319 Dearth and Discord


The last 15-20 years of Elizabeth’s reign have been described as the Golden Age. It’s a description that might have seemed incomprehensible to many of the people that lived through it; but it did see the completion of Europe’s first comprehensive state system of poor relief.


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Now then, a few episodes ago I spoke briefly, and yet authoritatively I thought, even sensitively, about the last 10-13 years of Elizabeth’s reign, the Golden Age thing – you know the thing, dispatching our enemies to the boundary for successive sixes, a nation newly found and self confident, socially stable and at one with itself setting out to explore the world, and creating a corpus of drama of sufficient size to be able torture young people for infinite future generations. I hesitate to say cry Harry and all that, because I have been doing that a lot recently, but what the heck, cry harry, gentle listeners, and if you will St George and just to be properly inclusive, the dragon, which does tend to get left out a lot. Every one of the great needs a great enemy.

This week then, we are going to ask what was the Golden Age like for you, a frankly dishonest device to allow me to squeeze some social content into the food processor of history, in the attempt to spice up the sausage of political history. Just to frame this, let me start with the facts of life because that will pretty quickly give you a good idea of why this Golden Age thingy needs some pushing, prodding and general jostling.

We have spoken before of the basic economic background to the Tudor century; you may recall this around September 2019 when I did a series of 7 social episodes, which got rather panned by one reviewer I must say. Not that I ever read reviews, darlings. Well not more than 10 times each anyway. Although we talked about the NW European marriage pattern too, and I remember one of you getting very excited, thank you for that. Well, I am not to rely on your prefect memory of that, and will just give you a few highlights, then we can talk how that plays out in the 1590s. So the story of the Tudor age, from around something like 1550, is one of a rising population and along with it, rising inflation; just as a by the way, I think there are a few historians who think population growth has far more effect on society and daily life than do any irascible, overweight ex sportsmen much given to the chopping of heads, and it’s a fair argument. Anyway, by 1590s the steady population growth was having a real impact on Tudor England – it was on average about 1% a year which we think of as pshaw worthy but it was dramatic for England; remember that since the Black Death, population increase has been basically zip along with relatively high death rates, the golden age of bacteria as it’s been called. Anyway, population numbers are tricky and bothersome, but let’s say in 1524 population was in the order of 2.3 million people; which had risen to 4.15 million in 1603 and would rise further to 5.6 million in 1650[1]. So look, that’s a big increase.

Price inflation did not help, because it depressed the real value of wages. This wasn’t bad for everyone; if you had land then the 16th century was something of a wheeze, because labour was relatively cheap, but meanwhile the prices for produce rose as more people chased the same levels of production; and even relatively small landholders, husbandmen and Yeoman profited from this too, not just the gentry and magnate types. But if you were a landless labourer, and enclosure and the end of serfdom had rendered up many more of those, your life was much more precarious, and became ever more precarious as time went on – until maybe about the 1630s when the population growth seems to come to an end. It’s not entirely clear what percentage of the population fell into the landless labourers category, and of course it would vary according to region and agriculture but a couple of studies by Keith Wrightson suggested that maybe 25-30% of a village population were wage labourers. In addition a study in Ipswich put a figure of 13% of their population living in what they described as poverty, and the rest of course, living in tractors.

