Pearls and Poverty in Elizabethan England

To the vast majority, the Elizabethan period means little more than fabulously dressed courtiers, exquisite jewellery, a queen with the most incredible hair, and giving the Spanish a bit of spanking when they got a bit too intimate with the South coast of England. For those a little better acquainted with the period, they might make note of its increased economic growth, prosperity, and the first tentative steps towards the creation of a colonial empire – all predicated upon state-sanctioned piracy of ships returning from the New World to the Old, attempting to head towards those same Spanish ports from which the infamous Armada set sail. The period is often cited as one of relative religious toleration, with Protestants and Catholics moving towards a detente although, of course, the extent to which that is the case is, in truth, limited.

But there is one aspect in which the Elizabethan period is considered to have paved the way towards the modern world; the assistance of the poor.

The 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor, drew together a disparate set of prior legislation, and consolidated the idea that local parishes were required to provide alms, assistance, or work, to the destitute of their area. And this is often considered to demonstrate the care and maternal instinct of the mother of the nation. However, there are significant issues with considering this Act some kind of proto-socialism, and considering Elizabeth herself a kindly monarch for enacting it.

Firstly, the Act came in the final two years of the Queen’s life, and prior to it, a number of barbaric changes to the law were implemented that ensured the poor would have a genuinely miserable, and often violent existence. Henry VII had introduced a law in 1495 ordering those out of work and in poverty to be placed in the stocks for three days. Henry VIII raised the stakes to include a severe whipping. But the worst was yet to come. Elizabeth allowed a law to be passed in 1572 that required beggars to be burned through the ear for their first offence, and hanged for persistent poverty. Hardly the actions of a magnanimous ruler.

Admittedly, Elizabeth was the first monarch to legalise the distinction between the so-called ‘deserving poor’ and those who were able to work, and formalised assistance for the former group. However, the brutal punishment meted out to the latter group demonstrates that society was nowhere near an attempt to move towards social equality at that time.

The second issue is that the reasons behind why they were enacted demonstrates that there was no kindly intent in the Poor Laws. Quite aside from the Catholic hang-ups that still existed around alms-giving as part of the sacrament of penitence (which was a requirement if you wished to get to heaven), there were more terrestrial rationales.

Even 400 years ago, the wealthy recognised that people must be kept well-enough fed and sheltered to prevent crime; hungry people will steal to eat. It was a genuine concern of the day, amid a growing population and increasing unemployment, that there would be so many in poverty that they would band together in groups and form a substantial rebellion against the state. As it simply would not do to upset the social order in this way, a minimum quantity of resources was required to pacify the masses, keeping them docile enough to rule.

It was also believed that the poor were in and of themselves a cause of disease. In an age where it was believed that illness spread through miasma – bad smells – it is not difficult to imagine how this belief came about. Preventing widespread poverty was considered a way in which, to some extent, the spread of disease could be controlled.

By the time Queen Elizabeth I passed away in 1603, laws had been put in place that provided consistent assistance to those within society who were unable to care for themselves. But it was by no means a selfless act. And, whilst the Poor Laws continued to exist in some shape or form until their eventual and complete repeal in 1967, they can in no way be considered as a form of proto-socialism.

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