J.P.SOMMERVILLE

 

Social structure

 

The coat of arms that Shakespeare himself applied (and paid) for to assure his own gentle status.

 

367-3

"When first this order was ordain'd, my lords,
Knights of the garter were of noble birth,
Valiant and virtuous, full of haughty courage,
Such as were grown to credit by the wars;
Not fearing death, nor shrinking for distress,
But always resolute in most extremes.
He then that is not furnish'd in this sort
Doth but usurp the sacred name of knight,
Profaning this most honourable order,
And should, if I were worthy to be judge,
Be quite degraded, like a hedge-born swain
That doth presume to boast of gentle blood."

(Henry VI, Pt.I, 4.1).

 

English gentlemen

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Social status played a key role in early-modern English society. Wealth was important, but so were birth, education, and employment in determining social rank.
[Read William Harrison on this]. Another important account was Sir Thomas Smith’s De Republica Anglorum (published 1581). Thomas Wilson gave a brief account of English society in The State of England Anno Dom. 1600

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Almost a century later, Gregory King attempted one of the first censuses of a country's population.

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All these commentators saw the crucial line of distinction as that between the gentry and nobility ("the political nation") on the one hand, and the great mass of the population on the other.

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Gentlemen varied greatly in wealth. In general the South and East of the country were wealthier than the North and West. However, it was also true that social change occurred more slowly in the North and West, and so greater deference was shown to gentry families - even when comparatively poor.
 

"A knight of Cales [Calais], and a gentleman of Wales,
And a laird of the north country -
A yeoman of Kent with his yearly rent
Could buy them out - all three."

(Traditional nursery rhyme)

 

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Education was one way to attain gentle status - Masters of Arts, physicians, and lawyers were all assumed to be gentlemen. Clergymen too, aspired to gentle status and for the most part were accepted as such, though after the Reformation, the status of many local clergy fell, and the higher clergy were gradually excluded from political power.

 

Sir Francis Drake (1540-95) attained gentle status the old-fashioned way - by distinguishing himself fighting for his Queen and country. Elizabeth I knighted him in 1580 when he returned from harrying and plundering the Spanish.

 

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A family capable of living like gentlemen for two or three generations attained gentle status almost by default, especially if (as was often the case) they married into gentle families. One way to establish gentle status firmly was to apply for and receive a coat of arms from the College of Arms in London. The heralds there (particularly if well paid) were skilled at discovering - or inventing - venerable ancestors.
One of the proverbs recorded by George Herbert (1593-1633) in his Jacula Prudentum, was "Gentility is nothing but ancient riches."
 

 

Shakespeare's father, John, was a reasonably prosperous glover, though he fell on hard times. In 1568 he applied to the College of Arms for permission to use a coat of arms. His son William followed up the application in 1596. The College agreed on the grounds that one of Shakespeare's forbears had been rewarded for valiant service under Henry VII, that John had married the daughter of a gentleman (Robert Arden) and that he was a JP, a royal bailiff and the owner of land and buildings worth £500.

 

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 Well-established families naturally stressed birth and lineage, while newcomers stressed that merit was the most important element of nobility. The humanist educational revolution stressed that virtue was more important than birth, and English commentators in the sixteenth and seventeenth century repeated this sentiment.
One widely read moralist (Thomas Fuller) insisted that "The good Yeoman is a gentleman in ore, whom the next age may see refined;" and that "In England the temple of honour is bolted against none who have passed through the temple of virtue." The motto of Trinity College Cambridge (founded by Henry VIII) read "Virtus vera nobilitas" (virtue is true nobility).

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In practice, education was only usually available to comparatively wealthy families. The poorest families needed their children to work.

 

Books of advice appeared to direct the English gentleman and gentlewoman on how to behave.
(Follow hyperlink and note the categories the title page thinks important: - youth, disposition, education. vocation, apparel, behavior, decency, complement, recreation, acquaintance, moderation, perfection, estimation, fancy, gentility & honor).

 

Social hierarchy:

Nobles
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In England the division between the nobility and the gentry was less rigid than was true in most of Western Europe. Only the eldest son of a nobleman was noble - his younger brothers were mere gentlemen.