Pressures were particularly acute of course when times were hard and in the 1590s times were hard; you might be able to ride out the odd year of bad harvest, but woe betide you if more than one bus came along at the same time. In 1594 and 1595, that’s exactly what happened – both the harvests were bad; in 1596 and 1597, they were disastrous; and it took until the new century for a run of good harvests to return. Strange as it seems, there was a run of crazy dreams, and a man who could have interpreted could have gone far – but there was no such man, Instead, High food prices, low wages, lots of competition for work, a dearth of food; pretty disastrous, especially for your common or garden labourer. And this has an impact on mortality – people die as a result of this dearth, they don’t just go about saying they feel a little bit peckish would you mind passing the pasty, and there were greatly increased burials in many parishes – though there is not a repeat of the great famines of the past, and indeed there was no mass starvation as apparently occurred in France.[2]  The English economy was showing signs of some greater flexibility, with improved mechanisms for poor relief. But there was more; this was a time of war, and that had an impact too. Recruitment was disruptive; the period 1591-1602 saw 6,000 men recruited in Kent for example from a population of 130,000. There was further pain in Kent because troops were billeted there on their way to the continent, a usually very painful experience for ordinary people; and then there was the return of demobilised or injured soldiers adding to the vagrancy problem, and periods when Trained bands were called out. Armies were generally trouble in the Early Modern World; they spread disease, billeting was a nightmare, and they were notoriously light fingered.  They also had a tendency to mutiny – mutinies were a common plague in Chester and Bristol where troops disembarked for the war in Ireland.

On top of this there were regular parliamentary subsidies. Obviously Elizabeth was notoriously thrifty and used the joint stock approach to financing naval warfare but none the less war isn’t cheap; it’s calculated that the Armada cost £161,000, that £575,000 was spent on Naval warfare between 1585 and 1603, the war in the Low countries and France cost £1.9 million and slightly more almost £2 million was spent on the pesky Irish and the Nine Years War.

The impact of this was many and various. The profile of poverty was not necessarily a binary thing; people fell into poverty for specific periods. It might be a factor of life cycle – older people were more likely to fall into poverty for example; it might be due to dearth and harvest failure so restricted for particular periods, or it might be seasonal, outside of Harvest time for example when there was less work around. There is also a concept of something called Nuclear Hardship – the idea that in societies where small, nuclear families were the rule, the elderly or those falling on hard times were more vulnerable; but I think the conclusion is that complex families anyway did not save for times of trouble and therefore were no better at covering crises. Plus it’s also important to remember any kind of preventable death was seen by communities as a catastrophic failure. Here’s an example of that; in the parish registers of Wednesbury in Staffordshire dated 22nd November 1674 was this entry.

‘John Russel, buried, being famished for want of food. Josiah Freeman being overseer. John Russel was buried with the solemnity of many tears’.[3]

The register reflects the importance of the death felt by the community by identifying for posterity the person responsible, the Parish Overseer of the Poor, Josiah Freeman, who should have provided the support John needed.

Either way, poverty was not as simple as just not having enough work or not being able to make ends meet. A survey of paupers in Lancashire for example showed that the factors that made a difference; 43 per cent were old, 50 per cent sick, 40 per cent were single; 43 per cent mentioned children who are a drain it must be said. Only 4 per cent told of unemployment and economic crises.

However, of course at times of crisis like the 1590s, dearth became a much more important factor; and the poor often took action into their own hands – with a popular route being the grain riot. Now riot is also not as straightforward as it might sound; the Elizabethan records of the Star Chamber show 105 examples of riot in her reign; many were cleverly constructed – fewer than 30 people, dispersing in an hour to avoid the charge of common law riot; riot used to remind their rulers of their responsibility over things like rights of common and so on. But in the 1590s the profile changed, and riot became more urgent; in 1595 for example there were 12 in London in June alone. There were food riots in multiple counties, in 1596 there was a rising that acquired the grand name of the Oxfordshire rebellion – but maybe more because of the heavy handed and frankly vicious intervention of the famed jurist Edward Coke, who was granted power to torture, and declared the riot as treason which meant that Robert Burton and Richard Bradshaw were hanged, drawn and quartered. Edward Coke, as members of the history of England will know, was a very famous jurist, but also a notable arse, who’s wife said of him on his death

