In this pod, we’ll explore the issues surrounding poverty and the poor in
There are many different reasons why people became impoverished in
Elizabethan England. The population was growing rapidly – it went from around 3
million in 1551 to around 4.2 million only fifty years later. More people meant
that more land was needed for people to farm, and more food was needed to feed
the growing population. However, land was expensive and a deposit – known as an
‘entry fee’ – needed to be paid for it. Many could not afford the entry fee.
Food prices began to rise. They were driven higher as many preferred to
farm sheep, as their wool could be sold for a higher profit. Land designated
for crops was instead populated with sheep. As this meant that less food was
being produced, the food prices began to rise. Similarly, as cattle can wander,
enclosures were put in place. This
meant that previously ‘common use’ land was fenced off and divided up for
different purposes – sheep farming or growing food.
Fencing off the land had a detrimental effect. Common land had previously
been used by the labouring classes to support their families. Now, however, it
was fenced off and transformed into an area only available to reasonably
wealthy people. Many who had worked as farmhands helping in the production of
crops also lost their jobs. These people moved to towns to look for work. Rent
prices also began to soar. This also saw those who had previously owned land
relocating, as they found themselves priced out by the rent in a process known
as rack renting.
Finally, the economic recession caused by high taxation to fund a
campaign against Ireland, as well as the bad harvests of 1562, 1565, 1573 and
1586 also drove up food prices due to limited supply. Up until the 1530s,
Catholic monasteries would have aided the hungry people affected by this.
However, when Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church, he destroyed these
buildings or stripped them of their purpose.
In the 1540s, King Henry VIII had also debased the coinage. He reduced the amount of precious materials
such as gold and silver that made up the coin. This was an attempt to cover his
own lavish expenditure and reduce costs. However, it also significantly reduced
the value of coins. Many ordinary merchants and tradesmen did not trust its
value and increased their prices to account for this. It seemed that nobody was
looking out for the poor.
Poverty in Elizabethan England affected a variety of people. Those on low
wages, orphaned children, the homeless, the sick, the elderly, widows and
abandoned women were all affected by poverty. Vagrants, people without a fixed
address or job, were treated with a lot of suspicion. Also known as vagabonds,
they were seen as dishonest and lazy. Often, they were forced into crime and
this concerned the Elizabethan government.
We can see the concern about vagabonds in literature of the time. Thomas
Harman wrote a book describing four different types of vagabond. He identified
Anglers, who stole clothes from washing lines using a long stick with a
A clapper dudgeon, who used arsenic to make their skin bleed, so people
would pity them and give them money.
A doxy, who carried a bag of stolen goods.
A counterfeit crank, who created the appearance of a fit by swallowing
These are outlandish and absurd characteristics, but they show the
growing anxiety of the time. Elizabeth’s government stepped in to address this
worry. They differentiated the poor into two groups: the deserving poor, who
could be helped, and the idle poor, who needed to be punished. Vagabonds who
threatened public safety were treated harshly by whipping, imprisonment or even
Elizabeth implemented the poor
rate, a tax organised by Justices of the Peace, which was spent on
improving the lives of the poor. Wealthy people also funded charities to help
the poor. In 1563, the Statute of Artificers put punishments in place for
anyone failing to pay or collect the poor rate. This could be through
imprisonment or fining.
The Poor Relief Act of 1576 gave poor people raw materials to make and
sell items. Towns had to take responsibility for finding work for the
able-bodied. Anyone refusing this help would be sent to a special prison known
as a House of Correction. Finally,
the Vagabonds Act of 1572 imposed punishments for anyone found guilty of being
a vagabond. Anyone over the age of fourteen could be whipped and burned on
their right ear. A second offence would result in imprisonment. Continued
offenders could even be executed.
Justices of the Peace would keep a register of the poor and ensure the
collection of a national poor rate, which would be used to provide shelter and
food for the sick and elderly.