By the early 1570s the Puritans had grown significantly in numbers and in economic and political clout. They were not only unsatisfied, however, but increasingly discontented. At the same time that they were trying and failing to pressure the government into killing Mary Stuart, some of the more adventurous among them surreptitiously printed and distributed a First and then a Second Admonition to Parliament. These were bold, even treasonous complaints about how far the church had, under the Elizabethan settlement, departed from the gospel and from true religion. They reflected John Calvin’s absolute rejection of everything that the English reformers had retained from the time before Luther’s revolt, and they expressed the conviction that even the office of bishop was an abomination little less repulsive than the papacy itself. The authors of the Admonitions declared that in the pure first years of the Christian era the communities of the faithful had been led by deacons and elders, not by bishops, and that fidelity to Scripture and to Christ himself required a return to that aboriginal system. This was, in England, the genesis of Presbyterianism. Because it challenged the legitimacy of the church that Elizabeth had established upon becoming queen, it was taken as a challenge to Elizabeth herself. Her reaction should have surprised no one. Those responsible for publication of the Admonitions became hunted men, finally having to flee to the continent. They continued, from exile, to produce pamphlets condemning the Rome-ish corruptions of the Elizabethan church. That church became a dangerous environment for clergy of Calvinist-Presbyterian inclination, but their beliefs continued to spread.
Meanwhile the government’s program of killing Roman Catholicism through a slow process of discouragement, through harassment and disdain rather than murderous persecution, was not working out as hoped. The lifeblood of Catholic practice was the sacraments, and that loftiest of sacraments, the Eucharist, was not possible in the absence of a priest empowered to consecrate the bread and wine. Elizabeth and Cecil were not being foolish in expecting that, deprived of its priests, the Catholic community would atrophy, especially if at the same time it were punished in large ways and small and repeatedly accused of being disloyal to England and the queen. But eliminating the priesthood turned out to be considerably more difficult than it must at first have seemed. Among the Catholics purged from the English universities after Elizabeth ascended the throne was Oxford’s proctor William Allen, already well known as a scholar and administrator though not yet quite thirty years old. Like many of his academic coreligionists Allen drifted back and forth between England and the continent in the early 1560s, eventually deciding to become a priest and fixing his attention on the large numbers of onetime Oxford and Cambridge teachers and students who were now as adrift as he was. Many of these men had been drawn to the Catholic Low Countries, particularly to the universities at Louvain and Douai. It was at the latter that, in 1568, Allen found the financial support to start Douai College, a seminary where the faculty and all the candidates for the priesthood were English.
It is not clear that Allen began with the idea of developing a cadre of missionary priests to be sent back into England. His goal, rather, seems to have been to keep the intellectual life of the English Catholic community intact in preparation for a time when it would once again be welcome at home, and to engage the Protestant establishment in disputation while preparing a Catholic translation of the Bible. His college, in any case, attracted so many exiles that soon it was filled beyond capacity, and other seminaries were established elsewhere, most notably in Rome. As the students completed their studies and were ordained, some naturally yearned to return home and minister to the priest-starved Catholics of England. Such requests were granted, and the first of the young “seminary priests” slipped quietly across the Channel in 1574. As soon as the authorities became aware of their presence, the hunt was on. Inevitably the likes of Cecil and Dudley and Walsingham saw the products of Allen’s school as spies and instruments of subversion and wanted the queen to see them in the same way. Certainly the priests were a threat to the policy of trying to bleed English Catholicism dry with a thousand tiny cuts; almost from the moment of their arrival they infused fresh vitality into a community that was supposed to be dying. The first to be caught, Cuthbert Mayne, was a Devon farmer’s son who had taken two degrees at Oxford and become a Church of England chaplain before converting to Rome. He had then departed for Douai, where, in his early thirties, he enrolled in Allen’s seminary. Within months of his ordination he was back in the west of England and, under the patronage of a wealthy Catholic landowner, taking on the public role of steward in order to travel the countryside and deliver the sacraments. Captured inside his patron’s house by a posse of more than a hundred men, he was charged with six counts of treason, convicted, and offered a pardon in return for acknowledging the queen’s supremacy. Upon refusing, he was made an object lesson in how religion was once again a matter of life and death in England. He was hanged, cut down alive, and thrown to the ground so violently that one of his eyes was put out. He was then disemboweled, castrated, and quartered. By hanging him as a traitor rather than burning him as a heretic, the government was able to deny that it was returning to the Marian persecutions. In Mayne’s case as with the hundreds of priests who would follow him to the scaffold, the queen and her council maintained the fiction that they were killing Englishmen not for their beliefs but for seeking to deliver their homeland into the hands of foreign enemies.
