How Prosperous was Elizabethan England?

Background Information

The Elizabethans thought of society as four social classes. The ‘Fourth sort’, or labouring poor, made up about half of families in Tudor England. They could not read and write, did not own their own land and spent about 80% of their income on food and drink. The North West was the poorest area of the country. Whilst the Golden Age brought great prosperity to Elizabethan England and the Gentry in particular, overall there was a poverty crisis.

Key Terms (Types of Elizabethan Beggars)

Anglers: Carried a large stick which could be used to steal clothes off people’s washing lines at night.

Ruffler: looked like an army officer but actually robbed people at sword point.

Clapperdudgeons: Pretended to be badly injured by using arsenic to make their skin bleed and wrapping their arms and legs in legs in bloody rags.

Doxy: Spotted wearing a needle in her hat and a large pack on her back to keep stolen goods.

Counterfeit cranks: Dressed in old dirty clothes and pretended to have epileptic fits, using soap to foam at the mouth.

AbrahamMen: Pretended to be mad and walk about half naked making whaling noises.

How Prosperous was Elizabethan England?, figure 1

This illustration shows a beggar and an Elizabethan person giving ‘alms’. Alms was the Elizabethan word for charity - giving beggars some money.

Attitudes Towards the Poor

Elizabethans believed that some poor peopled needed help, such as those too ill, sick , old or young to work. They believed these people should help. However the ‘idle poor’ were seen as people who were too lazy to get a job or spent all their money on alcohol. This was not a real group, it was the perception of the rich that this group existed.

The Elizabethan believed that the poor could be put into groups only some of which needed help. The ‘impotent poor’ were the old, sick or disabled and were unable to provide for themselves. They were seen as not to blame for their situation and the government was seen as more sympathetic towards them.

The Idle Poor

There was then the group that people deemed the ‘idle poor’. Idle means someone who is lazy. This implied that they thought of this group to be poor almost through their own doing. They were seen as a major threat to social order. There was a belief that there was enough work for everyone. The ‘idle poor’ were seen as dishonest and ‘Vagabonds’. (Vagabonds were homeless people who would wander from place to place and beg or steal) They were often referred to as ‘sturdy beggars’. The Elizabethan’s viewed them as homeless people who were considered to be an immoral and criminal class, perfectly fit but too lazy to work, and happy to live off begging and petty crime.

People were very worried about the ‘idle poor’. They seemed to be getting out of hand, from the wealthy Elizabethan’s perspective. Beggars were attacked on the streets by angry townspeople.

Thomas Harman wrote a book in 1567 giving advice to readers about the various tricks played by different types of beggars to try and cheat people out of money. He also described their use of coded language, called ‘Canting’.

How Prosperous was Elizabethan England?, figure 1

Poverty in the Elizabethan Era also drove increasing numbers of people to robbery and committing crimes in order to get some money. A wave of ‘highwaymen’ spread across England, who would rob travellers.

Elizabethan Beggars (see key terms at the top)

Many people pretend to be ill in an attempt to attract sympathy. Many carried sticks and pretended to be disabled. (Lame) The rich saw this as sinful and were very critical. The very poor were desperate to survive and were willing to try anything that could help them survive.

Puritans (very strict Protestants) thought that this lifestyle was lazy, sinful and dishonest. Vagabonds did not travel alone and moved around in intimidating groups. They robbed and terrorised villages as they went. The government were always worried that there would be a rebellion with this group. There was a lot written by local officials about the ‘idle poor’ which shows how afraid the authorities were of them.

Disease was also widespread and there were major outbreaks of the plague. The ‘wandering poor’ were seen to be spreading illness round the country. Writers at the time exaggerated the problem.

Define the following terms:

Your answer should include: stick / steal / clothes / night
Abraham Men
Your answer should include: pretend / mad / walk / naked / noises
Idle Poor
Your answer should include: lazy / dishonest / vagabonds / threat
Your answer should include: very strict / Protestants

The Poverty Crisis: Causes of Poverty

The Size of the Population

The size of England’s population had remained fairly stable since the Black Death, two centuries earlier, but there was a dramatic population growth during Elizabeth’s reign. The population rose by about 43% between 1550 and 1600. This placed a huge pressure on resources, particularly food, and there was a shortage of jobs for people.

Inflation and Economic Factors

With lots of workers available, wages stated the same, but as the demand for food rose, so did prices. Inflation was a huge problem throughout Europe at this time and not just in England. Rising prices were not only caused by the growing population. Spanish exploration of the ‘New World’ in Central and South America had meant that there was more silver in circulation throughout Europe, which reduced the value of the currencies and pushed the value up.

Henry VIII had made the problem of inflation worse in England by significantly reducing the value of coinage in the __1540s __in order to pay for his wars against Scotland and France.

How Prosperous was Elizabethan England?, figure 1

Coinage and inflation became weaker during Henry VIII’s reign, due to poor economics and foreign conflicts. This affected the population in Elizabeth’s.


Wars were another problem. Whenever wars were fought, taxes were increased and this hit the poor the hardest. Once the wars were over, England was left with a large number of out of work soldiers and sailors who needed to find new employment. Wars also had a harmful affect on Britain’s international trade.

Trade Collapses

England’s most important trading partner was the city of Antwerp in Belgium. This trade was in woollen cloth. The collapse of this market in the 1550s and later official bans on trade with the Spanish ruled Netherlands, in the 1560s, 1570’s and 1580’s deprived England of much needed revenue from its usual export markets. At the same time, trade monopolies were encouraged by Elizabeth and her government to make the rich richer by pushing up the prices. This made the poor poorer.

How Prosperous was Elizabethan England?, figure 2

Elizabethan England was getting richer and richer thanks to growing trade; however, the only really benefitted the gentry. When the trade collapsed, however, it affected all of those who worked in trade business, and saw huge unemployment.

Problems in Agriculture

Most Elizabethans lived in rural areas. Unfortunately, agricultural crises put even more pressure on the poor. This period saw some disastrous harvests.

Food was already in short supply because of the pressure of increased numbers of people, the threat of famine pushed prices even higher. Changes in farming also caused problems. Tenants became the victim of greedy landlords through unfair rent racketing which led to spiraling rents and lots of evictions.

The growth of enclosure was also bad news for the poor. The traditional open fields were combined and enclosed with hedges to allow former arable land to be turned over to more profitable sheep farming. (Arable land means land used for growing crops) This was good for the rich landowners but there did not need to be as many workers, which meant that poor people lost their jobs. Enclosure also had a devastating effect of removing the common land. For the poor, the common land was essential as it was a place for their animals to graze. For the poor people a vital way to get food for their family had been taken away.

Closure of the Monasteries

In the past the Monasteries had been a key source of charity for the poor. They provided food, shelter and medical care to the needy. However Henry VIII had closed down the monasteries in the 1530’s which removed this help for the poor.

Poor people travelled to towns in search of a better life. The towns could not handle the amount of people coming there looking for work and therefore the government realised they were going to have to act to solve the poverty crisis.

How Prosperous was Elizabethan England?, figure 3

In the Middle Ages, Churches and Monasteries would care for the sick and least fortunate. With these being closed, particularly in the countryside, the source of support for the most vulnerable was cut off.