England was shattered by the dissolution of the Roman Catholic church in the 1530s. One unforeseen consequence was the destruction of provision for the poor. The monasteries had a religious duty towards them. Those who were entirely incapable of surviving without charity were given a decent standard of life, which included housing and clothing. The able bodied poor were provided with work. Vagrants and vagabonds got short shrift from monasteries, regardless of Thomas Cromwell’s1 claims that monasteries were a soft touch.
A religious duty2 is a powerful motivator, which extended to all religious foundations and the laity. Many laity made bequests in their wills, providing for the poor through the monasteries. Bequests had an eternal life. They gave benefits to the benefactor throughout eternity as well as fulfilling the objective of providing an income for the monasteries to spend on the poor. The permanence of monasteries seemed incontestable. Pre-sixteenth century people had no reason to believe the Roman Catholic church, which had held prime position in England for the millennia, would cease to exist.3 The Reformation was a bolt from the blue, impossible to predict prior to the 1530s.4 The effect of centuries of bequests meant monasteries were very wealthy and that, plus the European religious revolution, drew Henry VIII and Cromwell towards dissolution and plunder.
The destruction of religious certainties dissolved socio-religious duties. Provision for the poor became a personal responsibility. Charity is an insecure method of financing social problems. Charity is a matter of taste fluctuating whimsically. Funnelling charity through monasteries was a social expectation willingly undertaken as a self-imposed ‘tax’. ‘God’s children’ were regarded as a burden who deserved their misfortune. Hostility to the poor affected charitable donations-
Though showing Christian charity to those unfortunates who could not help themselves, the goodmen and goodwives and worshipful of St Bartholomew’s are unlikely to have had very much sympathy…. in a city marauded by vagrants, they would have said, the idle got what they deserved… Citizens worried about disease, disorder and the amount of parish charity that was being consumed by the begging poor. The wealth of decent citizens, after all, would stretch only so far. 5
Dividing the poor into ‘worthy and undeserving’ transformed a religious duty into an economic decision. The division was a fine judgement filled with ambiguity. Was this able-bodied man poor because of an economic downturn or was he work-shy? A complex question, the answer to which was coloured by personal bias. Parish overseers intent on reducing parish rates denied relief. The provision of relief for the poor ceased to be religious, despite decision-makers being church based. Nevertheless the provisions for parish almsgiving and poor-box remained, as did the requirement for local officials to find work for the able-bodied unemployed.6 This meant that there were great variations between wealthy towns and poorer rural regions.
Cromwell’s assertion that monasteries didn’t provide for the poor, was a self-serving justification for dissolution. Two scholars stated, Monastic relief was by no means negligible; its loss must have been a great hardship for those who had come to rely on it.7 The unforeseen consequence of the dissolution of the monasteries was hardship for very large numbers of the poor. Cromwell’s religious revolution led to the Elizabethan national Poor Laws sixty years later.
1 The architect of the dissolution see MacCulloch, Diarmaid Thomas Cromwell: A Life 2017
2 A religious duty is multi-layered. There is the obvious and immediate benefit of providing for the poor but in addition there is the kudos of good works, which was especially important for those who believed in purgatory. Bequests also confirmed social status, which enhanced the deceased families position.
4 Economists call this a ‘black swan’ event.
5 Alford, Stephen. London’s Triumph p. 201 and p 210
6 MacCulloch, ibid p. 323.
7 Rushton, Neil S., and Wendy Sigle-Rushton. “Monastic Poor Relief in Sixteenth-Century England.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 32, no. 2, 2001, pp. 193–216. See p216
See also “It has been estimated that the monasteries alone provided £6,500 a year in alms before 1537; and that sum was not made good by private benefactions after 1580.” p194