As the suppression of Catholics entered a new, more desperate phase, so, too, and almost simultaneously, did the conflict with the Puritans. By the mid-1570s the queen had run out of patience with the practice known as “prophesying,” which was not a matter of making predictions but simply of preaching with a pronouncedly evangelical slant rather than staying within the boundaries prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer. Somewhat oddly for a Protestant of her time, Elizabeth throughout her reign displayed a strong distaste for preaching and a determination to retain many of the trappings—clerical vestments, for example, and crucifixes—that growing numbers of her subjects were coming to regard as insufferable carryovers from the age of superstition. Such issues generated more and more heat as the 1570s advanced, until finally Edmund Grindal, the archbishop of Canterbury, was suspended for refusing to suppress prophesyings as the queen ordered. Canterbury remained an unoccupied see for years, and at times it must have appeared that Elizabeth was the head of a church of which she herself was almost the sole completely faithful member. It was her good fortune to have two sets of adversaries, the Puritans on one side and the Catholics on the other, who feared and despised each other far too much ever to combine against her. (Grindal, for example, had pleaded with the queen to stiffen the penalties for attending mass.) It also continued to be her good fortune to have the Queen of Scots as her most likely successor. So long as Mary Stuart drew breath, not even the most radical Protestant could possibly wish Elizabeth harm. The church that had taken shape under her direction was a peculiar and even improbable concoction of rather uncertain identity, no more Lutheran than Calvinist or Catholic. For the time being it was able to hang in a state of suspension easily mistaken for stability between the other contending parties.
In order to sell the story that the priests coming into England were the agents of a foreign enemy, England needed to have such an enemy. Though the pope would always be the ideal all-purpose bogeyman, no one could take him seriously as a military threat. The same was true of the Holy Roman Empire now that it was detached from Spain, run by a separate branch of the Hapsburgs, and fully occupied by intractable internal problems and external enemies as potent as the Turks. That left France and Spain, and so many factors made Spain the more compelling choice that not even the memory of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre could neutralize them for long. After the massacre, the Valois regime nominally headed by Charles IX made an effort to capture the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle and, upon failing, sensibly gave up on anti-Protestantism as the cornerstone of its domestic policy. Like England, it turned its attention to the most significant thing then happening in northern Europe: the ongoing revolt of the Dutch against Spanish rule, and Spain’s difficulty in bringing that revolt to an end. England and France alike were eager to contribute what they could to exacerbating Spain’s troubles. And England had a good story to tell in explaining its involvement: it could claim to be protecting the Dutch from the Roman Church (the Spanish Roman Church, specifically) and its Inquisition. England and France were also drawn together by the simple realization that it could be disastrous for either of them if the other became an ally of Spain’s. The 1574 death of King Charles at twenty-four did nothing to change the dynamics of the situation. He was succeeded by his nearest brother, the flamboyant Duke of Anjou, who as Henry II became the third of Catherine de’ Medici’s sons to inherit the throne. There remained one more brother, the young Duke of Alençon, who now assumed the Anjou title but is usually referred to as Alençon to keep him distinct from his brother. There was resumed talk, not particularly serious on either side, of marrying the young duke, disfigured by smallpox and bent by a spinal deformation but nearly twenty years old now, to the forty-one-year-old Elizabeth. Each side played the game in the faint hope that the other might attach more importance to it than it deserved.
