Elizabethan Poor Law

Passage of the Poor Law ended seventy years of legislative debate concerning ways to help the poor and infirm and to control the idle, wandering population of vagabonds who menaced individuals and social stability.

Summary of Event

The Poor Law of 1601 represented the culmination of decades of wrangling, debating, and fine-tuning by the lawmakers of England. Parliament had spent the better part of the sixteenth century intermittently attempting to respond to the fallout generated by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries (1536) combined with the changing demographics of the nation. The system of laws both punishing poverty and caring for the poor that evolved over the course of the century was consolidated at the beginning of the seventeenth century into one of the first modern, comprehensive welfare systems of the modern age. [kw]Elizabethan Poor Law (1601)
[kw]Law, Elizabethan Poor (1601)
[kw]Poor Law, Elizabethan (1601)
Laws, acts, and legal history;1601: Elizabethan Poor Law[0130]
Economics;1601: Elizabethan Poor Law[0130]
Government and politics;1601: Elizabethan Poor Law[0130]
Social issues and reform;1601: Elizabethan Poor Law[0130]
England;1601: Elizabethan Poor Law[0130]
Poor Law (1601)

Tudor monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I Elizabeth I (queen of England) confronted two problems related to poverty. One was the problem of unemployed wandering vagabonds, generally young men, who, in an age before police and modern communication, posed a threat to isolated houses and villages and, in the city, threatened to swell the mobs that sometimes endangered the throne. The second was the problem of a growing number of impoverished people, especially after Henry VIII in 1536 began dissolution of the monasteries, which had been a traditional source of charity. In the same period that sources of charity decreased, poverty was increased as a result of economic depression and bad harvests. Attempts to improve agricultural production, moreover, caused land to be enclosed. Enclosure led to more unemployment, as farm laborers were forced from the land. Discontent with economic conditions, as well as resentment over changes in religious policy, led to occasional revolts, such as the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536-1537), a series of Catholic uprisings in the north.

With the death of Henry, England was ruled by a child king, Edward VI; juvenile monarchs had always been especially vulnerable to plots and rebellions. After Edward’s brief reign, his half sister Mary I Mary I (queen of England) attempted to force England back to Roman Catholicism; her burning of Protestant martyrs created a wave of anti-Catholicism that was to last for centuries and generated new fears of civic disorder. Finally, Elizabeth I inherited a throne surrounded by plots and counterplots, especially after Pope Pius V excommunicated her in 1570, freeing Catholics from any allegiance to her rule. The maintenance of social order was thus, throughout this period, very much at issue. Two economic goals needed to be met if this order was to be maintained. First, the needy had to be given some means of subsistence. Second, vagabonds had to be suppressed.

Through the first half of the century, the second goal received the higher priority, possibly because the sheer number of vagabonds in the country was reaching menacing levels. According to historian Raphael Holinshed, seventy-two thousand thieves and vagabonds were hanged during the reign of Henry VIII. Laws passed in 1531 and 1536 attempted to force work on the unemployed, including children over five years of age. The most severe such law was passed in 1547, under Edward VI. Under this law, vagabonds could be made slaves for two years. Anyone loitering in the streets was compelled to ask for work, for money if anyone would pay him, or for food and drink if no one offered pay. If he still did not find work, anyone could request he be made a slave. If he fled, he was to be a slave for life. Children over five were to be taken from vagabond parents and made servants. Runaways were to be made slaves. This act was so punitive that it was repealed after three years, but its existence reflected a fear of mob and individual violence.

During the same period that these laws were enacted, however, steps were also taken toward forming England’s first coherent public welfare policy. The act of 1536 created a parish-based relief system. Contributions to the poor were voluntary. The act of 1547, instituting the enslavement of vagabonds, also made local officials responsible for housing those poor people who were not vagabonds. When it was repealed in 1550, the basic concept of a workhouse was introduced, although that term was not yet used. One such house was to be established in each parish. There, the aged and “impotent” poor—that is, the disabled—were to engage in whatever labor they could manage. Poverty;England

From mid-century on, focus increasingly turned to aid for the poor. An act of 1552 marked the first step toward organized, as opposed to voluntary, poor relief. Parish registers were introduced, so an official count of the poor could be maintained. Alms collectors were to be named in each parish, and all inhabitants were to contribute. Enforcement of contributions was mandated by legislation in 1563. Anyone refusing to contribute would be summoned before a justice of the peace, who would assess a contribution. Those who still refused could be imprisoned. In an act of 1572, justices of the peace were to register names of the aged and impotent poor, decide how much they needed, and assess all inhabitants to meet those needs. Collectors of assessments and overseers of the poor were to be appointed. (Scotland adopted this law in 1574; it remained in force until 1845.)

