Elizabethan Social and Economic Legislation

Social and economic legislation occupied a great deal of time in Elizabethan Parliaments and was considered, after the granting of taxation, to be the primary function of the House of Commons. Hundreds of bills were initiated concerning industries such as the manufacture and trade of cloth, leather, and iron; poverty, unemployment and vagrancy; agrarian regulation of land use especially for grain and timber; and the enforcement of morally acceptable behaviour. While some such measures were official in origin, many others arose from particular local issues or were promoted by interested parties, especially companies and corporations, who lobbied for advantageous changes to the law. Arguments over such bills could be particularly contentious, and previously enacted statutes were frequently challenged and revised. Building upon a body of early Tudor ‘commonwealth’ debate and legislation the Elizabethan period produced several landmark Acts such as the Statute of Artificers (1563); the legalization of usury (1571); and a definitive Poor Law (1601).

A policy document among the papers of Elizabeth’s closest advisor, Sir William Cecil, entitled ‘Considerations delivered to the [1559] Parliament’ set out a programme of reforms to be undertaken, including measures to ensure social stability, to bring trade and commerce under greater control, and to improve the education of the nobility and gentry. Not all of its recommendations were ever implemented; nevertheless its influence can be traced through eight statutes passed in 1559 (concerning shoemakers, tanned leather, leather exports, sweet wines, linen cloth, iron mills, English shipping, and the preservation of fish spawn) and a platform of measures enacted in the 1563-6 Parliament that have since been dubbed the ‘Elizabethan economic settlement’. (Tudor Economic Documents, ed. R.H. Tawney and E. Power, i. 325-30.) Perhaps the most significant of these, the Statute of Artificers, was devised by the Privy Council and combined two bills that had failed in 1559 with various additions during its passage through the Commons to produce a cohesive set of regulations concerning labour, apprenticeship and wages. The Navigation Act of 1563 was also promoted by Cecil, particularly a controversial clause introducing the compulsory eating of fish on Wednesdays, or ‘political Lent’ which became known as ‘Cecil’s fast’.

Legislation to relieve poverty was enacted in 1563, 1572, 1576, 1598 and 1601. The Poor Law of 1563 consolidated an array of preceding measures. Upon its expiry in 1571 an alternative was debated but defeated only to re-appear as an official initiative in 1572. The latter introduced compulsory levies for the poor, to be enforced by secular authorities. A further statute enacted in 1576 ‘for setting the poor on work and for the avoiding of idleness’, was probably based upon an idea first proposed in 1571 by Sir Francis Knollys as an attempt to finance a general welfare system. Around a dozen bills concerned with poor relief were considered by the Commons in the 1597-8 Parliament, resulting in the enactment of four new statutes plus the continuation of expiring Acts for the relief of maimed soldiers and mariners. The 1601 Poor Law codified previous measures and remained on the statute book until 1834. (S. Hindle, ‘Poverty and the Poor Laws’, in The Elizabethan World, ed. S. Doran and N. Jones, 301-15.)

The regulation of land use before and after the Tillage Act of 1563 was intended to prevent the conversion of arable to pasture, and any resulting ‘depopulation’ or displacement of rural labour. For much of the sixteenth century enclosures were the target of occasional uprisings and hostility, particularly at times of dearth, and agrarian legislation