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Negligence, greed and the operation of English charities, 1350–1603


This paper explores the problems that hampered the effective functioning of charitable activities for the English poor during the later medieval years and sixteenth century and examines how the Poor Laws of 1598 and 1601 addressed those issues. It considers four types of challenges stemming from individual negligence or greed as well as the systemic legal obstacles that underlay them. The solutions provided by the Elizabethan Poor Laws placed charitable projects on a more solid legal and administrative footing, facilitating their expansion in the following centuries.

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1 43 Elizabeth, c. 4, sec. 1, Statutes of the realm (hereafter SR, 12 vols., London, 1810–1828), vol. 4, 969, ll. 3–4. In this paper, the term ‘negligence’ is used in the general sense of carelessness or a failure to act, rather than the more specific definitions it was gradually acquiring in English law: J. H. Baker, An introduction to English legal history, 4th edn (London, 2002), ch. 23.

2 Feoffees held property on behalf of and to the use of another person or project, functioning like later trustees.

3 Marjorie Keniston McIntosh, Poor relief in England, 1350–1600 (Cambridge, 2012), 92–3 and 220–1.

4 The wider information gathered on poor relief has been used in McIntosh, Poor relief.

5 The latter are discussed in ibid., 288–93.

6 For medieval studies, see, e.g., Miri Rubin, Charity and community in medieval Cambridge (Cambridge, 1987); McIntosh, Marjorie K., ‘Local responses to the poor in late medieval and Tudor England’, Continuity and Change 3, S2 (1988), 209–45; Christopher Dyer, Standards of living in the later Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1989), ch. 9; Cullum, P. H. and Goldberg, P. J. P., ‘Charitable provision in late medieval York’, Northern History 29 (1993), 2439; Nicholas Orme and Margaret Webster, The English hospital, 1070–1570 (New Haven, Conn., 1995); Carole Rawcliffe, The hospitals of medieval Norwich (Norwich, 1995); Elaine Clark, ‘Charitable bequests, deathbed land sales, and the manor court in later medieval England’, in Zvi Razi and Richard Smith eds., Medieval society and the manor court (Oxford, 1996), 143–61; Patricia H. Cullum, ‘“And hir name was Charite”: charitable giving by and for women in late medieval Yorkshire’, in P. J. P. Goldberg ed., Women in medieval English society (Stroud, 1997), 182–211; and Peregrine Horden, ‘Small beer? The parish and the poor and sick in later medieval England’, in Clive Burgess and Eamon Duffy eds., The parish in late medieval England (Donington, 2006), 339–64. For studies that deal at least in part with the sixteenth century, see, e.g., Paul Slack, Poverty and policy in Tudor and Stuart England (London, 1988); Claire S. Schen, Charity and lay piety in Reformation London, 1500–1620 (Aldershot, 2002); Steve Hindle, On the parish? The micro-politics of poor relief in rural England, c. 1550–1750 (Oxford, 2004); Lynn A. Botelho, Old age and the English poor law, 1500–1700 (Woodbridge, 2004); and Ilana K. Ben-Amos, The culture of giving: informal support and gift-exchange in early modern England (Cambridge, 2008). For the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, see, e.g., Tim Hitchcock, Peter King and Pamela Sharpe eds., Chronicling poverty: the voices and strategies of the English poor, 1640–1840 (Basingstoke, 1997); Tim Hitchcock, Down and out in eighteenth-century London (London, 2004); Susannah R. Ottaway, The decline of life: old age in eighteenth-century England (Cambridge, 2004); and Keith D. M. Snell, Parish and belonging: community, identity and welfare in England and Wales, 1700–1950 (Cambridge, 2006).

7 Most fully, Gareth Jones, History of the law of charity, 1532–1827 (Cambridge, 1969), 3–22; and see Richard H. Helmholz, ‘The law of charity and the English ecclesiastical courts’, in Philippa M. Hoskins, Christopher Brooke and Barrie Dobson eds., The foundations of medieval ecclesiastical history (Woodbridge, 2005), 111–23. For below, see Jones, Law of charity, 22–56; and W. K. Jordan, Philanthropy in England, 1480–1660 (London, 1959), 91–117.

