Why Were Some of the English Poor Laws passed between 1531 and 1598 Controversial?

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Poverty was an endemic problem in early modern British society. There was no single cause responsible for the increase in the number of people considered to be poor, rather it was the result of many economic and social factors.

For instance, during the sixteenth century the population rose dramatically, increasing from three to four million (a growth of twenty five percent) during the reign of Elizabeth I alone. This growth in population was not matched by a growth of employment opportunities. Inflation was also running high in both England and Scotland, which meant that as prices rose, (the cost of a basket of consumer goods rose sixfold between 1500 and 1640) wages could not reflect these increases.On average crops would fail every three years, which again had the effect of pushing up food prices and more and more arable land which could have being used for crops was being enclosed, for products such as wool.

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Disease was also rampant and on a micro level, death of the wage earner, old age and illness to name few, were causes of poverty. This time period also witnessed a change in perception towards the poor and in the means of dealing with poverty.From 1531 to 1598 there was no fewer than eleven Acts of Parliament passed in relation to the poor.The purpose of this essay is to examine these laws and explain why some are considered to be controversial, as well as looking at the implications and reasoning behind the Statutes.

Most of which sought the relief of the impotent or ‘deserving poor’ (people unable to find work because of illness, old age etc.) and the harsh punishment of the ‘undeserving poor’, such as vagrants (who most often were unemployed men or women unable to find work and migrating in order to do so) and vagabonds, as well as able bodied (idle) beggars. These terms will be explained in full as the essay progresses.Sixteenth century contemporary stereotypes had the effect of idealising the plight of the impotent and ‘deserving poor’, whilst creating a feeling of disgust, hatred and fear of the ‘undeserving poor’.

One reason for this is that rogue literature was popular at the time, for example Harman, in his Caveat for Common Cursetors published in 1567, describes fictional vagrants who rejected all the values of respectable society.1 The vagrant class came to be seen as a threat to the social order, which was reflected in the statutes as Slack states:”The deserving and undeserving could be distinguished by their behaviour and moral worth, and while the first were relived by alms, or later by public rates, the second could be whipped without compunction, sent back to their home parishes and compelled to work there. . .

. This was the principle adopted in the poor law of 1531 and its successors.”2 Nevertheless the polarization between the deserving and undeserving, was not always as clear cut as the sixteenth stereotypes would leave us to believe. For example, as afore mentioned a vagrant could simply be a person down on their luck, such as an unemployed migrant seeking work, certainly not a person who deserves to be harshly and brutally punished.

That is one reason, as the evidence suggests, some of the English poor laws could be considered controversial and will be the line of argument the essay will follow.The late 1520’s witnessed a severe economic depression, when the government severed relations with the Low Countries, causing thousands of people to become unemployed. As a direct result of this depression, the Act of 1531 was implemented, which was as follows:An Act Concerning Punishment of Beggars and Vagabonds1. Provision for whipping able-bodied beggars; complaint of rising numbers because of idleness.

2. Disabled to be surveyed and licensed to beg by justices; if they leave an area where licensed, to be whipped or placed in stocks.As can be seen the Act attempts to distinguish between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, nevertheless no provisions were made to provide for the former – coincidently they became the latter, if they were caught begging outside their own community. Another controversy which surrounds the Act, is the fact that it placed the able poor in an impossible situation, as it was assumed employment was available for all who required it.

(even though the depression had cost thousands their jobs) Therefore no allowance was granted for the unemployed able bodied man, who genuinely sought employment, as Pound states: “Unable to find employment, yet forbidden by statute to beg, they had the alternative of breaking the law or facing death by slow starvation. Such men were literally driven to vagrancy. It is hardly surprising that they felt themselves persecuted by their superiors, and that on occasion they resorted to violence.”The Act of 1536 was the first attempt on the behalf of the authorities, to provide provisions for the deserving poor under a parish based relief system, were each parish was to raise money by voluntary means for distribution to the impotent poor.

As before, casual doles were discouraged – which could be considered a controversy, as this was after all a highly Christianized society. Nevertheless it was still assumed that work was available for who ever required it, (despite a draft drawn up in 1535, recognising the fact that there was not) therefore the able bodied, unemployed could still come to find themselves classed as vagrants and punished harshly. It should be noted thatthe Act shifted responsibility for relieving the impotent away from hundreds, manors and courts leet into the hands of parish officers, as though not required by law, parish collections for the poor had being common before 1536. Despite the statute lapsing not long after being passed, it defined future strategy.

The reformation had the knock-on effect of increasing the plight of the poor, as it destroyed much of the institutional relief from which the poor (both able bodied and sick) had obtained charities in the past. Such as the monasteries, whose dissolution in 1538 and 1547 created a gorge in poor relief which needed to be filled. Another factor creating hardship was the fact that the English population was growing at a rate of 0.6 per annum, and as Wrightson states: “If population grew at a rate of more than 0.

5 percent per annum, real wages fell. The reasons for this phenomen are clear. When population growth exceeded this level, the supply of the basic necessities of life could not be expanded sufficiently rapidly to meet increased demand. Prices roses.

“As large numbers of poor had the effect of alarming the authorities and were considered a danger, the Act implemented by the House of Commons in 1547 was extremely harsh and possibly the most controversial of all the sixteenth century poor laws. It was as follows:An Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds and for the Relief of the Poor and Impotent Persons1. Possible enslavement of sturdy beggars for two years; for life if they run away; offenders to be branded on the chest with a ‘V’;2. Cottages to be erected for the disabled and relief given to them;3.

