Beggars are coming to town.
The Tudor Age (1485 – 1603), especially during the reign of Henry VIII, was a period of great social upheaval. The Act of Supremacy coupled with the dissolution of the monasteries, the enclosures of common land and the great debasement, affected all strata of English society. The wealth of English landowners vastly increased, as did the size of their farms and estates, but the effect on those not owning land and the hired labour, especially in rural communities, was catastrophic. Vagrancy became endemic as a largely self-sufficient, if often subsistent, rural culture effectively ended. The rural dispossessed swelled the bands of those regarded as idle vagabonds, who roamed the country plaguing all communities in England. Crime increased, as did the indigent population of English towns and cities. The punishments for vagrancy introduced after the Peasants Revolt of 1381, and meted out to the indigent considered to be deliberately indolent, were made even harsher.
Hark, hark! the dogs do bark!
Beggars are coming to town:
Some in jags, and some in rags,
And some in velvet gown
Despite previous land enclosures and improved methods of agriculture, rural England had changed very little since the fourteenth century. The England inherited by the Tudors was mostly open land without hedges or fences, there were still huge tracts of forest and woodland, the Fenland had not been been drained and the cultivation of arable land provided the most employment.
Large farms and estates not only increased in size due to the dissolution of the monasteries and their encroachment of common lands changing land ownership, but also due to the reduction of leaseholds and tenancies.The profitable rearing of sheep changed a panoramic landscape of arable land, to large expanses of enclosed pasture land. While already wealthy landowners increased their wealth, many agricultural labourers became unemployed and husbandmen dispossessed. The changes were so great that Parliament legislated to limit pasture land and return some to arable. A drawback to such legislation was the conflicting interests of the landowners, the very men empowered to enforce the legislation. Justices of the Peace were reluctant to enforce unfavourable legislation on landowners.
Parliament attempted to counteract the inflationary effect of the debased coinage by fixing a maximum wage (but no minimum), and introducing measures that required employees to commit to work for fixed periods at a fixed wage. This had the effect of creating a labour force that would only work for short term hourly rates. The laws relating to vagrancy, and employers seeking cheap labour, made this a difficult choice for those seeking work. Self sufficiency required proving and an accused, found guilty of being a vagrant, would be severely punished and – if necessary – returned to a hundred.
The lack of land to cultivate, on which some provision might be made to support a family, brought about destitution. Employment that provided a fixed maximum income and no minimum – when the price of food and shelter was continually rising – increased poverty. Escape from this rural trap in search of employment in a town or city, was more likely to exacerbate already dire circumstances.
The introduction of a national poor-law tax in 1572 was an important step forward in recognising that the poor were now society’s responsibility, and anyone refusing to pay the tax was punished. In 1576 each town was also required to provide work for the unemployed. But perhaps the numerous factors that contributed to the economic decline of England were checked by one. The restoration of sound money changed England’s economic fortunes and, to some extent, the fortunes of the poor.
When Elizabeth I came to power, she inherited one of the most debased coinages in history. Sir Thomas Gresham was put in charge of a programme that within a year (1560–61) saw the debased money withdrawn and replaced with newly minted coins of precious metal.
Restoring the English currency – Royal Museums Greenwich
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