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Political reasons for Poverty across Tudors


Demobilisation of soldiers: At times of peace in the land, soldiers were not needed and many found themselves unemployed. These roamed the land seeking work and joined the ranks of itinerant beggars. In particular, reign of Edward VI. 

Trade-  Trade was often disrupted as a consequence of war, particularly in the early 1570's during the Trade Embargo with Spain. With so many dependent on trade (in particular the cloth trade) during times of bad trade, many of the workers were reduced to dangerous levels of poverty. 

Spain: Under the rule of Mary I and as a consequence of her Spanish marriage, there was a great influx of Spanish silver which was one of the causes of the Tudor Price Rise which left many people unable to afford even a loaf of bread. Many were put out of business due to Spanish traders being given free reign of English trade routes.

Uncertain monarchy- This was the cause of many wars and this meant that homes and land were destroyed and trade disrupted. Landowners could remove tenants who were suspected to have sympathies for rival royal factions.  

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Social reasons for poverty

Urbanisation-higher concentration of people in a small are (eg. London) and this meant a larger number of people chasing few jobs and also more disease and an insufficient food supply. 

more people chasing scarce employment. Also, there was a very young, dependent population. this meant that there were more consumers than producers in society. The number of people looked as though it might outstrip the food supply.

Enclosure- Pastoral farming was beginning to thrive but this meant that large areas of former arable land were becoming privatised fields. At a time when demand for grain and access to common land was on the rise, this led to strife and uprisings such as in Coventry in 1496

Rack renting- Rack-renting is when excessive, extortionate rent is obtained by threat of eviction resulting in uncompensated dispossession of improvements the tenant himself has made. I.e., by charging rack-rent, the landowner uses his power over the land to effectively confiscate wages, in addition to merely charging the tenant interest and depreciation on the capital improvements which the landlord himself has made to the land.

Polarization of society- The rich were becoming richer and the poor were becoming both poorer and more numerous. 

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Religious reasons for poverty

Dissolution of the monastries- After1536, Henry VIII confiscated monastic lands and wealth. This had two effects. Firstly, the poor who previously had seeked shelter, food and sanctuary at the monasteries now had nowhere to go. Secondly, the monks and religious who had lived in the monasteries were now homeless (vagrants) and had nowhere to live and no means by which to live.

'Protestant ethic'- Protestants were less inclined to give money to the poor than Catholics as alms as they did not believe that good deeds would get you into heaven. They also saw those who were poor to be idle and sinful and so many had no wish to associate with them or to offer aid. 

This is not to say that Protestants were less generous than Catholics. What they lacked in alms-giving they made up for in charitable bequeaths. These went to secular charities rather than to the Church, a path Catholics chose to follow instead. This giving to secular charity meant that municipal charitable schemes could be funded.

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Attitudes to poverty

There is much evidence to suggest that punishments increased when the authorities faced times of crisis. For example, the punishments laid out in the Poor Law Acts of both 1547 and 1572 carried the harshest sanctions and punishments and both were passed at times of crisis with 1547 being under the minority rule of Edward VI and 1572 being the Ridolfi plot and the excommunication of Elizabeth I. 

After the Ridolfi Plot in particular, the social, political and economic climate of 1572 led to a negative shift in peoples opinions of the poor. Vagrants and strangers were seen as potential assassins and rabble-rousers. After Elizabeth's excommunication, any unknown face could be a hostile Catholic looking to depose her. Thus vagrants and, ultimately, the poor were punished harshly and new, stricter legislation was passed.

The religious alterations of the period also affected attitudes towards the poor due to the different beliefs of the warring faiths towards poverty and doctrine regarding the relief and giving of alms. 

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Fixing Poverty Early years

The issue of  Poverty and Vagrancy was a large one for the Tudor government. They attempted to remedy it by passing legislation that evolved over time. Between the years 1483-1603, twelve significant acts were passed. These can be split into two stages; the early years and the later years. 

1495- An Act against Vagabonds and Beggars- Henry VII- States that the laws of the late 14th century are too rigorous and costly in the treatment of vagabonds. Provides for punishment in the stocks rather than imprisonment. All disabled poor to return home o parishes where they are allowed to beg but not to leave their hundreds.

1531- An Act against Concerning Punishment of Beggars and Vagabonds- Henry VIII- Provision of whipping of able-bodied beggars: complaint of rising numbers because of idleness.Disabled to be surveyed and licensed to beg by justices; if they leave the area where licensed, to be whipped or placed in the stocks.

1536- An Act for Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars- Henry VIII- Open doles to the poor to cease; the able to be put to continual labour; felony charges for persistent offenders. Voluntary alms to be collected by church wardens or two others to relieve the disabled

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Fixing Poverty Early years

1547- An Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds and for the Relief of the Poor and Impotent persons- Edward VI- Possible enslavement of sturdy beggars for two years; for life if they ran away; offenders to be branded on the chest with a V. Cottages to be erected for the disables and relief given to them. Weekly collection in the Parish Church after exhortation by the preacher. 

