“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).
The Elizabethan Era occurred (1588-1603) marked by reign of queen Elizabeth. Some people call it the golden age of English history. It was the start of poetry, music, and literature. This era was also known for theatre including William Shakespeare’s plays and poems that are still read and shown today. It also was the beginning of exploration and setting up colonies under english rule to further England’s empire. The social classes were monarch, nobility, gentry, merchant, yeomanry, and laborers. The monarch was the ruler of England, during that time the ruler was queen Elizabeth 1, the sixth and last ruler of Tudor. The nobility was at the top of the social ladder and very rich and powerful. Gentry were knights, squires, gentlemen and gentlewomen. They became the most important social class in England. Merchants emerged from the ashes of the War of Roses. Yeomanry was named the ”middle class” and were not very wealthy and only saved enough money to live comfortably. The laborers, the bottom of the social class in the Elizabethan Era, were very poor and only made enough to live comfortably.
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Social classes were very important and very strict. It was very difficult for one person to move from one class to another. There were very few opportunities to change your social status and for some it was impossible. These rules were not taken lightly and people were pushed harshly if the rules were broken. These rules were very strictly enforced and everyone had to follow. These rules were in the form of laws that maintained the social structure. For example, one law stated the color and type of clothes a person could wear This made it easy for others to know which social class they were in.
These classes determined a person’s status in society, but also determined what kind of job they had, what rights as a human they had, and sometimes it even determined what they could wear, even their jewelry and furniture.
In the days of queen Elizabeth the people thought the queen or the king were God’s representative on Earth and the king or queen were thought to be greater than angels, all the animals, and all the living things on earth. Naturally they were better than any other humans.
A person obtained this status usually by birth, they spent their entire life in this status. From birth on they were told how to act, what to say, and how the rest of the kingdom should treat them. They knew how all others should behave around them and punish those who did not behave properly.
The highest social class was the monarchy in the Elizabethan era, also known as Queen Elizabeth 1 was the leader, she was the last leader of the era and she ruled for forty five years.
The second highest rank was Nobility. They were very rich and had hugh houses. Most owned large amounts of land that they inherited. There was distinction between old and new families. The old families were Catholic and the new families were Protestant. These people were members of the court and Parliament. A Noble could only be a Noble if he was born into it or was made a Noble by the king or Queen. They had special rights. They could not be put in jail for debt. They could not be tortured. They could not be punished for a capital crime by hanging or other abuses. If put to death they had to be beheaded. They could only be tried by other Nobles. The most rich people were usually Nobles.
The Gentry is the third highest order of society in the Elizabethan Era. They were sometimes called the Aristocrats. This order was made up of Lords, that owned a lot of land, Gentlemen freeholders who took care of the land owned by the Lords. They did not have to work hard and did not do manual labor. They supported themselves off the rent paid by their tenants. They were thought of as the true rulers of the countryside.
The Gentry often held the local offices, such as sheriff and surveyor of the roads. Some were the Justice of the Peace. This gave them much power. Of interest, they held these offices without pay.
The Knights came from the Gentry. Being a Knight did not mean you made more money or had more power. The Knighthood could not be inherited.
Below the knights were the esquires. They too could hold offices and be in Parliament. What made them special was their right to have a Coat of Arms. Most of them designed their Coat of Arms themselves.
The fourth order of society were the merchants. Unlike the first three classes, they had a very quiet lifestyle. Most of them lived in London. Most had a goal in life to become Lord Mayor of London. This would give them a lot of power. So much power that they could take on the King or Queen. These men were shopkeepers, traders, innkeepers and citizens of London. The merchants were responsible for producing goods for others to use.
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)
Yeomanry was the fifth order of society. These were the people who had large amounts of property and had a Noble title if they could buy one. They did not work much since they usually had enough money to live.. Those that did work were farmers, tradesman or craftsman. It seems they were happy not to be part of the lowest part of society.
“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)
The Peasantry is the lowest order of Society. These people worked very hard to keep what little they had. At best, they owned a very small cottage (which gave them the name of “cotters”) and perhaps one to two acres of land. They could help themselves if they had a skill (carpentry or weaving) that allowed them to make some money. They most often worked for other large landowners. But they did not get paid well.
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The tenant farmers were just a little better off than the cotters. They were able to get jobs working the land they had rented. They rented the land from the Yeomanry, Gentry or the aristocracy. There was a system in which a tenant farmer could get a lease for the land he worked. These leases could be good for many generations and support a family for a long time.
For the most part, living well in the Elizabethan Era seems to have been a matter of luck. If you were fortunate enough to be born into a rich family or a family with some nobility, you had it made. You didn’t have to work hard and others gave you a lot of respect. There were laws to make sure you kept your status, and others laws to make sure no one moved up into your position. I like the system we have here in America. You can be born dirt poor, work hard and wind up in White House or Trump Towers or maybe even both.
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Pickard, Liz. “The Social Structure in Elizabethan England.” The British Library. n.d.
Accessed March 1, 2017.
“Social Classes in Elizabethan Era Nobility and Gentry.” Elizabethan Era England Life. 2017.
ww.elizabethanenglandlife.com/social-classes-in-elizabethan-era-nobility-and-gentry.ht ml. Accessed February 23, 2017.
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