A Description of Elizabethan England. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
Of Degrees of People in the Commonwealth of Elizabethan England
[1577, Book III., Chapter 4; 1587, Book II., Chapter 5.]
WE in England, divide our people commonly into four sorts, as gentlemen, citizens or burgesses, yeomen, and artificers or labourers. Of gentlemen the first and chief (next the king) be the prince, dukes, marquesses, 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. So that in effect our gentlemen are divided into their conditions, whereof in this chapter I will make particular rehearsal.
The title of prince doth peculiarly belong with us to the kings eldest son, who is called Prince of Wales, and is the heir-apparent to the crown; as in France the kings eldest son hath the title of Dauphin, and is named peculiarly Monsieur. So that the prince is so termed of the Latin word Princeps, since he is (as I may call him) the chief or principal next the king. The kings younger sons be but gentlemen by birth (till they have received creation or donation from their father of higher estate, as to be either viscounts, earls, or dukes) and called after their names, as Lord Henry, or Lord Edward, with the addition of the word Grace, properly assigned to the king and prince, and now also by custom conveyed to dukes, archbishops, and (as some say) to marquesses and their wives .1
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. They retain also the ancient name (lord) still, although it be not a little impugned by such as love either to hear of change of all things or can abide no superiors. For notwithstanding it be true that in respect of function the office of the eldership2 is equally distributed between the bishop and the minister, yet for civil governments sake the first have more authority given unto them by kings and princes, to the end that the rest may thereby be with more ease retained within a limited compass of uniformity than otherwise they would be if each one were suffered to walk in his own course. This also is more to be marvelled at, that very many call for an alteration of their estate, crying to have the word lord abolished, their civil authority taken from them, and the present condition of the church in other things reformed; whereas, to say truly, few of them do agree upon form of discipline and government of the church succeedent, wherein they resemble the Capuans (of whom Livy doth speak) in the slaughter of their senate. Neither is it possible to frame a whole monarchy after the pattern of one town or city, or to stir up such an exquisite face of the church as we imagine or desire, sith our corruption is such that it will never yield to so great perfection; for that which is not able to be performed in a private house will be much less be brought to pass in a commonwealth and kingdom, before such a prince be found as Xenophon describeth, or such an orator as Tully hath devised .3
Dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons either be created of the prince or come to that honour by being the eldest sons or highest in succession to their parents. For the eldest ton of a duke during his fathers life is an earl, the eldest son of an earl is a baron, or sometimes a viscount, according as the creation is. The creation I call the original donation and condition of the honour given by the prince for good service done by the first ancestor, with some advancement, which, with the title of that honour, is always given to him and his heirs males only. The rest of the sons of the nobility by the rigour of the law be but esquires; yet in common speech all dukes and marquesses sons and earls eldest sons be called lords, the which name commonly doth agree to none of lower degree than barons, yet by law and use these be not esteemed barons.
The barony or degree of lords doth answer to the degree of senators of Rome (as I said) and the title of nobility (as we used to call it in England) to the Roman Patricii. Also in England no man is commonly created baron except he may dispend of yearly revenses a thousand pounds, or so much as may fully maintain and bear out his countenance and port. But viscounts, earls, marquesses, and dukes exceed them according to the proportion of their degree and honour. But though by chance he or his son have less, yet he keepeth this degree: but if the decay be excessive, and not able to maintain the honour (as Senatores Romani were amoti à senatu), so sometimes they are not admitted to the upper house in the parliament, although they keep the name of lord still, which cannot be taken from them upon any such occasion.
Knights be not born, neither is any man a knight by succession, no, not the king or prince: but they are made either before the battle, to encourage them the more to adventure and try their manhood; or after the battle ended, as an advancement for their courage and prowess already shewed, and then are they called Milites; or out of the wars for some great service done, or for the singular virtues which do appear in them, and then are they named Equites Aurati, as common custom intendeth. They are made either by the king himself, or by his commission and royal authority given for the same purpose, or by his lieutenant in the wars .5
Sometime diverse ancient gentlemen, burgesses, and lawyers are called unto knighthood by the prince, and nevertheless refuse to take that state upon them, for which they are of custom punished by a fine, that redoundeth unto his coffers, and (to say truth) is oftentimes more profitable unto him than otherwise their service should be, if they did yield unto knighthood. And this also is a cause wherefore there be many in England able to dispend a knights living, which never come unto that countenance, and by their own consents. The number of the knights in Rome was also uncertain: and so is it of knights likewise, with us, as at the pleasure of the prince. And whereas the Equites Romani had Equum Publicum of custom bestowed upon them, the knights of England have not so, but bear their own charges in that also, as in other kind of furniture, as armour meet for their defence and service. This nevertheless is certain, that whoso may dispend forty pounds by the year of free land, either at the coronation of the king, or marriage of his daughter, or time of his dubbing, may be informed unto the taking of that degree, or otherwise pay the revenues of his land for one year, which is only forty pounds by an old proportion, and so for a time be acquitted of that title .6
At the coronation of a king or queen, there be other knights made with longer and more curious ceremonies, called knights of the bath. But howsoever one be dubbed or made knight, his wife is by-and-by called Madam, or Lady, so well as the barons wife: he himself having added to his name in common appellation this syllable Sir, which is the title whereby we call our knights in England. His wife also of courtesy so long as she liveth is called my lady, although she happen to marry with a gentleman or man of mean calling, albeit that by the common law she hath no such prerogative. If her first husband also be of better birth than her second, though this latter likewise be a knight, yet in that she pretendeth a privilege to lose no honour through courtesy yielded to her sex, she will be named after the most honourable or worshipful of both, which is not seen elsewhere.
