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REHP Episode 125: Being Poor in Tudor England

Episode 125 of the Renaissance English History Podcast was on poverty in Tudor England, the way the poor were cared for, and the giant shift that occurred with the Reformation.  

Book Recommendation Poverty and Vagrancy in Tudor England

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-----Rough Transcript-----


Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast, a part of the Agora Podcast Network. I’m your host, Heather Teysko, and I’m a storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are, our place in the universe, and being more deeply in touch with our own humanity. This is Episode 125, a look at what it was like to be poor in Tudor England, and how the conversation began to shift around how to care for the poor, leading up to the 1601 Poor Law that became the standard for 250 years. 

Like so many aspects of life in the 16th century, the treatment of the poor changed radically between 1485 and 1601, which was when the landmark Elizabethan Poor Law was passed. The 1601 law was the standard for several centuries, and as such it then became the basis for the attitudes towards caring for the poor in America as well. 

I think most people, no matter where you are on the spectrum politically, would agree that society has some kind of duty to caring for the poor - at the very least, for the poor who are sick, disabled, or elderly, and are basically unable to work. In Elizabethan times, these people were called the Impotent Poor, and a distinction was made between the Impotent Poor and the Idle Poor, which were people who were poor because they were considered lazy. 


We probably even make that distinction ourselves - we might agree that if someone has a disability, they should be cared for with benefits, but we might argue that unemployment benefits for an able-bodied person should be limited. This distinction is rooted in the Elizabethan period. Before the mid 16th century, the poor were the poor were the poor were the poor - there weren’t really these differences between the deserving or the lazy poor that we come up with now. They were all just poor.


Now, in our modern day times we might argue between us about the role of the private versus public enterprises in caring for the poor - ie, how much should the national government take on, versus local governments, and even non governmental organizations like churches and charities. These are lasting debates that were started during the Reformation. But, most of us agree that we have some kind of duty to the poor. And THAT comes directly from the 1601 Poor Law that took on responsibility for the most vulnerable people in society. 


So in this episode we’re going to go back and look at some of the history of treatment of the poor pre Reformation, the great shift that took place, and then the leadup to that 1601 legislation.


By Elizabeth’s time nearly ⅓ of the population of England lived in poverty, and these numbers exploded during the 16th century. During the time of Henry VII, there wasn’t really a huge problem with poor people. A big part of that was because the population itself wasn’t as big. 


In 1485 the population of England was still recovering from the Black Death, which, despite having wreaked its destruction over a century earlier, had wiped out the population so much that it would take several hundred years to come back. Before the Black Death, in 1347, England had a population of about 6 million people. In 1485 the population of England was only about 2 million. That would double to 4 million by 1600. And like I said, about a third of them were living in poverty. So we’ve got about 1.3 million people living in poverty, which is very close to the entire population in England a century before. Additionally, the population was becoming increasingly urban - more on that impact in a few minutes.


Finally, another change we have is an early mini industrial revolution, both with the iron industry, and the wool industry. The population is becoming more urban, and the old feudal laws where a Lord, or wealthy landowner would take care of the peasants and serfs, no longer applied. On top of this, we saw the rise in land enclosures where previously public land was fenced off for the wealthy to graze their sheep, leaving the poor without public lands to use to grow food, or graze their own animals. While this led to a number of rebellions - like Kett’s Rebellion during the reign of Edward VI - it also meant that it contributed to this growing industrialization.


So what did it actually mean to be poor in Tudor and Elizabethan England? Well, the main thing is that you were constantly preoccupied with food. And not in a, “I need to log this on my loseit app later on,” sort of way, but in a, “how are we going to eat this year,” way. If you were a poor laborer in Tudor England, you would work for a yeoman farmer from sunup to sundown, six days a week. In the summer, that meant you were in the fields by 5, going until about 10 at night. For that labor, you were paid about a groat. What would a groat buy you? A chicken, bread, cheese, a little bit of butter, and that was about it. 


Let that sink in for a minute. A chicken cost the equivalent of a full day’s labor. To me, that is one of the most striking changes in our post industrialist capitalist economy. Food is always available to us. It might not be the healthiest foods, as the food deserts in some inner cities can attest. But it’s still food. You don’t work a 15 hour shift, and then make the equivalent of a chicken. 


Getting enough to eat was a constant struggle for the poor in Tudor England. If there was a bad harvest,  you would have to figure out what you were going to do to get through the winter, as well as the early spring, when you would need to have a lot of calories and energy to plant the seeds, and yet nothing had been harvested yet, and it was still too early for fruits and gardens. 