His like shall never be seen again – thanks be to God

Now, one of the basis for the Golden Age argument is that after 1569 Elizabeth faced no major rebellions, and that the Tudor realm was a model of social stability, where people knew and accepted their role in the commonwealth, and where their rulers were filled with a strong paternalistic tradition of support, and received in return deference and obedience from the lower orders. Well there is probably some truth in there, but there is also some surviving comment that suggests the people of Elizabethan England were less content with the social order than tradition would have us believe. In Essex a Weaver told the crowd that

It would never be better until men did rise and thereby seek an amendment and wished in his heart a hundred men would rise and he would be their captain to cut the throats of the rich churls and the rich Cornmongers[4]

A labourer in 1598 swore in court that

he hoped to see such warre in this realme to afflicte the rich men of this countrye to requite their hardnes of heart towards the poore’.

The queen herself was not immune; one Soldier declared that

capteyne Drake and his souldiers when they have gone forth into the prince’s service do robbe and spoyle the kinge of Spayne his goods, which is the right king of Ingland

In return, England’s elites use some language which is markedly short of the ideal for supportive, respectful and paternalistic fathers of the poor. They saw before them a wave of violence, and in particular they saw the old order of things over-turned by vagrancy, there seemed to be people all over the place when they should have been in their own parish, and their existence carried with it a threat of anarchy and social disorder, or the ‘seeds of peril and Tumult’ in the words of Francis Bacon.

The laws of sedition and treason were frankly blood curdling; as one historian, Joel Samaha put it

the law of sedition in Elizabethan England provided that anyone who criticized the government, reported others’ criticisms, or even speculated about when the government would change or when the queen died, was subject to crushing fines, cruel corporal punishment, and even death itself

Contemporary William Lambarde wrote of

‘infinite swarms of evil that in latter years (more than in former ages) have invaded the realm and overrun it’

And the JP Edward Hext wrote that behind the ‘rapynes and thefts’ which ‘multiplye daylye’, lay a body of ‘wycked and desparate’ persons, idle ne’er do wells who ‘beinge putt to any hard labor, will greve them above measure, so as they will rather hazard their lives than work’.

In Elizabethan England, the gap between crime and sin was almost non existent and rulers panicked that small sins would prove to be a gateway drug to greater crime; Sir John Smythe wrote to Burghley to urge harsh and decisive repression to head off rebellion

For commonly the beginning are very small and therefore lightly regarded, but once begun they suddenly grow great, then turn all to fire and blood

Essentially, many of the social elite were convinced that what they were facing here was social anarchy, and that action was needed.

Much of this worry was exacerbated by what seemed to be a crime wave. Understanding the extent of crime and how it changes is tricky, partly due to the survival of record, but also because there is a basic and possibly unanswerable question – did a rise in indictments mean a rise in crime or a panic about crime and therefor a rush to prosecute? But the conclusion seems to be by most historians that crime did indeed rise; what seems to have happened was a dramatic rise in felony prosecutions starting around 1580, and remaining high until around 1640 when they fell significantly, and stayed low.

We might relate this back to a question – why was it that in a century noted for its popular rebellion, that Elizabeth’s reign saw no major rebellions after the Northern Rebellion of 1569, and that it must be said that was a bit of a non starter as well? So, so far under the Tudors we’d seen the Cornish come to London in ugly mood in 1497, the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, the commotion time of 1549 – I may have missed some. And yet Elizabeth got away with it – and that seems even more remarkable given the litany of small scale riots we’ve heard about. The number 1 explanation probably lies in the economic changes of the 16th century we’ve just described. Although the poor got poorer, the rich getting richer thing made a very significant difference to the dynamic of riot and rebellion. If you look at all those Tudor rebellions, they all have one thing in common – they have leaders from higher up the social scale than ordinary villagers. Even the Mousehold Commotion time in Norwich had Robert Kett, a substantial yeoman. Now with their more prosperous lifestyle, the yeomanry began to look not to their leadership of the village and their fellow peasants; but to aspire to be part of the middling sort, or indeed gentlemen and Gentry. One symptom of this is what W G Hoskins called the great Rebuilding from the 1570s to the 1640s – yeomen and husbandmen in the country, alongside merchants and tradesmen in the towns, upgrading their houses, building brick fireplaces, extending and dividing up their Medieval hall buildings to create privacy. So, although in the Oxfordshire Rebellion there’s plenty of evidence of widespread discontent, exacerbated by a high level of enclosure and therefore an extensive population of wage labourers, yet the rebellion fails to take off. It seems that villagers also knew they no longer had a chance of success, and so sought to play the system instead of causing serious mayhem – as mentioned, there’s evidence they carefully get riot to below 30 people so as not to fall foul of the law. It’s a bit like planning a wedding in a time of COVID restrictions.

