My fifth Christoval Alvarez novel, Suffer the Little Children, has just been released as an audiobook, and writing it involved research into the Elizabethan poor.
Researching the problems of the Elizabethan poor, and the various attempts to solve them, proved fascinating, taking me well beyond what I needed for the story. Below are some of the things I discovered. If you’re interested in the audiobook, here are the links:
Bridewell, Bedlam and Bluecoats
If you were a pauper in Tudor England, how could you survive? Or would you survive at all?
Throughout the Middle Ages, there had been two principal supports for the poor – the church and the rich citizen. Almsgiving was part of general church policy, but the mainstay for the poor consisted of the monastic institutions, which provided medical care for the sick, temporary lodgings for wandering labourers and craftsmen seeking work, and more permanent housing for the aged and infirm. The more generous-hearted of the aristocracy and gentry handed out leftover food and sometimes discarded clothing and small coins to the poor of their neighbourhoods.
This system of aid was in contrast to a series of laws which regarded the poor as a blight on society, needing to be dealt with severely. These laws had developed during the period of social disruption following the Black Death, and were to be extended during the Tudor period. There was some compassion for those who were genuinely disabled or infirm, who might be given a licence to beg at certain locations within their own parishes, though this was hardly a generous provision for the poor, depending as it did upon voluntary gifts by other parishioners.
The paupers who did not fall into the category of the ‘deserving poor’ were labelled ‘sturdy beggars’, no distinction being made between those who were lawless vagrants through circumstance or choice, and those who were merely unemployed and seeking work. The harsh solution to dealing with such people was a period in the stocks or a public whipping (or both). The victim would then be forcibly returned to his parish, which was hardly a solution for those who had left home in order to seek work. Repeated offences could result in more severe penalties, such as the loss of an ear or branding.
Parishes were so reluctant to take on the responsibility for the poor that cruel practices were not unknown. There are documented cases of unmarried or vagrant pregnant women being hastily dragged off by the constables to a neighbouring parish before giving birth, so that the baby would become the responsibility of the latter.
With the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, the system of welfare which they had provided collapsed completely. What had been a minor problem throughout the country escalated in a few years to disastrous proportions. It was further aggravated by the early period of enclosures, when large landowners – and sometimes wealthy townsmen with an eye to a profitable venture – began to fence in and seize control of the ‘commons’, the pastures and village fields which were held in common by the peasant community of a village. Deprived of their only means of a livelihood, these unexpectedly impoverished peasants flocked to the towns, and especially to London, in the hope of finding employment.
Suddenly there was a huge proportion of the population which was dispossessed and poverty-stricken. Something needed to be done.
Unfortunately, the old perceptions remained. The Elizabethan poor were still classified as either sturdy beggars or the deserving poor, the latter being those who were old, frail, or disabled. Provision was therefore made with this distinction in mind.
Various issues had to be addressed. Medical care was needed for those who could not afford the services of a private physician. Given the terrible epidemics which swept through the country, particularly London, it was quickly recognised that this had a high priority. The monasteries had established two hospitals in London, providing medical care for the sick and hospices for the permanently infirm: St Bartholomew’s north of the river, just outside the western City wall, and St Thomas’s south of the river, in Southwark. The city authorities persuaded Henry VIII to allow them to take over St Bartholomew’s and reopen it under the governance of London in 1547. It took a little longer to re-establish St Thomas’s, which reopened in the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, in 1551. Both hospitals play a part in my Christoval Alvarez series.
These two hospitals cared both for the destitute and for the working poor from Tudor times onward, and both are still major hospitals to this day, although they no longer retain their additional function as almshouses. Both were originally founded in the twelfth century, and St Bartholomew’s is the oldest hospital in Europe, possibly in the world.
Further care for the deserving poor came in the form of the many individual almshouses for the old and infirm established during this period, continuing a long tradition. A few were built by towns or guilds, but more were the gift of charitable individuals. Many are still in existence. The oldest, Winchester almshouses, were founded in 1132 by Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and brother of King Stephen.