Philip, meanwhile, was sinking deeper into the quagmire created by his rebellious Dutch subjects, and England and France were being drawn in with him. Philip had received from his father Charles V, thanks to the fifteenth-century marriage of Charles’s Hapsburg grandfather to the only daughter of the last Duke of Burgundy, a region of seventeen provinces, much of it reclaimed tidal plain, known for obvious topographical reasons as the Low Countries or—what means the same thing—the Netherlands. The rebellion had started in response to Philip’s efforts to impose a Spanish-style autocracy on the northernmost provinces, an almost fantastically prosperous center of trade and manufacturing where the Reformation had taken a strong hold and provided particular reason for resentment of Spanish interference. It had then spread southward as a newly appointed governor, the Duke of Alba, clamped down not only with harsh new taxes but with a reign of terror in which thousands of people, Protestants and Catholics alike, were brutally put to death. Militarily Alba was successful, bringing all but two of the provinces under control in years of hard fighting, but the savagery of his methods made reconciliation impossible. His successor Requesens tried to negotiate with the leader of the rebels, William of Orange, but resumed military operations after his overtures were spurned. In spite of crippling financial problems—Philip’s government was essentially bankrupt—Requesens, too, began to have some success, but he died in 1576 with the job of reconquest still incomplete. Much of what he had achieved was thereupon undone when his troops, finding themselves unpaid, went on a rampage of looting and vandalism. Their targets, necessarily, were the only provinces accessible to them: the ones still loyal to, or at least under the control of, Spain. Thus even the most Catholic sectors of the Netherlands were given good reason to hate the outsiders.
At this juncture, with his position in the Low Countries seemingly almost lost, Philip was rescued by the fact that his father, the emperor, had, in the course of his long career, produced illegitimate branches of the Hapsburg family tree on which grew a pair of genuinely brilliant figures. First among them was Philip’s younger (and illegitimate) half-brother Juan, known to history as Don John of Austria, a charismatic, even heroic character who in his youth had run off to pursue a military career in spite of being steered toward the church by both Charles and Philip. When he became governor-general of the Netherlands in 1576, Don John was almost thirty and not only a seasoned veteran of the Turkish conflict but the victor of the great Battle of Lepanto. He didn’t want the Dutch assignment but accepted it with the thought that it might give rise to an opportunity to fulfill an old romantic fantasy: that of invading England and liberating Mary, Queen of Scots. The situation he found himself in was very nearly unmanageable, but after two years he was making such good progress that William of Orange, in desperate straits and without hope of getting assistance from England, invited the Duke of Alençon, still under consideration as a possible spouse for Elizabeth, to become leader of the rebellion and, by implication, ruler of the Netherlands. Alençon was utterly unqualified to take command of anything, but he was eager to make a place for himself in the world and attracted by the possibility of carving a kingdom out of the Netherlands. The Dutch of course had no real wish to accept such an unprepossessing specimen as their chief but as brother and heir to the king of France he carried with him the implicit promise of substantial help. He eagerly accepted Orange’s invitation, discovered that there was no serious chance of getting meaningful assistance from his brother the king, and leaped to the conclusion that nothing could satisfy his needs more quickly and completely than a successful courtship of the English queen. Discussion soon resumed through diplomatic channels, and when word came from England that Elizabeth would never consent to marry a man she had not seen, Alençon made preparations to cross the Channel.
Don John, though continuing to progress inch by painful inch closer toward the defeat of the rebellion, was physically and mentally exhausted by the struggle and chronically short of essential resources. When in October he contracted typhus and died, his loss must have seemed another lethal setback for the Spanish cause. But before expiring he had nominated as his successor yet another product of Charles V’s extramarital adventures. This was Alessandro Farnese, a son of Charles’s bastard daughter, great-grandson of his namesake Pope Paul III. Farnese was almost exactly Don John’s age, had been raised and educated with him as well as with King Philip’s son Don Carlos, and had been second in command both at Lepanto and in the Netherlands. Usually remembered as the Duke of Parma, a title he would not inherit from his father until ten years after becoming governor-general in the Netherlands, he was no less gifted a soldier than Don John and a canny diplomat as well. Building on what Don John had accomplished, he began to coax the southern and central provinces (which would remain Catholic and evolve long afterward into Belgium, Luxembourg, and France’s Nord-Pas-deCalais) back into the Spanish camp. The seven northern provinces—the future Holland—proved however to be too strong and too determined for Farnese to overpower them. And so the war went bitterly on, poisoning northern Europe.
Influential members of Elizabeth’s council, Robert Dudley among them, were not satisfied with merely assisting the Dutch rebels financially and leaving the military glory to Orange and his countrymen. Elizabeth, however, was still as wary of continental wars as she had been since the Le Havre debacle of a decade and a half before. She was sensitive to the costs of such wars and the unpredictability of the results. She had learned how difficult it was to manage seekers after glory, men convinced that where war was concerned it was absurd to take orders from any woman, even a queen. She sent money to Orange, but only in amounts calculated to keep him from putting himself completely under French domination. A strong French presence in the Low Countries, with their proximity to England across the narrowest part of the Channel, was less unattractive than Spanish dominance there, but not by a wide margin.