8 McIntosh, Poor relief, 214–20 and ch. 8.

9 Ibid., ch. 8.

10 Examples of the role of these bodies are provided below.

11 For example: W. H. Frere and W. M. Kennedy eds., Visitation articles and injunctions of the period of the Reformation, vol. 2 (London, 1910), 112 and 426; and W. H. Frere ed., ibid., vol. 3 (London, 1910), 84, 242, 268 and 372–3. People charged with charitable offences at a visitation were normally prosecuted by church court officials acting ex officio.

12 Some suits initiated in the common law were later taken to an equity court (e.g., The National Archives, Public Record Office, Kew [hereafter TNA-PRO] REQ 2/167/31 and C 93/1/5) or resolved through arbitration (e.g., TNA-PRO REQ 2/166/55 and REQ 2/266/1).

13 This study identified potentially interesting cases from the summary listings of the records of those courts published in multiple volumes of Lists and indexes (London, many years), which provide a brief statement of the nature of each suit.

14 For a contemporary description, see Henry Swinburne, Briefe treatise of testaments and last willes (London, 1590). The first work to deal specifically with executors, Thomas Wentworth/John Doddridge, The office and dutie of executors, was published initially in 1641 but remained in use for many decades thereafter.

15 In Wivenhoe, Essex, then a small port town, Collectors for the Poor reported in 1593–1594 that 11 bequests for needy parishioners, ranging in amount from 20d to £5, had not yet been rendered (Essex Record Office, Colchester, D/P 277/12/1).

16 Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York (hereafter BIA) CP.G 1276.

17 TNA-PRO REQ 2/168/74.

18 Thomas Kemp ed., The black book of Warwick (Warwick, 1898), 175–201, for this paragraph.

19 K. L. Wood-Legh ed., Kentish visitations of Archbishop William Warham and his deputies, 1511–1512 (Kent Archaeological Society, Kent Records, vol. 24, 1984), 213–14.

20 Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts (hereafter CambUL) MS D/2/8, fol. 22r (and see fol. 29v). For below, see BIA V.1575/CB 1, fol. 42r. For other examples of the church courts' enforcement of charitable bequests, see CambUL MS D/2/8, fols. 45r, 49r and 56r, BIA HC.CP 1594/3; and Nottinghamshire Archives DDTS 14/26/1, p. 4.

21 It is not clear which of the two places in Yorkshire named Broughton is referred to here.

22 Wiltshire and Swindon Archives hereafter (Wilts&SA) G23/1/2, fol. 29v.

23 TNA-PRO REQ 2/226/14.

24 British Library (hereafter BritL) Lansdowne MS 64, nos. 15 and 17.

25 TNA-PRO C 270/23/14.

26 TNA-PRO C 1/1385/30.

27 TNA-PRO REQ 2/114/16. For withholding of other in-kind obligations, see, e.g., J. S. Purvis ed., Monastic Chancery proceedings (Yorkshire) (Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series, vol. 88, 1934), 163–4, and Wilts&SA D5/28/1, #128.

28 TNA-PRO C 1/11/101.

29 Purvis, Monastic Chancery proceedings, 124–5.

30 TNA-PRO REQ 2/165/45 for this paragraph.

31 TNA-PRO REQ 2/82/53 for this paragraph. Since leprosy is thought to have died out in southern England by this date, the term ‘lazar’ was probably used in conformity with the house's foundation statutes.

32 Peter Hopewell, Saint Cross: England's oldest almshouse (Chichester, 1995), 77–9. For below, see (Kingston upon) Hull City Archives (hereafter HullCA) BRB/2, fols. 88v–97r. The master had also been paid for admitting certain people to the hospital. I am grateful to Helen Good for sending me her transcript of these documents, some of which have been printed in John Cook, The history of God's House of Hull, commonly called the Charterhouse (Hull, 1882).