Weekly collections in the parish church after exhortation by a preacher.As can be seen, the statute followed the principles of providing for the ‘deserving poor’ and brutally harsh punishment of the ‘undeserving poor’. Although it contained clauses concerning the employment of poor children and collections for the impotent, (which were extended further in 1552) the treatment of able bodied poor deemed to be vagrants was highly controversial and extremely brutal. For instance anybody, (man or woman) who found themselves to be unemployed for three consecutive days or more and who lacked means of support, would come to find themselves classed as a vagrant, which would the lead to them being branded on the chest with a ‘V’, then enslaved for a period of two years.

Once the vagrant was enslaved they had to perform any task that that their master set for them, refusal to undertake a task could result in a whipping, being chained or imprisoned with iron rings around the neck and legs. If the person made an attempt to escape, upon their capture they could be enslaved for life or executed if a further escape attempt was made.The only provision made for the able bodied was that any slave who acquired a decent living could be discharged, whether by inheritance or otherwise. Nevertheless this was hardly a compromise, as vagrants condemned to slavery were rewarded with meals of bread and water which is hardly enough to provide a living, it is also doubtful that many able bodied poor would have had the convenience of an inheritance to rely on.

We know this Act was controversial, not only from a twenty first century perspective, however from a sixteenth century contemporary viewpoint also. As it repulsed local parishes and as Pound states: “Despite these sops to tender consciences, the Act was more than local authorities could stomach. . .

. The parish constable was quite prepared to beat the really recalcitrant beggar and to send him on his way, but to condemn a man to slavery wasanother thing entirely. . .

. With such an attitude prevailing, the ferocity of the statute made it a virtual dead letter from the outset. In 1550 it was repealed and and the Act of 1531 was revived in its stead.”7 However it should be noted, that although oppressive, collections for the impotent and a like survived and were substantially built upon in 1552.

The Act introduced in 1572 contained legislation more controversial than any of the Tudor poor laws apart from the statute of 1547. Vagrants were defined as group which contained all masterless men and non land owners, as well as occupations such as pedlars, tinkers and minstrels – which is hardly fair, as these people may have been ‘wandering’ from town to town, but they did have a source of income. Punishment for these people was again harsh and brutal and consisted of, a whipping and boring through the ear for a first offence, condemnation as a felon for a second, and the death penalty for a third. However unlike the 1547 statute, which went largely unenforced as mentioned, there is evidence to suggest these penalties were as Pound states: “In the Middlesex sessions between 1572 and 1575, for example, forty-four vagabonds were sentenced to be branded, eight to be set to service, and five to be hanged.

“8It should be mentioned that other kinds of poor also existed, as those that conducted surveys of the poor in early modern society discovered. They unearthed people that could be classed as neither impotent or idle, as Slack states: “Men and women who were able and willing to work, but who could not find none, or not enough to pay for the upkeep of families – the ‘labouring poor’ in fact.”9(Which has being discussed previously as one of the main lines of argument this essay is following.) One of the first urban surveys of the poor was conducted within the London area in 1552, which discovered the existence of other groups besides the idle and impotent.

Apart from the predictable, (vagrants, vagabonds and sick) they also unearthed numbers of decayed householders and ‘poor men overburden with their children’.By the end of the century these people had become regular figures in analyses of the poor, who sometimes were classed with the sub heading of ‘poor by casualty’.10 So it would seem that the authorities were starting to recognise the fact that not all able-bodied poor were undeserving or idle, nevertheless it took until 1576 for an Act to be passed, which stated work was t be provided for the poor. As every town was to build a stockpile of material for the poor to work on and every county a ‘House of Correction’, for those refusing work.

However most of the time the parish authorities treated the labouring poor like the impotent poor, giving them cash payments to supplement inadequate wages. Instead of providing work for them. This policy remained in place for twenty-two years, when in 1598 the poor laws became fairer and all earlier vagrancy Acts were repealed. As well as taxation brought into the parishes to pay for the poor relief.

As we have seen the English poor laws passed between 1531 and 1598, were progressive in development and were mainly concerned, with the relief of the deserving or impotent poor and the harsh, brutal punishment of the undeserving or vagrant class. However, it was never as clear cut as all able-bodied poor not wanting to work, and therefore finding themselves classed as idle vagrants. In contrast to the deserving poor. This reason, as well as the barbaric punishment which a person could receive, if apprehended and accused of vagrancy (even if they were not in any other respect, proven criminals at their time of capture) is why some of the English poor laws are considered to be controversial, most notably the Acts passed in 1547 and 1572.

The Act of 1547 was even to much for sixteenth century contemporaries to stomach, as it went largely unenforced and was repealed three years later. It took until 1576, for the authorities to provide any provisions for the able-bodied unemployed, or the labouring poor. Nevertheless under the legislation of this Act, travelling people such as pedlars, tinkers and minstrels, who almost certainly would have received an income, came to be classed as vagrants. In defence of the laws passed, they were progressive in the development of the parish based relief system and by 1598 all previous vagrancy Acts had being repealed.

The reason for some of the statutes being seemingly over the top, as for as punishment was concerned, was probably because those in parliament were far removed from the actual situation, and sought to preserve the social order. As poverty on mass was seen as threat.

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Why Were Some of the English Poor Laws passed between 1531 and 1598 Controversial?. (2017, Dec 19). Retrieved from


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