Social Classes in Shakespeare's England Shakespeare Page CP Library
In Shakespeare's time, the English had a strong sense of social class -- of belonging to a particular group because of occupation, wealth, and ancestry.
Some families moved from one class to another, but most people were born into a particular class and stayed there.
Social class could determine all sorts of things, from what a person could wear to where he could live to what jobs his children could get.
When you imagine traveling through time to Elizabethan England, you should be aware that you are a member of one of these social classes. That fact will make a real difference to almost everything you do and everything that happens to you.
Find out more about each of the classes, but especially your own, by clicking each of these:
The descriptions of English social classes in 16th Century England you have been using are based very closely on three sources:
In Shakespeare's time there are only about 55 noble families in England. At the head of each noble family is a duke, a baron, or an earl. These are the lords and ladies of the land.
These men are rich and powerful, and they have large households. For example, in 1521 the earl of Northumberland supports 166 people – family, servants and guests.
A person became a member of the nobility in one of two ways: by birth, or by a grant from the queen or king. Noble titles were hereditary, passingfrom father to oldest son.
People in other classes might lose status by wasting their
fortunes and becoming poorer. It took a crime such as treason for a nobleman to lose
Many nobles had died during the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars fought in England in the15th century. Often, there were no sons to inherit their titles. Elizabeth, her father (Henry VIII), and her grandfather (Henry VII), rarely appointed new nobles to replace those who died. They saw the nobility as a threat to their power and preferred to keep the number small.
Elizabeth created only a few noblemen during her reign. The two chief examples were William Cecil, made Lord Burghley, and Robert Dudley, created Earl of Leicester. Both men who had very helpful to her.
"It is easy to think of the nobility as the idle rich. They may have been rich (though not necessarily), but they certainly weren't allowed to be idle. Often, high office brought debt rather than profit. Honorific offices were unpaid, and visiting nobles to England were the responsibility of the English nobility to house and entertain at their own expense. Appointment to a post of foreign ambassador brought with it terrible financial burdens. The ambassador was expected to maintain a household of as many as 100 attendants." (Britain Express)
"The nobility lived luxuriously.
They had no choice. As
historian A. H.
Dodd wrote, `While the simple gentleman [wealthy but not
noble] might live like a lord, the lord "could not live like a simple gentleman without losing face.'43
Nobles were expected to be
lavish in their dress, their houses, and their habits.
They were expected to serve in an office, such as being an
ambassador to a foreign country, at their own expense.
At one time, members of the nobility ran the country, but
by Elizabeth's time, those days were gone
forever. From Tudor times on,
the nobles had to share power with the gentry and the great merchants.
Still, they had enormous influence.
Most of Elizabeth's council came from the nobility, and the chief
officers in the counties -- such as the Lord--Lieutenants and sheriffs --
usually came from noble families.
When Elizabeth I was young, only about 5% of the population would have been classed as gentry: knights, squires, gentlemen, and gentlewomen "who did not work with their hands for a living." (Time Traveller's Guide) Their numbers, though, were growing. They were the most important social class in Shakespeare's England.
"Wealth was the key to becoming part of the gentry.
These were people not of noble birth who, by acquiring large
amounts of property, became wealthy landowners.
Some families bought property bit by bit over generations. A man might marry the daughter of a lesser knight or noble
and gain land through his wife's inheritance.
Some of the great merchants made their fortunes in the city, then
bought a country estate.
"The upper gentry lived like nobles, building huge houses, and employing hundreds of servants. They could not buy their way into the nobility, but their sons or grandsons often became peers (nobles). A good example of the social mobility of the century is Burghley. His grand-father was a man-at-arms under Henry VII, his father was knighted, he was made a baron, and his son was made an earl; each generation earned a title higher than the one before. The gentry were the backbone of Elizabethan England: They combined the wealth of the nobility with the energy of the sturdy peasants from whom they had sprung. Historian A.L. Rowse wrote:
rise of the gentry was the dominant feature of Elizabethan society.
It was they essentially who changed things, who launched out along
new paths whether at home or overseas, who achieved what was achieved, who
gave what all societies need-leadership.
One may fairly say that most of the leading spirits of the age,
those who gave it its character and did its work, were of this class. 44
"Examples were everywhere.
Two of the queen's chief ministers, Burghley and Walsingham, were
products of the gentry. Francis
Bacon, the great essayist and philosopher, came from this class. So did john Hawkins and Francis Drake, the famous explorers.
