Laws Relating To the Gipsies

by William E. A. Axon, F.R.S.L.

Early in the fifteenth century the gipsies made their appearance in Europe, and as strangers were not favourably regarded in those days the advent of these dark-skinned people, speaking a language of their own, dressing in a picturesque, but uncommon costume, and having their own rulers, and their own code of morals, and owning no allegiance to the laws of the land in which they sojourned, naturally attracted attention. At first some credence was given to their high-sounding pretensions, and the dukes, counts, and lords of Lesser Egypt received safe conducts and protection under the idea that they were engaged in religious pilgrimages. But the seal of the Emperor Sigismund would not protect them when the term of their pretended pilgrimage had expired, nor would the manners and customs of the gipsies substantiate any special claim to sanctity or religious fervour. Even the ages when the divorce was most marked between religion and morals would be staggered by the thefts, and worse outrages that were laid to their charge. Sigismund’s safe conducts are said to have been given not as Emperor, but as King of Hungary, and some of the gipsies were early employed as ironworkers in the realm of St. Stephen. In 1496 King Ladislaus gave a charter of protection to Thomas Polgar and his twenty five tents of gipsies because they had made musket bullets and other military stores for Bishop Sigismund at Fünfkirchen, but whatever consideration may have been shewn to them in the beginning, they speedily became objects of suspicion and dislike. There is not a country in Europe which has not legislated against them or endeavoured to exile them by administrative acts. Their expulsion from Spain was decreed in 1492, from France in 1562, and from various Italian states about the same time. Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands have also pronounced against them. The Diet of Augsburg in 1500, ordered their expulsion from Germany on the ground that they were spies of Turkey seeking to betray the Christians. This edict, though several times repeated, was non-effective.

In Hungary and Transylvania the authorities, hopeless of getting rid of the troublesome immigrants, took strong measures to bring them into line with the rest of the population. They were prohibited from using the Romany tongue, from retaining their gipsy surnames, from wandering about the country, from eating carrion, and from dealing in horses. Those fit for military service were to be taken into the army, and the rest were to live and dress and deport themselves in the same manner as the peasantry of the country. These regulations were not wholly effective, but the result of the efforts put forward by Maria Theresa, and her successors may be seen in the sedentary gipsies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At times they have been subjected to fierce persecution. In 1782, a dreadful accusation was brought against the Hungarian Romanis, when more than a hundred of them were accused of murder and cannibalism. The gang were said to have lived by highway robbery and murder, and to have cooked and eaten the bodies of their victims. At Frauenmark four women were beheaded, six men were hanged, two were broken on the wheel, and one was quartered alive. Altogether forty-five were executed and many more were imprisoned. How much of this was suspicion substantiated by torture?

The gipsies came frequently in contact with the myrmidons of the law. “As soon as the officer seizes or forces away the culprit,” says Grellmann, “he is surrounded by a swarm of his comrades who take unspeakable pains to procure the release of the prisoner.... When it comes to the infliction of punishment, and the malefactor receives a good number of lashes well laid on, in the public market place, a universal lamentation commences among the vile crew; each stretches his throat to cry over the agony his dear associate is constrained to suffer. This is oftener the fate of the women than of the men; for as the maintenance of the family depends most upon them, they more frequently go out for plunder.” It is a noteworthy fact that Grellmann writing in 1783, has not a word of condemnation of the barbarous practice of flogging women.