33 See, for example, the predicament of the dean of Windsor in 1596, who as governor of the Hospital of Saint Cross in Winchester was responsible for granting a lease of some of the lands that supported the institution but did not want to award it to the man nominated by the queen: Historical Manuscripts Commission, Calendar of the manuscripts of the … Marquis of Salisbury, vol. 6 (London, 1895), 550, and vol. 7 (London, 1899), 306, 322 and 334.

34 Calendar of state papers, domestic series, Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth, James I (hereafter CSPD, 12 vols., London, 1856–1872), vol. 7, 50–1. Lever had previously been in trouble with church authorities for his outspoken support of radical reform.

35 Reade had received a royal grant of all profits from Sherburn Hospital in 1552–1553: J. R. Dasent ed., Acts of the Privy Council of England, 1542–1604 (hereafter APC, 32 vols., London, 1890–1907), vol. 4, 242.

36 C. S. Knighton ed., Calendar of state papers, domestic series, of the reign of Edward VI, 1547–1553, revd. edn (London, 1992), 137–8.

37 TNA-PRO REQ 2/270/71 for this paragraph.

38 “So long as the world shall endure”: the five hundred year history of Bond's and Ford's Hospitals (Coventry, 1991), 11–13 and 33–41, for this paragraph.

39 F. J. Furnivall ed., The gild of St. Mary, Lichfield (Early English Text Society, London, 1920), 18–24, for this paragraph.

40 Cambridgeshire Archives, typed catalogue for Ely St Mary churchwarden's accounts, 17. The annual rent was 5 per cent of the amount loaned, but not all of the income went to the poor. For below, see ibid., 22–3 and 55–6.

41 Gloucestershire Archives (hereafter GloucsA) GBR K1/5 and K1/3, fol. 1.

42 J. M. Kaye ed., A God's House miscellany (Southampton Records Series, vol. 27, 1984), 52–3.

43 K. S. Martin ed., Records of Maidstone, being selections from documents in the possession of the Corporation (Maidstone, 1926), 33.

44 Hertfordshire Archives AH 911d and e.

45 Ibid. In my database of medieval and sixteenth-century hospitals and almshouses (McIntosh, Poor relief, 67–9), two houses had operated in Westmoreland earlier in the medieval period but closed prior to 1350; four others had functioned in the fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries but were now defunct.

46 For increased attention in the Elizabethan period to the religious and social behaviour of residents of almshouses and hospitals, see McIntosh, Poor relief, 207–13.

47 Hanley, H. A., ‘“A singular commodity”: the first century of Bedford's Charity, Aylesbury, 1494–1597’, Records of Buckinghamshire, vol. 35, 1995, 5465.

48 James M. Gibson, The Walthamstow charities (Chichester, 2000), 11.

49 Hopewell, Saint Cross, 46–50. De Cloune challenged Wykeham's regulations, leading to five years of legal actions and an appeal to the Pope, who ruled on behalf of the hospital as a house for the poor and demanded that the master be properly named and submit regular accounts and inventories.

50 Sylvia Pinches, ‘St Katherine's Hospital in dispute’ (unpublished paper presented at Almshouse Conference, University of Hertfordshire, St Albans, 7 March 2009), for this and below. I am grateful to Dr Pinches for sending me her paper.

51 Caroline M. Barron, London in the later Middle Ages (Oxford, 2004), 291.

52 CSPD, vol. 1, 383 and 385–6, and BritL Lansdowne MS 12, no. 81, and MS 20, nos. 14–25.

53 BIA TRANS.CP 1581/2. The case was translated on appeal to York.

54 BIA CP.G 1305.

55 BritL Lansdowne MS 69, no. 42, and see also ibid., MS 64, no. 21.

56 Christ's Hospital, Abingdon, Berkshire (hereafter CHAbing) Minute Book, fol. 22r. For below, see ibid., fols. 23r–24r.