And so, if you were a laborer, and you had a wife, that wife might plant a garden, and then salt or store the vegetables to use through the winter. You might have chickens for eggs. It’s likely that if you were a poor laborer you wouldn’t be able to afford a cow, but if you were on the higher end of the scale you might, which would mean you could have cheese, eggs, and butter. Of course that cow would also need to be fed through the winter, so if the harvests were bad you might have to make some tough choices about whether your cow would be part of your family after January. 


If you were poor, remember that your daily salary would only buy a chicken, so if you wanted something luxurious like, I don’t know, clothing, you were either going to have to have a little less food that day, or you would have to make your own. And so your wife would probably spin the flax and make wool for your clothing. 


You likely didn’t have much in the way of possessions. Your home had a dirt floor. There was a fire in the middle of the one room, and in order to keep you from suffocating you would have a hole in the roof. Still, the room would be incredibly smoky. It would also be dark. You didn’t have window glass, so you wouldn’t want to have a lot of extra windows, which were just holes in the home, and covered up with shutters. So you’d maybe have one window, and even in the summer, it wouldn’t be very light. You would sleep on straw if you were lucky, and you probably owned just a few simple things like a cooking pot and spoon, a few baskets or pots to store food, and maybe some tools to do your work. 


So, being poor in Tudor and Elizabethan England meant a constant struggle to survive each year, find enough food to keep you healthy, and making everything else you would need.


Let’s go back to 1485 where we have this attitude that there is plenty of work, and if you aren’t working it’s your own fault. There aren’t a lot of extra people, the population is still recovering from the Black Death, and it’s no one’s fault but your own if you haven’t got anything. With the earliest poor law legislation we see a desire to punish poor people, to deter idleness. 


In 1494 Henry VII passed the Vagabonds and Beggars Act which said that idle people should be placed in the stocks, and then they should be returned to the land where they last lived, or where they were born. 


The government was, and continued to be afraid of these vagabonds who didn’t seem to have any home base, nothing to tie them to the success of their town or birthplace, and no jobs. A bunch of people without jobs, without a sense of civic pride, and who didn’t work was a potential mob, and the goal was to control this potential mob rather than offer any meaningful poor relief. 


There was also the fear that these idle people would become criminals, funding their lives through stealing and petty crimes. 


That was followed a few decades later with the Vagabonds Act of 1531 which stated that only licensed beggars could legally beg. So people had to apply to the local justice of the peace who would license the Impotent Poor to beg. Which meant that only the sick, disabled, or elderly were allowed to legally beg. If you were lazy, or had some kind of issue that kept you from working, or you just couldn’t find a job, things got even harder for you in 1536. This is the year that Henry passes the Act for Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars. If you were caught without work outside of your parish, you would be whipped through the street. If you had a second offense, you would lose an ear. A third strike and you’re out - literally. You could be executed for the third offense. But most people were very reluctant to enforce this act, which, you know, makes sense. Because it’s a pretty terrible piece of legislation. 


In 1547 Henry’s young son Edward got some help from his uncle, the Protectorate, Edward Seymour, who helped draft the 1547 Vagabond’s Act. This said that each parish was responsible for taking up weekly collections for the poor, but also said that vagabonds who were caught could be enslaved for two  years During that time they were to be fed bread and water, forced to work, and could be bought and sold just like any other slave. If no one wanted to buy the slave, then he could be sent back to his town of birth, and forced to work for the community there. If the vagabond had children, those children could be given apprenticeships until age 24 for boys, age 20 for girls. 


These poor laws were incredibly unpopular, as one might expect, and in 1550 it was repealed, and the 1531 law was back.


A series of poor acts was passed, one in 1552 required a register of the poor to be created, and empowered parishes to raise local taxes to help them. But again, this was just for the deserving impotent poor. The Beggars, or people who were not considered deserving, could still be whipped through the town. In 1555 Mary passed her own poor act, which required beggars to wear an identifying badge. Like buskers in Covent Garden or something. 


So these laws really seemed to be about punishing those who were seen as undeserving, and creating a system to license the ones who were deserving, but mostly just so that they could beg. There wasn’t any kind of structure in place to provide any kind of lasting relief for poor people in terms of training, jobs, or education.


Now, this brings us to a discussion of why this system didn’t exist  yet. Because before the Reformation, all poor relief was entirely left up to the monks and nuns who would provide alms, education, and medical care to those who needed help. The monasteries already had a system in place to provide a rudimentary education to poor orphans, to help care for aging people who had no children to take care of them, or to help provide basic skills training.


