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  • Print publication year: 1995
  • Online publication date: January 2010

9 - Social strain and social dislocation, 1585–1603


On 25 September 1596 Edward Hext, a justice of the peace in Somerset, wrote to Lord Burghley about the imminent breakdown of social stability in that county. Hext's letter was a litany of complaints about the threats to law and order. At the base of the problem, of the ‘rapynes and thefts’ which ‘multiplye daylye’, lay a body of ‘wycked and desparate’ persons, idle ne'er do wells who ‘beinge putt to any hard labor, will greve them above measure, so as they will rather hazard their lives than work’. To the vagrants, rogues and sturdy beggars who were the standard target of adverse comment in the late-Elizabethan period were added ‘wandring souldiers and other stout roages’, of whom, according to Hext, there were three or four hundred in every county. These were so well organized and well informed (‘nothing is spoken, donne, or intended to be they knowe it’) that it was very difficult to apprehend them. In an early suggestion that it might be desirable to gather national figures on crime and punishment, Hext advised Burghley ‘for the good of your cuntry to comaund a view of the callenders of all the gayles of England’, within which documents there would be found ‘a lamentable estate’.