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Double Booker winner Hilary Mantel claims Henry VIII's arch-fixer Thomas Cromwell was an enlightened figure who laid foundations for the welfare state. She's wrong

To say that the poor are always with us, was already a cliché in the 16th century. It would appear the language used to implicitly judge the poor remains with us too.

I am a fanatical admirer of Hilary Mantel’s writing. Even before the publication of Wolf Hall, I droned on to anyone who would listen that she was the most technically brilliant writer working in English, that were she – dare to suggest – a man, her place in the contemporary canon would already have been well established. Her double-Booker win this week was a vindication of her formal daring, and even for those who dislike the sinuous subtlety of her present-historic style in both of her Thomas Cromwell novels, it must come as a relief that our endless fascination with Tudor England might be played out as something more substantial than Henry VIII’s rambunctious rompings.

So I suspect she was teasing when she suggested that Thomas Cromwell’s attempt to pass a Poor Law in 1536 revealed him as an enlightened thinker, a progressive who rejected the medieval categorisation of poverty as a moral failing. “With that Act” she said, “if it had gone through, you see the very first glimmering of the welfare state – the idea that to be poor is not ordained by God, it’s not a vice, it’s not a flaw, you may simply be a casualty of the economic system and the state may have some responsibility to help create work for you.” In what some interpreted as an attack on the Coalition’s welfare policies, she said she found it “terrifying” that the poor in our society are being judged as they were in the Middle Ages. “We have reached a period where we are going back to the Middle Ages; where poverty is once again being viewed as a moral failing or a weakness, and relief by the state is a privilege and not a right.”

It was a piece of slippery disingenuity worthy of Cromwell himself. As the architect of the dissolution of the monasteries, Cromwell was arguably responsible for the abolition of a system of poor relief, education and medical care which represented the nearest the 16th century had to a welfare state, while his ambition to break with the Roman Church resulted in England being regarded by Catholic Europe as a pariah state, with commercial as well as political consequences which augmented the numbers of the poor. Cromwell’s personal views of poverty may well have been reformist, but the consequences of his policies were certainly not.

Nevertheless, Mantel is alert to the resonance of a moralistic language of poverty which has its roots in the Elizabethan Poor Laws (the collective name for the five statutes on poor relief passed between 1563 and 1601), and which seems to be insidiously slithering back into current debate.

Medieval categorisations of poverty divided the poor into “deserving”– those who were not able-bodied enough to work, and “undeserving”– those who were too lazy; a distinction backed up by Scripture in St Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (“if a man shall not work then neither shall he eat”). Idleness was not an economic condition but a moral failing, and “sturdy beggars” became a stereotype in prurient “rogue literature” such as the Caveat for Common Cursitors Vulgarly Called Vagabonds, in which respectable citizens could thrill to the audaciously faked diseases and forged hard-luck stories of the quasi-criminal classes.

However, the disappearance of the monastic system and economic isolation created a new typology, that of the “labouring poor”, whose desire for work was compromised by its unavailability. It was this new class which the Poor Laws sought to assist and regulate, though whether the methods were progressive or oppressive remains a matter of academic dispute. Means-tested parish relief was available for the “deserving”, kindly referred to as “shamed faced”, while the labouring poor were provided with parish funds to purchase hemp or wool to produce cloth for sale. Their children could be forced into apprenticeships from the age of seven, which could last as long as 17 years.

Corporal punishment was the remedy for the stubbornly work-shy, who could be whipped to the boundaries of their parish or branded with V for “vagabond”. Cromwell was long in his grave by then, minus his head, but I find it unlikely that the man whose sexed-up dossier sent Anne Boleyn to the scaffold via a bit of covert torturing would have spared much compassion for scorch-fleshed idlers.

Indeed, Cromwell – disciplined, industrious and self-made (rather delightfully, some of Henry’s courtiers got nervous about using the word “pleb” around him) was a latter-day poster boy for what the American academic George Lakoff terms the current conservative moral hierarchy. As in the Elizabethan model, economic change is highly moralised. In the 16th century, poverty was regarded as a consequence of sloth, to be corrected through labour discipline rather than economic condition to be remedied through fiscal stimulus.

A recent Telegraph hagiography on David Cameron’s conference speech described Iain Duncan Smith’s proposed welfare reforms as “harsh” but “redemptive”, while the Renaissance image of the “body politic”, a vision of a mutually interdependent society whose harmony depended on a consensus as to whether its diseased limbs should be healed or excised, doesn’t sound so very far from either Cameron’s Big Society or Ed Miliband’s One Nation.  In Lakoff’s analysis of conservative thought, those without money are undisciplined, unworthy, while the better-off are better people, deservedly occupying their place at the body’s head. The humanist Thomas More saw poverty as a disease on that body: in a 2006 speech Mr Cameron described poverty in similar terms.

That the poor are always with us was already a cliché in the 16th century, so too it would appear is the language used to classify and implicitly judge their poverty. Yet Mantel is also right in identifying a more evolved tendency in the period’s attitude. If poverty was seen as punishment for moral failure, it was also viewed as the result of human greed, the sin of covetousness. It may not be useful to attempt to co-opt a historical period to support an ideology (remember the Tories and Victorian values?), but more emphasis on human agency could counterbalance a lingering language of shame in a manner of which Cromwell himself, the arch agent of Henrician reform, might approve.

Lisa Hilton’s historical novel Wolves in Winter is out next month