Poors in Tudor England
Life for the poor in Elizabethan England was very harsh. The poor did not share the wealth and luxurious lifestyle associated with famous Tudors such as Sir Francis Drake. The main thing to remember about Tudor England is that the population doubles between the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. From about 2 million in 1520; to 4 million in 1600. Of the population 10% lives in towns, and half of this number is always in London.
Along with this comes unemployment and rapid price inflation. As rents and food prices rose in the countryside, many villagers were forced to leave their homes and come to the towns to look for work. However, they often could not find employment and ended up begging in the streets. A generous local monastery might have helped out before the Reformation but this would not have been available in the second half of Tudor England. During the 1530s, Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries results in, among other things, much Church land being put on the market, thousands of ex-monks being released into society and the end of career opportunities for well-off women who once lived in nunneries and monastic charity and welfare.
Tudor England saw a great increase in crime as for many it was the only way they could survive. Those who resorted to theft faced the death penalty if they were caught. Punishment was very severe for seemingly trivial cases because it was believed that any sign of the government being soft towards those who had broken the law would encourage others to do likewise. However, this belief also made criminals desperate as they would do anything to avoid capture – including murder.
The government in Tudor England became very concerned about the poor. There was a lot more of the poor than there were rich and there was always the potential for a Tudor version of the Peasants Revolt. In the towns and cities, finding a job was difficult but the same thing was occurring in the countryside where changes in the way farms worked lead to unemployment for many. There was the very real danger of trouble amongst the poor.
The poor were divided into three groups by the government:
The first were called Helpless Poor. These would include the old, the sick, the disabled and children. The elderly and the disabled received a sum of money and possibly some food each week. If they were unable to collect both, it would be delivered to their house. Children of the poor were given an apprenticeship paid for by the parish. In this way, the parish could expect to benefit from the child when they had grown up and learned a new skill. Boys were apprenticed to a master until they were 24 years old. If a girl could be found an apprenticeship, she would work with her mistress until she was 21. People who were thought to be 'Helpless Poor' were not considered to be a burden as the government believed that it was not their fault that they were in their position. Some parishes gave these people a licence to beg.
The second group was called the Able Bodied Poor. These were people who could work but also wanted to work. Each parish was meant to build a workhouse. The unemployed worked in these making cloth or anything that might benefit the parish. They got paid out of the Poor Rate. They would remain in the workhouse until they found a ‘normal’ job.
The third group, the more dangerous, are itinerant Rogues and Vagabonds, who roam the highways begging and stealing. This was the group targeted by the government. These were people who could work but preferred to beg or steal. This group worried the government as it was the one most like to get into trouble. The government made begging illegal and anybody found begging was flogged until 'his back was bloody'. If he was found begging outside of his parish, he would be beaten until he got to the parish stones that marked his parish boundary with the next parish. Those who were caught continually begging could be sent to prison and hanged. During the reign of Edward VI, caught vagabonds could have their tongue branded and kept as a slave for two years.
There were different names for different types of beggar: A Ruffler was said to look like an army officer but actually robbed people at sword point; a Prigger of Palfrey was a horse thief; a Rogueman was a thief who carried a long stick pretending to hobble, but then used the stick to steal clothes off washing lines and food from tables; a Counterfeit Crank was a beggar who pretended to be sick or crippled so that people felt sorry for them and gave them food and money.
Townsfolk disliked beggars and treated them harshly. Their streets had become overcrowded and dirty, and the poor and beggars were accused of being scroungers and suspected of being criminals. They were targetted by many and assaulted.
A sixteenth woodcut of a beggar being whipped through the streets, to the obvious enjoyment of the spectators.
The vista through the archway suggest gruesome possibilities.
In Elizabeth's time the Government made every parish responsible for the poor and unemployed within that parish. The Justice of the Peace (JP's) for each parish was allowed to collect a tax from those who owned land in the parish. This was called the Poor Rate. It was used to help the poor. This had two benefits. First, it made the poor feel that something was being done for them and made them feel less angry about the situation they were in. Secondly, some good work could be done by the poor within the parish to help that parish. JP’s appointed Overeers of the Poor to assist him in his work with the poor.
In 1566, London beggar Nicholas Jennings is caught with a bag of blood that he uses to paint fake injuries on his head. In a day, he makes 13s 2d – two weeks' workman's wages. He is severely punished. Beggars and vagrants are regularly put in cages or sent to London's Bridewell prison to be reformed by hard work. Although 16th-century England becomes increasingly rich, the population boom brings with it a dramatic rise in poverty and crime.
In the 1590s the Elizabethan government finally realised the scale of the problem of poverty and the poor in England and issued wide-ranging Poor Laws aimed to tackle the problem across the whole of the country. The main attempt is the Poor Law Act, which in 1601 codifies previous Tudor legislation. This makes each parish responsible for its own poor, and parish vestries are authorised to raise a rate to pay for their relief. Care of the poor varies from place to place: in some areas, the homeless are housed in cottages or a poor house; in others, a dole in money or kind is given to poor people in their own homes.
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