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ENGLAND
Samuel Pepys
Elizabeth I
London's Underworld
Fleet Marriages.
The Cries of London
Updated.




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-- Arhtur Conan Doyle 1888



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Elizabethan England: The Social Classes
Posted on Oct 09, 2002 - 03:04 AM by Bill McCann

Holinshed's Chronicles, from which came most of the material for the Shakespearean plays, were published in 1577. One of Holinshed's collaborators was William Harrison, chaplain to Lord Cobham, who wrote the Descriptions of Britain and England for the chronicles. They have preserved for us a vivid and detailed picture of the England which Elizabeth inherited. This series will present a slightly abridged version in which the language has been modernised for clarity. In our first extract we have a description of the different classes of people in Elizabethan England. His remarks about merchants make it clear that "rip-off Britain" is not a purely modern phenomenon!



Elizabeth Enthroned
We, in England, normally divide our people into four classes as follows:

  • Gentlemen;
  • Citizens or Burgesses;
  • Yeomen, and
  • Artisans or Labourers.
As far as gentlemen are concerned, the most important, after the king, are the Prince, dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons. These we call gentlemen of the greater sort, or, in common usage, lords and noblemen. Below them are knights, esquires, and, last of all, those we simply call gentlemen. Therefore, in effect, our gentlemen are divided according to their stations n life, which I will here describe in greater detail.

We reserve the title of Prince exclusively for the king's eldest son, who is called the Prince of Wales, and is the heir-apparent to the crown. It is similar to the situation in France where the king's eldest son has the title of Dauphin, and is named exclusively Monsieur. In England we refer to the prince with the Latin word Princeps, since he is the chief, or principal, person next to the king. The king's younger sons are only gentlemen by birth. They remain as ordinary gentlemen until they have been raised, by their father, to a higher such as either viscount, earl, or duke. They are referred to by their names, such as Lord Henry, or Lord Edward etc. with the addition of the word Grace. This word should properly be assigned to the king and prince only, but common usage has now also assigns it to dukes, archbishops, and (as some would have it) to marquesses and their wives.

A Bishop

In this class I also put our bishops, who are counted as honourable and are called lords. In the Parliament house they are equal in status to the barons, and, as a matter of honour, sit on the right hand of the prince. In times past, the Bishop's state was much more glorious than it is at present. This is because those lusty prelates sought after earthly estimation and authority with far more diligence than after the lost sheep of Christ, of which they had small regard. Rather, they behaved as men being otherwise occupied and without the time to attend to their pastoral duties. However, their state today remains no less revered than before, and the more virtuous amongst them are better thought of by both the high and low ranks. They also, today, retain the ancient title of lord, although the modernisers and those who reject the idea of superiority strongly object to this. Although it is certainly true that the functions of spiritual leadership are equally distributed between the bishop and the minister, yet, from the practical point of view in the workings of civil government, the first have been given more authority by kings and princes. This is done to ensure that the overall exercise of the functions of the church has a uniformity which would not be possible if every minister were allowed to follow his own course.

It is strange but those, and there are many, who call for reform of the church, the abolition of the title lord and the removal of all civil authority from the bishops cannot agree amongst themselves as to what should replace these things. They lose sight of the fact that our own corruption is so great that it is impossible for us to achieve the degree of perfection which they would like to see in the operations of the church and state. The are like the people of Capua described by Livy - in attempting to reform their senate they left themselves without any government at all.

Dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons are either created by the king or come to that honour by being the eldest sons or highest in succession to their parents. With us, the eldest son of a duke is, during his father's lifetime, an earl and the eldest son of an earl is a baron, or sometimes a viscount, according to the manner in which the original title was created. The original grant of the honourable title was usually made by the king in recognition of faithful service on the part of the first ancestor in the family. It is the custom that the title of that honour is always given to him and to his direct male heirs only. Strictly speaking, the rest of the sons of the nobility are only esquires but it is now common to refer to the sons of all dukes and marquesses and to the eldest sons of earls as lords. This is not in accordance with our actual law since the term should not given to anyone under the rank of baron and the law does not recognise these sons as barons.

The barony, or aristocracy, is equivalent to the rank of the senators of ancient Rome and the state of our nobility is the same as that the Roman Patrician class. Also, in England, no man is normally created a baron unless he has an annual income greater than a thousand pounds, or at least as much as will allow him to fully maintain and bear the appearances and expenses of his position. However, barons are always superseded by viscounts, earls, marquesses, and dukes according to the proportion of their degree and honour. If, by bad luck, the income of a baron or his son falls below a thousand pounds he might still keep his place in the hierarchy. However, if the financial loss is so great that a baron cannot maintain the appearances and accoutrements of the honour then he might forfeit his place in the upper house of parliament. Despite this, he keeps the title of lord which cannot be taken from him for this reason only.