Monasteries would also help care for the poor by giving out alms, and encouraging charity from their wealthy church members and patrons. But with that gone, help for the poor became totally secular.


After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the responsibility for caring for the poor shifted on to the state. This is clearly something that the monarchs hadn’t planned for, and one of the reasons why we see this flurry of activity related to caring for the poor, or punishing those who didn’t work. 


And even without the Dissolution, this would likely have become more of a problem over time because the population was moving increasingly towards cities. This made it harder for monasteries to care for them since it was easier to disappear in a city with thousands of people than in a small parish. 


So we have this huge shift, and it’s the foundation of the debate that still rages today in how to care for the poor. Does the government take care of the poor? Or do charities and churches? Well, obviously if you’re going to destroy the church foundations, then the government would need to take over. But no one was really thinking about that in the late 1530’s as Cromwell was busy Dissolving the monasteries.  


It took until the 1570’s for people to begin to have some serious conversations about how to care for the growing number of the poor.  The Vagabonds Act of 1572 was a law passed that provided that justices of the peace were to register the names of the "aged, decayed, and impotent" poor to determine how much money was required to care for them. The justices of the peace would then assess all inhabitants of the parish for their keep. Overseers of the poor would periodically conduct "views and searches" of the poor. Those refusing to contribute to poor relief would be fined or jailed.


So let me state that again - in this 1572 act we see commissioners set up to figure out just how much money was needed to care for the poor in each parish, and if the rest of the community didn’t pay up to help, they would be put in jail. 


Justices of the Peace were allowed to license beggars if there were too many for the parish to provide for. Any unlicensed vagabonds were to be whipped and burned through the ear. It further provided that any surplus funds could be used to “place and settle to work the rogues and vagabonds.”


All of this leads us up to the 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601 - the 1601 Poor Law, which was the basis of dealing with English poverty for 200 years, and formed the American legislation around poverty as well. 170 years later, no less a statesman than Ben Franklin would comment that the 1601 law took away the incentive for people to work, for it made their lives too easy in poverty.

Here’s what it did:

  • The impotent poor (people who can't work - the old, sick, orphans, blind, and otherwise disabled) were to be cared for in almshouse or a poorhouse. The law offered relief to people who were unable to work: mainly those who were "lame, impotent, old, blind".
  • The able-bodied poor were to be set to work in a House of Industry. Materials were to be provided for the poor to be set to work.
  • The idle poor and vagrants - what we would consider basic homeless people today were to be sent to a House of Correction or even prison.
  • Pauper children would become apprentices.

The 1601 Act was administerd by the parish - there were about 1500 parishes in England based on the area around a parish church. This meant that those who were overseers would likely know each of the poor people individually, know their circumstances, and be able to divide them into the deserving or undeserving poor. Those who paid the tax to help with the poor included the landowners, and some tenants. The other issue with a reliance only on the parish is that if there was a local problem, like a bad harvest, it meant that a lot more strain was put on that particular parish that year, rather than possibly having a national pool to handle the relief. 

There were no national standards in place, and so there was a lot of variation in how relief was given out. Parishes were left to interpret the law on their own, and each parish was legally responsible for their own poor, which meant that some cities gave out much more poor relief. Some poor did try to leave and go to more generous parishes, so by the mid 1600’s it was amended so that you had to be a resident of the parish through birth, marriage, or apprenticeship. If they couldn’t prove that they were a resident of that parish they were moved to another parish where they could prove that they had a connection. 



While there was plenty to criticize in the Tudor and Elizabethan Poor Laws, they are the basis for the social welfare systems in America, Australia, and many other places, and it was the first time that a law was passed nationally to try to deal holistically with the problem of the poor, and recognize that society had a legal duty to care for its most vulnerable citizens. So for that, there is much to praise about the poor laws. 


It’s also interesting to think about this shift in thinking where relief for the poor went from being something handled by the church, and the government implemented punitive measures, to poor relief being a secular duty. 

And you can get in touch with me through the listener support line at 801 6TEYSKO or through twitter @teysko or facebook.com/englandcast. I’ll be back in about 2 weeks looking at something very fascinating, which is the history of sugar in Tudor England. So pack your toothpaste because we’re going to be taking a sweet journey. Talk with you then! 

(ad break) Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy lovingly curated Tudor gifts at TudorFair.com!