D1 Teachers Notes Disabled People in the Period 1485 to 1660
When Henry VIII split from the Roman Church, he ordered the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’. Across the country, religious houses were demolished and monks and nuns driven out. The hospitals in these buildings were lost, along with the systems of care they had provided for sick and disabled people. For many, poverty and a life on the streets followed this destruction.
A petition to King Henry in 1538 called for the re-foundation of the hospitals that had been closed down. It complained of ‘the miserable people lyeing in the streete, offending every clene person passing by the way’. But very little new building took place over the next 30 years.
There was a steady growth in the number of people seeking alms. This was due to several factors, including a growth in the population after a period of stagnation and depletion due to plagues, the beginnings of the commercialisation of agriculture, successive poor harvests and an influx of immigrants from Ireland and Wales. Hence the fear of ‘bands of sturdy beggars’ preyed on the minds of local magistrates, who demanded a response from the central authority, namely the Crown. To secure their allegiance, the Tudor monarchs were forced to make economic provision for people dependent upon charity.
Gradually, caring for disabled people became a civic duty, not just a religious matter. Rich benefactors still funded buildings but it was to enhance their reputation, not to save their souls.
In London, new hospitals were built and some old ones were re-founded. These were increasingly public buildings, funded by parish collections, taxes and donations. By the end of the 16th century, new almshouses and hospitals were springing up.
A series of Poor Law Acts viciously punished ‘sturdy vagabonds’ who were seen as idle by choice. They could be whipped and branded. The ‘impotent poor’ were viewed differently. ‘The person naturally disabled, either in wit or member, as an idiot, lunatic, blind, lame etc., not being able to work…all these… are to be provided for by the overseers of necessary relief and are to have allowances … according to…their maladies and needs’.
Consequently, the Poor Law of 1601 marks the first official recognition of the need for state intervention in the lives of disabled people. Every parish was to appoint overseers of the poor, to find work for the unemployed and set up parish-houses for those who could not support themselves.
However, a general suspicion of those claiming alms had already been formally established with the statute of 1388 which mandated local officials to discriminate between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Although people with impairments were among the ‘deserving poor’, there was little attempt to separate them from the rest of the community.
On the contrary, every effort was made to keep them within the local environment. Although there was some parochial variation in the actual level of benefit, there was a degree of uniformity in the way disabled people were treated. The lion’s share of resources was directed toward domestic or household relief for people who were regarded as unable to work and were confined to the home. Funds were frequently provided to individuals and families willing to accept responsibility for people considered to be incapable of looking after themselves. Major changes to this essentially non-segregationist policy did not begin to be discussed or implemented until the Nineteenth Century, though some early workhouses were set up.
Life was very different for some. A few people we would recognise today as having learning disabilities enjoyed a privileged life at court, with a ‘keeper’ who looked after them. These ‘natural fools’ were seen as an important source of wisdom and humour. They provided a welcome contrast to the plotting and treachery at court.
The ‘natural fool’ Will Somer and ‘Jane the Fool’ can be seen in paintings of the Royal Family from this period. See http://www.allthekingsfools.co.uk/site/
and http://www.allthekingsfools.co.uk/site/research/ for the historical research led by Suzanna Lipscombe. Hampton Court Royal Palaces have also developed resources for schools forKS2/3. The research showed that ‘natural fools’ (people with learning difficulties) were clothed, fed and looked after at Hampton Court, accorded access to the King to entertain and jest with him, their remarks were treated with reverence, as they were thought to be nearer to God and so their wisdom was not adulterated by the affairs of men. As the idealized family portrait shows, they were in the wings.
Medical Treatment for Mental Illness
The small Bethlem Hospital was the only institution for mentally ill people to survive. In 1547, its control passed to the Corporation of London and its first medically qualified superintendent was employed. The hospital suffered financial abuse and neglect for many years, but attitudes were changing and mental illness was increasingly seen as a matter for medical treatment. For more on mental illness in C16th and C17th go to http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/people-and-places/disability-history/1485-1660/mental-illness-in-the-16th-and-17th-centuries/
Care in the Community
Life could be very hard for disabled people but they were not isolated. Most mentally ill people lived in their communities, treated with religious, psychological, astrological and traditional remedies. Other disabled people married, had families and worked, unless their impairments were too extensive. In 1570, a 70-year-old blind baker William Mordewe, was still hard at work in Norwich, helped by his wife Helen. In the same city, a survey of the poor in 1570, established that almost all the disabled men and most of the disabled women were married to non-disabled people and many had children. Their marriages were stable and long-lasting (even though two disabled women were identified as ‘harlots’). Although they were often poor, disabled people were very much part of work and family life and they lived at the heart of their communities.( More detail Simon Jarrett http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/people-and-places/disability-history/1485-1660/daily-life-of-people-with-disabilities/)
People we would recognise today as having learning disabilities also lived in their communities rather than in institutions. Known as ‘natural fools’, ‘innocents’ or ‘idiots’, they were expected to stay with their families and work if possible.
If the families were struggling because of ill health or extreme poverty, they might receive assistance from the parish. When Alice Stock became old and lame in the parish of St.Botolph, Bishopsgate, London, she received sixpence a fortnight to care for her ‘foolish girle’ Martha. If family care broke down or parents died, ‘keepers’ or ‘nurses’ in the local community would be paid to care for people. John Shusock of Wapping, London was paid two shillings and sixpence a week from 1649 to 1653 to ‘keep’ the ‘innocent’ Thomas Walker, and given extra payments for his ‘clothing and other necessaries’.
Disabled Soldiers and Seamen
Attitudes to disabled soldiers changed over this period. Horrified at the sight of wounded men left to die on the streets, senior officers agitated for hospitals, sick pay and pensions for soldiers who became disabled were discharged from the army.
A small hospital for ‘maimed soldiers’ was founded in Berkshire in 1599, preceding many grander efforts in Chelsea, Greenwich and elsewhere in the later 17th century. In Elizabeth’s reign, laws were passed to provide pensions for soldiers and sailors who had ‘lost their limbs or disabled their bodies’.
In 1590, the ‘Chatham Chest’ was established to pay pensions to disabled seamen – it has been described as the world’s first occupational health scheme.
The Family of Henry VIII
(see Disability in Time and Place, Simon Jarrett for English Heritagehttp://www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/people-andplaces/disability-history/1485-1660/
Chapter 2 A Brief History Of Discrimination And Disabled People (In ‘Disabled People in Britain and Discrimination : A case for anti-discrimination legislation’, Colin Barnes (1991): http://disabilitystudies.leeds.ac.uk/library/author/barnes.colin