VIII. About Christmas 1544, a number of Gypsies, who had been imprisoned at Boston, in Lincolnshire, were by the king's command shipped from there and landed in Norway. Shortly afterwards four Gypsies came " from Lenn, thinkinge to have had shippinge here at Bostone as their company had," but '•' the Constables of the same towne immediatly not onely sett them in the stockes as vagaboundes,but also serched them to their shertes, but nothing cowde be found upon them, not so moche as wolde paie for their mete and drynke, nor none other bagge or baggage but one horse not worthe iiij s.," and "here beynge no shipping for them, the forseide constables of Bostone did avoyde them owte of the towne as vagaboundes towardes the nexte portes, which be Hull and Xewcastell" These facts are gathered from a letter of Nicholas Eobertson, of Boston, to Thomas, Earl of Essex, Lord Privy Seal, preserved amongst the Kecords of the Kolls' House. On January 21, 1545, at Hampton Court, a passport was granted for a party of Gypsies under Phillipe Lazer, their Governor, to embark at London, according to an order of the Admiralty.
The King of France, in 1545, entertained the notion of embodying four thousand Gypsies as pioneers to act against Boulogne, then held by the English. This is mentioned in a letter from the Council of Boulogne to the Privy Council of England, under date February 21, 1545, preserved in the State Paper Office, French Correspondence, vol. vi., No. 7 7, and printed in The Works of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, vol. i. p. 209, Letter XX., as follows :"It may like your good Lordships to be advertised that this day arrived here aspy for us that hath been long upon the frontier for that purpose."The news he had gathered was "That their army shall assemble about th' end of March, and that the Rhinecroft shall bring out of Almain twenty four ensigns for th' renforce of th' old bands, and six thousand Gascons to be new levied, and six thousand pioneers, besides four thousand Egyptians that shall serve for pioneers, whom it is thought the French King minding to avoid out of his realm, determineth before their departure to employ this year in that kind of service, and that by their help, before their dispatch he hopeth with a tumbling trench to fill the dykes of this town."On December 5, 1545 (37 Henry VIII.), a Bill was introduced into the House of Lords "pro animadversione in Egyptios." It was read on December 7 and 10, and referred to the Chief- Justice of the Common Bench. It was read the third time next day, and then sent to the Commons under the title "pro expulsione et supphcio Egyptorum". The printed Journal of the House of Commons only begins with 1547 (the year of King Henry's death), and, as the Statute Book does not include this edict, it probably failed to pass the Commons, who, in the first year of Edward VI, on November 17 and 23, and December 19, 1547, revived the subject by a Bill "for punishing vagrants and Egyptians." On December 20, it was taken to the Lords, and committed to the Lord Chancellor, and read on the following day; but this Bill likewise proved abortive, and is not found in the Statute Book.
In 1547 certain garments were made for two Egyptians. On January 19, 1549, the Justices of Durham wrote to the Earl of Shrewsbury, then Lord President of the Council in the North, a letter stating that "John Koland oon of that sorte of people callinge themselffes Egiptians "had" accused "Baptist Favjc, Amy Faiue, and George Faive, Egiptians," of having "counterfeate the Create Scale", that the accused persons had been apprehended, and amongst their things had been found "one wryting with a greate Seall moche like to the Kings Seall, which we bothe by the wrytinge and and also by the Seall do suppose to be counterfeate and feanyd." They sent the seal for examination, and informed his Lordship that the accused persons, with great execrations, denied allknowledge of the seal, and alleged that Eoland was "their mortall enemy and haithe oftentymes accused the said Baptist before this and is moche in his debte," and that they supposed he" or some of his complices haithe put the counterfeate Seall amongst their wrytyngs".
On June 22, 1549, the young king, Edward vi., writes in his jourual, "There was a privy search made through Sussex for all vagabonds, gipsies, conspirators, prophesiers, all players, and such like". On the 20th, 21st, and 30th November, and 1st December, 1554, a Bill was before the Commons "for making the coming of Egyptians into the Realm Felony!' It was taken to the Lords on the 1st, and read on the 3d, 5th, and 10th of December, and passed as "An Act against certain Persons calling themselves Egyptians". It recites the Act of 1530, but omits all mention of Mr. Hoyland's Act of 1535, and states that "divers of the said Company and such other like Persons had enterprised to come over again, using their old accustomed devilish and naughty Practices and Devices with such abominable Living as is not in any Christian Ptealm to be permitted, named, or known ; and that they were not duly punished." It was therefore enacted that after 31st January 1555, any one importing Gypsies should forfeit forty pounds; that any Gypsy so imported who remained in England one month should be deemed a felon, and forfeit his life, lands, and goods, being also deprived of the privileges of a mixed jury, of sanctuary, and of "benefit of clergy," that is to say, ability to read was to be no bar to the proceedings.
All Gypsies then in England or Wales were to depart within twenty days after proclamation of the Act, and any who stayed longer were to forfeit their goods, half to the crown and half to the person who should seize them. If they remained forty days after the proclamation the punishment was the same as for newly-imported Gypsies who stayed a month. From the next section of the Act it would appear that the penalties had been evaded by obtaining "licenses, letters, or passports"; but now, after 1st January 1555, any applicant for such protection was to forfeit forty pounds, and all such licences were to become void.