Social Classes in Renaissance England
The Renaissance started as an intellectual movement in Italy, Florence in the 14th century and spread from there to the rest of Europe. It can be regarded as a cultural bridge between the Middle Ages and Modern Age. Although it is not possible to specify an exact date for the merge of the Renaissance in England, at best it can be said that it emerged during the late 15th century and progressed till to the early 17th century. This paper will be merely focusing on the social classes in England during that time of the period.
Social status played a key role in Early Modern Britain. The financial situation of one’s was at most important, but so were birth, education, and employment in determining a social rank. Starting from the top of the ‘food chain’, this paper will go down one by one explaining each and single of them. In 1577, in his work William Harrison stated that:
We in England, divide our people commonly into four sorts, as gentlemen, citizens or burgesses, yeomen, and artificers or laborers. Of gentlemen the first and chief (next the king) be the prince, dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, and barons; and these are called gentlemen of the greater sort, or (as our common usage of speech is) lords and noblemen: and next unto them be knights, esquires, and, last of all, they that are simply called gentlemen. (94)
The monarch was the highest social class, kings, and queens. One could only obtain this by birth, and it couldn’t be gained by any way possible, although there have been exceptions like William of Orange (1689-1702) and Oliver Cromwell (1653-1658). In the days of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) the people thought the queen or the king as God’s representative on earth and they thought to be greater than all the living things on earth. Elizabeth was considered by many to be England’s best monarch, and her reign is called the Golden Age in which the height of Renaissance was reached and the developments in the English poetry and literature were achieved. Sir Thomas Smith said that:
Neither any one of those kinges, neither he who first had all, tooke any investiture of the empire of Rome or of any other superiour prince, but helde of God and hymself, his people and sword, the crowne, acknowledging no prince in earth his superiour, and so it is kept and helde at this day. (56)
As second on the top was the social class nobility, These men were rich, powerful and they had large households. Within the nobility class, there was a distinction between old families and new ones, most of the old families were Catholic, and new families were Protestant, which were being appointed by the Protestant monarchs. Many of the noble families died during the Black Death and the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century. The Tudor monarchy, Henry VII (1485-1509), Henry VIII (1509-1547) and Elizabeth I rarely appointed new noble families to the land, since they knew how much power they could hold if the circumstance were in their favours, the monarchs made slight adjustments, like removing their right to raise an army so that they could not make war on each other or the king. The number of nobles in Tudor England (1485-1603) was generally fewer than in the reign of James I (1603-1625) who was generous to give titles. Only the eldest son of a nobleman was noble, his younger brothers were mere gentlemen. Also, when the father died, if there were no sons big enough to take on the land, the land would go to the hands of the monarch until the son reached the appropriate age, in some cases the monarch hold on to the land more than he or she should have and profited from it, and the noble title died out if there were no male heirs, the land would be shared amongst any daughters.. At the head of each noble family was a duke, a baron or an earl.
Specifically, baronets were created by James I and he sold the heritable title to 200 gentlemen, which all had to have estates or income of at least £1,000. The base idea for the creation of this class was to receive the necessary funds for the troops, at first they were required to pay the king £1,095, which went up to £2000 during the reign of Charles I (1625-1649). Baronets were below noblemen but above knights, except the Knights of the Garter, and gentlemen. By 1688, there were about 12,800 baronets in England. The title would be inherited from father to son, just like the title of noblemen. This class still exists in the modern society of England, of course, it has changed over the history, yet today there are 82 baronets in England.
William Harrison said that:
Unto this place I also refer our bishops, who are accounted honourable, called lords, and hold the same room in the Parliament house with the barons, albeit for honour sake the right hand of the prince is given unto them, and whose countenances in time past were much more glorious than at this present it 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, as men being otherwise occupied and void of leisure to attend upon the same. Howbeit in these days their estate remaineth no less reverend than before, and the more virtuous they are that be of this calling the better are they esteemed with high and low. (96)
It is not possible to move pass down the ladder without mentioning about religious men, bishops. According to Harmes, “Thomas Cranmer created the order for the consecration of bishops in the Book of Common Prayer of 1549; in doing so, he ensured the continuity of bishops as a distinctive level of the clergy throught the reforms of liturgy and doctrine.” (9). With the start of the Reformation (1517) by Martin Luther (1483-1546), in time religious men started to lose their power which they held for a long time. Though, still their presence in the court existed. Two bishops in England fought and led armies, Richard Bancroft, the Bishop of London, against the rebellion of Earl of Essex in 1601 and Henry Compton, the Bishop of London, in 1688 during the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’, both in the defence of the States as much as of the Church. The idea of a bishop fighting along with the army was not an idea that would be associated with religious men. Beside this, in post-Reformation England, hatred was also seen against bishops, and sometimes bishops were directly threatened by the people especially during the 17th century because of the debates on episcopacy. The authority of the Church was being questioned by many.