A particular group of the helpless poor were the children, especially orphans and foundlings, although it was recognised that there were also children whose parents simply could not support them. The frequent epidemics of killer diseases led to a large number of orphans living as street children. Unwanted babies were abandoned on doorsteps and in public privies. Children were exploited by beggars who used them to illicit sympathy. In times of hardship and starvation, such as the famine years of the 1590s, poor families could not feed their children. What was to be done about this growing problem of destitute babies and children? Those who managed to survive swarmed in the streets as beggars and potential criminals. It was an acute crisis.
King Edward VI wrote to the Lord Mayor of London, asking him:
to take out of the streets all the fatherless children, and other poor men’s children that were not able to keep them, and bring them to the late dissolved house of the Greyfriars…where they should have meat, drink and clothes, lodging and officers to attend upon them…the sucking children and such as for want of years were not able to learn should be kept in the country…
Remarkably, Greyfriars, located in Newgate, across the street from Newgate Prison, had not been torn down, though it was in a derelict state. The Lord Mayor assembled a committee of thirty solid and benevolent citizens who immediately set to work to raise funds, repair the buildings and appoint a large staff. The first children were admitted in November 1552, before winter set in. They were issued with the famous ‘bluecoat’ uniform of blue tunics and yellow stockings, still worn by the pupils of Christ’s Hospital school today.
The site, which can be seen on the Agas map of London, was huge, incorporating a church, dormitories, quadrangles (like an Oxford or Cambridge college), and numerous outbuildings, which provided everything necessary for this model orphanage: bakery, brewery, laundry, and so on. Moreover, there were to be two schools, a petty school for the small children and a grammar school for the older ones. These children were not to join the unskilled and indigent paupers of London when they left Christ’s. They were trained in basic clerical skills, some were later apprenticed to craftsmen, some very clever boys would even go on to university and rise to high positions in the church.
The numbers were initially to be limited to 250, then 300, but they frequently rose to as many as 700. From the outset it seems to have been a kindly and humane home, for cases are recorded where children apprenticed to cruel masters ran away and came home to Christ’s Hospital. At a time when life could be unbelievably brutal, Christ’s was an extraordinary exception. The orphanage plays a major part in the fifth Christoval Alvarez novel.
Children could be given a home, cared for, educated, but what was to be done about the adult sturdy beggars, the authorities’ nightmare, the nursery of crime?
Bridewell Palace, located near the confluence of the Fleet River with the Thames, was one of Henry VIII’s palaces during the early years of his reign. Later it was used for a time as the French ambassador’s residence and it was during this period that it formed the setting for Holbein’s famous trick painting of the two ambassadors (1533).
However, during the 1550s, when many of these social problems were being tackled in London, Edward VI gave Bridewell Palace to the City of London Corporation (1553), to serve a double purpose as a place of correction for ‘disorderly women’ and an orphanage. By 1556 it was functioning fully as Bridewell Prison, where the sturdy but troublesome vagrants and beggars – both men and women – were confined and spent their time employed in useful labour.
Its secondary function as an ‘orphanage’ served to supplement the much more extensive Christ’s Hospital, mainly providing training and apprenticeships for older boys, apprenticeships which came to be well regarded. The combined institution was run by a Court of Governors.
There remained one further group of troublesome citizens – those who were insane, or were believed to be insane. After the disruption of Henry VIII’s break with Rome, many of the ecclesiastical institutions in London (like the two hospitals) were destroyed or converted to secular use. Just outside the northern part of the City wall at Bishopsgate, in the parish of St Botolph, stood the Bethlehem Hospital, which had served a variety of purposes since its foundation in 1247. From the late Middle Ages it was certainly housing some mentally ill inmates, but – as with St Bartholomew’s and St Thomas’s – the ending of ecclesiastical care had led to the collapse of the institution, which was sorely needed.