The other order of knighthood in England, and the most honourable, is that of the garter, instituted by King Edward the Third, who, after he had gained many notable victories, taken King John of France, and King James of Scotland (and kept them both prisoners in the Tower of London at one time), expelled King Henry of Castille, the bastard, out of his realm, and restored Don Pedro unto it (by the help of the Prince of Wales and Duke of Aquitaine, his eldest son, called the Black Prince), he then invented this society of honour, and made a choice out of his own realm and dominions, and throughout all Christendom of the best, most excellent, and renowned persons in all virtues and honour, and adorned them with that title to be knights of his order, giving them a garter garnished with gold and precious stones, to wear daily on the left leg only; also a kirtle, gown, cloak, chaperon, collar, and other solemn and magnificent apparel, both of stuff and fashion exquisite and heroical to wear at high feasts, and as to so high and princely an order appertaineth .
The order of the garter therefore was devised in the time of King Edward the Third, and (as some write) upon this occasion. The queens majesty then living, being departed from his presence the next way toward her lodging, he following soon after happened to find her garter, which slacked by chance and so fell from her leg, unespied in the throng by such as attended upon her. His grooms and gentlemen also passed by it, as disdaining to stoop and take up such a trifle: but he, knowing the owner, commanded one of them to stay and reach it up to him. Why, and like your grace, saith a gentleman, it is but some womans garter that hath fallen from her as she followed the queens majesty. Whatsoever it be, quoth the king, take it up and give it me. So when he had received the garter, he said to such as stood about him: You, my masters, do make small account of this bule garter here, and therewith held it out, but, if God lend me life for a few months, I will make the proudest of you all to reverence the like. And even upon this slender occasion he gave himself to the devising of this order. Certes, I have not read of anything that having had so simple a beginning hath grown in the end to so great honour and estimation .7
There is yet another order of knights in England called knights bannerets, who are made in the field with the ceremony of cutting away the point of his pennant of arms, and making it as it were a banner, so that, being before but a bachelor knight, he is now of an higher degree, and allowed to display his arms in a banner, as barons do. Howbeit these knights are never made but in the wars, the kings standard being unfolded .8
Moreover, as the king doth dub knights, and createth the barons and higher degrees, so gentlemen whose ancestors are not known to come in with William Duke of Normandy (for of the Saxon races yet remaining we now make none accounted, much less of the British issue) do take their beginning in England, after this manner in our times.
Whosoever studieth the laws of the realm, whoso abideth in the university (giving his mind to his book), or professeth physic and the liberal sciences, or beside his service in the room of a captain in the wars, or good counsel given at home, whereby his commonwealth is benefited, can live without manual labour, and thereto is able and will bear the port, charge, and countenance of a gentleman, he shall for money have a coat and arms bestowed upon him by heralds (who in the charter of the same do of custom pretend antiquity and service, and many gay things thereunto, being made so good cheap, be called master (which is the title that men give to esquires and gentlemen), and reputed for a gentleman ever after, which is so much less to be disallowed of for that the prince doth lose nothing by it, the gentleman being so much subject to taxes and public payments as is the yeoman or husbandman, which he likewise doth bear the gladlier for the saving of his reputation. Being called also to the wars (for with the government of the commonwealth he meddleth little), whatsoever it cost him, he will both array and arm himself accordingly, and shew the more manly courage, and all the tokens of the person which he representeth. No man hath hurt by it but himself, who peradventure will go in wider buskins than his legs will bear, or, as our proverb saith, now and then bear a bigger sail than his boat is able to sustain.
