A Proposal to Enslave Petty Offenders (1621)

We are delighted to share this post by Krista Kesselring, Professor of History at Dalhousie University. It originally appeared on the Legal History Miscellany blog on 10 January 2017.

Legal History Miscellany

Posted by Krista Kesselring; 10 January 2017


The State Papers contain a remarkable rough draft of an Act intended to condemn petty offenders to slavery. Prepared at the opening of the 1621 parliament by an unknown author, the proposal had the following title: ‘An Act for keeping in servile works such persons as shall be convicted of petit larceny and felony capable of the benefit of clergy, and such as shall be convicted for cheaters or incorrigible rogues.’ It echoed in some ways the infamous but short-lived 1547 Act to enslave the persistently unemployed, though this one – somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, given its talk of slavery – presented itself as a measure not just of heightened rigour but also of mercy.[1]

The text is given below. The measure did not pass – nothing passed into law from the 1621 parliament, save for a few new taxes – and the…

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One thought on “A Proposal to Enslave Petty Offenders (1621)

  1. This is fascinating, not least for the sense that:
    -petty felons are being subjected to long imprisonments
    -conviction ruins reputation [ being ‘twitted in the teeth’] as well as employment yet might be erased by enslaved rehabilitation
    -this possibility for restoration excludes women even as their inclusion into clergy is being considered

    Nice find, Krista!


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