Crime, Poverty and the Common Man

Policy towards Crime and Poverty and the Common Man

Elizabethan Poor Law

As series of laws put in place in 1563, 1572, 1576, 1597 culminated in the 1601 Poor Law were made to help the increasing number of impoverished people in England. People's views on the poor began with harshness and eventually changed to compassion for many reasons. The growing number of poor was in part due to the collapse of the medieval feudal system. Also due to the Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1540 during the reign of Henry VIII, many Catholic monks and nuns were left homeless and the poor they serviced without a place of refuge. Also, the change in religions led to many people no longer following the Christian beliefs put forth by Mathew 25 that supports the poor. The religious and everyday people were no longer helping the poor, putting the burden on the government instead. Also population increase, poor harvests, and loss of the number of jobs left many people hungry and homeless.

1552 Act:
passed to identify the number of poor in each parish church around the country to help the government assess the extent of the problem 

1563 Act: types of Poor people categorized in order to determine treatment (‘poor beggars' viewed as criminals not to be helped but punished) 

1572 Act: the first compulsory poor law tax, local parishes collect local taxes to help support local poor, helped ‘Deserving Poor' 

1576 Act: each town required to find work for the unemployed, first English Poor-Houses established 

1597 Act: ‘Overseer of the Poor' position created to calculate the Parish's ‘Poor Rate', collect it, and dispense it in the form of money, clothes, or food. Also supervised Parish Poor-House 

1601 Act: formalised earlier practices making provisions for a National system to be paid for by imposing property taxes 


Traditionally England had an open field system where an individual peasant farmer could farm their own pieces of land. This land was used by many to graze sheep on. Sheep were an important source of wealth, not only providing milk and meat, but also wool. However, this was changed in favour of Land Enclosure where these pieces could be put together to form larger, more profitable pieces of land that needed fewer workers. These large plots were usually dedicated to sheep for the growing wool trade. As a result of this change, many people found themselves without work in the countryside and were often evicted from their homes, so they moved to the towns in hopes of a better life.

Vagrant Beggars

When legislation came about to help the poor, they discriminated against the deserving and the undeserving poor. The undeserving were those who were able to work and help themselves but were unwilling. They often turned to theft and crime instead of an honest profession. They were punished harshly and looked down upon in society, as the opinion was that they posed a major threat to the order of civilization.

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