The most of the titles which we in England give to our aristocracy are derived from French words and go back to the arrival of the Norman kings. Knights are not born, neither is any man a knight by succession, no, not even the king or prince. Our knights are given that title either before a battle, to encourage them to greater bravery and try their manhood, or after the battle as a reward for their courage and prowess. Knights created in this way are called Milites [knights military]. Knights are also created in peacetime either for performing some great service or on account of their singular virtues. These knights are referred to as Equites Aurati [knights by honour], as is the common custom. Knights are created either by the king himself, or by his commission and royal authority given for the same purpose, or by his lieutenant in the wars.

Knights
It sometimes happens that various elders such as burgesses and lawyers are offered a knighthood but refuse the honour. In this case it is the custom that they must pay a large fine. This goes to the king's exchequer and, to be honest, the king often makes more profit out of the fine that he would have out of the knightly service. This is the reason why there are so many in England who, although the have the income of a knight, never carry the title and that by their own choice. The number of the knights in ancient Rome was unlimited and so it is also with us, since they are created solely at the pleasure of the king. However, whereas the Equites Romani customarily had a horse, the Equum Publicum, given to them, the knights of England have not, but must bear all their own transport costs as they do in other kind of furniture, such as sufficient armour for their defence and military service. Even so, it is possible for any knight who has an annual income from land in freehold to be relieved of his service for a set period. This he can do either at the coronation of the king, or the marriage of his own daughter or at his investiture by agreeing to pay a fine of forty pounds a year for the period. The forty pounds is customarily taken as being the annual revenues from his land. It is arrived at by an ancient method of reckoning and is not necessarily the true value.

Apart from these knights military and knights by honour, at the coronation of a king or queen, other knights created during longer and more unusual ceremonies. These are called Knights of the Bath . No matter in what way a knight is created his wife is always referred to as "Madam," or "Lady," in the same way as the baron's wife He himself may use the word "Sir" before his name, which is the title by which we refer to our knights in England. In addition, his wife, out of courtesy and during her lifetime is addressed as "my lady". This is so even if she later marries a gentleman or man of mean calling, even though according to the common law she strictly has no such prerogative in her new state. If her first husband was also of better birth than her second, even though the latter is also a knight, yet, because of the courtesy always shown to her sex, she loses no honour and will be named after the most honourable or worshipful of the two. This does not happen anywhere else but in England.

The other order of knighthood in England, and the most honourable, is that of the garter, instituted by King Edward the Third. This king, after he had gained many notable victories and held both King John of France and King James of Scotland prisoners in the Tower of London at the same time, expelled King Henry of Castile, the bastard, from that kingdom. In his place, he restored Don Pedro with the help of his eldest son, the Prince of Wales and Duke of Aquitaine, who was known as the Black Prince. He then invented this society of honour, and made a choice throughout his own realm and dominions, and throughout all Christendom, of the best, most excellent, and renowned persons in all virtues and honour, and adorned them with that title to be knights of his order. Each was given a garter garnished with gold and precious stones, which they had to wear daily on the left leg only. They were also given a kirtle, gown, cloak, chaperon, collar, and other solemn and magnificent apparel, of the choicest materials and fashion which they wear at high feasts, and which is appropriate only to such a high and princely order.

The order of the garter, therefore, was devised in the time of King Edward the Third, and, acording to some, on the following occasion:

The queen's majesty then living, being departed from his presence the next way toward her lodging, he following soon after happened to find her garter, which slacked by chance and so fell from her leg, unespied in the throng by such as attended upon her. His grooms and gentlemen also passed by it, as disdaining to stoop and take up such a trifle: but he, knowing the owner, commanded one of them to stay and reach it up to him. "Why, and like your grace," saith a gentleman, "it is but some woman's garter that has fallen from her as she followed the queen's majesty." "Whatsoever it be," quoth the king, "take it up and give it me." So when he had received the garter, he said to such as stood about him: "You, my masters, do make small account of this blue garter here," and therewith held it out, "but, if God lend me life for a few months, I will make the proudest of you all to reverence the like." And even upon this slender occasion he gave himself to the devising of this order. Certainly, I have not read of anything that having had so simple a beginning has grown in the end to so great honour and estimation.

There is yet another order of knights in England called Knights Bannerets. This type of knight is created in the battlefield by means of a ceremony in which the point of his pennant of arms is cut away. This leaves his arms in the shape of a banner, which is superior to a pennant. Thus, the owner of the pennant, previously but a bachelor knight, is now raised to a higher degree, and allowed to display his arms in a banner, as barons do. However, these knights are only created in the wars when the king's standard is unfolded.