In 1546, the Lord Mayor, Sir John Gresham, petitioned the king to grant Bethlehem Hospital to the City. Henry VIII was reluctant, and insisted on retaining possession of the building, although he granted the City Council ‘the custody, order and governance’ of Bethlehem Hospital and of its ‘occupants and revenues’ in a charter which came into effect in 1547, the year of Henry’s death.
The mention of revenues is significant, because Bedlam, as it was popularly known, did not provide a free service. Those who could afford it paid for their insane relatives to be housed in Bedlam. Poorer patients might be confined there if the courts judged it appropriate and agreed to pay the fees or imposed the fees on the inmate’s parish. The position of Master was regarded as a sinecure, which yielded a comfortable income, and little seems to have been done to treat the inmates, apart from keeping them out of trouble. Contemporary thinking advised confining them in darkened rooms away from any disturbing stimuli and shaving their heads once a month to cool the brain. (Compare the confinement in the dark of Malvolio in Twelfth Night.) Documents of the period refer to them as ‘the poor’ or ‘the prisoners’, not as patients.
In 1557, the Court of Governors of Bridewell took over the management of Bedlam as well, and if inmates of Bridewell were transferred to Bedlam, the Bedlam fees were paid from Bridewell Hospital funds. In 1598 the Court of Governors made a long overdue inspection of Bedlam, finding it neglected and in a disgusting state: ‘it is so loathsomely and filthy kept not fit for any man to come into the said house’. This in the one fee-paying hospital in London.
All through the latter years of Henry VIII’s reign, and the reigns of Edward VI and Mary, various acts were passed to try to cope with the growing numbers of the poor. The introduction of a parish-based Poor Rate in 1547 went some way to provide for the impotent poor through compulsory contributions from those parishioners who could pay, the relief being in the form of money, food or clothes. More destitute paupers might be accommodated in almshouses. However, the treatment of sturdy beggars grew ever more severe as their numbers increased. Where in the early part of the period the punishment might be three days in the stocks, it increased to greater and greater physical punishment, including burning through the ear or – for a second offence – hanging.
In this contemporary illustration a beggar is being whipped in the foreground. In the background, another is being hanged.
Elizabeth’s government finally tackled the problem as a whole, requiring, in the Poor Act of 1575, that all parishes have institutions similar to Bridewell, where sturdy beggars could be put to productive work, instead of simply suffering physical punishment. These institutions were required to keep a supply of ‘wool, hemp, flax, iron and other stuff’, to provide useful employment. The inmates did wire-drawing, knitted woollen caps, carded, spun and wove various fibres, and stuffed mattresses.
The Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1597 further developed earlier provisions and established the position of Overseer of the Poor, responsible for the distribution of poor relief. There were to be two in each parish, appointed for a year. In addition to distributing poor relief, they were required to estimate the number of poor in the parish, use this as a basis for setting the poor rate, and then collect it from the parishioners. (Not a popular job!) This was followed by the Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601, which further codified the duties of each parish. With a few modifications, it remained in force until the shift from a rural to an industrial society demanded a major overhaul. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was passed after the report by a commission set up in 1832. Interestingly, the whole act was not repealed until 1967!
Today our attitudes toward the less fortunate members of society have changed radically. Some of the treatments meted out in Tudor times seem extraordinarily harsh, yet life in general was much harsher then. Faced with the collapse of the social welfare provided by the monasteries, officials and private individuals struggled to cope with what must have seemed at the time like a serious threat to peace, safety, and health. They did their best. The provision of orphanages and poor relief by city authorities and Parliament, and the establishment by individuals of almshouses for the destitute, and free grammar schools to educate poor boys, demonstrate how well they succeeded. The fact that the Elizabethan Poor Laws survived in part down to our own times speaks volumes for their achievements.
Fascinating, isn’t it? Now, for those of you waiting for the fourth book in my Oxford Medieval Mystery series, The Merchant’s Tale, it shouldn’t be too much longer. This is the terrific image we’ll be using for the cover:
Till next time,