Landholding in England/Chapter 14

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CHAPTER XIV.—THE DEGRADATION OF THE POOR

IN order to understand the period of the Reformation, we must keep in mind that a new reign does not imply a new policy, because it does not imply new men upon the Council of State. Henry's councillors were Edward's. All through Edward's reign the Council was supreme—first under Somerset; then under Warwick as Duke of Northumberland. With the exception of those who committed treason unsuccessfully, the same men were in power under Henry (if any man could be said to have power under Henry VIII.), under Edward, and under Mary. One of these men, asked long afterwards how he had contrived to remain in office under so many Governments, replied: "Because I was the willow and not the oak." The dread of losing the abbey lands—which every man of them held—was the only principle to which they clave, and from that they never departed. The equal zeal with which they persecuted Catholics under Edward, Protestants under Mary, and Catholics again under Elizabeth, has even been explained by their hope of thus raising a barrier of eternal hatred between Protestant and Catholic. In Elizabeth's reign, and for many a long day afterwards, this motive—the security of the abbey lands—was as strong as ever. The extraordinary docility with which the nobles and gentry changed their religious opinions was due to their determination to keep their new lands. In Queen Mary's reign the clergy renounced all their ancient claims, and the Bull of Pope Julius III. confirmed the renunciation; but even this could not allay their fears, although the numbers of those who had shared in the spoils made restitution impossible. An examination of the lists of suppressions shows that there was hardly a gentleman of any consequence in the kingdom but had some of the lands. Protestants have shrunk from condemning the robbery of the abbey lands, and have been unwilling to admit the evils which resulted, because they have believed that a religious motive was involved. They think that the suppression was caused by the change of religion; but that change came long after. It would be nearer the truth to say that the suppression caused the change. It helped it incalculably. The nobility and gentry of England saw a prize offered them such as had never been offered since the Conquest, and has never been offered since. They eagerly embraced the opportunity, and allowed no scruples, one way or the other, to spoil it. We do not find many holders of abbey lands among the martyrs, but we do find them sending the martyrs to the stake.

This is not the occasion to speak of the dreadful deeds of 1555, charged upon "Bloody Mary," except to say that it was the Lords of the Council—all, with one exception, laymen—who instituted the persecutions, and presented persons to Bonner for judgment. Philip's own Spanish chaplain preached a strong sermon against severity, which he declared was contrary to both the spirit and the text of the Gospel. The most bitter and determined persecutor, the man who hunted out victims with most diligence, was Paulet, Marquis of Winchester, who retained office under every Government. So did William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke; so did Sir William Petre. It was they who forced the unwilling gentry to witness executions, and thanked those who went unasked. It was not the bishops. "Of 14 bishoprics," says Sir James Mackintosh, "the Catholic prelates used their influence so successfully as to prevent bloodshed in 9, and to reduce it within limits in the remaining 5. Justice to Gardiner requires it to be mentioned that his diocese was of the bloodless class." Gardiner saved Ascham when Sir Francis Inglefield tried to cite him to the Council. Bonner received a sharp reprimand from the Council, on two days of May 1555, for his slackness; and Foxe has preserved the words in which he complained of the task laid upon him by his "betters"—the Lords of the Council. The motive of his "betters" was not bigotry—they had changed their religion three times, and were ready to change it again; and they had sent Catholics to the stake in Edward's time as cheerfully as they now sent Protestants. But it must be remembered that the Reformers only opposed the persecution of "the Gospel." Cranmer and Ridley had caused Edward to issue a manifesto in which he was made to declare that as Moses put blasphemers to death, so ought a Christian prince, especially when called "Defender of the Faith," to "eradicate the cockle in the field of God's Church," and "cut out the gangrene that it might not spread." Latimer, justifying the execution of Admiral Seymour, preached that a brave death is no sign whatever of a man's being in the right, or a true man.[1] Did not the Anabaptists that were burnt in divers towns in England go intrepidly to their death? "Well, let them go."

It is better that we should realise this. We shall be the less tempted to excuse the robbery of the poor, which was the instant result of the suppression of the monasteries, and we shall be less inclined to believe that the English poor have always been more vicious, idle, and numerous than all others. There cannot be a doubt that the dislike of the poor, the eagerness to blame them for their poverty, which strikes foreigners as so strange in English people, had its birth in the great wrongs done them with respect to the land. Foreigners reproach us with making poverty a crime. We do so because poverty has been increased and perpetuated by a long series of land crimes—we are in possession of the lands of the poor, and we instinctively vilify those whom we have injured.