Others point to the international situation, and the ability of Elizabeth herself to present a figure of unity and project a sympathetic image through the theatre of politics and constructed images – and indeed propaganda such as the record of her coronation, or Burghley’s faintly scurrilous and provocative pamphlets. Where rebellion did occur, such as the northern rebellion, Elizabeth’s handling of the crisis was consummate – she did indeed use brutality in executing many ordinary folks, but she dealt very intelligently with the social elite below the magnate rebels – fining them, holding them in debt, but not executing them. And finally, the Elizabethan state was responsive; despite Edward Coke’s hideous over reaction to the Oxfordshire Rebellion, parliament then passed an act against the conversion of tillage to pasture; as ineffective as all the other anti enclosure acts as it happens, but they can claim to have listened. And finally Elizabeth was very conscious of the burden of taxation, and consistently refused to reform the assessment system; the result was an increasingly sclerotic system with falling returns; but of course it lightened the burden, even in the nasty 90s. She thereby left a massive problem for her successors which would only, rather ironically, be solved by the Civil war. And then of course, the Elizabethan state responded with the provision of support for the poor through the Poor Laws, which we’ll come to.

Elizabethans also tried to intervene directly when corn was scarce. Incidentally as an aside, I have been pulled up on the use of the word corn – which I am told by some actually means maize. Well I looked this up in the OED and am relieved to say that in using it as a general word for grain I am entirely correct in the English tradition; apparently the first written evidence we have of its use in this way comes from a charter of 871 so that seems to be long enough to qualify as official usage. The things you learn writing podcasts.

Anyway, direct intervention; several dearth orders were issued by the Elizabethan government. The idea was that an investigation and survey should be carried out by the grand Juries of the hundred courts, and price controls put in place, and additional corn brought in from outside. They were not terribly popular or effective it has to be said; locals complained that they caused a panic and a rush on hoarding putting the price up still further beyond the capability of the poor to buy, even when extra corn was brought in. So we all know the drill of course, since with the onset of COVID we saw people rush immediately to the products most essential for survival in the 21st century – namely, soft, quilted toilet paper. The supermarket shelves were swept clean to make sure that whatever the disease threw at us, at least the nation’s bottoms would remain in good order.

Dearth was also affected by the lack of understanding of the basic economics going on in such situations; the law of supply and demand was only vaguely understood, and years of dearth were seen as the operation of personal malfeasance – evil cornmongers out to make a few extra quid by exploiting the misery of the poor; or dearth was a sign of God’s displeasure and retribution.


Elizabethan England of course had a more general problem to deal with, levels of poverty that increased as the century went on for the reasons described; and in the end they arrived at an approach unique throughout Europe – I speak of the Elizabethan Poor laws. The Poor Laws I guess very probably have a bad reputation; I don’t know about you, but as soon as they are mentioned my thoughts fly to Dickens, the workhouse and Thomas Gradgrind. But try to put that away from you for a moment; we are 250 years earlier, and only one country in Europe will reach 1600 with a statutory, system of state poor relief, which would before long cover the whole country. And that country was Elizabethan England. Which is a little odd; why did this happen first in England? Afterall as I mentioned, despite the growing tide of poverty and vagrancy, there were no mass starvations as there were in some parts of Europe.