From this point forward the Dutch revolt, the religious divisions of France and England, and nagging uncertainty about the English succession all became impenetrably intertwined. The elfin little Duke of Alençon arrived in England, and to the amazement of her court, Elizabeth gave every appearance of being smitten with him. She was easily old enough to be his mother, and there was something pathetic in her infatuation with this youth whom she playfully called her “frog.” As it dawned on people that marriage was not out of the question, council and court separated into factions. Elizabeth meanwhile made clear that this time she regarded her choice of a husband as no one’s business but her own. When a loyal subject named John Stubbs published a statement of opposition to the much-talked-of marriage, both he and his printer had their right hands chopped off.
Robert Dudley was opposed, too, and probably for a multitude of reasons. He wanted to make war in the Netherlands, but he was sure that he and not the absurd Alençon should be the commander. To this wish were added his evangelical leanings, and a consequent dislike of the idea of a Catholic consort for the queen. But Dudley had kept his antipathy for Catholics within bounds when other possible husbands were under discussion, and this time more personal factors undoubtedly were in play. In 1578, after years of widowhood during which he had lived at the queen’s beck and call and lamented the fact that because neither he nor his brother Ambrose had children the Dudley line seemed doomed to end with them, he had impregnated the beautiful Lettice Knollys, daughter of the veteran privy councilor Sir Francis Knollys and widow of the Earl of Essex. The two were secretly married—secretly because Dudley knew what the queen’s reaction would be—and when Elizabeth learned she was angry and hurt. She arranged to complicate Dudley’s life financially by withdrawing certain remunerative favors, but he was allowed to remain at court and soon was restored to his old place as favorite. His bride, already the mother of several children by her first husband, gave birth to a son who was christened Robert. But she was forbidden to appear at court. (The boy, Lord Denbigh, would be the last child born legitimately into the Dudley family and would die at age three.) All this could well have injected an element of spite into Dudley’s reaction to the queen’s marriage plans.
By the early 1580s Elizabeth’s uncertainties, hesitations, and ambiguous policies had enmeshed her in a tangle of political, military, and religious conflict. In 1585 it all finally blossomed into a war that would consume the last eighteen years of what increasingly looked like an overlong reign. Much of the trouble grew out of the determination of the government’s most influential and militant Protestants—Cecil certainly, but even more his protégé Francis Walsingham—to make the queen believe that the survival of Catholicism in England posed a threat not only to domestic peace but to her very life. As early as 1581 Walsingham was asking Lord Hunsdon, Elizabeth’s cousin and one of the men to whom she had entrusted the management of the north after the revolt of the earls, to amend his reports so as to give a darker—and to the queen more alarming—appraisal of the loyalty of the region’s still-numerous Catholics. In that same year Parliament, with Cecil ennobled as Baron Burghley and dominating the House of Lords while continuing to control the Commons through his agents, passed bills making it high treason for a priest to say mass and condemning anyone attending mass to life imprisonment and confiscation of property.
This was more than Elizabeth was prepared to approve, and the penalty for “recusancy” was reduced to a fine of £20 per month—a sum so impossible for most subjects as to be no different from confiscation. The queen’s efforts to find a middle ground, to avoid being so soft on the old religion as to outrage the evangelicals or persecuting the Catholics so savagely as to leave them with nothing to lose, resulted in a policy that sometimes seemed incoherent. An innovation called “compounding,” which permitted Catholics to elude the statutory penalties by purchasing what amounted to a license to practice their faith, was soon followed by a royal proclamation declaring all the priests entering England to be traitors regardless of what they did or refrained from doing. Life became increasingly difficult for Catholics, but the Puritans complained that it was not being made nearly difficult enough. As the queen refused to approve the most draconian of Parliament’s anti-Catholic measures, the conflict between her church and her growing numbers of Puritan subjects became chronic and deeply bitter. When the archbishop of Canterbury whom she had suspended years earlier died in 1583, Elizabeth was able at last to appoint a primate, John Whitgift, whose views accorded with her own. He soon began a program aimed at purging the clergy of Puritans and suppressing Puritan practices. The Elizabethan church, therefore, was soon waging religious war in one direction while Elizabeth’s government did so in another.