So did Walter Raleigh, the man who led the way to the English
colonization of America.
"The gentry were the solid citizens of Elizabethan England. They went to Parliament and served as justices of the Peace." (Lace)
"Between the two extremes of rich and poor are the so-called 'middling sort', who have saved enough to be comfortable but who could at any moment, through illness or bad luck, be plunged into poverty. They are yeomen farmers, tradesmen and craft workers. They have apprentices and take religion very seriously; usually, they are literate." (Time Traveller's Guide)
"They had existed for centuries and were, like
the gentry, peculiar to England. They had no counterparts in Europe, which
had great nobles, poor peasants, and little in between.
"The yeomen were prosperous, and their wealth could exceed that of some of the gentry. The difference was how they spent their wealth. The gentry lived like lords, building great houses. The yeoman was content to live more simply, using his wealth to improve his land and to expand it. ... Some owned land, and others leased land for long periods (up to ninety-nine years) at a fixed rate.
"Below the freeholding yeoman on the social scale were the small
leaseholders or "copyholders". Their lands might occasionally compare in size
and wealth with those of the wealthier yeomen, but they were much less secure.
A lease might be for life, in which case a copyholder could not be sure his son would
inherit the land. His lease might be hereditary, but the amount due to the
landowner might change. Copyholders were often forced
off their land to make way for the larger operations.
"Beneath the copyholders were the hired laborers. Some of these lived in one place, working for wages on the lord's land and farming the four acres that, by law, went with their cottages. Other laborers went from county to county as migrant workers, wherever there might be sheep to shear or crops to harvest." (Lace)
At the bottom were the poor. There was far more poverty
under Elizabeth than in previous reigns, mostly because of enclosure,
but there were also the sick, the disabled, the old and feeble, and
soldiers unable to work because of wounds. In earlier times, the
church -- notably the monasteries -- had cared for the poor.
Under Elizabeth, the government undertook the job -- a big job
because enclosure had created so much unemployment.
The result was the famous Elizabethan Poor Laws, one of
the world's first government- sponsored welfare programs. The program was
financed, at first, by contributions from the wealthy. When this proved
inadequate, a poor tax was levied on everyone. The Poor Laws had three
goals: first, those unable to care for themselves were placed in hospitals
or orphanages. Children, when they were old enough, were put out as
apprentices to craftsmen. Second, the able-bodied who could not find jobs
on their own were put to work, usually in workhouses established in the
towns. These were places where the unemployed were put to work making
goods for sale -- such small items as candles, soap, or rope -- in exchange
for a place to sleep and enough food to keep alive.
The third goal was to discourage the permanently
unemployed, "rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars" responsible
for "horrible murders, thefts, and other great outrages."48
The Elizabethans made a clear distinction between those who, for one
reason or another, were unable to work and those able-bodied people who
refused employment, whether in a regular job or in a workhouse. The
Elizabethan sense of order revolted at the thought of people wandering
about with no respectable occupation. To refuse to work for wages was an
offense punishable by law. When vagrants were caught, they were whipped
and returned to the parishes (church areas) of their birth. William
Lambarde wrote of such a case:
John at Stile, a sturdy vagrant
beggar, of low personage, red-haired and having the nail of his right
thumb cloven, was the sixth day of April in the forty and one year of the
reign of our sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth openly whipped at Dale in the
said county for a wandering rogue according to the law, and is assigned to
pass forthwith from parish to parish by the officers thereof the next
straight way to Sale in the county of Middlesex, where (as he confesseth)
he was born. . . and he is limited to be at Sale aforesaid within ten days
now next ensuing at his peril.49
If the vagrant refused work or escaped from a workhouse
and was caught, he was "burned through the gristle of the right ear
with a hot iron of the compass of an inch about."50
for a third time, a vagrant was found to be unemployed, the punishment was
Lace, William W. Elizabethan England. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1995.
|The passages marked with superscripted numbers are referenced in the "Notes" on page 116 of Lace's book.|
"Towns grew in size throughout Elizabeth's reign, as changes in agriculture led to people leaving the countryside. In the years leading up to her accession, a process known as land enclosure had changed the face of the landscape.
Briscoe, Alexandra. "Poverty in Elizabethan England." BBC Homepage: History. 11 Jan. 2005. BBC.
< http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/state/monarchs_leaders/poverty_02.shtml >.