Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Historian Reveals Identity Badges, Not Cards, Were Compulsory in the 1600s

Originally published 30 April 2004

Research from the University of Warwick reveals that far from being a new idea ID ‘cards’, in the form of badges, were commonplace in the 1600s. Just as today’s cards will enable people of access public services such as benefits more easily, the 16th and 17th century forms of identification were to show an individual’s entitlement to supplement their income and to identify the deserving.

As the government’s pilot program to ensure that UK citizens have ID cards by 2011 is implemented, historian Professor Hindle reveals that the concept is far from new. A recent paper entitled “Dependency, Shame and Belonging” examines the practice of making the poor wear badges from the 16th century through to the compulsory identification of all parish paupers under a 1679 statute.

Just as today’s form of ID started off as an “entitlement card” to facilitate access to public and social services, and is now to prevent fraud and terrorism, the 16th badge started off as a positive form of identification that was later a negative article.

In an analysis of chronicler John Howes’ 1587 ‘Famylar and Frendly Discourse, Dialouge Wyse’, Professor Hindle shows that paupers were encouraged to supplement their weekly pensions with casual and regular begging, which could be a very profitable way to supplement Parish pay. Poor people were badged to show they could legitimately beg.

In early 16th century badges were issued as a stamp of approval, a testimonial of the true deserving status of those who wore them. Begging was a source of formal welfare provision for the worthy poor and badging distinguished those deemed deserving.

Like the new national system of identity cards pilot project, 16th century badges were designed to prevent the abuse of ‘welfare services’. The badge was a positive mark of distinction, and designed to prevent unworthy or fraudulent beggars.

Just as the new national ID cards are designed to prevent illegal immigration and fraud, the use of badges in the 16th century was prompted by the difficulties of identifying the resident poor at a time of rapid immigration into the towns of the midlands. They were introduced in Coventry as early as 1521. 21st century, like 16th century, methods of identification were designed to prevent access to welfare provision by those with no entitlement.

By the end of the 16th century badges were evolving from tokens of approval to symbols of humiliation. Late 17th century magistrates and legislators recognised the need to deter potential badge applicants by making life on the parish as unattractive as possible. Badging, now intended to prevent begging and shame holders, was made compulsory in 1697.

Professor Hindle, from the University of Warwick, said: “The compulsory use of forms of identification is far from new, although early modern period ‘badging’ was reserved for the poor. Badging was practiced in England, and most of Europe, for at least two centuries before it was required by law under a statute of 1697. The demand that beggers ‘wear a sign’ can be traced as early as 1370 in Europe.”

Those who defied 17th century identification policy were heavily penalised. Any pauper refusing to wear the badge was liable to be committed to Bridewell for three weeks hard labour. Any parish officer who dispensed relief to a poor person not wearing a badge could be fined 20s. Similarly, those who refuse to register for the current government's new planned ID card scheme could face a "civil financial penalty" of up to £2,500.

Badge wearing was compulsory until early 19th century, the statute being repealed only in 1810.

For more information contact:

Jenny Murray,
Communications Office,
University of Warwick,
Tel: 02476 574 255,
Mobile: 07876 21 7740

Professor Steve Hindle,
University of Warwick,
Tel: 02476 524914

“Dependency, Shame and Belonging c.1550-1750”, is published in Cultural and Social History 1:1, 2004, 6-35.