Crazy English Laws comes in three pages: 1 > 2 > 3 (this is page 1).
All of the extracts set out in his article are taken verbatim from the actual Laws of England as they were from time to time set out by the English parliament and approved by kings and queens. Some of the spelling is dated but left as is as with most words, the spelling is sufficiently similar to the present word (eg. "subtil" instead of "subtle"; "minished" instead of "diminished" and "estrangers" instead of "strangers") or the sense of the good word can be understood from the context. Some French words have slipped-in such as "puissance" which means strength. The English used "f" instead of "s" so I changed spellings such as "Weftminsfter" to "Westminster". Most of these laws were set up in extremely long sentences so I have broken up some of them only by taking out what is not relevant and replacing it by "...". I did not feel confident in relying on Internet versions of these laws; each extract below was painstakingly transcribed from the actual hardcopy of the ancient English statute. And don't miss The Sequel!
► SWAN SONG
The British royals have long sought to retain a monopoly on swans, considering them to be so beautiful that they should belong only to the aristocracy.
And so in 1482, Edwards IV approved An Act For Swans which set out that only the king or wealthy land-owners could own swans with ownership confirmed by carving a family emblem on the bird's upper beak. The legislation held that any swan held by a commoner, could be seized by a member of the aristocracy "whereof the King shall have one have, and he that shall seize, the other half".
A bureaucracy and a court were set up to enforce the law and regulate disputes over swan ownership.
Even as of 2008, England continues to maintain an albeit now largely ceremonial position, that of "Master of the Swans". The appointee proudly adds the words "Master of the Swans" to his title whenever he makes his public appearances on the polo grounds of England. Here's the text of the 1482 law:
"Where as well our said Sovereign Lord the King, as other Lords, Knights, Esquires and other noble men of this noble realm of England, have been heretofore greatly stored of ... swans in divers parts of this Realm.... Until of late, ... divers keepers of swans ... have stolen cygnets and put upon them their own mark by which unlawful means the substance of the swans be in the hands and possession of yeomen and husbandmen and other persons of little reputation.
"Wherefore it is ordained, established and enacted by our said Sovereign Lord the King ... that no person, of what estate, degree or condition he be ..., shall have or possess any such (swans) of his own or any other to this use shall have or possess any such (swans) except he have land ... of the estate of freehold to the yearly value of five marks above all yearly charges. And if it happened any person or persons not having any possession of lands ... to the said yearly value, ... to have or possess any such (swans)..., and it shall be lawful to any of the King's subjects, having lands ... to the said value, to seize the said swans as forfeit; whereof the King shall have one half and he that shall seize, the other half."
► FLESHY INCONTINENCY
In 1485, King Henry VII approved a law with a self-explanatory title: An Act To Punish Priests For Incontinency, with the proviso that incontinency did not have the same meaning as it does today.
This law had the unfortunate effect of shielding the clergy from the brunt of the criminal law in regards to sexual assault and left such clergy to be mildly punished by their peers:
"For the more sure and likely reformation of priests... and religious men, culpable, or by their demerits openly reported, of incontinent living in their bodies, contrary to their order, it is enacted and established that it be lawful to all archbishops and bishops and other ordinaries having Episcopal jurisdiction, as shall be convicted afore them by examination and other lawful proof requisite by the law of the Church, of adultery and fornication, incest or other fleshy incontinency, by committing them to prison, they are to abide for such times as shall be thought to their discretions convenient for the quality and quantity of their trespass."
The Italians did not invent meanness towards gypsies.
During the reign of Edward VIII, the English were tiring of gypsies, whom they called Egyptians, thinking they came from Egypt. The response was extremely harsh and contained in a 1530 law, An Act Concerning Outlandish People, Calling Themselves Egyptians:
"For so much as before this time divers and many outlandish people calling themselves Egyptians, using no craft nor feat of merchandise, have come into this realm and gone from Shire to Shire in place to place in great company and used great, subtil and crafting means to deceive the people, bearing them in hand, that they buy palmistry could tell men's and women's fortunes, and so many times ... have deceived the people of their money and also have committed many heinous felonies and robberies, to the great hurt and deceit of the people that they have come among.....
"... the Egyptians now being in this realm, have monition to depart within 16 days.... (F)rom henceforth no such person be suffered to come within this the King's realm and if they do, then day and every of them so doing, shall forfeit to the King our Sovereign Lord all their goods and titles and then to be commanded to avoid the realm within 15 days under pain of imprisonment...."
English law ran hot and cold in regards to the Egyptians as the 1530 law was amended often through the centuries; sometimes to soften the discrimination; sometimes to make it worse.
► UNLAWFUL GAMES
In 1541, the Parliament of England was deeply concerned that the men of the realm were losing their archery skills, whittling away the time playing senseless board and coin games. This concern is clearly set out in the first paragraph of the Bill For The Maintaining Artillery and the Debarring of Unlawful Games, as well as a requirement for all men to practice their bow and arrow skills on a regular basis.
"Most humbly complaining, shew unto your highness your daily orators, the bowyers, fletchers, stringers and arrowhead makers of this your Realm, that where for the advancement and maintenance of archery, the better to be maintained and had within the same, and for the avoiding of divers and many unlawful games ... occupied and practice within this realm, to the great hurt ... of shooting and archery, divers good at lawful statutes have been devised; the which good and laudable act notwithstanding, divers and many subtil inventative and crafty person's intending to defraud the same statute, ... have found and daily find many and sundry new and crafty games as Logetting in the Fields, Slide-thrift (otherwise called Shove-groat); ... by reason where of archery is sore decayed and daily is like to be more and more minished, and divers bowyers and fletchers, for lack of work, gone and inhabit themselves in Scotland and other places out of this realm, there working and teaching their science, to the puissance of the same, to the great comfort of estrangers and detriment of this realm.
"Every man being the King's subject, not lame, decrepit nor maimed (except spiritual men ... justices and barons)... shall ... use and exercise shooting in longbows and also have a bow and arrows ready continually in his house to use himself ... in shooting; and also that the fathers, governors and rulers of such as be of tender age, do teach and bring them up in the knowledge of the same shooting; and that every man having a man-child ... of the age of seven years and above, till he shall come to the age of 17 years, a bow and two shafts to induce and learn them and bring them up in shooting...."
Henry the VIII's unlawful games statute was not so silly as it seems at first glance. England was horrified of not only its men of fighting age losing their bow and arrow skills, but that such skills would be taught to their enemies.
• Crazy English Laws comes in three pages: 1 > 2 > 3 (this is page 1).
- An Act Concerning Outlandish People, Calling Themselves Egyptians, 1530
- An Act For Swans, 1482
- An Act To Punish Priests, For Incontinency, By Their Ordinaries, 1485, Chapter 4 (Henry VII)
- Bill For The Maintaining Artillery, and the Debarring Of Unlawful Games, 1541, Chapter 9 (Henry VIII)
- Duhaime, Lloyd, Crazy Laws, English Style, The Sequel, published at duhaime.org/LawFun/LawArticle-360/Crazy-English-Laws--The-Sequel.aspx
- Hunter, A., Swan Upping, 1977, published at garfnet.org.uk/new_mill/summer97/ah_swan.htm