Because it is the king who dubs knights and creates barons and those of higher degree, any gentleman whose ancestors are not known to have arrived with William Duke of Normandy traces his Englishness back only as far as the date on which his family was thus ennobled. This is because we do not now know of any descendants of the Saxon races, much less of the British, who have survived into our own time.

Gentlemen

Anyone who
  • practices law,
  • teaches in the university,
  • practices medicine and the liberal sciences,
  • serves as a captain in the wars,
  • serves in the government for the good of the country,
  • does not depend on manual labour for his living,
  • is able to afford the deportment, costs and appearances of a gentleman and
  • is willing to bear these
is entitled to have a coat of arms made for him, at a charge, by the College of Heralds. The charters drawn up for this purpose usually claim a great (and spurious) antiquity, contain many decorative and empty flourishes and are comparatively cheap. Nonetheless, the purchaser is entitled to be referred to as Master, (the title normally reserved for esquires and gentlemen) and be referred to as a gentleman for the remainder of his life. It is unlikely that this practise will be outlawed as the king loses nothing by it, In fact, he actually stands to gain as a gentleman is subject to the same level of taxation as a yeoman and these newly created gentlemen will be all the more keen to pay up out of pride in his new station. In addition, they become subject to being called up in time of war and, again out of pride, will pay whatever is needed to array himself in the best arms and armour. He will also feel compelled to show great courage in the field as a token of his exalted position. In fact, no one is hurt by the pretence but himself who, no doubt, will strut through the streets in half-boots that are too big for his foot or, as one of our proverbs has it will "now and then bear a bigger sail than his boat is able to sustain." Certainly, the making of new gentlemen bred great strife sometimes amongst the ancient Romans, I mean when those which were Novi homines [New Men] were tolerated more for their own obvious virtues rather than the old smell of ancient race. Especially as the latter may have been recently defaced by the cowardice and evil life of their nephews and descendants. However, as envy has no affinity with justice and equity it really does not matter what the malicious might have to say against those who are promoted on the grounds of their wisdom and virtue.

There is, however, one thing which should be abhorred in all the classes of nobility and which will, in a short period, result in the great ruination of our country. This is the custom of sending the sons of noblemen and low gentlemen into Italy. From there they bring back nothing but mere atheism, infidelity, vicious conversation, and ambitious and proud behaviour so that they return far worse men than they went out. For example, a gentleman at this moment is newly returned from Italy. He went out there an earnest Protestant, but on coming home was heard to claim that faith and truth should be kept to so long as they do not hinder our future actions and that forgiveness is to be shown only after full revenge has been had! Another, no less outspoken, has claimed that anyone who takes account of any religion is a fool and he who loses his wealth or liberty because of his adherence to a particular religion is an even bigger fool but that he who consents to lose his life because of it is stark mad and the biggest fool of the lot!

This is the great prize that these gentlemen got by going to Italy. And what fruit is to be expected from such blossoms? Why, a third has said that he does not care what anyone says about God as long as the king and the laws of the realm are there to protect his rights. Men like this one are easily recognised. They have learned, in Italy, to walk up and down the street, even here in England, with richly dressed pages, whose personal beauty and overall presentation demonstrate that the master has been careful in his choice, strutting along behind them. But, in case I give too much offence, I will not say any more about these Italianates and their behaviour which is, alas, everywhere to be seen and not yet called into question.

After gentlemen, the next in order of worth are the citizens and burgesses. These consist of those that are free within the cities, and are of some substance and likely to bear public office. These citizens or burgesses are required to serve the commonwealth in their cities and boroughs, or in the corporate towns in which they live, and also in the common assembly of the realm where our laws are made and which we call the High Court of Parliament. The ancient cities appoint four, and the county boroughs two, burgesses as their representatives in parliament. They remain there in the name of the city or borough for which they are appointed, and give their consent or dissent to any matters discussed for so long as the parliament sits.

A Merchant
In this class also we include our merchants, although they often change estate with gentlemen, as gentlemen do with them, by a mutual conversion of the one into the other. Their number has increased so much in our times that the only thing that maintains them is the excessive prices charged for foreign goods. In the old days when every nation was allowed to freely ring in its own goods these things were of better quality, cheaper and more plentiful. On the question of the short supply of our own produce here at home because so much of it is exported I will say nothing as the problem is obvious to everyone. Certainly, the ancient Greeks discovered that having great numbers of merchants did nothing to further the interests of the state or the common good. It is therefore to be wished that the huge heap of them could be drastically cut down. And the same goes for our lawyers. If that were done the rest would find it easier to make a living and fewer honest retailers would be ruined by a great merchant suddenly going bankrupt.

