The Tudors - A Century of Change

6. Masterless Men

By concentrating on monarchs and their ministers it is easy to forget that the Tudor century was a time of change for ordinary people too. With the dissolution of the monasteries and the abolition of many church ceremonies and festivals working men and women suffered a loss of landmarks in their lives that coincided with a rise in population, a drift into the towns and a general decline in the value of money. Add to this a succession of poor harvests around 1550 and a dip in temperatures that lasted until the 18th Century and you have a recipe for widespread discontent and insecurity.

By Elizabeth's reign there were a substantial number of people making a living outside the confines of society yet dependant like parasites upon it. This 'ranging rabblement of rascals' could be bold, even aggressive, towards a startled authority which was largely dependent for its effect upon the habit of deference to rank. Obedience was taught as a Christian duty by the Church, both before and after the break with Rome yet there were always those like Sir Thomas More who saw the the greed and corruption of the upper class as largely to blame for the faults of the lower. Wasn't it they who turned labourers out of their cottages and denied them employment in the fields in order to make way for the sheep who were eating up the whole country? If you pauperise a man through an unjust social system, Sir Thomas argued, why be surprised when he turns into a thief? Harsh penalties wouldn't cure the problem, only greater responsibility on the part of the rich.

More's arguments are contained in Book 1 of his famous treatise called Utopia (published in 1516) based on the work of the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato had set himself the task of describing the ideal state and More followed his example, imagining that it actually existed and had been discovered by an explorer called Raphael Hythlodaius (a word derived from the Greek for nonsense, just as Utopia itself means 'nowhere'). With its emphasis on mutual obligation and the common ownership of goods More's work has been claimed as the ancestor of communism. Like the old Soviet Union Utopia is a highly regulated heirarchical society in which crime is seen more as an illness than a sign of wickedness. In a society where there is no private property and where gold is only used as a way to bribe foreign enemies, how could it be otherwise? True, obdurate criminals are severely punished but more in sorrow than in anger.

Tudor ministers could not be so idealistic. Their treatment of the poor was a familiar mix of sticks and carrots. In 1567 an Act for the Setting of the Poor to Work compelled parishes to buy stocks of hemp, flax or wool so that any fit or able person not gainfully employed could earn a living as a weaver. Anyone refusing to do so was to be confined in a house of correction, 'there to be straightly kept, as well in diet as in work, and also punished from time to time.' To pay the costs of the scheme parishes could levy a rate on property within their boundaries (the ancestor of the modern Council Tax).

How was such a law to be carried into effect before the advent of a professional police force and all the apparatus of social security which has grown up since the introduction of the Welfare State? Traditionally the king's will was enforced by the Sheriff (shire-reeve) in each county who could call upon the leading men in each hundred to pursue offenders and act as juries. Guilt could be proved by notoriety (everyone knew the accused was guilty) or by ordeal - a way of letting God indicate the truth. There were three main types of ordeal - by battle (when accused and accuser fought it out), by fire (when the accused had to plunge their hand in boiling water) or by water (the famous one when those alleged to be witches were thrown in the river; if they floated the devil was lifting them up...).

By the 12th Century the Church was losing its enthusiasm for such practices. There were too many occasions when someone condemned in this way was proved to be innocent later (could God lie?). We've seen how medieval kings came to see justice as a good source of income and how most serious cases came to be tried by the king himself. Because of the numbers of cases queuing up for his attention Henry II (1154-1189) instituted a new system. Twice a year those he appointed as judges would tour the country, stopping at the county towns. Here the sheriff would produce all those charged with major crimes. He would also be responsible for providing juries - twelve local men of good reputation - and witnesses - those who could give an account of what had happened. The juries would then decide whether those on trial were guilty. Except for the fact that it is the police who produce the accused and the electoral roll that produces juries, this system remains intact today.

But what about petty criminals, like the vagrants who were to be locked in a house of correction if they would't work? They were the responsibility of the 'justices of the peace' - groups of nominated gentry who met four times a year, sometimes in their own homes, to deal with lesser offences for which a jury was not thought necessary. Under Henry VII these justices began to receive orders from the royal council which were administrative in nature and by Elizabeth's reign they were, in effect, the backbone of local government. Besides ensuring that the poor were put to work they regulated wages, checked attendance at church, fined non-attendees, supervised apprenticeships, and mustered the shire levies in case of threat from abroad.

Like magistrates today JP's powers of punishment were limited but their standing in the community was high. Being on the Commission for the Peace gave a man connections to the court and put him first in line for any lucrative sinecures that might be on offer. From the crown's point of view it meant that the men with most to lose from the collapse of order were in charge of enduring that it did not happen. Providing monarch and magistrates saw things in the same way the system could not fail:

'Tudor government worked... Successive monarchs were able to dismantle the great feudal affinities and reinvent the nobility in a service mode. They were able to create a partnership with the gentry and the elites of the major towns which established a ruling class of remarkable comprehensiveness and durability - a gentry commonwealth...' (Loades D., Power in Tudor England, p 156)