And the fighting in the Netherlands dragged wearily on. Philip II’s financial problems had eased in 1580 when the king of Portugal died without an heir and he, as the son and onetime husband of Portuguese princesses, successfully laid claim to that crown. This gave him control of the Portuguese fleet and the vast overseas empire that went with it. The following year, when the so-called United Provinces under William of Orange formally repudiated Spanish rule, Philip had the wherewithal to respond by putting more resources into the capable hands of his governor-general and nephew Farnese. The result was a sequence of successes for the Spanish army and calamities for the rebellion, all of it deepening the difficulties of the English. The little Duke of Alençon, whose dalliance with England’s queen had advanced to the point where a betrothal was announced by both parties only to founder on the old religious obstacles (how could even the queen’s husband be allowed to hear mass at the Elizabethan court?), went off to try his hand as leader of the rebellion. He showed himself to be even more inept than his worst critics had expected, and died of a lung ailment not long after returning to France a thoroughly discredited figure.
In that same year, 1584, William of Orange was assassinated by an apprentice cabinetmaker eager to strike a blow for the Catholic faith, the Guises allied their Catholic League with Spain, Farnese took the city of Antwerp from the rebels, and English policy lay in ruins. Philip meanwhile was repeatedly being goaded by the raids of Francis Drake and other English pirates—if pirates is the right word for thieves who found financing at the English court and were welcomed as heroes when they returned from their raids—on ports and treasure fleets from the coast of Spain to the New World. Now he appeared to be near victory in the Low Countries, and if he achieved his aims there the English had given him an abundance of reasons to turn his army and navy on them. When Drake, on a 1585 West Indies voyage financed by Elizabeth and Robert Dudley and others, burned and looted Cartagena and Santo Domingo and other Spanish ports and brought his ships home loaded with booty, it was the last straw for Philip. He ordered work to begin on the assembly of a great fleet and the planning of an invasion of England.
For Elizabeth and her council it was a nightmare scenario, though undeniably they had brought it on themselves. They had provoked the Spanish king’s open enmity at last, and had done so in such a penny-pinching way as to leave their rebel clients virtually at his mercy. The prospect that Philip might soon subdue the Low Countries was, under these circumstances, vastly more frightening than it had been when the revolt began. And so at last there seemed no alternative except to do exactly what Elizabeth had never wanted to do: send troops. Robert Dudley was delighted, especially when he was ordered to take command. He was well into his fifties by now, however, and his experience of war was decades in the past and not really extensive. But his enthusiasm was such that he took on a ruinous load of personal debt to cover his expenses—Elizabeth was not going to pay a penny more than she was forced to—and once in the field he found that he was neither receiving satisfactory support from home nor able to outwit or outfight his seasoned Spanish adversaries. The arrival of English troops was sufficient to avert the collapse of the rebellion but not sufficient to produce victory; the result was the further prolongation, at greatly increased cost, of a conflict that offered vanishingly little hope of a truly satisfactory outcome. England’s intervention had persuaded Philip, meanwhile, that he could never recover his lost provinces—might never again know peace within his own domains—unless England was humbled. The invasion that he had in preparation began to seem not just feasible but imperative.
Overt war with Spain provided a new basis for portraying England’s Catholics as agents of a foreign enemy and therefore as traitors. Suppression, along with the hunting down and execution of missionary priests, intensified. Inevitably, persecution further eroded the number of practicing Catholics, but at the same time, it gave rise to a cadre of young fanatics desperate enough to plot against the queen’s life. This development—like Philip’s anger a direct outgrowth of the government’s actions—was the best possible news for Francis Walsingham with his network of spies, torturers, and agents provocateurs. It gave him new evidence to draw on in making Elizabeth believe that it was necessary to do more to exterminate the old religion. None of the most notorious and supposedly dangerous plots against Elizabeth had the slimmest chance of success, and Walsingham himself probably actively encouraged at least one of them in order to entrap gullible young true believers. He may even have concocted the last of the conspiracies (the so-called Babington Plot, which led to Mary Stuart’s confessing to planning an escape and being accused, but not really proved guilty, of assenting to Elizabeth’s assassination) in order to get a deeply reluctant Elizabeth to approve Mary’s execution. Historians have often argued that the need to eliminate the Queen of Scots is demonstrated by the fact that after she was beheaded in February 1587 there were no more plots against the queen’s life. But it is possible that, once Mary was dead, Cecil and Walsingham no longer saw any need to put such plots in motion, nurse along the ones that they discovered, or exploit their propaganda value when the time was ripe for exposure.