Knights came latter on the ladder after baronets. The title of a knight wasn’t hereditary, the monarch if wished could dispense or form new knights. The title would be given for service to the monarch or the country. Below knights were esquires, which were men particularly members of the landed gentry above the rank of gentleman, knight’s eldest sons, younger sons of the eldest sons of barons and other nobles of higher estates, and those who were holding an Office (Justice of Peace) or trust under the Crown. Both of the titles were no inherited but gained, and before anyone could achieve that they were simple gentlemen.
The rise of the gentry’s class was the dominant feature of this time of the period. The gentry was the people who owned small parts of land and households, and some even managed to possess great wealth and owned large properties, betimes called Aristocrats. They did not work with their hands for a living, lived by rental income. But also gentle status could be gained in some other ways than just owning a land. Education was one way to attain gentle status, masters of arts, physicians, and lawyers were all assumed to be gentlemen. In the early 16th century 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 was gradually excluded from political power. One way to establish gentle status was to apply for and receive a coat of arms from the Colloge of Arms in London, which could be easily done if one paid well to the heralds. Also, families capable of living like gentlemen for more than two generations attained gentle status.
Merchants’ class emerged from the ashes of the Wars of the Roses. The prosperity of the wool trade, cloth, weaving and shipping products from England to various ports in Europe and to the New World became a profitable business for the merchants. Many merchants bought land and married into the gentry. The wealthiest and most important merchants were London’s international businessmen. Normally the most of the English upper social classes depended on the ownership of land and to the status that was gained from birth, however with the merchant class people climbed the stairs with their wits, in trade and business.
Latter the yeomen came in the ranking, who were independent farmers. Since they worked the land themselves, they did not have a gentry status. This class included the farmers, tradesmen and craft workers. They were not illiterate men and practiced their religion seriously. They used their wealth, incomes, to improve their land and expand it. They also often fought in the local militia.
In the early 16th century, the population had begun to increase rapidly, feudalism was on its deathbed, and there was a steady movement of population to the larger towns and cities, especially London. The population of London, only 60,000 under the reign of Henry VIII, had grown to almost 200,000 by the end of the century (McDowall 84). One of the reasons for this rise in the population in London was the enclosure laws. Enclosure laws meant that large open areas were fenced in, which before were available to everyone, and many agricultural workers were no longer able to pay their rents, for that reason they moved to the cities hoping that they could find better works.
The lowest class in England Renaissance was the rural workforce. They were poor husbandsmen (farmers) who produced enough to feed their family and a sell small amount of goods on the markets through their small lands. In the years of bad harvest, these men would be much likely to work for others as hired laborers. Laborers were a step below husbandsmen, because they did not own a land and they had to work for others for their incomes. Cattogers were between of them, who owned small houses and many of them had the right to graze animals which helped their family economy. But as mentioned above, because of the enclosure laws many lost their land and rights, and moved to bigger towns and cities. Smith in his work depicted this class as “These have no voice nor authoritie in our common wealth, and no account is made of them but onelie to be ruled, not to rule other, and yet they be not altogether neglected.” (76). Also it is important to note that, in 1601 the Act for the Relief of the Poor was passed, which main points were to care the people who weren’t able to work, the able-bodied poor were to be set to work and materials were to be provided, the beggars and such were sent to a House of Correction or even prison, and pauper children would become apprentices.
In the end of the 16th century, the nobility and gentry made up about two per cent of England’s population, however, the nobility owned fifteen per cent of the land whereas the gentry about fifty per cent of it, and the rest was at the hand of either the Church or the Crown. In the end of the 17th century, in 1688 Gregory King conducted an analysis of the society ‘estimated breakdown of society’ in which in total the number of people from the nobility was 57.520, whereas the total number of gentlemen was 96,000. Of course, as conducted in the research, their yearly income per family of the noble families was higher than all of the classes.
In conclusion, one could obtain their status by birth and changing it was mostly about one own financial situation, even though there were other ways obtaining it. Religious men were losing power, whereas gentlemen and merchants were gaining both economic stability and power. And as always, the poor were suffering throughout in England during Renaissance England, even though there were laws that were submitted for the first time in their favour.
Harmes, Marcus. Bishops and Power in Early Modern England. London: Bloomsbury Academic. 2013.
Harrison, William. Description Of Elizabethan England. 1577. Paul Hallsall, Fordham University, Aug.1998. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1577harrison- england.asp Accessed on 18.12.2017
King, Gregory. Estimated Breakdown Of Society In 1688. 1688. https://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/367/estimated_breakdown_of_society_i.h tm Accessed on 20.12.2017
McDowall, David. An Illustrated History of Britain. Longman. 1989
Smith, Sir Thomas. De Republica Anglorum. 1583. www.constitution.org/eng/repang.htm Accessed on 19.12.2017