Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Victor L. Stater


Poverty has always been, and continues to be, one of the most pressing social problems, and one to which a number of solutions have been proposed through the ages. The present work is an examination of the problem and the responses to it in early modern England, and is set in the local context of the city of Exeter. Prior to the reign of Elizabeth I, the majority of poor law legislation was punitive in nature. rather than rehabilitative. That the nature of poor law legislation changed under Elizabeth was due to a number of factors, not least of which was a new attitude about the place of the poor in society. This attitude was shaped by changing religious and political realities, but it was also determined by adherence to traditional, time-honored views of charity to one's neighbor. W. K. Jordan posits that philanthropy remained the primary response to the problem of poverty in the Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods, in some cases far outstripping the revenues provided in this regard by poor law legislation. This view has been challenged by numerous historians and it is the goal of this study to assess the validity of Jordan's assumptions about the extent of charity in alleviating the level of poverty in early modern England. An analysis of the problem of poverty, on a national level and within the city of Exeter, is followed by in-depth examinations of the resources devoted to the ease of the problem: the amounts derived from poor-law legislation, church aid, testamentary charity, and endowed bequests on behalf of the poor. It is my contention, based on the evidence, that philanthropy did indeed play a dominant role in the fight against poverty despite the passage of sweeping poor-law legislation, although not to the extent espoused by Jordan. This study thus contributes to the core of a coherent analysis about the less-privileged members of early modern English society.