Down and Out in Tudor York

This blog describes the treatment of the poor in Tudor England, with particular focus on the city of York. It takes input from multiple sources. There’s always more which could be included, so additional inputs and comments are welcome!

This is the latest of a series of blogs stemming from the research for my new novel The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot. To get a feel for life in Elizabethan York, my reading strayed beyond the final storyline and I thought it would be a shame not to share some of this knowledge.

During the first half of the 16th century, the prosperity and population of York plummeted. There were many causes for this, including outbreaks of disease, the impact of failed rebellions and Henry VIII’s Protestant Reformation. In 1538 and 1539, for example, York’s priories and friaries were dissolved. The Gilbertine Priory in Fishergate, the Benedictine Priory of Holy Trinity and four friaries were closed. By the end of 1539, wealthy St Mary’s (York Abbey pictured below) and St Leonard’s Hospital were also shutdown. 

Post Reformation Ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, York

In less than two years, 150 canons, monks, friars and nuns lost their homes and their jobs. The impact on the poor and infirm in the city was even greater. The church, and these establishments in particular, had been the main source of financial and medical help for York’s disadvantaged, both directly and by encouraging parishioners to give alms and charity. In a stroke, this safety net, imperfect though it was, was removed. All that was left was the charity of individuals and the local government authority, the corporation of York.

Did anything fill this sizeable gap? Well, not really. Two Acts of Parliament were passed under Henry VIII but although they’re considered to be the first of the English “Poor Laws”, they didn’t offer much relief.

The Vagabonds Act of 1530 set out how “aged, poor and impotent persons, compelled to live by alms, shall be ordered; and how vagabonds and beggars shall be punished.” In common with the laws which followed, there were two main parts – a lot of punishment and a little of help for those most severely disadvantaged in society. The law stated vagabonds should now be whipped, in addition to being placed in the stocks. But, for the first time, the Act placed some responsibility onto local authorities to help the citizens under their jurisdiction who were unable to help themselves. “Impotent beggars”, i.e. those who couldn’t work due to age, disability or sickness, could now be legally licensed to beg.

This act was followed in 1536 by the Act for Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars. This new law continued with the small carrot and big stick approach. Local authorities were tasked with ensuring the poor in their parishes were suitably well cared for, so they wouldn’t need to beg, although they couldn’t levy any taxes to do this. Funds to support the poor had to be raised through voluntary collections, placed in a common box. The stick part instructed that “sturdy vagabonds” should be put to work once they’d been punished.

The Poor Act of 1552, during the reign of Edward VI, created a new position of “the collector of alms”. Local authorities were now tasked with electing two alms collectors in each parish to request, record, and distribute charitable donations for poor relief. Each parish was also tasked with keeping a register of their “impotent, aged, and needy persons” and record the aid given out to them. The responsibilities were further extended by the Poor Act of 1555, established by Queen Mary’s government. This instructed all licensed beggars had to wear badges. The intention was not to humiliate the old and infirm beggars but to shame their more fortunate neighbours into donating additional alms to support their local poor.

Additional Poor Acts were enacted under Elizabeth I, but we’ll come back to these later. First, let’s examine what was happening on the ground in York.

Well before Henry’s Vagabonds acts, the corporation of York had already distinguished between “sturdy” and “impotent” beggars. In 1515, the corporation issued an order to punish beggars “mighty of body”. Sick beggars were ordered to wear “a token on the shoulder of the overmost garment that they might be known”.

Destitute people in York were numerous at this time. They included local born people and immigrants from further afield, mainly from elsewhere in England. As in other towns and cities, indiscriminate charity for the poor was frowned upon in York, due to the fear it would attract more destitute vagrants to the city.

During Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603), York halted its decline and began a slow but protracted period of recovery. Unlike in previous decades, disease was largely kept outside the city’s gates and walls. Elizabeth’s government acted to assist the corporation of York and its people in a number of ways. Taxes were reduced on occasion. Elizabeth also took the decision to permanently home the Council of the North in the King’s Manor. The Church of England established an Ecclesiastical Commission in Minster Yard. Trade with elsewhere in England and abroad increased. Elizabeth granted a second Royal Charter to the city’s Merchant Adventurers.

Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, York

The effect of the above was to draw in more lawyers, merchants, officials and others with wealth and spending power into the city. Things were on the up.

But the problem of poverty hadn’t gone away. As the city’s wealth increased, so did the number of poor immigrants attracted to live there. There was a mini housing crisis. Often, the immigrant families crammed into already overcrowded houses or shoddily built extensions added onto the back of existing properties. In 1578, “diverse poor persons” were said to be “settled in the houses of certain tenements”. In 1586, the corporation ordered landlords to expel recently arrived pauper undertenants in the hope that once homeless, these paupers would leave the city.