57 Ibid., fols. 37–8.

58 Henry Fishwick ed., Pleadings and depositions in the Duchy court of Lancaster [1485–1547] (The Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vol. 32, 1896), 211–15, for this and below.

59 HullCA BRB/2, fols. 88v–97r.

60 John A. A. Goodall, God's House at Ewelme (Aldershot, 2001), 267.

61 Purvis, Monastic Chancery proceedings, 69–70.

62 Calendar of the patent rolls (1452–1582, 25 vols., London, 1911–1986), vol. 6, 383–4. See also CSPD, vol. 2, 228.

63 TNA-PRO C 1/1439/47.

64 TNA-PRO REQ 2/82/53.

65 CHAbing Accounts, vol. 1. Those costs were equal to about a third of the total average annual expenditures for the house.

66 Wilts&SA D5/28/7, #41.

67 St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle XI.C.22 and see also BritL Lansdowne MS 84, no. 23.

68 The latter are discussed in McIntosh, Poor relief, 88 and 212–13.

69 Francis W. Steer, ‘The statutes of Saffron Walden almshouses’, Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society, new ser. 25 (1958), 160–221, especially 166–7. For below, see G. Bradford ed., Proceedings in the Court of Star Chamber in the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII (Somerset Record Society, vol. 27, 1911), 129–61.

70 Wilts&SA D5/28/4, #34, and see also D/5/28/5, #49.

71 TNA-PRO REQ 2/260/1.

72 For example: TNA-PRO REQ 2/226/80.

73 TNA-PRO C 1/744/12.

74 TNA-PRO REQ 2/266/1.

75 TNA-PRO REQ 2/165/26.

76 A corrody, granted in return for an advance payment of money or land, guaranteed that an individual or married couple would receive specified food, clothing and occasionally cash sums for life, as well as residence in the institution (McIntosh, Poor relief, 77–8). For ongoing problems with hospital corrodies, see, for example, William Boys ed., Collections for an history of Sandwich in Kent (Canterbury, 1792), 1–7 and 22–3.

77 GloucsA GBR K1/5.

78 APC, vol. 9, 126–7, and also vol. 8, 375, 391 and 399. For below, see BIA HC.AB.10, fol. 258r.

79 McIntosh, Poor relief, 33–4, 157–8 and 177.

80 TNA-PRO REQ 2/25/246.

81 APC, vol. 21, 388, and see vol. 22, 13–14.

82 Ibid., vol. 24, 68. For below, see ibid., vol. 28, 633.

83 Jones, Law of charity, 3–22, and Jordan, Philanthropy in England, 109–12.

84 McIntosh, Poor relief, App. E. Another 37 per cent of the post-1540 foundations were to be operated by existing lay-run bodies, mainly towns or parishes. The numbers given here pertain only to those houses for which information about governance is known; the full dataset includes 1,005 institutions.

85 39 Elizabeth, c. 6, and 43 Elizabeth, c. 4, SR, vol. 4, 903–4 and 968–70, and see Jones, Law of charity, 22–56. For the argument that the 1598 and 1601 legislation was a response to problems with many existing forms of aid to the poor, see McIntosh, Poor relief, 273–88.

86 39 Elizabeth, c. 6, sec. 1, and 43 Elizabeth, c. 4, sec. 1, SR, vol. 4, 903–4 and 968–9.

87 39 Elizabeth, c. 6, sec. 1, SR, vol. 4, 903. For below, see 43 Elizabeth, c. 4, sec. 1, SR, vol. 4, 969.

88 43 Elizabeth, c. 4, sec. 1, SR, vol. 4, 969, ll. 13–15, and Jones, Law of charity, ch. 3.

89 For fuller discussion, see McIntosh, Poor relief, 288–93.

90 Jones, Law of charity, 52, 25–6 and 251–6, and List of proceedings of Commissioners for Charitable Uses (List and Indexes, no. 10, London, 1899). The procedure was less commonly used after 1688, but Commissions continued to hear some complaints through the first half of the eighteenth century.

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