I do not deny that our navy is in part maintained by their traffic. However, now that they have obtained a monopoly on the sale of all goods - under the pretence that this will bring a benefit to the whole country - the prices of all goods are kept at exorbitant levels. In the past, when foreign ships could freely come into our ports we had sugar for fourpence the pound, but now at the time of writing, it is at least half-a-crown. Raisins or currants could be had for a penny that but now cost sixpence, and sometimes eightpence and tenpence the pound. And we used to have nutmegs at twopence halfpenny the ounce, ginger at a penny an ounce, prunes at halfpenny farthing, great raisins three pounds for a penny, cinnamon at fourpence the ounce, cloves at twopence, and pepper at twelve and sixteen pence the pound. This is but another example of the fact that the way that things turn is not always - in fact very seldom - the way which is promised at the beginning.

The goods that these merchants carry out of the realm are for the most part broadcloth and carsies [worsteds] of all colours, as well as cottons, friezes, rugs, tin, wool, our best beer, baize [coarse wool], bustian [a form of cotton used or waistcoats and religious vestments], mockadoes [a kind of mohair](tufted and plain), rash [ a kind of coarse woollen cloth], lead [cookware], fells [hides], etc. These goods are loaded on ships at various ports along our coasts and shipped to all quarters of the world, where they are either exchanged for other goods or for ready money, to the great gain and profit of our merchants. And, whereas in times past their chief trade was with Spain, Portugal, France, Flanders, Danske [Denmark], Norway, Scotland, and Ireland, now, not contented with these markets, they have expanded into the East and West Indies and made exploratory voyages, not only to the Canaries and New Spain Central America], but likewise into Cathay [China], Muscovy [Russia], and Tartaria [central Asia], and the regions thereabout. And from these places it is claimed that they bring home great commodities. But alas, the only result I can see from all their travelling is that the prices of things constantly rise and do not come down. This crime of usury, for that is what I call it, was perfectly well dealt with by a good law passed in the ninth year of the reign of Edward the Third. But why it is not now enforced, or when it was revoked, is something I cannot in truth discover. Only this I do know - that all and sundry now compete with each other to have any profits that are to be made diverted into their own coffers.

Yeomen

The class of Yeomen are those which by our law are called Legales homines, free men born English. They are entitled to an annual income from their own free land up to a maximum sum of forty shillings sterling, or six pounds as money goes in our times. Some are of the opinion that, according to a statute in the twentieth year of the reign of Richard II that they are same as those that the Frenchmen call varlets, but, as the phrase is used in my time, it is very unlikely to be so. The truth is that the word is derived from the Saxon term Zeoman , or Geoman, which signifies (as I have read) a settled or steady man. By this I mean someone who, being married and mature, decides to settle down in the place of his abode so that he can the better maintain of himself and his family. This is precisely what single men have no time for. They are more likely to be running about this way and that, which betrays a lack of stability, resolution and of judgement, in the carrying out of any important matters.

These Yeomen have a certain pre-eminence nowadays, and are more highly thought of than labourers and the common sort of artisans. They are normally well off, keep good houses, and travel to make money. They are also for the most part farmers on the lands of gentlemen, or at least artisans, who with grazing, selling at market, and employing servants (not idle servants, as the gentlemen do, but those that earn both their own and part of their masters' living), make a good deal of money. Indeed, many of them make enough to be able to buy the lands of spendthrift gentlemen, and by sending their sons to the schools, to the universities, and to the Inns of the Court, or, otherwise leaving them sufficient lands upon they may live without labour, make it possible for them to become gentlemen. These were the men that in times past made all France afraid. And although they are not called "Master," as gentlemen are, or "Sir," as knights are, but only "John" and "Thomas," etc. yet have they have always been found to be the backbone of the nation. The kings of England, when fighting battles, were always inclined to stay with their Yeomen, who were their footmen, much as the French kings remained with their horsemen, thus showing where their chief strength lay.

