ENGLAND IN 1600
Social reality, at least for the poor and powerless, was probably a far cry from the ideal, but for a few years Elizabethan England seemed to possess an extraordinary internal balance and external dynamism. In part the queen herself was responsible. She demanded no windows into men's souls, and she charmed both great and small with her artistry and tact. In part, however, the Elizabethan Age was a success because men had at their disposal new and exciting areas, both of mind and geography, into which to channel their energies. A revolution in reading and writing was taking place, and by 1640 nearly 100 percent of the gentry and merchant elements were literate. Wealth and literacy were directly related. Possibly 50 percent of the yeomanry but only 10 percent of the husbandry and none of the peasantry were able to read or write. Although literacy among townspeople was higher, the proportions relative to wealth still held true. The years between 1560 and 1650 were an age of school-building and educational endowment; by then 142 new schools had been founded and £ 293,000 given to grammar (secondary) school education. Oxford and Cambridge also reflected the new literacy, increasing from 800 students in 1560 to 1,200 in 1630. The aim of Tudor education was less to teach the "three Rs" than to establish mind control: to drill children "in the knowledge of their duty toward God, their prince and all other[s] in their degree." A knowledge of Latin and a smattering of Greek became, even more than elegant clothing, the mark of the social elite. The educated Englishman was no longer a cleric but a J.P. or M.P. (justice of the peace or member of Parliament), a merchant or a landed gentleman who for the first time was able to express his economic, political, and religious dreams and grievances in terms of abstract principles that were capable of galvanizing people into religious and political parties. Without literacy the spiritual impact of the Puritans or, later, the formation of parties based on ideologies that engulfed the kingdom in civil war would have been impossible. So also would have been the cultural explosion that produced Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Bacon, and Donne.
Economy and society.
At the beginning of the 17th century, England and Wales contained more than four million people. The population had nearly doubled over the previous century, and it continued to grow for another 50 years. The heaviest concentrations of population were in the southeast and along the coasts. Population increase created severe social and economic problems, not the least of which was a long-term price inflation. English society was predominantly rural, with as much as 85 percent of its people living on the land. Small market towns of several hundred inhabitants facilitated local exchange, and in contrast to most of western Europe there were few large urban areas. Norwich and Bristol were the biggest provincial cities with populations of around 15,000. Exeter, York, and Newcastle were important regional centres, though they each had about 10,000 inhabitants. Only London could be ranked with the great continental cities. Its growth had outstripped even the doubling of the general population. By the beginning of the 17th century it contained more than a quarter of a million people and by the end nearly half a million, most of them poor migrants who flocked to the capital in search of work or charity. London was the centre of government, of overseas trade and finance, of fashion, taste, and culture. It was ruled by a merchant oligarchy, whose wealth increased tremendously over the course of the century as international trade expanded.
London not only ruled the English mercantile world, but it also dominated the rural economy of the southeast by its insatiable demand for food and clothing. The rural economy was predominately agricultural, with mixed animal and grain husbandry practiced wherever the land allowed. The population increase, however, placed great pressure upon the resources of local communities, and efforts by landlords and tenants to raise productivity for either profit or survival were the key feature of agricultural development. Systematic efforts to grow luxury market crops like wheat, especially in the environs of London, drove many smaller tenants from the land. So, too, did the practice of enclosure, which allowed for more productive land use by large holders at the expense of their poorer neighbours. There is evidence of a rural subsistence crisis lasting throughout the first two decades of the century. Marginally productive land came under the plow, rural revolts became more common, and harvest failures resulted in starvation rather than hunger. It was not until the middle of the century that the rural economy fully recovered and entered a period of sustained growth. A nation that could barely feed itself in 1600 was an exporter of grain by 1700.
The economic divide between rich and poor, between surplus and subsistence producers, was a principal determinant of rank and status. English society was organized hierarchically with a tightly defined ascending order of privileges and responsibilities. This hierarchy was as apparent in the family as in the state. There, as elsewhere, male domination was the rule; husbands ruled their wives, masters their servants, parents their children. But if hierarchy was stratified, it was not ossified; those who attained wealth could achieve status. The social hierarchy reflected gradations of wealth and responded to changes in the economic fortunes of individuals. In this sense it was more open than most European societies; old wealth was not preferred to new, ancient title conferred no greater privileges than recent elevation; the humble could rise to become gentle, and the gentle could fall to become humble.
During the early 17th century a small titular aristocracy composed of between 75 and 100 peers formed the apex of the social structure. Their titles were hereditary, passed from father to eldest son, and they were among the wealthiest subjects of the state. Most were local magnates, inheriting vast county estates and occupying honorific positions in local government. The peerage was the military class of the nation, and in the counties peers held the office of lord lieutenant. Most were also called to serve at court, but at the beginning of the century their power was still local rather than central.
Below them were the gentry, who probably composed only about 5 percent of the rural population but who were rising in importance and prestige. The gentry were not distinguished by title, though many were knights and several hundred purchased the rank of baronet after it was created in 1611. Sir Thomas Smith defined a member of the gentry as "he that can bear the port and charge of a gentleman." The gentry were expected to provide hospitality for their neighbours, treat their tenants paternally, and govern their counties. They served as deputy lieutenants, militia captains, and most importantly, as justices of the peace. To the justices fell the responsibility of enforcing the king's law and keeping the king's peace. They worked individually to mediate local disputes and collectively at quarter sessions to try petty crimes. As the magistracy the gentry were the backbone of county governance, and they maintained a fierce local independence even while enforcing the edicts of the crown.
Beneath the gentry were those who laboured for their survival. There were many prosperous tenants who were styled yeomen to denote their economic independence and the social gulf between them and those who eked out a bare existence. Some were the younger sons of gentlemen; others aspired to enter the ranks of the gentry, having amassed sufficient wealth to be secure against the fluctuations of the early modern economy. Like the gentry, the yeomanry were involved in local government, performing most of the day-to-day, face-to-face tasks. Yeomen were village elders, constables, and tax collectors, and they composed the juries that heard cases at quarter sessions. Most owned sufficient freehold land to be politically enfranchised and to participate in parliamentary selections. Filling out the ranks of rural society were husbandmen, cottagers, and labourers. They were the vast majority of local inhabitants, and their lives were bound up in the struggle for survival.
In towns, tradesmen and shopkeepers occupied the ranks below the ruling elites, but their occupational status clearly separated them from artisans, apprentices, and labourers. They were called the middling sort and were active in both civic and church affairs, holding the same minor offices as yeomen or husbandmen. Because of the greater concentrations of wealth and educational opportunities, the urban middling sort were active participants in urban politics.
Copyright 1994-1999 Encyclopædia Britannica, page last edited February 07, 2005