Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Early modern English Society

This is a very brief overview of a complex subject. I've found the following books very helpful.

Susan Brigden, New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors (Penguin, 2000)
John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford, 1988)
Joel Hurstfield and Alan G. R. Smith (eds.), Elizabethan People: State and Society (Edward Arnold, 1972)
Kentish Souces: IV The Poor (Kent County Council, 1964)
Pat Thane, Old Age in English History (Oxford University Press, 2000)
Joyce Youings, Sixteenth-Century England (Penguin, 1984)

These almshouses at Hungerford, Wiltshire
date from the seventeenth century,
and are a particularly good example
of private (as opposed to parish) poor relief
 in early-modern England


At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the population of the British Isles was still small. 
England and Wales: 2.25m.
Scotland: 0.75m
Ireland: 0.75m
For a while the relatively high living standards of the fifteenth century continued, but from the 1520s agrarian society was subjected to sustained population pressure. In spite of the pressures of famine and disease, the population had risen to above 4 million by the 1590s.


It has been estimated that England contained about 8 million sheep, or three to every human, and with the extermination of the wolf, sheep had no natural predators. The growth of the sheep population was a response to the population decline of the 15th century and the demands of the cloth trade - but when the population began to rise in the early 16th century the complaint was that ‘sheep do eat up men’. Pastoral farming for wool, leather and meat took up large areas of arable land as enclosed fields. In 1496 there were enclosure riots around Coventry and in 1549 the issue of enclosure almost provoked revolution

Life expectancy

In pre-industrial England life expectancy at birth was around 35 years, but this average can be misleading. The figure was pulled down by high infant and child mortality rates and those who survived the early years (and women who survived childbirth) had a reasonable chance of living at least into their late forties. 

It is difficult to assess the numbers of old people, though it has been estimated that in England in 1581 about 7 per cent of the population were aged sixty or over. In an age before precise recordings of births and deaths people did not always know their chronological ages and when they were described as old in the documents, it was normally a description of their physical condition rather than their actual age. In the sources it is clear that ages are often rounded up.


People died of plague, dysentery, smallpox, sweating sickness (a new illness: influenza?) The bubonic plague continued to be the most notorious - it was a disease of the summer and early autumn months. Major outbreaks took place in London in 1513, 1543, 1563, 1578, 1593.  The monks at Christ Church priory, Canterbury died of the plague in 1487, 1501, 1504 and 1507.

Sweating sickness, which nearly killed Anne Boleyn in 1526, inspired a dread similar to that caused by the plague. It claimed the lives of rich as well as poor and in fatal cases death came very swiftly. But its outbreaks were rarer and shorter than the plague’s.

Poor relief

In the sixteenth century the problem of poverty became one of national rather than purely local significance.  The causes of poverty are complex, but include inflation, population increase, and land speculation following the changes of ownership following the dissolution of the monasteries. Because much almsgiving was already collected and distributed on a parochial basis, it was logical for Parliament to make the parish the focus of poor relief.

A series of parliamentary statues regulated begging and prohibited vagrancy and made a clear distinction between the able-bodied (‘sturdy’) and non able-bodied (‘impotent’) poor. An Act of 1531 empowered the justices to license the impotent poor to beg in their own communities, while vagabonds were to be whipped and then ordered to return to their place of birth or where they had last dwelt for the length of three years. An Act of 1536 instructed local officials to find and keep the impotent poor in their own areas by means of ‘voluntary and charitable’ alms, so that they would have no need to beg. Provisions were made for the apprenticing of poor children. Under the Act of 1552 special officials, the collectors of the poor, were to be chosen in every parish and to assume responsibility for the collection and distribution of alms. The trend was now towards compulsory rather than purely voluntary contributions and, following the Act of 1563 non-payment was to be punished by fines or imprisonment.

The parliamentary session of 1597-8 brought together these various pieces of legislation and the Act of 1601 laid the basis for poor relief until the Act of 1834. Parliament laid upon the parishes the responsibility for the collection and administration of the compulsory poor rate.

England therefore had a 'mixed economy' of welfare: public charity provided by the parish under obligations laid down by parliament, and private charity from philanthropic individuals. 

Almshouses, such as the Helyar almshouses at East Coker, Somerset, provide one of the best examples of private charity.
"Almshouses East Coker - - 1224383" by Nigel Mykura -
From Licensed under Creative Commons


The poor-law legislation was passed by parliaments that were dominated by the landed classes, reflecting the fact that England was a highly status-conscious society. However, status did not always correspond with income.  Landowners were invariably wealthier than their tenants, but professional men, though classed as ‘gentlemen’, were not always better off than tradespeople. Legally, a gentleman was a man who was entitled to bear arms, but as Sir Thomas Smith pointed out, they ‘be made good cheap in England’.  

The political nation comprised the nobility, senior clergy, gentry and (some) better-off tenants.  In the countryside the gentry served as magistrates. The parish officers were filled by men who were not gentlemen but who nevertheless came from the village elites.  Those who owned freehold land worth 40s of more per annum were entitled to vote in parliamentary elections, though contested elections were rare before the seventeenth century.


  1. The rise in population and the resulting pressure on the land led to great hardship for many of the population. This hardship added to the pressures on the poor and in the sixteenth century a number of Acts of Parliament attempted to deal with the problem of poverty.
  2. However, though England was an unequal and status-driven society, it was more socially mobile than most comparable continental societies. Local government was in the hands of the parish elites - a wide group comprising gentry and the better-off tenants.

No comments:

Post a Comment