A farmer
The fourth and last class of people in England are day-labourers, poor husbandmen [farmers], and some retailers (those who own no land) copyholders [leaseholders], and all artisans such as tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, brickmakers, masons, etc. As for slaves and bondmen, we have none. Indeed, such is the privilege of our country - by the special grace of God and the bounty of our kings - that if anyone comes here from other realms, as soon as they set foot in our land they are as free as their masters. Thus all notions of servile bondage are utterly removed from them. In this we resemble (not the Germans, who had slaves also, though in such a way that the slaves of other countries might well have considered them free, but) the old Indians and the Ceylonese, who considered it a sin against nature to enslave those to whom she had given free birth. This class of people, therefore, have neither voice nor authority in the commonwealth. They are to be ruled and not to rule others. Yet they are not altogether neglected, for in the cities and corporate towns, where there is a shortage of Yeomen, they may be called upon to serve on juries. And in the villages they are commonly made churchwardens, sidesmen [assistants to the churchwardens], aleconners [inspectors of ales], occasionally constables, and very often the leader of their Borough Councils.

In this class we can also put our great swarms of idle serving-men. As an old proverb says - "Young servingmen, old beggars!" This is because service carries no heritage. These men are profitable to no-one! If their position is carefully examined it becomes clear that they are enemies to their masters, to their friends, and to themselves. Because they often persuade their masters to make unlawful demands on their tenants, their friends are therefore reduced to poverty by the subsequent increased rents and they themselves are brought to ruin by their own prodigality and errors. These are men that, not having the wherewithal to maintain their excesses, plunder the highways, accounts, banks, mails and stables, in any way that they can in order to supply their wants.

Idlers

Many of them, wanting to assume airs and graces, manage to insinuate themselves into the good books of young gentlemen and noblemen who have recently inherited their property. It is too obvious that not only is the good nature of these young men taken advantage of but their livelihoods and incomes are so wasted and eaten up that it will take them years to recover their wealth and status if, indeed, this is even possible. It would be most desirable therefore to have the superfluous heaps of these people drastically reduced. Since we must have some of them, out of necessity, we should moderate their numbers intelligently. In this way, their masters will be spared the unnecessary costs they incur and the country will be rid of many thieves. No nation on earth encourages such a swarm of them as we do here in England. The resulting strong probability that they will find free maintenance encourages them to idleness instead of the work that would allow them to live ordered lives like all decent subjects.

Of their wanton sexual licence or their foul language I will say nothing other than to point out that some of them make the first of these vices the very essence of their existence. In this, they squander not only the money and goods but also the health and welfare of many honest gentlemen, citizens, wealthy yeomen etc. by their unlawful actions. But I have wandered too far into this weighty subject about which oceans of ink could be spilt and will therefore say no more about these sorts of men.

An Artisan
To return to my subject, I have this to say about our farmers and artisans, that they were never so good at their trades than they are at present. Even though the workmanship of the latter is novel, more accomplished and more pleasant to look at, yet it has lost nothing in strength or durability or value for the customer. The two things that cheapen the work of our artisans are haste and a barbarous or slavish desire to make a quick profit. In their rush to sell their wares as quickly as possible they bungle the workmanship and offer substandard goods for sale. The result is that the buyer is often defrauded and discovers to his cost, and too late, that "haste makes waste" as the old proverb tells us.

Oh, how many trades and handicrafts are there now in England of which the nation has no need! How many necessary goods do we produce at great cost etc. which could be imported from other countries with far more ease and less cost! I will not speak of ironworks, glassworks, and suchlike, which consume a great amount of our natural timber and yet, can be bought from other countries for far less than it takes to manufacture them here. The same is true of many other sorts f goods. But I will say no more about these things and conclude this survey of the nation of England with a short summary.

I find that the country is governed and maintained by three sorts of persons:

  1. The prince, monarch, and head governor, which is called the king, or, (if the crown fall to a woman), the queen: in whose name and by whose authority all things are administered.
  2. The gentlemen, which class is divided into two sorts: First the barony or estate of lords (which contains barons and all those above that degree), and, second, those that are not lords, such as the knights, esquires, and simple gentlemen. Out of this class we choose the deputies and high presidents, such as the Lord Lieutenant in Ireland and the governors in Wales and Berwick.
  3. The third and last sort is called the yeomanry, of whom as well as those below them, the labourers and artificers, I have had much to say. I will only add here that they may not be called masters and gentlemen, but goodmen, as Goodman Smith, Goodman Coot, Goodman Cornell, Goodman Mascall, Goodman Cockswet, etc. In matters of law these and the like are referred to as, Giles Jewd, yeoman; Edward Mountford, yeoman; James Cocke, yeoman; Harry Butcher, yeoman, etc. This addition to their names sets them apart from the vulgar and common sorts.

    Links to the other articles in the series.

    Elizabethan England: Watch and Ward
    Elizabethan England: The Cities and Towns
    Elizabethan England: The Gardens and Orchards
    Elizabethan England: Markets and Fairs





    Note: Harrison's abridged text in the original Elizabethan language is available on-line at Bartleby


 

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