Certes the making of new gentlemen bred great strife sometimes amongst the Romans, I mean when those which were Novi homines were more allowed of for their virtues newly seen and shewed than the old smell of ancient race, lately defaced by the cowardice and evil life of their nephews and descendants, could make the other to be. But as envy hath no affinity with justice and equity, so it forceth not what language the malicious do give out, against such as are exalted for their wisdoms. This nevertheless is generally to be reprehended in all estates of gentility, and which in short time will turn to the great ruin of our country, and that is, the usual sending of noblemens and mean gentlemens sons into Italy, from whence they bring home nothing but mere atheism, infidelity, vicious conversation, and ambitious and proud behaviour, whereby it cometh to pass that they return far worse men than they went out. A gentleman at this present is newly come out of Italy, who went thither an earnest Protestant; but coming home he could say after this manner: Faith and truth is to be kept where no loss or hindrance of a future purpose is sustained by holding of the same; and forgiveness only to be shewed when full revenge is made. Another no less forward than he, at his return from thence, could add thus much: He is a fool that maketh account of any religion, but more fool that will lose any part of his wealth or will come in trouble for constant leaning to any; but if he yield to lose his life for his possession, he is stark mad, and worthy to be taken for most fool of all the rest. This gay booty got these gentlemen by going into Italy; and hereby a man may see what fruit is afterward to be looked for where such blossoms do appear. I care not, saith a third, what you talk to me of God, so as I may have the prince and the laws of the realm on my side. Such men as this last are easily known; for they have learned in Italy to go up and down also in England with pages at their heels finely apparelled, whose face and countenance shall be such as sheweth the master not to be blind in his choice. But lest I should offend too much, I pass over to say any more of these Italianates and their demeanour, which, alas! is too open and manifest to the world, and yet not called into question.
Citizens and burgesses have next place to gentlemen, who be those that are free within the cities, and are of some likely substance to bear office in the same. But these citizens or burgesses are to serve the commonwealth in their cities and boroughs, or in corporate towns where they dwell, and in the common assembly of the realm wherein our laws are made (for in the counties they bear but little sway), which assembly is called the High Court of Parliament: the ancient cities appoint four and the borough two burgesses to have voices in it, and give their consent or dissent unto such things as pass, to stay there in the name of the city or borough for which they are appointed.
In this place also are our merchants to be installed as amongst the citizens (although they often change estate with gentlemen, as gentlemen do with them, by a mutual conversion of the one into the other), whose number is so increased in these our days that their only maintenance is the cause of the exceeding prices of foreign wares, which otherwise, when every nation was permitted to bring in her own commodities, were far better, cheaper, and more plentifully to be had. Of the want of our commodities here at home, by their great transportation of them into other countries, I speak not, sith the matter will easily betray itself. Certes among the Lacedaemonians it was found out that great numbers of merchants were nothing to the furtherance of the state of the commonwealth: wherefore it is to be wished that the huge heap of them were somewhat restrained, as also of our lawyers, so should the rest live more easily upon their own, and few honest chapmen be brought to decay by breaking of the bankrupt. I do not deny but that the navy of the land is in part maintained by their traffic, and so are the high prices of wares kept up, now they have gotten the only sale of things upon pretence of better furtherance of the commonwealth into their own hands: whereas in times past, when the strange bottoms were suffered to come in, we had sugar for fourpence the pound, that now at the writing of this Treatise is well worth half-a-crown; raisins or currants for a penny that now are holden at sixpence, and sometimes at eightpence and tenpence the pound; nutmegs at twopence halfpenny the ounce, ginger at a penny an ounce, prunes at halfpenny farthing, great raisins three pounds for a penny, cinnamon at fourpence the ounce, cloves at twopence, and pepper at twelve and sixteen pence the pound. Whereby we may see the sequel of things not always, but very seldom, to be such as is pretended in the beginning. The wares that they carry out of the realm are for the most part broad clothes and carsies9 of all colours, likewise cottons, friezes, rugs, tin, wool, our best beer, baize, bustian, mockadoes (tufted and plain), rash, lead, fells, etc.: which, being shipped at sundry ports of our coasts, are borne from thence into all quarters of the world, and there either exchanged for other wares or ready money, to the great gain and commodity of our merchants. And whereas in times past their chief trade was into Spain, Portugal, France, Flanders, Danske [Denmark], Norway, Scotland, and Ireland only, now in these days, as men not contented with these journeys, they have sought out the East and West Indies, and made now and then suspicious voyages, not only unto the Canaries and New Spain, but likewise into Cathay, Muscovy, and Tartaria, and the regions thereabout, from whence (as they say) they bring home great commodities. But alas! I see not by all their travel that the prices of things are any whit abated. Certes this enormity (for so I do account of it) was sufficiently provided for (Ann. 9 Edward III.) by a noble statute made in that behalf, but upon what occasion the general execution thereof is stayed or not called on, in good sooth, I cannot tell. This only I know, that every function and several vocation striveth with other, which of them should have all the water of commodity run into her own cistern.