1549/50- An Act Touching the Punishment of Vagabonds and other Idle Persons- Edward VI- Repeal of vagrancy clauses of previous act. Re-enactment of provisions of 1547 concerning the disabled.

1552- An Act for the Provision and Relief of the poor- Edward VI- None to sit openly begging. Local authorities and householders to nominate two collectors of alms for weekly collections on Sundays. Persons refusing to contribute to be exhorted by ministers and then by bishops. Records to be kept of names of the poor and contributors. 

A general trend can be found in these acts. They begin to recognise the difference between the able-bodied and impotent poor. The punishment for the able-bodied poor tend to become more severe- culminating with the 147 act. The giving of alms moves progressively from the voluntary to the obligatory. A larger emphasis begins to be placed on the care and provision for the impotent poor.

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Fixing poverty Elizabethan Policy

1563- An Act for the Relief of the Poor- Continues statutes of 1531 and 1549. Persons refusing to contribute to poor relief after being exhorted by a bishop to appear before Justices with threat of possible imprisonment. Fines for officials and ministers and collectors who neglect their duties of office with regards to Poor Relief.

1572- An Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds and for the Relief of the Poor and Impotent- All convicted vagabonds above the age of 14 to be whipped and burned through the right ear unless some honest person takes them into service. Felony charges for second and third offenders. Beggar children 5-14 may be bound to service. Clauses relating to relief repeat 1552 and 1563 act. Provisions for persons who consider themselves over-taxed to appeal.

1576- An Act for the Setting of Poor on Work and for the Avoiding of Idleness- In every town, officials to gather stocks of wool to set the poor to work. Any persons refusing to work to be committed to a house of correction which are to be established in all counties and supported by rates.

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Fixing poverty Elizabethan Policy

1597- An Act for the Relief of the Poor- 'Overseers of the Poor' to be nominated in all Parishes to employ the able poor and to administer relief. Church Wardens and Overseers empowered to take the goods of unwilling contributors. The same officials to see that habitations are provided for the disabled. County treasurers to be appointed to administer funds for the relief of prisoners and soldiers and mariners passing through the country. 

1597- An Act for the Punishment of Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars- All previous acts repealed. Justices to see that houses of correction are erected in all towns and cities. A new definition of vagrants, including as before all the 'masterless' and dangerous occupations but also persons refusing to work for statutory wages. Provision for incorrigible rogues to be sent overseas. Convicted vagabonds to be whipped and returned to parishes of birth or last residence. 

1601- The Poor Law Act- 'Overseers of the Poor' to be nominated in every parish. All children who's parents are judged to be unable to maintain them to be set to work or apprenticed as are all person who have no ordinary or daily trade. Money to support impotent poor and the able-bodied. Those refusing to work to be sent to houses of correction.

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Elizabethan policy overview

Again, an obvious general trend can be discerned from these acts in the second period. Punishments tend to get worse for vagabond in times of national stress; eg. 1572, Ridolfi Plot. Taxes are now forced to deal with the poor issue- provision and aid given to the impotent poor graduating towards monetary relief for able-bodied poor. There is also more of a focus on setting the poor to work and providing employment and education rather than just punishments. This suggests a greater understanding that the poor are not poor by choice or design. There is also a move towards the transportation of persistent 'offenders.' 

Prior to 1558, although many acts were passed, the situation regarding poverty and vagrancy had not changed drastically. Elizabeth I had more success than her forebear with the legislation passed at the end of her reign lasting for over 200 years. However, attitudes to the poor did not change drastically after 1558. The differentiation between able-bodied and impotent poor continued but the assumption that the able-bodied were poor from choice generally persisted. Change happened too slowly and was too reliant on other forms of unofficial poor relief. 

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Reasons for legislation

1495- This act was passed as a result of Henry VII's policy of making the crown solvent again after the Yorkist regime. 

1531- This was passed as a direct result of the economic depression. 

1536- This was passed during a time of religious unrest when the dissolution of the monasteries acted as a short term catalyst for the problem of poverty and vagrancy. 

1547- This was passed in the year of the ascension of Edward VI. With the inevitability of a lengthy minority rule and the power struggles occurring in court, the poor suffered harsh punishments as the rich had no time to deal with other issues. 

1549- This was passed due to officials refusing to carry out the punishments laid out in the 1547 act. 

1572- This was a time of national stress which accounts for the harsh punishments laid out by this act. Elizabeth I had just been excommunicated, foreign relations were failing, the Ridolfi Plot had just been discovered and the Queen felt threatened by the numerous recusant Catholics that may want to overthrow her. 

