Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601

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  • 0:01 Plight of the Poor
  • 1:11 Initial Poor Laws
  • 2:02 Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601
  • 3:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dawn Young

Dawn has a Juris Doctorate and experience teaching Government and Political Science classes.

For thousands of years, organized societies have contained impoverished citizens. To help those in need, each government has passed its own set of laws. This lesson will examine the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 in England.

Plight of the Poor

Imagine being a 9-year-old English child in the 1500s. Your father died in a farming accident and your mother is sick. Unfortunately, at this time, there are no laws in place to care for you. Your only option to earn money for food is by begging on the streets. This was the situation faced by many people who became orphaned, widowed, injured, or sick and unable to work.

During the early 1500s, the English government made little effort to address the needs of the poor. Rather, the poor were taken care of by Christians who were undertaking the seven corporal works of mercy. These Christians believed it was their sacred duty to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick, visit the prisoner, and bury the dead.

However, when the Reformation happened, many people stopped following this Christian practice and the poor began to suffer greatly. The Reformation was a movement in Western Europe that aimed at reforming the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. It was at this point, during the reign of Elizabeth I, that legislation was finally passed to address the needs of the poor in England.

Initial Poor Laws

In 1552, the legislature ordered each parish to begin an official record of the poor in its area. At that time, there were about 15,000 parishes in England and Wales. In 1563, Justices of the Peace were given the task to raise money to care for the poor and to divide the poor into three categories:

  1. Those who would work but could not, called the able-bodied or deserving poor.
  2. Those who could work but would not: these were called the idle poor.
  3. Those who were too old, ill or young to work: these were the impotent or deserving poor.

In 1572, to care for the poor, the first compulsory local poor tax law was passed. Then, in 1597, the post of Overseer of the Poor was created. Shortly thereafter, the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 was enacted, merging all of the prior laws together.

Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601

The Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 required each parish to select two Overseers of the Poor. The Overseer of the Poor was under the supervision of the Justice of the Peace. It was the job of the Overseer to determine how much money it would take to care for the poor in his or her parish. The Overseer was then to set a poor tax and collect the money from each landowner. The Overseer was also in charge of dispensing either food or money to the poor and supervising the parish poorhouse. While this may sound like a great job, these Overseers were actually unpaid and generally unwilling appointees.

For the poor, there were two types of relief available. First, there was outdoor relief, in which the poor would be left in their own homes and either given money to buy the items they needed or given clothes and food. This was the more common type of relief.

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