Another step was taken in legislation of 1576, which essentially provided two forms of poor relief. Outdoor relief meant that the poor were provided for in their homes. Indoor relief meant that the poor could be maintained in poorhouses, hospitals, and workhouses. To see that this relief was provided, overseers of the poor were to be elected; they were to act under the supervision of justices of the peace. Houses of correction were to be established in parishes and towns. Those admitted were to be whipped and set to work at hard labor. In Norwich, for example, prisoners began work in summer at 5:00 a.m. and ended at 8:00 p.m., with thirty minutes to eat and fifteen minutes to pray. Prisoners who balked could be whipped, and their food ration could be cut.

The 1576 act had serious consequences for unmarried women who gave birth. To prevent the child from becoming a burden on the parish, the mother was to be forced to name the father. According to historians Peter C. Hoffer and N. E. H. Hull, the number of murdered infants rose by more than 200 percent after passage of this law. The punishment for vagrancy remained harsh. Whereas slavery had been repealed in 1550, whipping and branding, legislated in 1531, were repeated in a statute of 1572. Two final acts in 1598 preceded the 1601 legislation. One abolished the death penalty for vagabonds, which was never restored in England. It was retained only for discharged soldiers convicted of crimes. They could be banished, and, if they returned without permission, they could be executed.

The 1601 act did not offer original legislation. Rather, it consolidated earlier laws, while fine-tuning certain aspects: for example, grandparents could take custody of poor relatives, the number of taxable persons was increased, and beggars were no longer necessarily to be viewed as criminals. While this law marked considerable progress toward organized relief, it included no administrative standards and no mechanism for enforcement.


The 1601 Poor Law ended almost a century of Parliamentary debate over the responsibilities of the individual for his or her own maintenance and the responsibilities of the community for those who could not maintain themselves. It confirmed a mandatory system of poor relief unique to England. Frequently amended but never substantially changed, the legislation remained in force until 1834 and was the single most influential element in the establishment of a welfare system in the United States. The Elizabethan debate concerning who among the poor should be forced to work and who should simply be assisted continued to be a serious point of argument well into modern times.

Further Reading

  • Dean, David. Law-Making and Society in Late Elizabethan England: The Parliament of England, 1584-1601. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A scholarly examination of legislative issues and processes.
  • Dodd, A. H. Life in Elizabethan England. Ruthin, North Wales: John Jones, 1998. First published in 1962, this work details care for the poor and examines institutional life.
  • Hibbert, Christopher. The English: A Social History, 1066-1945. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987. Chapter 14, “Villagers, Vagrants, and Vagabonds,” examines the lives of the poor, using materials from contemporary accounts.
  • Jütte, Robert. Poverty and Deviance in Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Compares English poverty and welfare with that in other European nations; contains a summary of legislation leading to the 1601 laws.
  • Morris, T. A. Tudor Government. New York: Routledge, 1999. Discussion of poor laws is part of a general discussion of Tudor policy in this pamphlet, part of the “Questions and Answers in History” series; contains extracts from the laws of 1563, 1572, 1575, and 1601.
  • Picard, Liza. Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004. A general history that includes a simple, clear summary of the welfare system.
  • Ridley, Jasper. The Tudor Age. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002. Includes an examination of the social background underlying the 1601 legislation.
  • Slack, Paul. The English Poor Law, 1531-1782. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Chapter 1 summarizes poor laws up to 1601; the appendix summarizes the most important laws from 1531 to 1782.
  • Thomas, Paul. Authority and Disorder in Tudor Times, 1485-1603. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A brief study that relates poverty and political turmoil to reform legislation.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

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