From this time, we shall find poverty in England becoming more and more unmanageable. For fifty years—until the 43 Elizabeth—no serious efforts were made to overtake it. Each new Act complains that the former has been evaded or disobeyed. The spoils of the monasteries were to provide for the defence of the realm, and there were to be no more subsidies; the chantry lands and the gild lands were to be devoted to "good uses,"—grammar schools, the augmentation of the universities, the relief of the poor. But the poor were never so miserable, public charity was never so grudging, destitution was never such a positive danger to social order, as when all these funds had been seized by the King for "good uses." Nor was the coinage ever in so disgraceful a state as when the Treasury seemed to be full to overflowing with the confiscation of one quarter of the wealth of the kingdom.

In the old days there was none of this overwhelming chronic misery, impossible to overtake; though there was no Poor Law, and no laws were passed to threaten the well-to-do with imprisonment if they would not relieve the poor. There were many wars and disturbances in those old days, and under a feeble or favourite-ridden king there were discontents ; but there was no great festering mass of pauperism. The religious houses found it easy to cope with the inevitable misfortunes of sickness, bad years, old age, and helplessness. There were the blind, the lame, the crippled; but there were not hordes of able-bodied men for whom their country had no use and no place.

We have but to study the Acts of Parliament to see that the destruction of small farms caused a mass of poverty and misery which terrified the rich, and made them first think of hanging the vagrants, and when this proved impracticable, of trying to cope with the evil by Poor Laws. A few charities and hospitals were refounded after the Reformation, but it is evident that this was done in self-defence, and because the swarm of destitute persons must be got rid of somehow. The citizens of London were persuaded to restore partially St Bartholomew's and St Thomas' hospitals, given them by Edward—the argument used was that "many commodities" (i.e. conveniencies) "would ensue to their city, if the poor of divers sorts were taken out of their streets, and bestowed in hospitals." It is appalling to see the diminution of charity coinciding with a great act of robbery. The obligation to relieve the poor was now infinitely greater than it had ever been—for the vast increase of poverty was the direct consequence of the policy which had enriched those who were already well off. The statutes themselves show that the vagrants were in most cases houseless because they had been evicted, and workless because their work had been taken away.

There is no more legislation till the 5 Elizabeth c. 4, and this Act contains nothing worse than whipping and imprisonment for asking more wages "than is limited" by the justices. The law was more cruel than those who lived under it, for there is a re-enactment of the fine on those who pay more. By this time there are constant references to the "decay of agriculture," and many devices are resorted to to restore land to tillage. The 31 Elizabeth enacts that no one may build a cottage without 4 acres of land to it—of his or her own freehold.

The "golden days of good Queen Bess" were anything but golden for the poor. It was only the word "slave" which had been taken out of the Statute Book—the thing remained. If a man is a slave when he is compelled, on pain of imprisonment, branding, and finally death, to labour for such wages as his masters choose to fix; if he must conciliate his master's good will to get the "testimonial" without which he must not leave the parish, nor may any other master employ him, then the English labourer of Elizabeth's day was a slave. For the most part, he worked by the year ; and if his master dismissed him before that time, or at the end of it, without giving him a quarter's notice, the master was fined 40s. But a master who paid more than the statute wage was fined £5. Anyone not having land "of the clear yearly value of 40s., nor being worth of his own Goods the clear value of ten Pound," and not retained (lawfully) in any other work, could be required to work for anyone who wanted him or her. This applied to all unmarried persons, and to everyone under thirty years of age. There was a £$ fine for a master who took a servant without a "testimonial" under the seal of the city or town, or constable or head officer. The 5 Elizabeth gives the form of this testimonial:

Memorandum. That A. B. late Servant to C. D. of E. husbandman, or Taylor, etc., in the Counter, etc., is licenced to depart from his said Master, and is at his Liberty to serve elsewhere, according to the Statute in that Case made and provided. In Witness whereof, etc. Dated the Day, Month, Year, and Place, etc., of the Making thereof."

Anyone departing without such a testimonial is to be imprisoned till he gets one, and if he cannot do this within twenty-one days next after the first day of his imprisonment, is "to be whipped and used as a Vagrant."

