Was the growth of towns the main cause of poverty in the Tudor period, 1558 – 1588?

Throughout the reign of Elizabeth I, the issue of poverty and vagrancy was a prescient one. The social situation of the country led to a great deal of government action and laws being implemented, in an attempt to reduce the number of vagrants within England. The growth of population within towns can be seen to be the most important cause of poverty in the Tudor period, as the growth of people within these towns led to a significant strain on local resources. Other important reasons for the growth of poverty could be enclosure, which forced people to move to towns, and growing urbanization.

The growth of towns can be seen to be the main cause of poverty within the Tudor period when looking at the issue of population growth. This dramatic population growth could not be sustained within the towns, especially after several decreases. The Black Death killed off a third of the population in the 14th century. There was only a steady increase in the population throughout the 15th century, due to the threat of disease, and due to a lack of money, people married when they were older, so less children were born. During Elizabeth’s reign, however, the marriage age began to fall again and people began to get married at a younger age, as they could afford to, so people began to have more children, which led to an increase in population within the towns. This caused a dramatic increase in population in towns and especially London, and eventually led to a food shortage, as more people were demanding food that was not available to them, as there was not enough of it. Supply and demand was not met within the towns, and the little food that remained was over priced due to its rarity. Whilst the prices of food began to rise dramatically, people’s wages began to decrease. Economically this led to inflation, and also led to more people going hungry. As less and less people were able to afford food, poverty began to increase, as people did not have the sufficient amount of money to live. Several acts were passed to deal with vagrancy, illustrating the seriousness of the dramatic population growth, which was the main reason for growth of poverty within towns. The 1563 Act of the Artificiers forced people to donate money to aid the poor, with the threat of imprisonment if they refused. This demonstrates how serious the problem of vagrancy was, due to overpopulation within the towns. The Poor Law Act of 1576 also stated that there should be one ‘house of correction’ per county, which were run on poor relief funds. These houses were set up to reduce the numbers of vagrants on the street, and also put them to work. The severe issue of over population within towns can be realised when examining these acts, making growth in population the main cause of poverty within Elizabeth’s reign. Depopulation was also a factor that contributed to the population growth within London, as people relocated from their towns to London, as it was a greater industrial area. This can also be seen before Elizabeth’s reign, in the early 1500s, in which the population of Coventry fell by 2000. At the time, 30 percent of the population couldn’t afford to pay their taxes, illustrating the dire circumstances caused by the population growth in towns. This supports the idea that the growth of towns was the main cause of poverty, as it presented a direct strain on resources. As more and more people could not afford to pay the high prices more people found themselves slipping into poverty. The growth in towns is the main reason for the increase in poverty during this period, as the growth in population within the towns led to a direct strain on resources, which then led to a financial and economic crisis in the form of inflation. Debasement of coinage also added to the issue of inflation, as more metal was melted to create coins, as a solution to overcome the economic crisis. However, as there was more money available, prices still increased, which did not help the already serious situation within towns. It is the original problems within the towns that can be seen as the main cause of poverty, as the resources that the towns provided could not support its growing population, which by the 1590s, had reached 3.89 million.

Another important cause for the growth of poverty within the towns during the reign of Elizabeth is enclosure. Before the implementation of enclosure by the local landlords, all those within the town had access to common land where their animals could graze. However, landlords forced people off their land, as they realised that sheep farming needed little manpower, and that enclosure allowed for greater profits as landlords saw the opportunities that rearing sheep brought in terms of the cloth trade. As those living in rural areas lost their land, and had nowhere to go, they began to wander into towns looking for work, which further increased the levels of poverty within the towns, as the towns could not sustain the influx of people from the countryside, who had left rural areas as they had lost their land. Enclosure also affected copyhold tenants, as their leases were open to challenge, meaning that their landlord could evict them at any time. This also led to many more people travelling to towns looking for work. Although enclosure is an important reason for the growth of poverty, as many people were displaced, it cannot be seen as the main reason for its development, as this was the population growth within the towns itself. If the population of the towns did not increase or develop so quickly, it is more likely that people coming into towns from rural areas could’ve been accommodated. The situation originally stemmed from the issue of population growth within towns, and enclosure merely contributed to that, further draining the resources and increasing levels of poverty, without being a direct cause of it. 

It could also be argued that the growing urbanization of England can be seen as a principal cause of the growth of poverty within towns during the reign of Elizabeth I. During the reign of Elizabeth, England had become further industrialised due to the developments in the cloth trade, and although this was seen to have a positive affect on the economy, it did contribute the levels of poverty within towns. Cloth makers began subcontracting work, and instead of having a group of people ‘putting out’ wool to make cloth, they decided to pay one person to complete the task. This led to a great deal of unemployment, and again, resulted in people moving to towns to look for work, as they had been displaced from their old jobs in the rural areas. Cloth makers realised, that by having one person working for them, they would save money, as they would not have to pay multiple workers. As a result of urban decline within towns such as Bristol and Coventry, the population increased in London as a result of depopulation within the towns. As London became an important point for trade during the period, due to the River Thames, peoples’ migration from smaller towns to London appears logical, as London was a highly industrialised area. This relocation, however, contributed to the growth of poverty within the towns, as the towns could not sustain the vast numbers of people. For example, the population of Coventry decreased by 2000 in the early 1500’s, due to depopulation. This can be seen to lead to the growth of poverty in the latter half of the Tudor period, as it caused people living in rural areas, to move to the towns looking for work. These towns were already overpopulated and couldn’t sustain the people already within them, making the issue of growing urbanization only a contributing factor to the issue, and not a main reason for it. Like those displaced by enclosure, those who lost their jobs in the cloth industry merely added to the already severe situation of poverty within the towns, and don’t act as a main reason for the poverty within them, unlike the population growth within the towns. 

Although the issue of enclosure and urbanization can be seen to be important reasons for the growth of poverty within the towns, the growth of population within the towns themselves is the most important one. It is this issue that originally caused increase in poverty within the towns, due to the dramatic increase of population within them, which led to a significant drain on resources, which then developed into an economic and financial crisis. If the population growth had remained steady, then the impact of those coming from rural areas to towns would’ve been more manageable. However, the additional rural population that migrated to the towns only added to a problem that was already fully developed, and had already increased the levels of poverty within the towns. 

Thanks for reading!

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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