In the middle years of the 16th century England’s approach to the poor was driven by the traditional separation of the poor into the deserving and undeserving poor of the medieval world. Although it was recognised that the community rather than the family ought to support its poorer members, that support should be targeted at the deserving poor – those unable to work for various reasons – illness, age, disablement, that sort of thing. Retribution and punishment not goodies and buns were to be visited on the Undeserving poor – anyone who was physically able to work – but wasn’t doing so; to the medieval mind the reason they weren’t working was a moral issue – they were idle. Once again, sin and moral judgements were common; vagabonds were branded with a V for Vagabond, or an R for Rogue, quite impressive for a period so dramatically idiosyncratic as far as spelling is concerned, maybe it should have been W for Wrogue..

However population growth began to work a change in attitude; I mean don’t get me wrong, the sturdy beggar was still a despised and feared figure, but with the rise of population it began to be realised that there was a third category – those people they described as ‘poor able labouring folk’ or those identified in 1536 as

Those which endeavour themselves with all their will and labour to get their living with their hands, and yet cannot fully help themselves for their chargeable household and multitude of children

The grudging acceptance of this fact can be seen in one of the first of the poor law acts put in place by that social justice warrior Thomas Cromwell, in 1536; the act put a voluntary system of poor rates collection, ordered vagrants to be whipped and sent back to their parish – but also ordered work to be provided for the able poor of the parish. The reason for this change in attitude was once argued to be Protestantism, but the theory became discredited because the change was visible in Catholic countries as well. It seems more likely that one of the main intellectual changes came from Christian Humanism; which dictated that Christian charity demanded  an obligation of the rich towards the poor, but that action should be carried out by public authority, and the aim of it should be reform, moral reform, not simply the saving of lives – once again, sin gets everywhere, into all the cracks and crevices of early modern Europe. In fact I would contend that wherever there’s a crack or a crevice there you will find sin, but that’s for another podcast far far away.

Moving away from crevices, Thomas Starkey fussed in the 1530s that the

Multitude of beggars here in our country showeth much poverty…and…also much idleness and ill policy[5]

Another source of inspiration for change was the Commonwealth thinking that was so evident in Edmund Dudley’s Tree of Commonwealth, in the sermons of Bishop Latimer and the commotion time; society was like a body, and the head, belly, hands and feet were all mutually interdependent, and the health of one depended on the health of all. Nonetheless, whereas Protestantism was not necessarily the source, it did increase the pressure for new thinking – because some of the infrastructure for poor relief in the monasteries had been disbanded.

One response to this was the creation of public hospitals in London, on the model of the approach in Germany and the Low Countries and in French cities to provide hospitals to support the poor. London therefore developed St Barts and St Thomas’s for the diseased and disabled, Christs Hospital for foundlings and Bridewell for idle rogues. In the end, England took a different approach rather than this centralising one, but it’s a reminder that in poor relief England was as with everything part of European trends.

It’s also clear, though, that the poor laws built on existing experience, and that local initiatives were already being tried out before the edifice of Elizabethan legislation was constructed; a number of cities for example levied poor rates – Norwich, York, Exeter, Colchester, Ipswich and Worcester all did so by 1560, and more started schemes later; meanwhile collections for the poor were increasingly common in rural parishes, recorded in the accounts by churchwardens. So the Poor laws did not appear from nowhere. Furthermore, the tradition of private giving or charitable donations given outside the statutory requirements very much continues; large and increasing sums were being given by testators for example from 1540 to establish almshouses and doles and this carries on over the following centuries.

