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Life for the poor in Tudor times was harsh.
The poor had to work hard and struggled to survive. Many poor people lives lived in villages doing farm work or making cloth in their own homes for very little pay. They worked six days a week and only had holy days and public holidays off work.
When the harvest failed it was tempting for poor people to steal food. When people did break the law, they risked public flogging or being hanged.
Four sorts of People
In 1577, William Harrison, a church minister, wrote a book called 'Description of England'. In it he describes four types of people living in Tudor England.
'We in England divide our people commonly into four sorts.' The first are gentlemen, which covers everyone from nobles to professionals; next come the citizens of the cities, who are free men with special privileges; next come the yeomen of the countryside; and finally the poor – farm workers, servants and vagrants, who have 'neither voice nor authority'.
Food and drink
The poor living in cities survived on bread made from flour in mills alive with rats, and pies filled with spiced meats to disguise the fact that the meat was 'off'. Those living in the country had a little more choice because they could at the wheat and oats grown in the fields and fresh meat from hares and rabbits.
Meat was a luxury but poor people sometimes kept animals to provide milk, cheese and eggs. Both rich and poor ate fish, which was packed in barrels of salt to stop the fish going rotten.
Honey was used instead of sugar to sweeten desserts such as fruit pies.
Water was too polluted to drink, so the poor drank 'small beer' - watered ale - while the rich drank wine and sherry.
Tudor people who were poor had little time for entertainment, but during their holidays and religious festivals they enjoyed singing, dancing, drinking and eating, as well as playing games and watching plays.
Globe Theatre, London
Dancing in the globe Theatre
Morris dancing was usually performed by a group of men dressed in white. Sometimes they wore ribbons or bells on their legs and carried handkerchiefs or sticks.
A Morris Dancer
Click here to find out more about Tudor Entertainment
Some of the poor became even poorer
It was often hard for the poor to afford things, since the cost of living kept going up. Life got harder when there was a bad harvest or when the disease of plague struck. There were not often enough jobs because the population was growing fast.
During the reign of Elizabeth l, many laws were passed to help the poor.
1563 — Justices of the Peace were given powers to raise compulsory funds for the relief of the poor. The poor were put into different categories
- those who would work but could not:
They lived in their own homes but could not find a job. They were given help with food and clothes or by being given work in return for a wage.
- those who could work but would not:
These were the (lazy) poor. They were punished e.g. whipped through the streets, publicly, until they learned the error of their ways.
- those who were too old/ill/young to work:
They were looked after in almshouses, hospitals, orphanages or poor houses.
1572 — the first compulsory local poor law tax was imposed making the alleviation of poverty a local responsibility
1601 — the 'Elizabethan Poor Law' was passed
The law offered help:
- The able-bodied poor were to be set to work in a House of Industry. Materials were to be provided for the poor so they could do the job.
- The idle (lazy) poor and vagrants were to be sent to a House of Correction or even prison.
- Pauper children (poor children who received charity) would become apprentices.
- The people who were unable to work due to disability, illness or old age were to be looked after either in almshouses, hospitals, poor houses or in their own homes.