Poverty in Tudor England (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Poverty in Tudor England

Q1: Source C shows two pictures of Nicholas Jennings. What does this woodcut tell us about Jennings?

A1: Source C suggests that Jennings was a wealthy man who dressed as a poor man so that he could obtain money by begging.

Q2: What types of people suffered from poverty in Tudor England?

A2: The following people suffered from poverty in Tudor England: (i) old people; (ii) people who were sick, crippled or blind; (iii) widows; (iv) orphans; (v) the unemployed; (vi) people who received low wages.

Q3: Describe the different ways that the English government attempted to deal with the problem of vagabonds.

A3: The English government tried several different methods to deal with the problem of vagabonds. At first they tried punishing them. When whipping did not work the government resorted to mutilation and execution. In 1550 the government began building workhouses for vagabonds. This was unsuccessful and by 1597 the government had reintroduced the death penalty for vagabonds.

Q4: In 1550 Parliament passed a law stating that every parish had to build a workhouse. Study sources A, E and F. How useful are these sources to a historian trying to discover if these laws brought an end to the problem of vagabonds in England?

A4: Sources A, E and F all suggest that the law passed in 1550 did not solve the problem of vagabonds. Source F suggests that vagabonds were still begging for money in 1622. William Lambarde in source A reports that there was still a large number of beggars in existence in 1594. Source E provides details of the number of vagabonds in Norwich in 1571. The figure of 2,300 indicates that the law passed in 1550 had very little impact on the numbers of vagabonds wandering around England.

Q5: Study sources B, D and G. Describe the ideas and attitudes of the people who produced these sources.

A5: The citizens of London believed that a vagabond needed to be "made to earn his living" (source B) In the letter that they wrote to Edward VI the citizens suggest that Bridewell Palace should be turned into a workhouse. Members of Parliament who passed the law quoted in source D agree about the need for workhouses. They argue that people needed to be trained to work at a young age. Therefore they ordered that every town should have a workhouse to provide work for the unemployed. Source G was also produced by members of Parliament. However, by 1597 they seem to have changed their minds about the best way of dealing with this problem. This suggests that the workhouse scheme had been unsuccessful. Members of Parliament were now in favour of punishing people for being vagabonds. In order to frighten people into working, the law stated that vagabonds should be publicly whipped. If they continued to refuse to work the vagabonds could be executed.