History 367 Society and Ideas in Shakespeare’s England

Social structure: contemporary views 05

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Social structure: contemporary views 05

  • Shakespeare got a coat of arms for his father John in 1596; but he continued to write plays, make money, and invest in property in Sratford until he retired around 1613.

  • Wealth and ancestry remained key factors in social status; but education, manners, and contribution to the public (e.g. through office-holding) became increasingly important.

Social structure: contemporary views 06

  • Humanists (Desiderius Erasmus d.1536; Sir/ St. Thomas More; d. 1535) argued that true nobility consists in virtue (= public service by the educated class).

  • Virtus vera nobilitas (virtue is the true nobility) is the motto of Trinity College, Cambridge, founded by Henry VIII.

  • This view of nobility dovetailed neatly with attitudes of Henry VII and later monarchs, who wanted nobles to be public servants, not independent warlords.

  • The poor could not afford education, and so could not become virtuous public servants.

Trinity College, Cambridge

Social Structure: Realities 01

  • Many (minor) gentry got university education, high office, and high social position (e.g. Cecils).

  • The church, medicine, and law offered prospects for young men to rise in status.

  • Royal family at top of social scale.

  • Titled nobles next; roughly 50-60 families under Tudors, more than doubling under Stuarts; James I sold noble titles for cash.

Social Structure: Realities 02

  • Only the eldest son of a noble inherited the title (and seat in the House of Lords); younger sons/ daughters were commoners; nobles paid taxes.

  • Taxpayers (subsidymen) assessed each other’s tax liability; low, and falling, taxes.

  • Duke (Duchess); Marquess (Marchioness); Earl (Countess); Viscount (Viscountess); Baron (Baroness).

Social Structure: Realities 03

  • Noble title inherited by primogeniture (sons inherit in order of age).

  • If there were no sons, the monarch could let title die out (Henry VII and Elizabeth happy to do that; they preferred giving people the order of the Garter rather than noble title).

  • Or the monarch could let the husband of a daughter get the title.

Social Structure: Realities 04

  • Land was also generally passed on by primogeniture; but if there were no sons, the daughters inherited equally.

  • Alternative methods of inheritance applied in some localities: Borough English in Northampton; gavelkind in Kent.

  • Below the nobles: gentry: baronets 1611: 200; 1641 400+; 1688 800; Sir + Bart./ Bt./; hereditary.

Social Structure: Realities 05

  • Knights: different orders: Garter, Bath, etc; Sir + Kt., non-hereditary; usually made by monarch, but sometimes on license by a lesser person; e.g. the Earl of Essex in anti-Spanish war 1590s.

  • Esquires: upper gentry; heirs of knights; minor members of noble families; officeholders.

  • County and parish gentry (or Upper and Lower; Greater and Lesser)

The Winter Habit of an English Gentlewoman (Hollar)

A Bowing Gentleman

Lady of the Court of England

Wife of a Citizen or Artisan of London

A Kitchen Maid

Social Structure: Realities 06

  • County gentry: key office was Justice of the Peace (J.P.; e.g. Justice Shallow); prison/ stocks; quarter sessions; theft of a shilling or more = death; most serious crimes reserved for assizes.

  • Other commissions: sewers; subsidy.

  • Gentry less than 2% of population; owned 65% of land; nobles owned 15%; crown and church much of the rest.

  • Minor gentry had farms of 50+ acres; county gentry 1,000+ acres.

Stocks (Cerne Abbas, Dorset)

Social Structure: Realities 07

  • Gentry – especially county gentry – were increasingly elected as members even to borough seats in House of Commons – establishing technical residency just before election.

  • Size of House of Commons kept pace with population: 300 1500; 462 1600; 500+ 1640.

  • Next rank down from gentry were yeomen; farmers holding 50+ acres; yeomen of Kent especially prosperous.

Social Structure: Realities 08

  • Yeomen made £40-50 a year (£25-35 after expenses).

  • Husbandmen had farms of around 30 acres; made £15 (£4-5 after expenses); bad harvests could jeopardize their families.

  • Labourers and cottagers had some land, but not enough to maintain family; so they worked for others at about 1 shilling a day, when they could get work; total income around £9 a year.

Social Structure: Realities 09

  • Husbandmen, labourers and cottagers relied on local common land to graze animals and get fire-wood; but gentry increasingly enclosed this land, asserting it was their private property, and putting hedges/ fences around it.

  • Enclosure seen as selfish and divisive, and as leading to vagrancy.

  • Some farmers held land freehold; if you had 40s (per annum) worth of freehold land, you could vote in county elections.

Enclosure ended the Open Field system and extinguished common (Grazing and other) rights

Social Structure: Realities 10

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