Elizabeth Ist coat of arms

The Poor Law

Queen Elizabeth Ist

"Queen Elizabeth Ist"

The Poor in Elizabethan England
Society in Elizabethan England was changing and the number of poor people living in abject poverty was increasing. A series of laws was introduced by the English Parliament in 1563, 1572, 1576, 1597 culminating in the 1601 Poor Law. Views on the poor changed throughout this period beginning with a harsh attitude towards the poor but easing towards a more compassionate approach.

There were a number of reasons for the poverty and the increasing numbers of the poor in Elizabethan England, some of the reasons dated back to before the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

Reasons for Poverty - The Poor in Elizabethan England - Breakdown of the Feudal System
The medieval Feudal system had broken down. The feudal system was built on a hierarchal pyramid system where everyone owed allegiance to their immediate superior and the nobles of the land and the Lords of the Manor were responsible for the peasants who lived on their land.

Reasons for Poverty - The Poor in Elizabethan England - Dissolution of the Monasteries
The Dissolution of the Monasteries instigated by King Henry VIII  between 1536 and 1540 put vast sums of money into the royal coffers and saw Monks and Nuns homeless and many poor people without a place of refuge.

Reasons for Poverty - Changes in Religion leading to decline in values & moral expectations
The abrupt change in religions and the chaos wreaked by the Dissolution of the Monasteries brought about a decline in values and moral expectations. Prior to the Reformation the close knit religious communities of England adhered to the Bible instructions given to all Christians in Matthew Chapter 25 which stated that all Christians shall:

  • feed the hungry
  • give drink to the thirsty
  • welcome the stranger
  • clothe the naked
  • visit the sick
  • visit the prisoner
  • bury the dead

The decline in Christian values, and the examples set by the Nuns and the Monks, resulted in these charitable acts of Mercy towards the unfortunate were no longer seen as a duty nor were they undertaken. The English had firmly placed the responsibility of these people firmly on the shoulders of the Elizabethan government. Lord Burghley was particularly concerned that Starving and homeless people were driven to desperate acts endangering society in general and Law and Order in particular.

Reasons for Poverty - The Poor in Elizabethan England - Land Enclosure
Changes in agriculture during the Elizabethan period led to people leaving the countryside and their village life to search for employment in the towns. The wool trade became increasingly popular during the Elizabethan age, which meant that land which had been farmed by peasants was now dedicated to rearing sheep and a process known as land enclosure meant that the traditional open field system ended in favour of creating larger and more profitable farming units which required fewer people to work on them. The number of jobs decreased and people were forced to leave there homes in search of employment in the towns.

Reasons for Poverty - Poor Harvests & Population Increase
During Queen Elizabeth's reign in the 1590's a series of poor harvests occurred. The price of food increased and people were suffering from starvation. This, combined with a population increase of 25% during the Elizabethan era created an extremely serious situation in the land. Starving and homeless people were driven to desperate acts endangering society in general.

Elizabethan England - The Poor Law - 1552 Act
The extent of the problem of the Poor needed to be identified so the 1552 Act was passed in order to officially record the number of poor in each Parish Register, along with the details of Births, Deaths and Marriages. A parish was the smallest unit within the organisation of the Church. Every parish had its own church and clergyman. There were 15,000 Parishes in England & Wales. Parliament suggested that every Parish should appoint two collectors of alms to assist the churchwardens after service on Sunday to “gently ask and demand of every man or woman what they, of their charity, will be contented to give weekly towards the relief of the poor”. The Alms collectors distributed the money to the registered poor of the parish. The Parish Registers provided the information required by the Elizabethan government to assess the extent of the problem.

Elizabethan England - The Poor Law - 1563 Act
The threat to civil disorder led to an Act of the Elizabethan Poor Law to be passed through Parliament in 1563. The different types of Poor people were categorised in order to determine the treatment that they might receive as follows:

  • The 'Deserving Poor' - the old the young and the sick who should receive help
    • These poor people were provided with 'Outdoor Relief' in the form of clothes, food or money
  • The 'Deserving Unemployed' - those willing and able to work but unable to find employment
    • These poor people were provided with 'Indoor Relief' in the form of being cared for in almshouses, orphanages and  workhouses
    • The sick were cared for in hospitals
    • Apprenticeships were arranged for the young
  • The 'Undeserving Poor' - those who turned to a life of crime or became beggars
    • The dishonest men in these categories were criminals who turned to various forms of theft
    • The beggars in these categories were referred to as 'Idle Beggars'  but many have since been referred to as 'Poor Beggars'. These are still common terms in the modern English language
    • The punishments for these categories were extremely harsh, some of which are described below
Elizabethan England - The Poor Law - The Poor Beggars
The unfortunate poor who turned to begging were viewed and treated as criminals. The punishment of the  'poor beggars' was that  they would be beaten until they reached the stones that marked the town parish boundary. The beatings given as punishment were bloody and merciless and those who were caught continually begging could be sent to prison and even hanged as their punishment.

Elizabethan England - The Poor Law - 1572 Act
In 1572 the first compulsory poor law tax was imposed at a local level making the alleviation of poverty a local responsibility. Each Parish each parish was responsible to provide for its own aged, sick and poor. The Justice of the Peace for each parish was allowed to collect a tax from those who owned land in the parish. This was called the Poor Rate. The Law stated that charity for the relief of the poor should be collected weekly by assigned collectors. The money was used to help the 'Deserving Poor' - anyone refusing to pay was imprisoned.

Elizabethan England - The Poor Law - 1576 Act
In the 1576 Act each town was required to provide work for the unemployed, in effect, the first English Workhouse, or Poorhouse (without accommodation) and Houses of Correction for Vagrants and Beggars. Raw materials, such as wool, was provided and the poor supplied the labour. Punishment of the Mother and reputed Father of a Bastard was also established.

Elizabethan England - The Poor Law - 1597 Act
The poor harvest of the 1590's placed an even bigger burden on the economy. The Justices of the Peace were given more authority to raise additional compulsory funds. A new position of 'Overseer of the Poor' was created. The role of the Overseer of the Poor was to:

  • Calculate the amount of 'Poor Rate' required for the Parish
  • Collect the poor rate from property owners
  • Dispensing either money, clothes or food
  • Supervise the Parish Poor House

Elizabethan England - The 1601 Poor Law
The Poor Law Act 1601 formalised earlier practices making provision for a National system to be paid for by levying property taxes. The 1601 Poor Law act made provision to:

  • To levy a compulsory poor rate on every parish
  • To provide working materials
  • Provide work or apprenticeships for children who were orphaned or whose parents were unable to support them
  • Offer relief to the 'Deserving Poor'
  • Collect a poor relief rate from property owners
  • Parents and children were responsible for each other, so poor elderly parents were expected to live with their children

Interesting Facts and Information about Elizabethan England and The Poor Law
The Acts of Acts of 1552, 1563, 1572, 1576 and 1597 related to provision for the poor on a parish basis whilst the 1601 Poor Law created a National system to provide for the poor.

Elizabethan England
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