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Poverty in Elizabethan England
The Causes of Poverty
Speak of Elizabethan England and one conjures up images of splendid costumes worn at the Royal Courts, extravagant entertainment and banquets. But alas, for many people life was very difficult. In the 16th century the population rose dramatically which added to even more economic pressures. The increasing number of people led to many households being unable to support themselves, and as the standard of living dropped, the problem of vagrancy got worse. This was proven to have repercussions for the country as a whole.
Elizabethan England was faced with a huge economic problem. The poor became poorer, and the sight of vagabonds and beggars was becoming alarming. In an attempt to try to change things, the government passed a number of very strict Poor Laws, but this had little effect on the towns and countryside.
To tackle the problem, Elizabeth's government introduced a series of Acts, which in turn acknowledged the care of the poor in the community. Poor Laws were very progressive for their time, and what was needed was an established framework of laws which would last the test of time.
It was recognised that there were several reasons for the increase in poverty. During the reign of Elizabeth 1 the population rose from 3 million to 4 million people. And the truth of the matter was attributed to the rise in fertility, and a falling death rate. In simple terms this meant that the country's resources had to be shared by a greater number of people. In the last years of Henry V111 reign, the coinage was debased, which meant that the proportion of gold and silver in the coins was reduced. In 1560 Elizabeth replaced the debased coins with new ones, thus restoring the country's currency to it's original values.
Town and Country
In 1590 the country was also hit by a number of poor harvests. This again put increasing pressure on the limited amount of food available. This resulted in the rise of food prices and in many cases, starvation. Wages, in 1563 were further affected by a government move to curb inflation, the Statue of Artificers set the wage limit for skilled workers such as carpenters, butchers but this resulted in prices rising again, and wages were unable to cope with the increases, so the standard of living dropped for many workers.
Towns grew in size throughout Elizabeth's reign. As changes in agriculture led the way to people leaving the countryside, the population of towns grew alarmingly. During the years leading up to Elizabeth's accession, a process known as land enclosure changed the face of the landscape. Land enclosure meant that the traditional way of small landowners tending their own small plots of land was ended in favour of creating larger and more profitable farming units. Many of these farms became dedicated to rearing sheep. People who had lived and worked in the countryside for their entire lives found that they no longer had the means to support themselves, and were in many cases, evicted from their homes.
Categorising the Poor.
It had been usual up until now that private benefactors would have left money in their will to establish, for example, an almhouse to provide shelter for the local poor. As the situation got worse, it became clear that individual philanthropy was no longer enough.Lord Burghley, one of the Queen's most able ministers, was extremely concerned about the large number of homeless and unemployed people could present a serious threat to the Law and Order. The first in a series of Acts was introduced in 1563 to minimise dangers and to make provisions for the needy.
There were different types of poor. There were the 'deserving poor' who were made up of the elderly and very young, the infirm and families finding themselves in financial difficulties. These people were found deserving 'social support.'
The underserving poor were the people who often turned to crime in an effort to support their families, such as the highwaymen and pickpockets, migrant workers who roamed the countryside to look for employment and the individuals who begged for a living. These people where considered a danger to the rest of society, and became the 'deserving unemployed' and were physically able to work for a living, but unable to do so.
Drastic measures where introduced in 1563. The Act introduced declared that able bodied beggars could be whipped in public, and that vagabonds should be burned in their right ear, and if they persisted, could be imprisioned and even executed.
The Act of 1597 required each town to provide a prison for those groups of people and was paid for by public taxes. The responsibility of each town was to provide for it's needy and the poor, In this way the poor were given pratical assistance whilst fulfilling a useful role in the community, meaning that all responsibility of a town's inhabitants became the local groups responsibility, and not the entire community of tax payers.
Many major towns launched their own initiatives to tackle the problem. Norwich, for example, was the largest city outside London, and had a serious problem with poverty. A census was compiled which detailed the name, age and status of every citizen in order to provide an accurate overview of the population.
It is hardly surprising that with the amount of country people flocking into towns that London was by far the largest city in Europe with between 130,000 and 150,000 inhabitants.London became a colourful metropolis, ofering the best and the worst of city life. The streets were filled with alehouses, gambling dens and brothels, and the public was entertained by street performers, playhouses and bear baiting. London was filthy but intriguing, lively and dangerous, and in addition to it's own poor, the city became a magnet for beggars, thieves and tricksters from all over the country.
The Poor Laws passed during the reign of Elizabeth 1 played a very important part in the country's welfare. They signalled an important progression from private charity to the development of a welfare state. As the years wore on the population continued to increase, the provisions made to protect the poor were stretched to the limit, but however, they became a lasting tribute to the Acts of 1597 and 1601, and endured until the nineteenth century.