What is often depicted as the apotheosis of the Elizabethan Age, the turning point at which the wisdom of everything the queen had done was made manifest and the way was cleared for England’s emergence as the greatest of world powers, came in the third week of July 1588. It was then that Philip’s mighty Armada came plowing up the Channel into England’s home waters, found Drake and Elizabeth’s other sea dogs waiting, and was put to flight. It was indeed an escape for England, even a victory, though it was accomplished as much by weather and Spanish mistakes as by weapons. But it changed very little and settled nothing. It was less a culmination than a bright interlude, and it led only to the fifteen years of trouble and decline that would be the long final third of Elizabeth’s reign.
THE PUNISHMENT OF THE INNOCENT
TUDOR ENGLAND WAS A WORLD IN WHICH THE RICH GOT richer while the poor got not only poorer but much, much more numerous. Twenty years into Elizabeth’s reign she had so many seriously poor subjects, and the situation of many of them was so desperate, that figuring out what to do with them had become one of the challenges of the age.
There were many reasons why the condition of ordinary English families deteriorated precipitously during the Tudor century: the destruction of an ecclesiastical social welfare system that for centuries had reached out from the monasteries and parish churches into every corner of the kingdom; the ongoing enclosure of arable land and the expulsion of the people who had long farmed it to make way for sheep; an unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of a gentry class that was only a tiny part of the population; and a toxic mix of economic forces that caused real wages to fall decade after decade even as prices relentlessly rose.
Added to all this was the emergence of a new set of social values—call it the Protestant ethic—that encouraged the prosperous to equate wealth with virtue and to regard the destitute as responsible for (even predestined to) their predicament. An older worldview in which society was expected to provide a place for everyone, in which the poor were believed to have a special relationship with God and caring for them was supposed to be one of the primary moral obligations of every person, was inexorably passing away.
Poverty did not begin with the Tudors, obviously. Parliamentary statutes dealing with the homeless and unemployed had first appeared as early as the reign of King Richard II, late in the fourteenth century. Such persons were described as “vagabonds” even then, and if they were “sturdy vagabonds”—drifters capable of working—they were to be put into the stocks wherever they were found and then ordered to go back to where they had come from. Only the “impotent” were permitted to beg—only, that is, the very young and very old and those otherwise genuinely unable to earn a living—and they needed a license and were forbidden to beg very far from home. In these first poor laws as for centuries thereafter, one of the government’s chief objectives was to prevent idlers from roaming wherever they wished.
Implicit in all this was the assumption that even the poorest could find at least minimal subsistence in their home districts, and that appears to have been generally true. That there were no new laws dealing with the poor for almost a century after Richard II, and that when Henry VII revised the old law in 1495 he did so to ease the prescribed penalties, seems a clear indication that poverty remained a negligible problem, for the government at least, for a very long time. The introduction of new measures in 1531 had less to do with Henry VIII’s quarrel with Rome than with the economic problems of the late 1520s, which had driven streams of people out of their homes and onto the roads in search of food and work. Soon thereafter, however, the expropriation of the resources of the church destroyed the one traditional refuge of the English poor, and poverty became a significant policy issue. What is striking about the new laws that followed is the contempt for the poor that they reflect. This was something new to English life. An inclination to treat poverty as an offense deserving punishment came to dominate the Privy Council’s actions.
From the early 1530s on, anyone judged to be a vagabond was to be not merely put in stocks but given a public whipping before being driven away. It was a curiously cold-blooded way to deal with people who no longer had homes, could not find work, and could find no way to escape starvation. But it set the pattern for what lay ahead: a national system of laws and proclamations designed not to help the poor but to keep them confined: to limit their mobility, increase their difficulties in entering a skilled trade, force them to take any available work on whatever terms were offered, and punish and humiliate those able to find nothing. Everything was slanted to the advantage of the property-owning classes—Parliament not only put limits on wages but made it a crime to either demand or pay more—and only the immediate threat of civil unrest could on rare occasions force council or Parliament to intervene even briefly on behalf of workers or the unemployed.
