What was the "gentry" in England? What was the "nobility"? What is a yeoman?
English social classes never were as firmly fixed as those on the continent, and it is therefore hard to make generalizations. It seems every rule has many exceptions.
Two very excellent books in fictional form helped me to understand the social classes of England and how they changed and developed. Both books were written by by Edward Rutherfurd, a writer of English birth who lives in New York and has an excellent understanding of English and American cultures. The best one was London: the Novel published by the Fawcett-Crest division of Ballentine books, 1987. Rutherfurd takes London from prehistoric times to World War II by following certain families and their descendents down through history. His other book, Sarum: The Novel of England is also good.
In the early middle ages (500-1000 AD), the powerful military men of continental Europe formed into a birth nobility. The rest of the people were commoners. Commoners were mostly peasants, either free or serf. If they were serfs, they were bound to the soil and could not leave, in a semi-slave status. They held land as an inheritable leasehold from their lord. It was a subsistence economy and towns and merchants were at first few. As trade increased and the merchant class became more numerous and well off, they too were considered commoners no matter how wealthy they might become. The nobility passed on their titles by birth. Rulers could grant noble titles but new nobles were not really recognized by the others unless the title had been in the family for a long time. It was a rigid class system based on birth.
In England, conditions developed differently. Before William the Conqueror (1066), the old Saxon system in England was based on land holding. A "hide" of land was enough land to lease out to a tenant farmer who could make a living for himself and pay you some rent; the more hides of land you owned, the higher in the nobility you were. So a person could become a noble by acquiring land.
When William the Conqueror came from France to take over England in 1066, he brought his nobles and tried to change England to the French system, but it was only partially successful. English social classes never did become as rigid as in France.
Social classes changed even further when the Tudor monarchs (Henry VII, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I) ruled (1485-1603). They were strong rulers and they took much power away from the top nobles. This enabled commoners such as merchants to make progress. The Tudors found it was not a bad idea to appoint men of lower rank to positions of power, because they owed their position entirely to the monarch, not to their birth, and would be more loyal. It was during the reign of Elizabeth that Richard Pace was born.
The following is from a famous English historian, G.M. Trevelyan, History of England: Volume II: the Tudor and the Stuart Era, first published 1926, last reissue and revision 1952, by Doubleday Anchor, pp. 140-141: The Tudor and Stuart era would be the 1500s and 1600s, Richard Pace's time. This shows how open and fluid the English social classes were at that time.
The leading class in England was the landed gentry or squires. They were no longer a feudal or a military class, and when civil war broke out in 1642 had to be taught the art of soldiery from the beginning. So far as it is possible to define the important and recognized distinction between 'gentle' and 'simple' in the new England [i.e., the England of the Tudor and Stuart kings], the 'gentleman' was a landowner who could show a coat of arms, and who had the right when he wished it to wear a rapier and to challenge to the duel any other 'gentleman' from a Duke downwards. But yeomen* and merchants were constantly finding entrance into this class by marriage and by purchase of lands, and the younger sons of the manor-house normally passed out of it into trade, manufacture, scholarship, the Church, or military service abroad, in some cases carrying with them their pretension to gentility, in other cases tacitly abandoning it.
There were infinite gradations both of wealth and rank in this peculiar upper class. At the top of the scale was the great noble, with his seat in the House of Lords, keeping semi-regal state in his castle of Plantagenet stone or his palace of Tudor brick, which served as a school of elegant accomplishments to young gentlemen pages in training for careers at Court. Broken meats were daily distributed to a crowd of poor at the great gate. In the hail, on the dais, sat his lordship with his lady and chief guests, while half a hundred hungry clients and led captains feasted at the lower tables off silver and Venice glasses, and an army of serving-men and gatekeepers caroused off pewter in the ample regions of the kitchen. At the bottom of the scale of gentry was the small squire who farmed his few paternal acres, talked in dialect with his yeomen neighbours as they rode together to market,. and brought up, with the help of his hard-working wife and the village schoolmaster, a dozen sturdy, ragged lads and lasses, who tumbled about together in the orchard round his 'hail,' a modest farmstead often converted by posterity into a barn.
Between these two extremes, every variety of Tudor and Stuart manor-house arose, built, according to the materials of the country-side, in stone, in new-f angled brick, or in old-fashioned half-timber. These manor-houses and their inhabitants, together with the village industries, kept the country-side in touch with the central life and thought of the new world. Shakespeare's England was rustic without being backward or barbarous, and whatever London generated the rural parts in due course absorbed.
*a yeoman was a free farmer farming his own land.
Well, okay, Mr. Trevalyan, but I have also seen accounts which spoke of the nobility and gentry as distinct classes. It just goes to show how confusing the situation was. The continent did not have this class of lower nobility---there was a vast gap between commoners and nobles. Not so in England, making it possible to move up and down the scale more easily.
Rutherfurd includes tales of families who came from the lower classes, did well financially, then after a few generations paid a clerk or someone who would be the medieval equivalent of a genealogist to research history and "find" evidence of a noble lineage and a coat of arms.
As the merchant class grew more wealthy in the 1700s and some nobles became poorer, it became more common both in England and on the continent for noblemen to marry the daughters of wealthy merchants. This would be an advantage to both families--the commoner would gain prestige and the noble would gain money. However, in France, the nobles would marry into a merchant family and take the money, but would never engage in business themselves, as it was beneath their noble dignity. The English nobility saw nothing undignified about participating merchant activities themselves--which is one reason the Industrial Revolution began in England.
However you got into your class, England remained class conscious. John Smith was disliked by some because he was occupying a position "above his station"--he was a commoner. Even in America, class distinctions remained important at least up to the time of Andrew Jackson, but they were based more on property ownership than birth. George Washington asked for his honor guard to be "men of property." But America was changing. Shortly after 1900, Cecil Sharp, musician to the Royal Court in London, visited the Appalachians collecting British folk tunes. "Why, these Appalachian mountaineers are just good British peasant folk!" he exclaimed when he found that they had preserved much of the peasant culture of England. But he changed his mind later. "No, they are not," he said, "British peasants are always humble in the presence of their betters. These American hillbillies don't think they have any 'betters'".
And that's the story of class in England and America. I visited a castle of a duke in England who had opened his residence to public viewing. Talking to the staff, I mentioned that it would be interesting to talk to the Duke. "Oh," they said, "one does not just go up and speak to a duke. You have to ask his permission.
Well, that was their idea. They didn't know that I had called the castle previously and had gotten the Duke's residence by accident. I had a nice chat with his daughter, who was quite charming and down to earth and did not reveal who she was until the end of the chat. When I found out who she was, I said, "Oh, you're a member of the noble family." She laughed and said, "Well, I don't know how noble we really are."
But the nobility lives on in England, even today.
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