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 Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and non-monarchs such as Sir Francis Drake. Unlike today, there was no Welfare State to help out those who had fallen on hard times. 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.
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.
This concern about the poor was at it greatest in Elizabeth’s time. What did the government do? It 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.
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 were known as Rogues and Vagabonds. 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.
The poor had to do the best they could in very difficult circumstances. However, 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.
Most criminals were thieves. Theft for anything over 5p resulted in hanging. Taking birds eggs was also deemed to be theft and could result in the death sentence.
Within the large towns and cities, the poor lived in what we would now call ghettoes – places where only the poor would go. In London, the rich lived in one part of the city while the poor lived towards the east where modern-day Fleet Street is and towards the City. If a poor person was found in the west of the city, it would be assumed by those that made the law ( the rich) that he was up to no good. The poor kept themselves to themselves in London and even developed their own form of language. This was known as canting. The whole idea behind it was that no-one else would know what they were talking about – it was a form of protection against the law.
A sentence such as “If you clump a cony you can cloy his peck” would mean “if you hit a victim you can steal his food.“
“a high-pad has lifts for his mort” would mean a “highway man has stolen goods for his woman“.
“I need a bit for the boozing ken” means that “I need money for the pub“
The poor in the countryside suffered as a result of what was known as enclosure.
Landlords had traditionally let the poor graze their animals on what was common land. In the Tudor times, landlords realised that this land could be better used and they got the poor to leave their land and took away this traditional right. With nothing to do in the countryside, many poor drifted to towns and cities to look for work.
Also landlords were moving away from growing crops like corn and turning to sheep farming as a growing population required more clothes and good money could be made from farming sheep. As there were more people than jobs available in the countryside, this simply caused more problems for the towns and cities as people went from the countryside to the towns looking for work.
For the poor in either the countryside or in towns and cities, life remained hard, unpleasant and for many, short in terms of years alive.