After the Anglican Church, the English poor-law was the most long-lasting of Elizabethan achievements. As finally codified in the legislation of 1601, it persisted without fundamental alteration until 1834 and played a major part in Elizabethan government. Any list of the 'stacks of statutes' which the Tudors imposed on the shoulders of justices of the peace will include the acts of 1563, 1572, 1576 and 1598, which were concerned with the relief of the destitute and the punishment of vagabonds, along with related legislation aiming to regulate the lives and behaviour of the 'commons', such as the Statute of Artificers of 1563. Social welfare and regulation were matters of increasing public concern between 1558 and 1603.
Much of this is familiar historical ground. What is less clear is the reason for this development. To begin with there was the poor-law itself, gradually shaped by successive statutes up to the great enactment of 1601. It had three essential features. The first, and ultimately the most important, was the poor-rate, the compulsory assessment in each parish which financed outdoor relief to deserving indigent households. In 1563 secular sanctions were threatened against those who refused to contribute to collections for the poor. In 1572 justices of the peace were empowered to determine the size of contributions, thus turning them into an imposed tax: they were to assess richer parishioners after surveys of the poor had been made to see what money was needed. Finally, in 1598, the ground was prepared for the widespread adoption of rates, when the main responsibility for levying them was transferred from overworked justices to the churchwardens and overseers of every parish.
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