It is but too evident, from the Statute Book itself, that the dispossessed class never held up its head again. It had lost its lands, and with its lands the work it was wickedly accused of not doing. Its wages were rigidly fixed, from year to year, by the justices, in conjunction with the masters who would have to pay. Its gild moneys had been stolen by a Government which dared not rob the rich Corporations of London.[2]

It is dreadful to find that at the very beginning of Elizabeth's reign there was even some thought of reviving the repealed clauses of the 1 Edward VI. c. 3. As it was, the labouring class were more of serfs than they had been since the beginning of the reign of Richard II.—200 years before. By the 14 Elizabeth,[3] a vagabond above the age of fourteen was to be "grievously whipped," and burned through the gristle of his right ear with a hot iron "of the compass of an inch," unless some "credible person" would take him into service for a year. After eighteen if he fell again into "a roguish life," he could be hanged as a felon, unless a "credible person" would take him for two years. It is evident therefore that the poor wretch was not impossible as a servant. If he were, who would have bound himself to keep him for one, or for two years? It is said that Elizabeth hanged from three to four hundred vagabonds a year. Of course many of them were criminals—the wonder is that all were not. The Poor-Law relief, such as it was, tended to keep down wages. A low wage made it certain that the labourer must come on the parish at last ; but a master must pay the wage himself, while all his neighbours shared the burden of keeping the man when he no longer was able to work.[4]

Hours of labour were very long — all fixed by statute. In summer, from "at or before" five in the morning to between seven and eight at night. In winter, "from the spring of the day " till night. Two and a half hours are allowed for "dinner and drinking"—that is, for every drinking, half-an-hour, for dinner, one hour, and for sleep "when he is allowed to sleep" (that is from mid-May to mid- August, hay and corn harvest), half-an-hour at most; and half-an-hour for breakfast. We see that sometimes a master would offer his servant more wages, to keep him. For this offence he was to be fined £5, and imprisoned ten days without bail ; and the servant for twenty days without bail.

The 35 Elizabeth c. 4 orders "all wandering persons, able in body, refusing to work for reasonable wages … to be deemed rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars." Such an one to be taken by the justice or constable—assisted by the advice of the minister and one other of the parish—stripped naked from the middle upward, and "whipped till he is bloody." Then to be sent from parish to parish till he comes where he was born. A time is set him to get there, and if he loiters, he is to be whipped again. If he is thought "dangerous," he is to be banished, and if he returns, to be hanged. Poor diseased persons going to Bath or Buxton are exempt from whipping if they have wherewithal to provide themselves, and don't beg, and observe the time set them. Seafaring men who have been shipwrecked may even ask relief to get home. Such were the tender mercies of the rich. All these Acts of Elizabeth show that there was a great mass of "sturdy" misery, besides much "impotence." Also that the rich required much exhortation—sometimes pointed by threat of a fine—before they showed the "willing charitable disposition" demanded by the law. For these Poor Laws, laws though they were, were really only half compulsory. The frequency of licences to beg shows a far more "willing" charitable disposition to give other people the opportunity of relieving distress, than to relieve it oneself.

In spite of the frequent hangings attributed to Elizabeth, the vagabonds can hardly be said to have been kept under; for Strype quotes an "eminent" J. P. of Somersetshire, who says (writing in 1596), that in every county three or four hundred vagabonds lived by theft and rapine—sometimes going about in gangs of sixty. The extraordinary thing is, that this J. P. talks about "the foolish lenity" of the people and the "remissness of magistrates," whereby four-fifths of these felonies escaped punishment. If it were so it could only be because the people pitied the wretched creatures, knowing by what misery they were driven to these dreadful expedients.

The 31 Elizabeth c. 7 shows how the poor were prevented from settling on the land. It forbade the erection of cottages, unless the persons who built them had 4 acres of ground to lay to each, "being his or her freehold." The fine was £10, and 40s. for every month the new cottage was continued. The exceptions were cottages within a mile of the sea, inhabited by a sailor or one engaged in the furnishing of ships; cottages in forests, chases, or parks for deer-keepers; and a shepherd's cottage, or one for "an impotent poor person."

In the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth a class of small landowners began once more to grow up, but they were not the old tenants—they were small tradesmen, who had made a little money in the towns, and invested it in land, to which they retired to enjoy their fortune.

