What about the Poor?

We in England divide our people commonly into four sorts.

– William Harrison, ‘Description of England’

OnionWe’ve learned all about the diets and lifestyles of royalty during Tudor times, but what about the poor? Let’s take a quick sidestep to see what it was like for those who weren’t of royal blood.

Life in Tudor times wasn’t easy if you were poor. You could work hard every single day and still struggle to survive. Many poor people spent their lives in small villages, where they made cloth and worked on the farms to earn what little money they could. They worked six days a week, only taking holy days and public holidays to rest before going back to work.

The poor relied heavily on the land, and their lives would have been turned upside down if the harvest failed. Many were forced to resort to stealing food, but those who did so risked flogging or hanging.

Four ClassesTudor England was inhabited by four classes, as explained in 1577 by a church minister, William Harrison. These were:

  • Gentlemen – nobles and professionals;
  • Citizens – free city-dwellers with special privileges;
  • Yeomen of the countryside;
  • Farmers, servants and vagrants.


Poor people who lived in cities mostly lived on bread and meat pies – spices used in this case were more likely to have been used to disguise expired meats, although the price of spices makes it unlikely that these people had such a luxury. Those who lived in the countryside had a slightly healthier diet owing to the crops available from nearby farms. They could eat oats and wheat, and fresh meat from rabbits and hares.

PlateMeat was certainly a luxury to the poorer classes, though some people were able to keep animals to provide cheese, eggs and milk. Both the rich and the poor ate fish (though the rich had a very different idea as to what “fish” included), which was often packed in barrels of salt to preserve it.

Due to the high price of sugar, the poorer people used honey to sweeten desserts, which included fruit pies. Unlike Hampton Court, fresh water was not pumped to the houses of the poor, so their water was too polluted to drink. Instead, they could drink watered ale.

The poor had very little time for entertainment, owing to the fact that they worked six days a week, but they were able to relax a little during holidays and religious festivals. Entertainment included dancing, eating, watching plays, playing games, drinking and singing. During some events, Morris dancing was performed. This was done by a group of men who dressed in white. Some of these groups wore ribbons, bells, sticks and handkerchiefs – much like Morris dancers today.

As the cost of living increased, it became harder and hardElizabeth Ier for the poor to afford everything they needed. This was made even worse when plague struck, or they had a bad harvest. The population was growing quickly, and there were nowhere near enough jobs for everyone. A number of laws were passed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to help the poor.

In 1563, Justices of the Peace were given the power to raise any funds necessary to help the poor. Divided into a number of categories, the Justices developed different ways of dealing with different people. Those who were willing but unable to work were given help in the form of food and clothes or a job that would pay them a wage. Those who were capable of working but refused were punished by being publicly whipped in the streets until they learned the error of their ways. Those who were too ill, old or young to work were looked after in hospitals, poor houses, orphanages or almshouses.

In 1572, the a tax was imposed to make the alleviation of poverty the responsibility of the community.

In 1601, the Elizabethan Poor Law was passed. Those who could work were sent to work in a House of Industry, with all necessary materials provided. Those who refused to work were sent to a House of Correction, or prison. Poor children were taken on as apprentices, while those who couldn’t work due to illness or old age continued to be cared for in hospitals, poor houses or almshouses.


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