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Municipal, Charitable Provision and Local Initiati

Local authorities were very important in the attempt to deal with poverty and vagrancy as although it was Parliament's duty to pass laws in order to deal with the issue, it wasn't their job to enforce these poor law acts. That was the job of the local authorities whom enforced the legislation as they saw fit. As they were on the ground, so to speak, and could see more clearly than Parliament the issue and what was necessary to be done in order to remedy the problem, they often exceeded the provision laid out in the statutes in order to deal with the problem on the front line. 

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London's response to poverty

The issue of Poverty and Vagrancy varied according to the concentration and numbers of poor in relation to the wealthy etc. Cities suffered more acutely from the problem and in particular, London was especially affected. It had the largest population in England and was also the most densely populated with the City of London (which had an area of one square mile) housing around 15000 people. This enabled rapid spreading of disease and high rates of crime and unemployment. London's authorities responded to this situation in a number of ways. 

  • they provided grain for the poor at cheap rates during bad harvests
  • able bodied people were forbidden from begging in the city, vagrants were branded on the chest with a 'v' and an officer was appointed to keep strange beggars out of the city.
  • there were house collections for poor relief
  • hospitals were opened for the impotent poor (Bethel for the mad, the Bridewell for sturdy beggars, St Bartholomew's and St Thomas' for the sick and impotent poor and Christ's for children).
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London's response to poverty

The most significant action carried out by London authorities, however, was the introduction of the compulsory poor rate in 1547, a full twenty-five years before this measure was implemented in official legislation. This was very far-sighted of them and, although the system was flawed with funds not being properly organised and distributed, it influenced Parliament to make the response compulsory across England. Indeed, many responses from the London authorities were later implemented in state legislation due to Parliament's proximity to the City. The MPs could look out at the town and see how the scheme's were working and then use the best ideas in their acts. 

Indeed, without municipal, charitable provision, the legislation passed would not have been possible or thought of. Towns such as Bristol, Canterbury, Norwich and Ipswich, Cambridge, York and Lincoln were far more susceptible to new ideas because problems with the poor were magnified in cities due to population density. Other pioneering methods for dealing with the issue that also came from towns included, 

  • the provision of a corn stock
  • the licensing of beggars
  • municipal hospitals/houses of correction
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The Norwich Scheme

One of the most successful campaigns against the problem of urban poverty was carried out by the city of Norwich in the decade 1570-1580. It was very successful due to the good records it made of the poor and their contributors (an action included in later legislation) and the wholesale participation that occurred- everyone who was capable of contributing did so. 

However, the main reason it was so much more successful than schemes carried out by other towns and cities was the longevity of the scheme and the fact that it was consistently applied across the period.  

If the systems of poor relief in the town had been strictly adhered to, the problems of the local authorities would have been greatly diminished. However, with the exception of Norwich, financial difficulties caused the collapse or virtual cessation of many of the Municipal schemes. This was compounded by the continued tolerance of beggars, even though this was theoretically confined to the impotent poor. 

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poor relief Church

Many types of people contributed hugely to diminishing the twin problems of poverty and vagrancy. These, amongst many others, included 

  • Nobles
  • Lower gentry
  • upper gentry
  • yeomen
  • clergy
  • merchants
  • tradesmen

At the beginning of the period, the Church played a very important role in the provision of poor relief. Monasteries and chantries gave placed for the poor and homeless to stay the night.They provided food and shelter for the needy and distributed some of the money collected in Mass to the most desperate in the Parish. After the break with Rome, the situation worsened with a hole left in the provision of poor relief. After the initial decrease, however, the Church was again used to collect obligatory alms for the poor and to distribute them to the needy in the Parish. The rich Parishes were obliged to aid poor Parishes with insufficient funds to provide for the poor of their parish themselves. Parish boundaries continued to be used to determine where the impotent poor were allowed to beg. 

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Poor relief Merchants

However, it was the merchants, not the church, who were the single largest provider of money to schemes to aid the poor. There are two main theories as to why the merchants gave so much and accounted for up to 60% of the financial aid given.  

  • to salve their own consciences- they had much wealth and fortune while others had next to nothing. They wanted to share their fortune in order to guarantee their place in heaven.
  • to preserve their own interest- a settled society was one in which trade could flourish. Good trading conditions were ones which would serve to strengthen the merchant's financial position. The financial rewards were greater than the slight loss of funds occurred in giving generously to the poor. 

However, the generosity of the merchant class does not mean we should discount any other form of charitable provision. The remaining 40% of provision came from other classes of people- a percentage too large to ignore. Also, whilst the merchant's contributions remained fairly static across the period, the other classes became more generous as the years progressed, even accounting for the Tudor Price Rise.

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