After Cromwell’s law of 1536, things rather stalled for a while; Cromwell’s act itself lapsed; a new law appeared in 1547 which imposed slavery on vagabonds, but that was repealed after 2 years. But in 1552 the process started up again with an act that decreed that surveys of the poor were to be taken in every parish; in 1563 a new act hinted at the idea of compulsory rather than voluntary contributions – parishioners who did not contribute were required to explain why before a magistrate. Then in 1572 JPs were required to take surveys of the poor and appoint collectors and overseers of the poor; it had provision for the punishment of vagrants and to providing work for them. The missing link was the mechanism for making the Poor Laws enforceable and this was completed in the 1598 Act for the Relief of the Poor. The responsibility for raising rates, relieving the impotent, setting the able bodied to work and apprenticing poor children was given to the churchwardens and overseer of the poor in each Parish; Justices of the Peace were to provide a supervisory role. In further legislation to do with Vagabonds, the able vagrant was to be whipped and returned to their parish, unless they had a certificate – which led to a roaring trade in the forgery of certificates of course. It was clarified that ‘Idle and disorderly persons’ could be incarcerated in houses of Correction without recourse to the law.

Now, there are various opinions about the effectiveness of the Poor Laws. John Guy rather waspishly describes them as over rated; and it’s true that the poor laws take a while to be fully implemented across all of England. By 1600 most of the towns seems to have poor rates in operation, but only a small minority of rural parishes. After 1601 increasingly pressure came from the centre; over the next 40 years the poor rate became familiar, by 1696 they were pretty much universal. A survey in that year identified that £400,000 was being raised and spent through the poor rates annually, which is a substantial amount; the only thing I can relate it to are the estimates that the spending of monasteries at the dissolution on poor relief was between 9 and £15,000.

Obviously, even £400,000 was not enough to feed all the poor; it’s been estimated that it could support about 5% of the population, but it is a remarkable total. Within a hundred years, that total had reached £1.5m, but that’s for another day. The 1598 act made a real difference because now the assize judges who visited quarterly were required to review the operation of the poor law with the local Justices of the Peace; who in turn took parish constables to task if required. This mechanism gave a way to ensure implementation.

Some parts of the legislation connected with the poor were less successful than others. The most alien to us these days is the treatment of vagrants, legislation involving the detention and whipping of vagrants to be returned to their home parish, and which left English villages and towns littered with pillories, stocks and whipping posts at which we can gawp in horror before getting ourselves a kebab and nipping into Primark. One problem was that it was often not very clear to which parish vagrants should be returned; alternatively, although there might indeed be rogues and villains in the mix, yet many more were very obviously economic migrants for which the punishment seemed inappropriate. In most cases, Parish constables decided against punishing them for their vagrancy, and only did so where the vagrants committed some crime; the rest were given a bit of grub and a coin and escorted to the parish boundaries to carry on their way. [6] That’s not to say, by the way, that all this whipping was not a genuine part of Elizabethan society; it was, and particularly at times of social crises, so there were onslaughts of whipping for example in 1572 and 1597. [7]

Even less effective was the idea of creating work for the labouring poor; although simple things like providing a spinning wheel or distaff could be effective, most larger schemes led to financial chaos and failure; and Overseers of the Poor therefore took the easy way out and provided a dole rather than trying something complicated.

Church wardens accounts show that there were many ways in which the poor rates were implemented. It might be used to provide children with apprenticeships, in the hope of avoiding future expenditure; or providing benefits in kind – shoes, shirts lodging, that sort of thing. Bread or fuel were also common bequests. But the most common form was the cash dole, given in two ways; there might be a weekly dole, agreed yearly; or a dole for shorter periods, when someone was ill, or unemployed. The regular type of payment tended to go to the impotent as it were – the old for example, while the casual, short term dole more often went to able bodied men. In times of crisis, like the 1590s for example, the churchwardens’ records often show the casual payments overtaking the regular pension type payments for a short period, showing how each Parish responded to short term crises, such as the harvest failures of the 1590s.

