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 reflected an attempt to resist the rise of new types of ‘convertible’ husbandry favoured by enclosing landlords who could make greater profits from grazing sheep and growing an ever increasing variety of cash crops. However, such measures became increasingly difficult to enforce, and by 1593 they were quietly repealed without much notice. It was only after a run of dire harvests and an outbreak of anti-enclosure rioting that two traditional measures for the maintenance of husbandry and tillage reappeared on the parliamentary agenda in the 1597-8 Parliament, and eventually passed after heated debate and extensive redrafting. They remained in force following further debate in 1601, despite cogent arguments for their repeal and long haggling over various exemptions and provisos.

A significant percentage of social and economic legislation was the product of increasingly sophisticated lobbying by interest groups, especially London companies such as the Clothworkers, who were prepared to devote considerable resources towards securing the enactment of favourable measures, sponsoring bills in successive Parliaments over a period of decades. (I.W. Archer, ‘London Lobbies in the Later Sixteenth Century’, Historical Journal, 31 (1988), 17-44.) The corporation of London itself was behind an attempt in 1593 to prevent strangers from retailing their wares in the capital. After lengthy debates this was passed by the Commons only to be rejected by the Lords. (Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I, ed. T.E. Hartley, iii. 134-9, 142-4, 145-8.)

Other examples of bills that were thwarted by disagreements between the two Houses include sumptuary legislation proposed in 1576, 1589 and 1597-8 intended to restrict what apparel may be worn according to social status. In general many more bills of this kind failed than were enacted, and those that did pass tended to be short-lived. In particular the 1560s and 1590s were periods of intense economic hardship which produced bouts of palliative legislation; once these crises had passed the continued enforcement of penal measures by informers and promoters occasionally became a grievance. There was also increasing concern about the passage of too many laws; standing committees for the continuance and repeal of old statutes became a regular fixture by the end of the reign.

Author: Rosemary Sgroi