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English noblemen were subject to taxation (unlike the nobility of France and Spain, who were largely exempt from taxation). The House of Lords, therefore, was sometimes willing to ally with the House of Commons in opposing taxes.

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The number of nobles in Tudor England was generally fewer than 60, but it grew steeply under James I, who was generous with honors at his accession to curry favor, and later to earn money; in 1628 the number had reached well over 120.

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A noble title died out if there were no male heirs. However, the family's property was shared amongst any daughters - making such heiresses extremely desirable marriage partners; sometimes the monarch would grant the title to an heiress' husband.

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Primogeniture was the default rule of inheritance of land in most of England. However, many families also made provision for younger sons, and gave daughters a dowry on marriage as their part of the family's assets.

 

Baronets
Sir Thomas Holte (1571-1654) (builder of Aston Hall) was one of the earliest purchasers of the title of baronet.

 

bulletBelow noblemen but above knights and lesser gentlemen was the rank of baronet.
bulletJames I created this order in May 1611 and sold the heritable title of baronet to 200 gentlemen. All had to have estates of at least £1,000 p.a. (Later, James also created an order of Irish Baronets to encourage the settlement of Ulster. In 1625, an new order of Baronets of Nova Scotia was created to help colonization there).
bulletOver the next 75 years many more titles of baronet were sold, until by 1688 there were about 800 baronets in England.
bulletA baronet was addressed as "Sir" and his wife as "Lady". Their eldest son was automatically entitled to knighthood on reaching the age of 21, and inherited the baronetcy on his father's death.

 

Knights and esquires
bulletThe rank of knight was not hereditary. The monarch had the right to dispense knighthoods and sometimes delegated it to military commanders.
bulletEarly in his reign, James I handed out many knighthoods to try and foster loyalty. His son Charles I, angered many gentlemen by his "distraint of knighthood" -  i.e. reviving an old law that required men to present themselves for knighthood at the King's coronation,  and then fining them for  failing to do so.
bulletBelow knights were esquires. This name was strictly given to the heir of a knight, the heir of the younger son of a nobleman, and office holders including Justices of the Peace, but it was extended to all the higher gentry.
bulletAppointment to the Commission of the Peace established a gentleman's local status. Justices of the Peace were local magistrates and administrators with broad powers and duties.
 

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86)
Courtier and poet. He died of a musket wound when fighting the Spanish, and was seen as the model of knightly chivalry. His Arcadia was a pastoral epic, while the Defense of Poesie brought humanist learning to the defense of literature.

 

bulletNobility and gentry made up about 2% of England's population at the end of the sixteenth century. The nobility owned about 15% of the land, and the gentry about 50%. (Most of the remaining land was owned by the Church or the Crown).
bulletThe wealthier gentlemen owned about 1,000 acres or more of land. In prosperous arable-farming areas, a farm of only 50 acres might constitute a good estate, but in remoter and pastoral areas larger holdings were required.
bulletEach county had about ten gentry families in 1500, but this had increased to about fifty by 1600. The massive redistribution of land that resulted from the Dissolution of the  Monasteries formed the basis of many gentry families' wealth.

 

Yeomen
"And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes."

(Henry V, 3.1)

 

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Yeomen were prosperous independent farmers, typically holding about 50 acres of land. They did not have gentry status - often because they worked the land themselves. A gentleman's dignity was deemed incompatible with manual labor. However, it was quite possible for a yeoman's son to enter a profession (especially the clergy) and so become a gentleman.
 [This could produce social tension. Hence the Fool's jest in King Lear (3.6) "Prithee, …, tell me whether a madman be a gentleman or a yeoman? … No, he's a yeoman that has a gentleman to his son; for he's a mad yeoman that sees his son a gentleman before him."]

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Similarly, the younger sons of gentlemen were often "apprenticed" to some respectable trade, and so moved downwards into the middling sort. English society was hierarchical but it was comparatively easy to move up or down the hierarchy - particularly from one generation to the next.

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It was commonly yeomen who served on juries and grand juries. Yeomen also bore arms and served in the local militia.

