Poor Tudors

By Tim Lambert

In the 16th century, about half the population lived at subsistence (bare survival) level. Life for them was hard and rough.

During the 16th century, there was inflation, especially in the mid-century, and prices rose steeply. Wages rose too but less than prices so real earnings fell. They reached their lowest point in 1597. (The years 1594-97 were ones of famine. In Cumbria, the poorest and most isolated part of England, people starved to death).

Homes for poor people in the 16th century were very basic. They continued to live in simple huts with one or two rooms (occasionally three). Smoke escaped through a hole in the thatched roof. Floors were of hard earth and furniture was very basic, benches, stools, a table, and wooden chests. They slept on mattresses stuffed with straw or thistledown. The mattresses lay on ropes strung across a wooden frame.

Poor Tudors lived on a dreary diet. In the morning they had bread and cheese and onions. They only had one cooked meal a day. They mixed grain with water and added vegetables and (if they could afford it) strips of meat.

All classes ate bread but it varied in quality. Rich people’s bread was made from fine white flour. Poor people ate coarse bread of barley or rye.


For rich Tudors fashion was important. For the poor clothes had to be hardwearing and practical. All classes wore wool. However, it varied in quality. The rich wore fine-quality wool. The poor wore coarse wool. Linen was used to make shirts and underwear.

Many workingmen wore a loose tunic. It was easier to work in. Some workingmen wore a leather jerkin called a buff-jerkin. Men also wore stockings or woolen socks, which were called hose.

Women wore a kind of petticoat called a smock or shift or chemise made of linen or wool and a wool dress over it. A woman’s dress was made of two parts, a bodice or corset-like garment and a skirt. Sleeves were held on with laces and could be detached. Working women wore linen aprons.

In the late 16th century many women wore a frame made of whalebone or wood under their dress called a farthingale. If they could not afford a farthingale women wore a padded roll around their waist called a bum roll.

In the 16th century, women did not wear knickers. However, men sometimes wore linen shorts.

In Tudor times everyone wore hats. Poor women often wore a linen cap called a coif. After 1572 by law all men except nobles had to wear a woolen cap on Sundays. This law was passed to give the wool cap makers plenty of work!

The Tudors used mostly vegetable dyes such as madder for red, woad for blue, or walnut for brown. Poor people often wore brown, yellow, or blue.

With the rise in population during the 16th century jobs were not always easy to find. In Tudor times there were thousands of people without jobs wandering around looking for work. There were also disabled beggars. There were also people who pretended to be mad or disabled in order to beg. Tudor governments tolerated people who were disabled begging. However, they did not tolerate able-bodied people without jobs wandering around. They saw such ‘sturdy vagabonds’ as a threat to law and order.

Since the 14th century, there had been laws against vagabonds but in 1530 a new law was passed. The old and disabled poor were to be given licences to beg. However, anyone roaming without a job was tied to a cart in the nearest market town and whipped till they were bloody. They were then forced to return to the parish where they had been born or where they had lived for the last 3 years.

A law of 1536 was more severe. Vagabonds were whipped the first time. However, for a second offence the part of their right ear was cut off (so they could be easily identified wherever they went). For a third offence they were hanged.

However, officers of the law were reluctant to carry out such draconian measures. A law of 1547 chided them for ‘foolish pity and mercy’. Under this law, anyone who roamed or loitered for 3 days without a job must offer to work for any employer for any wages he was willing to pay. If nobody would employ him then he must offer to work just for food and drink. If he did not do this then anyone could take him to the Justice of the Peace (local magistrate). The vagabond was then made that person’s slave for 2 years. If he ran away during that time he was branded and made a slave for life. This terrible law was abolished in 1550. Once again flogging was made the punishment for vagrancy.

Furthermore every parish was commanded to build a workhouse for the old and disabled poor. They would be housed in the workhouse and made to do any work they were capable of.

However in 1572 the law was made more severe again. For a first offence a vagabond would be whipped and burned in the right ear with a red-hot iron. (Unless some kindly employer was willing to give him a job). For a second offence he would be hanged (again unless an employer gave him a job). For a third offence he would be hanged regardless.

In 1576 the law regarding the old and disabled was changed again. This time the parishes were ordered to supply them with materials like flax, hemp, wool, and iron. They were to do any work they could in their own homes. Any old or disabled person who refused to work was sent to a House of Correction where conditions were very harsh. However, in 1597 the death penalty for vagrancy was abolished.