In England as elsewhere the earliest of these romantic people were welcomed. In 1519, the Earl of Surrey entertained “Gypsions” at Tendring Hall, Suffolk, and gave them a safe-conduct. Still earlier in 1505, Anthony Gaginus, Earl of Little Egypt, had a letter of recommendation from James IV. of Scotland to the King of Denmark. James V. bestowed a charter upon James Faa, Lord and Earl of Little Egypt, by which he was privileged to execute justice upon his followers, much in the same way as the great barons were authorised to deal with their vassals. But they soon fell out of favour. In England, in the twenty-second year of Henry VIII. an act of parliament was passed which sets forth that there are certain outlandish people, who not profess any craft, or trade, whereby to maintain themselves, but go about in great numbers from place to place, using craft and subtlety to impose on people, making them believe that they understood the art of foretelling to men and women their good or ill fortune, by palmistry, whereby they frequently defraud people of their money, likewise are guilty of thefts and highway robberies; it is ordered that the said vagrants, commonly called Egyptians, in case they remain sixteen days in the kingdom, shall forfeit their goods and chattels to the king and be further liable to imprisonment. In 1537, Cromwell writes to the Lord President of the Marches of Wales, that the “Gipcyans” had promised to leave the kingdom in return for a general pardon for their previous offences, and exhorts the authorities to see that their deportation is effected. Many were sent to Norway, but the effort to extirpate them from the kingdom entirely failed. By an act of 1554, a penalty of £40 was to be inflicted upon any one knowingly importing them. Those gipsies, following “their old accustomed devlishe and noughty practises,” were to be treated as felons, but exception was made in favour of such as placed themselves in the service of some “honest and able inhabitant.” Many were executed, but the remnant survived and managed to hold a yearly meeting at the Peak Cavern or Kelbrook, near Blackheath. Still sterner was the law passed in 1562-3, which made it felony for any one born within the kingdom to join the fellowship of vagabonds calling themselves Egyptians. The previous acts had referred to the gipsies as an outlandish people, but now the native born were brought equally within the meshes of this sanguinary law. “Throughout the reign of Elizabeth,” as Borrow remarks, “there was a terrible persecution of the gipsy race; far less, however, on account of the crimes which were actually committed, than from a suspicion which was entertained that they harboured amidst their companies priests and emissaries of Rome.” The harrying of the missionary priests was in part dictated by the spirit of religious persecution, but in a still greater degree by the conviction that they were political emissaries, aiming at the subversion of the kingdom. The priests on the English mission had often to disguise themselves, and at times may have assumed the garb of wandering beggars, but they are not likely to have consorted with the Romans, whose language would be strange to them, and whose heathenish indifference to all dogmas, rites, and ceremonies, would be specially distasteful to zealous Catholics.

After “the spacious times” of great Elizabeth, the gipsies had a rest from special oppression, though they were of course still in jeopardy from the harsh laws as to vagrancy and those minor crimes, that are their characteristic failings. Romany girls were flogged for filching and fortune-telling, and Romany men were hanged for horse-stealing. They were looked upon with suspicion, and it was easy enough to raise prejudice against them. This was shewn in the notorious case of Elizabeth Canning. She was a girl of eighteen, employed as a domestic servant at Aldermanbury, and in 1753, disappeared for four weeks. On her return she asserted that she had been abducted and detained in a loft by gipsies, who gave her only bread and water to eat. Their aim she declared was to induce her to adopt an immoral life. Mrs. Wells, Mary Squires, George Squires, Virtue Hall, Fortune and Judith Natus, were arrested, and Wells and Squires were committed for trial. The proceedings, partly before Henry Fielding the novelist, were conducted with a laxity that seems now to be almost inconceivable. At the Old Bailey trial there was a remarkable conflict of evidence, but in the end Mrs. Wells was condemned to be burned in the hand, and Mary Squires to be hanged. Sir Christopher Gascoyne then Lord Mayor, was satisfied that there had been a miscarriage of justice and made enquiries, a respite was obtained and finally the law officers of the crown recommended the grant of a free pardon to Squires. The natural sequel was the prosecution of Canning for perjury. Fortune and Judith Natus now swore that they had slept each night in the loft where Canning declared she had been imprisoned, but it was very natural that people should ask why they had not given this important evidence at the previous trial. Mary Squires’ alibi was sworn to by thirty-eight witnesses who had seen her in Dorsetshire, and was, to some extent, invalidated by twenty-seven who swore that she was in Middlesex at the time. As she was too remarkable for her ugliness to be easily mistaken, there must have been some very “hard swearing.” Canning was convicted of perjury and transported, but the secret of her absence from New Year’s Day, 1553, until the 29th of January was never divulged. The case excited great interest, and the controversy divided the whole of the busy, idle “town,” into “Canningites” and “Gipsyites.”

The Tudor law (22 Henry VIII., c. 10) was repealed as “of excessive severity” in 1783 (23 George III., c. 51). The later legislation provides that persons wandering in the habit and form of Egyptians, and pretending to palmistry and fortune-telling, are to be deemed rogues and vagabonds (17 Geo. II., c. 5., 3 Geo. IV., c. xl.), and is liable to three months’ imprisonment (5 Geo. IV., c. lxxxiii.), and encamping on a turnpike road involved a penalty of forty shillings (3 Geo. IV., c. cxxvi., 5 and 6 William IV., c. 50). Some of the older enactments remained on the statute book, though not enforced, until the passing of the statute law Revision Act of 1863, by which many obsolete parliamentary enactments were swept away.