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Yeoman status was sometimes equated by contemporaries with owning freehold property valued at £2 p.a.. These "forty shilling freeholders" could vote in county elections for Parliament.
By Shakespeare's day, inflation meant that forty shillings was no longer enough for yeoman status.(£40 was closer to the truth by 1600).  In addition, the requirement that the land be freehold was becoming obsolete, despite the fact that freehold still remained the most secure and profitable form of tenure.. Many prosperous farmers held land on leasehold - especially from the church or crown and of former monastic lands.

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Another form of secure landholding was copyhold. A copyholder paid an entry fine and then was allowed to hold the land for a term of years or his lifetime at a customary rent.

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A tenancy-at-will gave the farmer no security. The tenant could be dispossessed at any time, - although the landlord did have to allow any growing crops to be harvested.

 

 

Merchants and citizens


Georg Gisze, a German merchant.
Painted by Holbein in London in 1532

 

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The wealthier merchants and citizens of England's larger towns ranked with yeomen or gentlemen. Each town had its own rules for qualifying as a citizen, but almost all were prosperous, independent traders.

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Many merchants and citizens bought land and married into the gentry.

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The wealthiest and most important merchants were London's international businessmen, who imported high-value commodities from Europe and beyond.
 


Thomas Sutton

When he died in 1611, Thomas Sutton was reputed the wealthiest commoner in England. He made his money from coal (he owned land near Newcastle) and from lending money at interest. He founded Charterhouse School and invested in the settlement of Virginia.


 

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Most of the English social elite derived its status from birth and the ownership of land. Merchants and others who rose by their wits did not easily fit into this hierarchy. However, trade and business offered a route tot the top.
One example of upward social mobility was Sir William Courteen (1572-1636). His father arrived as a Protestant refugee from the Netherlands in 1568 and traded in silk and linen. William expanded the business, and invested in trade with Guinea and the New World. He tried to establish a colony in Barbados but was ousted by James Hay, Earl of Carlisle, and lost heavily on un-repaid loans to James I and Charles I.

 

The rural workforce
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Below the yeoman came the husbandman. This was a farmer working his own land and producing enough to feed his family and sell a small surplus on the market. The average husbandman's farm would have been about thirty acres and he would have had an income of c. £15 p.a.

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Much of the seventeenth-century literature on agricultural improvement was directed at the husbandman as well as larger farmers.

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In years of bad harvest, husbandmen might be forced to work as hired labor for others. But in good years they would have a disposable income of (perhaps) £3 after all expenses.

 

"Sir, I am a true labourer: I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man's happiness, glad of other men's good, content with my harm, and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck."

(As you like it, 3.2)

 

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Labourers and cottagers were a step below husbandmen in that they had to work for others for wages.

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A cottage was normally a house with a small amount of land. (The original form was "cote" which survives in the phrase "sheep-cote"). The Elizabethan government tried to make it illegal to erect houses for labourers unless four acres of land were attached 31 Eliz. c. 7), but the statue was almost impossible to enforce.

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Many cottagers had the right to graze animals on the local common - the milk and meat supplied helped the family economy.

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Rights of common grazing came under increasing attack during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as landlords tried to enclose land. Governments and moralists fulminated against enclosure as a cause of depopulation and poverty, but to little effect.

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Landless labourers often lived at little above subsistence level, and in a poor economy could easily be reduced to vagrancy.

 

 
The Urban workforce


The Red Lodge, Bristol,
built c.1590

 

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Towns were unhealthy places - rife with disease. Nonetheless, economic opportunity attracted many migrants from Elizabethan and Jacobean countryside.

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About one third to one half of a city's adult male inhabitants were freemen - i.e. entitled to trade on their own account and to participate in the town's government.

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So many new inhabitants were attracted to London that the city began to expand enormously. The East End districts of Stepney and Whitechapel were first developed in Shakespeare's time. It was in 1576 in Shoreditch, just to the north, that James Burbage built "The Theatre", the first private playhouse in England.

 

Nevertheless, with the notable exception of London, most English towns were still very small.

Note the "scale of pases [=paces]" on this Tudor map of the ancient town of Warwick. Anyone could walk every street of the town in a few minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

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