Implementation of the poor law was very much a local affair carried out by local officers; though overseers however conscientious still had to appear before their local magistrates to justify their decisions. None the less, the system had within in bags and bags of discretion; and as one commentator noted, another word for discretion might be arbitrary. And from the point of view of the poor, it is quite clear that most people hated being thrown on the parish as they put it; self help and support was always preferred, finding a way to make shift and mend and make it through the hard times independently. Because the poor law support came at a cost for those required to ask for help – since help was discretionary, the poor law re-inforced and embedded habits and conventions of deference and obedience. The stories that sometimes emerge from the record give a glimpse of the strategies and struggle the poor employed to keep body and soul together and avoid the dole – goods borrowed, rent foregone, faggots gathered, food cadged. I’m going to quote poetry at you now, darling, but not the language of love. This is from a different time sure enough, from a shedcast I did on the 18th century peasant poet John Clare, on whose memorial incidentally I frequently vomited from car sickness when I was a nipper, on our way to family holidays on the Norfolk coast. Possibly that’s a detail you could have done without, but it created a bond between John Clare and me. Anyway, John Clare’s Dad was forced to go to the Parish Overseer of the poor to ask for help; in the poem ‘The Overseer’, Clare’s resentment finds expression:

Art thou a man, thou tyrant o’er distress…

And thou’art a rogue that beggars them of all

They sink in sorrow as a race of slaves

The kindred bond which first our fathers gave

Proves man thy brother still and not thy slave

None the less that local discretion allowed parishes to respond to local circumstances; there are examples of rates and spending doubling or tripling to respond to specific crises. Nor were the poor without their own agency in this; there are plenty of examples where the claimant plays off the justice of the peace against the local overseer and ends up getting their own way over the overseer’s initial reluctance. Attitudes were changed by the Poor law too towards support; so it was quickly assumed by all in the system – magistrates, overseers and the poor themselves that the poor were entitled to relief if they required it. [8] Effectively, the state had moved from the idea of dealing with dearth by providing direct grants of corn or price control to a system of transfer payments to support those in need; and it was utterly typical of the Elizabethan state that this mechanism was provided at a local level by the Parish. Fair enough, the discretion of parish officers cut both ways, support came at the cost of deference; but the Parish became not just a unit of community or administration, but also a welfare republic. The ability of the parish to respond, and the development of what was also a tool of social control by the parish elites, might go as far as anything else to explain why riot and rebellion became more localised in Elizabethan England, and less of an existential threat to the state. It also meant that while we all spend an inordinate amount of time talking about kings and queens and wars and religion and all of those big things – in fact, in Steve Hindle’s phrase, for most people most of the time, the most significant politics were the politics of the parish.

Now, I need to be careful of John Guy’s waspishness – the Elizabethan Poor Laws took a while to become general, they were never the only form of relief, private relief will continue for ever, and despite its presence periods like the 1590s were still thoroughly stressful socially speaking. But they may be a significant part of the reason why England ‘slipped the shadow of famine’ as one historian wrote so relatively early while Scotland and France suffered subsistence crises as late as 1698 in Scotland and 1740 in France. The Elizabethan Poor laws were the first national programme of poor relief in Europe, and their success is partly reflected in their longevity, lasting essentially unchanged until the new Poor Laws in 1834.

[1] Sharpe J Social strain and social dislocation, 1585-1603 in Guy ed The reign of Elizabeth I: court and culture in the last decade pp193-194

[2] Slack, P The English Poor Law 1531-1782 p5

[3] Laslett, P Family, kinship and collectivity as systems of support in pre-industrial Europe: a consideration of the ‘nuclear-hardship Hypothesis’ p170

[4] Kesselring, k Rebellion and Disorder in Doran S The Elizabethan World p379

[5] Slack,P The English Poor Law p9

[6] Hindle, S Poverty and the Poor Laws in Doran S The Elizabethan World P310

[7] Hindle, S The State and Social Change in Early Modern England p173

[8] Slack, p The English Poor Law 1531-1782, p21


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