Thankfully, as the city’s wealth grew, so did its ability to support the poor. In 1561, a compulsory poor rate was levied by the corporation to prevent begging. Some wealthy local merchants left sums in their wills to support the poor. For example, Margaret Clitherow’s father Thomas Middleton donated a small amount on the understanding those receiving it would pray for his soul.

Differentiation between the different types of beggar in the city continued. In 1566, the corporation undertook a census of all “impotent, aged and poor folk” and all “idle and vagrant persons”. In 1570, eighty-eight poor people were given a licence to beg and those “who can not go abroad” were given a small allowance to live on.

The next national Poor Law was the Vagabonds Act of 1572. This ordered the following actions:

  • Justices of the peace (in York these would be members of the corporation of York) had to register the names of the “aged, decayed, and impotent” poor to determine how much money was required to care for them.
  • Justices of the peace should then assess all inhabitants of the parish for contributions to poor relief. Those refusing to contribute to poor relief could be sent to gaol.
  • Justices of the Peace were allowed to license beggars, if there were too many for the parish to provide for.
  • Unlicensed vagabonds were to be whipped and burned through the ear.
  • Surplus funds raised for poor relief could be used to “place and settle to work the rogues and vagabonds.”
Extract from Vagabonds Act of 1572

The 1572 act was further strengthened by the Poor Act of 1576.  This required parishes to create “a competent stock of wool, hemp, flax, iron and other stuff” for the poor to work on.

York was, once again, ahead of the curve. The city’s Corporation had already set up weaving establishments for the unemployed in St Anthony’s Hall in 1567 and in St George’s Chapel in 1569. During 1574, “fifty-one aged, impotent poor and lame people” were settled in St Thomas’s Hospital, the Merchant Hall and St Anthony’s Hall and given linen and hemp to spin.

The 1576 act had one further provision. Local authorities could create “Houses of Correction” where those refusing to work would be punished accordingly and forced into hard labour. Thes two main elements of the 1576 act effectively created the precursors to the Victorian workhouse and other institutions.

The corporation of York responded almost immediately, by establishing York’s first House of Correction at St George’s. Any beggar or vagrant in the city unwilling to work voluntarily could be detained and forced into hard labour there. There must have been a lot of them about. In 1584, Fishergate Bar was used for the same purpose and was rapidly joined by part of St Anthony’s in 1586. Amazingly, the lower storey at St Anthony’s remained a House of Correction for over two hundred years. We can only wonder how many people must have worked there before it finally closed in 1814, following criticism from 19th century penal reformers.

The cost of managing and provisioning for the poor was significant, but the city was in a better position than it had been for the care of the less fortunate. Corporation records from 1579 show the provision of materials for “setting the poor in this city to work” was £400, a significant sum in those days. In 1588, the corporation hoped to abolish begging in the city completely, by setting the able poor to work and paying a better allowance (three halfpence a day) to the aged and infirm, as long as they’d lived in York for at least three years.

Some of the unfortunate people forced into hard labour came from the local area but others hailed from beyond. An alternative approach was often taken towards unemployed immigrant paupers. The corporation would attempt to send them back to where they came from. In 1577, twenty-one unemployed labourers and their families were expelled from York, to places such as Hull, County Durham and Lancashire. One family came from as far as Norwich and one poor vagrant, whipped and expelled, was instructed to go back home to Hampshire.

Further Poor Relief Acts were passed during the final years of Elizabeth’s reign. The 1597 and 1601 acts built upon the laws already passed. The local formal role of “Overseer of the Poor” was created, duties included setting and collecting poor rates, distributing poor relief and supervising voluntary and forced labour.

The laws set out during Queen Elizabeth’s reign set the tone for “supporting” the poor in England and Wales for the next two hundred years.

I hope you’ve found this interesting. Perhaps there are a few uneasy parallels with modern times? Some of the themes mentioned simmer in the background to the main plot of The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot. If you’ve ever been to York, or may be intrigued by a city with so many of the same streets and buildings as it had during Elizabethan times, or simply like a good story, I think you’ll enjoy it.

And don’t forget all profits in 2020 are being donated to St Leonard’s Hospice in York. With a name inspired by the original St Leonard’s Hospital, the hospice team do fantastic work and they need funds now more than ever. For just a few pounds or dollars, you can have a great read and help this fantastic cause. It’s a win-win-win! Please do leave a comment here or a review on Amazon!

Thank you. Tony Morgan.

Links to additional information:

The Pearl of York – Amazon UK

The Pearl of York – Amazon US

The Pearl of York – Reviews on Goodreads

D M Palliser – Tudor York (a great history book which I used for a lot of research and as one of the sources for this blog – you can also find cheaper second hand copies!)

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