Additional Note on Beggars’ Badges, pp.255-256.

[Scottish National Memorials Contents]

(See also p. 244.)

   Before any legal system of relief was instituted, the poor were dependent upon the charity of others, and the endeavour to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving, or between the sick and impotent and the ‘strong and masterful beggars,’ resulted, among other things, in the institution of these badges. Before the Reformation there were two sources through which the deserving poor might obtain the privilege of begging: first, the sovereign; and second, the magistrates of towns. And after the Reformation a third source was created – the kirk-sessions of parishes. 

   Beadsmen proper were generally foundationers residing in an hospital or almshouse in connection with a chantry chapel. But the king’s beadsmen were probably from the first, as we know them subsequently to have been, simply an order of privileged mendicants. The name ‘beadsmen’ or ‘bedesmen’ – from their telling their beads when praying for their sovereign – is rarely given to them until the time of James IV.; and in the earlier Exehequer Rolls they are usually spoken of as ‘poor men.’ On Shire or Maundy Thursday the beadsmen of the King and Queen assembled, when their feet were washed by the King and they received their alms, clothing, and their Maundy dole. Their number was regulated according to the years of the sovereign’s age. Malcolm Canmore and his Queen Margaret were accustomed thus to entertain a number of poor persons. King Robert the Bruce, while residing at Cardross Castle in 1329, ordered 27 chalders and 10 bolls of corn to be bestowed upon six poor men. In the time of Queen Mary the recipients of the Maundy alms were poor unmarried women, probably owing to the fact that the donor was a female sovereign. Many of the nobility also had their beadsmen and observed the same Maundy usages. 

   For some time after the accession of James VI. the practice of bestowing these alms was discontinued. But in 1580 it was resumed, and latterly the custom1 appears to have been for the beadsmen to attend a service on the morning of the King’s birthday instead of the Maundy Thursday, when they heard a sermon by the almoner and received the King’s bounty, consisting of a blue gown, a wooden cup and platter, a leathern purse containing pennies in number according to the years of the sovereign’s age, an allowance of bread and ale, and a pewter badge bearing the words PASS AND REPASS, which conferred the privilege of begging unmolested anywhere throughout the country. In 1832 sixty-eight beadsmen received the King’s birthday allowance. The following year it was decided to suppress this charity; the office of almoner was abolished, and no additions were made to the existing number of beadsmen. In 1864-5 there is an entry of £1, 13s. 4d. for alms to Her Majesty’s only remaining beadsman, but the sum was never claimed. 

   The practice of the town authorities giving badges to the deserving poor prevailed over the whole of Scotland from a very early period. In 15022 the provost, bailies, and council of Edinburgh determined, that owing to the disorders prevalent in consequence of the ‘pestilence,’ certain ‘leiden taiknis’ shall be given to the ‘puir failyeit folks to quhat quantity of nummer sall be thocht expedient,’ and if any were found begging without a token ‘be it a man to be strucken throw the hand, and be it a woman to be brunt on the cheik and banest the toun but favoures.’ In 1546 the bailies and council of Aberdeen proceeded to ‘vesy’ all the beggars, and to give natives of the town the town’s token: and in 1547 they were ordered to wear this badge on ‘their utter garmountht’ whereby they might be known. In 1558 the town council of Dundee enacted that ‘no beggars be tholit within this burgh, but quhilk are born within the same: and nane of them be suffered to beg except they (having the town’s seal upon their hat or cloak) be auld, cruikit, laim, or debilitatit be great seikness.’ In 1574 all beggars were ordered to leave Glasgow during the pestilence, and they were to receive their ‘markis’ at the Tolbooth. 

   The Act of James [VI.] provided that beggars should receive their tokens or badges from the Sheriff, but the kirk-sessions after this date appeared to have performed that duty. The kirk-session of St. Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh, in 1619 prohibited any one soliciting alms who had not previously received a badge. In 1642 the Presbytery of Ayr ordained that persons thought worthy to beg by the ministers and kirk-sessions should be marked with ‘stamps of lead’ upon their breasts. In 1693 no less than sixty badges were ordered to be made by the kirk-session of Kilmarnock. Examples such as these might be quoted from the records of almost every parish of importance in Scotland, but these are sufficient to show that the practice prevailed from very early times. 

   Few beggars’ badges are now to be found, and this is all the more remarkable from the fact that at one time they must have been very common. Their intrinsic value was very little, and that may possibly account for more of them not being preserved. [A. J. S. B.] 

1  Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, vol. i. p. cccv. 

2  Beggars’ Badges, by J. Balfour Paul, F.S.A. Scot. Proceedings Soc. Antiq., vol. ix., New Series, p. 172.

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