By the famous Poynings Act, English laws were declared applicable to Ireland. The gipsies were never common in the Isle of Saints, but by a special act they were, in 1634, declared to be rogues and vagabonds (10 and 11 Car. I., c. 4).

There are acts of the Scottish Parliament as early as 1449, directed against “sorners, overliers, and masterful beggars with horse, hounds, or other goods,” and that this would well describe the earlier gangs of gipsies is undeniable, but whether they were Romanis or Scots is a matter of controversy not easily decided in the absence of more definite evidence. A tradition of the Maclellans of Bombie says that the crest of the family was assumed on the slaying of the chief of a band of saracens or gipsies from Ireland. The conqueror received the barony of Bombie from the king as a reward. Having thus restored the fortunes of the family, the young laird of Bombie took for his crest a moor’s head with the motto “Think on.” If this legend was evidence, which it is not, there were gipsy marauders in Galloway in the middle of the fifteenth century. But in 1505, we have the entry of a gift by the King of Scotland of seven pounds to the “Egiptianis.” In the same year there is a letter already named, in which “Anthonius Gagino,” or Gawino, is recommended to the King of Denmark. In 1527, Eken Jacks, master of a band of gipsies, was made answerable for a robbery from a house at Aberdeen. In 1539, a similar charge was brought, but not proved, against certain friends and servants to “Earl George, callet of Egipt.” This chieftain was one of the celebrated Faa tribe. In 1540, George and John Faa were ordered by the bailies of Aberdeen to remove their company and goods from the town. This is the first action of a Scottish authority against the gipsies as gipsies. But, by a charter dated four days before the municipal decree, James V. confirms to “our lovit Johnne Faw, lord and erle of Little Egipt,” full power to execute justice over his tribe, some of whom had rebelled and forsaken his jurisdiction. In 1541, an act of the Lords of Council and Session decreed the banishment of the gipsies from the realm within thirty days, because of “the gret theftes and scathis” done by them. Some of them passed over the border, but not for long, and in 1553 the Faas again had a charter upholding their rights of lordship against Lalow and other rebels of their company. And in the next year their is a pardon to four Faas for the “slachter of umquhile Ninian Smaill.”

The gipsies had the favour of the Roslyn family, and it is said that Sir William Sinclair rescued “ane Egiptian” from the gibbet in the Burgh Muir, “ready to be strangled,” and that in gratitude the tribe used to go to Roslyn yearly and act several plays in May and June. In 1573, and again in 1576, the gipsies were ordered to leave the realm, but the decree was never put in force. When Lady Foulis was tried in 1590, one charge was that she had sent a servant to the gipsies for advice as to poison to be administered to “the young laird of Fowles and the young Lady Balnagoune.” When James VI. held a High Court of Justicary at Holyrood in 1587, for the reformation of enormities, the offenders to be dealt with included “the wicked and counterfeit thieves and limmers calling themselves Egyptians.”

There were several enactments of the Scottish Parliament in 1574, 1579, 1592, and 1597. These were all aimed at the nomadic habits of the race, but the settled gipsies were left unmolested. “Strong beggars and their children” were to be employed in common work for their whole life, and it is said that salt masters and coal masters thus made serfs of many. In 1603, there was a special “Act anent the Egiptians,” which declared it “lesome” for anyone to put to death any gipsy, man, woman, or child, remaining in the country after a certain date. Moses Faa appealed against it as a loyal subject, and found a security in David, Earl of Crawford. This was in 1609, but in 1611 four of the Faas were tried at Edinburgh under the acts against the gipsies, and were convicted and executed on the same day. Constables and justices of the peace were exhorted to put the law in force. Four gipsies, who could not find securities that they would leave the kingdom, were sentenced to be hanged in 1616, but were reprieved and probably released. In 1624, eight were executed on the Burgh Muir, but the women and children were simply exiled. In 1636, a number were condemned at Haddington, the men to be hanged and the women to be drowned. Women who had children were to be scourged and branded in the face. In the latter half of the seventeenth century many were sent to the plantations in Virginia, Barbadoes, and Jamaica.

Generally, however, the stringent laws were not stringently administered, and from fear or influence of some kind the gipsies often escaped.

The British gipsies in our own day find that whilst the law is dealt out to them with perfect impartiality, the social pressure is decidedly against them. At such watering-places as Brighton and Blackpool—to name two extremes—they tell fortunes as though there were no statutes in that case made and provided. But it is not easy for them to keep on the road. The time cannot be far off when they must live with the gaújos as house-dweller or perish from the land.