Towards the close of the reign there were several years when wheat was very dear. It was steadily rising. In 1557 it was £2, 13s. 4d. a quarter—or nearly five times the average price for two hundred and fifty years (1261-1540). After this, a cheap year was about double the old price. In 1574 wheat was at £2, 16s., and after this, a cheap year was three times the old price. In 1587 it was £3, 4s. in London, and as much as £5, 2s. in some other places. The year of the Armada was very abundant. But the five years from 1594-1598 were very dear, and 1597 was a famine. Wheat was £5, 4s.[5]

At last, in the 43 Elizabeth (1601) an Act was passed which was the basis of our old Poor Law. Threats and appeals to "charitable dispositions" having failed, "this Act made the relief of the poor compulsory."

Like the rest, it was evaded. A writer in 1622 says that in some parts no collection has been made for the poor "these seven years," especially in country towns. Even maimed soldiers "that have lost their limbs in our behalf are thus requited"; they are turned out to beg, or steal, "till the law brings them to the fearful end of hanging."

There is a general idea that the people have drifted off the land for one reason or another. But they did not drift—they were wrenched off. I have, perhaps, devoted too much space to the chief of these wrenchings; but it is very important. It was on so large a scale that it was impossible to readjust the social conditions it dislocated. It flooded the country with "out-o'-works," created a vast body of extreme poverty, and, by its cruel treatment of the poverty it had caused, it gave us a large degraded population—a hotbed of misery and crime, a curse from generation to generation.

But it was not the only robbery. Since then another system has been pursued—a system of stealthy and gradual enclosure—stealthy and gradual at first, soon growing bolder, as statutes ceased even to affect any care for the rights of small landowners, and went on to authorise land-robbery, under the name of "improvement." Now that armies were mercenary, the Government had no interest in preserving the rights of the Poor Commons—those who long ago had implored King Edward III. "for God's sake to have regard to what his poor people had done for him since the beginning of his wars."[6]

In 1593 the magistrates of the East Riding of York fixed the wages of artisans and labourers in husbandry: for mowing, 10d. a day; for reaping, 8d.; and the same by the acre, so it is evident that a man could reap or mow an acre a day. Winter wages of ordinary labourers: 5d. in summer and 4d. in winter. The price of wheat that year was 18s. 4d.; of meal, 29s. 4d.; malt, 12s. 3d.—so now the work of a whole year would not give a labourer what he could earn in fifteen weeks in 1495. In the famine year of 1597 the extra allowance for the dearness of food was only 10s. more for wages by the year without food than it was this year of 1593.

Amidst all these oppressive enactments—which made an Englishman a slave for being poor—the country at large perhaps came nearer to the danger of absolute monarchy than even in the days of Henry VIII. Burleigh suggested to the Queen the creation of a new Court, with inquisitorial powers over the whole kingdom; this, he told her, would prove a greater acquisition to the royal treasure than her father derived from the monasteries. He was right—every man could have been fleeced at the Sovereign's will. Fortunately, the proposal came to nothing.


  1. The fulsome adulation by the Reformers of kings who favoured the reformed doctrines is nothing short of sickening. They forget every principle of civil justice. Latimer has not a word to say of Seymour not being heard in his own defence. He only reviles the fallen man, and expresses his opinion that he is gone to hell.
  2. "The gilds which existed in the towns were also found in the country villages. Gilds are traceable to the period before the Conquest, and Hickes long ago printed some of the rules under which they were constructed and governed in the towns of Cambridge and Exeter. Blomefield finds some in the Norfolk villages. Vestiges of their halls remained long in small villages."—Rogers.
  3. The 14 Elizabeth c. 5 was the re-enactment of the 27 Henry VIII. c. 25. See p. 63.
  4. The 18 Elizabeth c. 3 has this odd clause: "Lands holden in Soccage may, during 20 years, be given towards the maintenance of Houses of Correction and Stocks for the Poor." This seems to have been the new form of charitable bequest.
  5. The harvest of 1545 must have been very bad, for wheat was higher than since 1316, the great famine year of Edward II. In 1546, 1547, 1548 wheat was decidedly cheap—in 1547, lower than since 15 10. Then came three dear years (1549, 1550, 1551) and two comparatively cheap. Mary came to the throne in the last year. Then three more dear years. The next two years were cheap. 1563 and 1573 were dear. The next dear year was 1586, when the price was again beyond all previous experience. The enormous prices of 1597 were not quite paralleled till 1648 and 1649. The high price was reached again in 1661-2, in 1674, and in 1709 and 1710, and not reached again till 1767, 1774, and 1795.
  6. "Et q lui pleise pur Dieu, avoir regard a ceo q son povere poeple lui ad fait puis le commencement de ses guerres."—Rot. Parl. ii. 227.