A theme that runs through all the poor laws from the 1530s on is fear of the itinerant homeless. This was not irrational; people living on farms or in tiny villages had reason to be concerned when ragged strangers suddenly appeared, whether singly or in groups. It is no coincidence, therefore, that one of the most savagely repressive measures of the whole Tudor era was passed in 1547, a time when thousands of men had recently returned from the last of King Henry’s continental wars. These were hardened cases, many of them, and penniless, and often resentful of the callous treatment that was the lot of soldiers in those days. Many of them had little option but to take to the highways, begging as they went, looking for work or, failing that, for something to steal. The scare that they put into the gentlefolk of southeastern England was a factor in Parliament’s passage of a law unlike any other in the recorded history of England—one that prescribed branding for vagrancy and enslavement for those who failed to mend their ways. When this law was repealed after two years—it was simply too repulsive to be enforced or defended—whipping and expulsion once again became the standard punishment for poor people who showed up where they were not wanted.
As the years went by and unrelenting punishment failed to solve the poverty problem, local authorities and central government alike were slowly, grudgingly forced to the realization that some people were poor not because they were lazy but as the result of conditions beyond their control. It became impossible to believe that force alone was going to maintain public order. Thomas Cromwell seems to have understood this as early as the 1530s: he drafted a bill that would have required parishes to collect alms for the support of the impotent and assigned the able unemployed to public works projects supervised by “councils to avoid vagabonds.” He was ahead of his time, however, and the bill never became law. Finally, in 1552, begging was banned completely, parishes were admonished to take up collections for the impotent, and so for the first time the helpless no longer had to fend for themselves. Five years later, during the reign of Queen Mary, a system was established to provide the unemployed and their families with materials—hemp, flax, wool—that they could fashion into items for sale and so support themselves.
With numerous short-term ups and downs, general conditions continued to deteriorate during Elizabeth’s reign. The Statute of Artificers of 1563, while making contributions to parish poor boxes compulsory and thereby establishing the rudiments of a national tax system, went to new lengths to keep the poor in their place, in some ways quite literally. Upward mobility, already reduced by the disappearance of many schools, was further curtailed by a tightening of the property qualifications for apprenticeship. Responsibility for putting limits on wages was transferred from Parliament to the justices of the peace, but it remained unlawful to exceed those limits or even to ask for more than the law allowed. Nine years later Parliament put sharp new teeth into the punishment of vagabonds. The penalty for a first offense was now not whipping alone but also the boring of a hole into one ear—an ineradicable sign that one was not a respectable person. Second offenses were treated as felonies, and anyone found guilty of a third could be put to death. These provisions remained in effect for more than twenty years, but in 1576, with a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm, Parliament established a new category called the “deserving poor”—people who were not only able but willing to work, but could find no employment. The Marian practice of providing such people with raw materials to be fashioned into merchandise was revived, but in reviving it Parliament scornfully stated that its motive was not to help anyone but to assure that “rogues may not have any just excuse in saying that they cannot get any service or work.” In the eyes of the governing elite, the poor remained a nuisance that unfortunately could not be ignored.
By the late 1590s the state of the economy had become so alarming that chaos seemed to threaten. Failed harvests, raging inflation, unemployment caused by war in the Netherlands, and a continuing decline in the standard of living combined to spark food riots in London and its environs in 1595, and in East Anglia, Kent, and southwestern England in the two following years. The capital and the roads leading into and out of it had become notoriously unsafe, with much of the trouble caused by soldiers returning from the continent. The authorities, in a panic, began cracking down ruthlessly on almost any sign of discontent. When an attempt at an uprising fizzled in Oxfordshire—only four men responded to the call, and upon finding themselves alone they returned to their homes—the Privy Council nevertheless demanded arrests. That led to some suspects being tortured (possibly to death in two cases), and to others being executed. The use of the death penalty rose sharply in many jurisdictions, provost marshals were commissioned to conduct sweeps aimed at clearing the roads of “base persons,” and a statute of 1597 ordered that “dangerous rogues” were either to be banished from the kingdom or put to work as oarsmen on the queen’s galleys.
As the century came to an end economic conditions improved somewhat, and social tensions lessened. But for an overwhelming majority of the men and women of England, the great Elizabethan Age was limping to a distinctly miserable conclusion.