Yeomen are those which by our law are called Legales homines, free men born English, and may dispend of their own free land in yearly revenue to the sum of forty shillings sterling, or six pounds as money goeth in our times. Some are of the opinion, by Cap. 2 Rich. 2 Ann. 20, that they are same which the Frenchmen call varlets, but, as the phrase is used in my time, it is very unlikely to be so. The truth is that the word is derived from the Saxon term Zeoman, or Geoman, which signifieth (as I have read) a settled or staid man, such I mean as, being married and of some years, betaketh himself to stay in the place of his abode for the better maintenance of himself and his family, whereof the single sort have no regard, but are likely to be still fleeting now hither now thither, which argueth want of stability in determination and resolution of judgment, for the execution of things of any importance. This sort of people have a certain pre-eminence, and more estimation that labourers and the common sort of artificers, and these commonly live wealthily, keep good houses, and travel to get riches. They are also for the most part farmers to gentlemen (in old time called Pagani, et opponuntur militibus, and therefore Persius calleth himself Semipaganus), or at the leastwise artificers, and with grazing, frequenting of markets, and keeping of servants (not idle servants, as the gentlemen do, but such as get both their own and part of their masters living), do come to great wealth, insomuch that many of them are able and do buy the lands of unthrifty gentlemen, and often setting their sons to the schools, to the universities, and to the Inns of the Court, or, otherwise leaving them sufficient lands whereupon they may live without labour, do make them by those means to become gentlemen. These were they that in times past made all France afraid. And albeit they be not called Master, as gentlemen are, or Sir, as to knights appertaineth, but only John and Thomas, etc., yet have they been found to have done very good service.
The kings of England in foughten battles were wont to remain among them (who were their footmen) as the French kings did amongst their horsemen, the prince thereby shewing where his chief strength did consist.
The fourth and last sort of people in England are day-labourers, poor husbandmen, and some retailers (which have no free land) copyholders, and all artificers, as tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, brickmakers, masons, etc.10
As for slaves and bondmen, we have none; nay, such is the privilege of our country by the especial grace of God and bounty of our princes, that if any come hither from other realms, so soon as they set foot on land they become so free of condition as their masters, whereby all note of servile bondage is utterly removed from them, wherein we resemble (not the Germans, who had slaves also, though such as in respect of the slaves of other countries might well be reputed free, but) the old Indians and the Taprobanes,11 who supposed it a great injury to Nature to make or suffer them to be bond, whom she in her wonted course doth product and bring forth free. This fourth and last sort of people therefore have neither voice nor authority in the commonwealth, but are to be ruled and not to rule other: yet they are not altogether neglected, for in cities and corporate towns, for default of yeomen, they are fain to make up their inquests of such manner of people. And in villages they are commonly made churchwardens, sidesmen, aleconners, now and then constables, and many times enjoy the name of head boroughs. Unto this sort also may our great swarms of idle serving-men be referred, of whom there runneth a proverb, Young servingmen, old beggars, because service is none heritage. These men are profitable to none; for, if their condition be well perused, they are enemies to their masters, to their friends, and to themselves: for by them oftentimes their masters are encouraged unto unlawful exactions of their tenants, their friends brought unto poverty by their rents enhanced, and they themselves brought to confusion by their own prodigality and errors, as men that, having not wherewith of their own to maintain their excesses, do search in highways, budgets, coffers, mails, and stables, which way to supply their wants. How divers of them also, coveting to bear an high sail, do insinuate themselves with young gentlemen and noblemen newly come to their lands, the case is too much apparent, whereby the good natures of the parties are not only a little impaired, but also their livelihoods and revenues so wasted and consumed that, if at all, yet not in many years, they shall be able to recover themselves. It were very good therefore that the superfluous heaps of them were in part diminished. And since necessity enforceth to have some, yet let wisdom moderate their numbers, so shall their masters be rid of unnecessary charge, and the commonwealth of many thieves. No nation cherisheth such store of them as we do here in England, in hope of which maintenance many give themselves to idleness that otherwise would be brought to labour, and live in order like subjects. Of their whoredoms I will not speak anything at all, more than of their swearing; yet is it found that some of them do make the first a chief pillar of their building, consuming not only the goods but also the health and welfare of many honest gentlemen, citizens, wealthy yeomen, etc., by such unlawful dealings. But how far have I waded in this point, or how far may I sail in such a large sea? I will therefore now stay to speak any more of those kind of men. In returning therefore to my matter, this furthermore among other things I have to say of our husbandmen and artificers, that they were never so excellent in their trades as at this present. But as the workmanship of the latter sort was newer, more fine, and curious to the eye, so was it never less strong and substantial for continuance and benefit of the buyers. Neither is there anything that hurteth the common sort of our artificers more than haste, and a barbarous or slavish desire to turn the penny, and, by ridding their work, to make speedy utterance of their wares: which enforceth them to bungle up and despatch many things they care not how so they be out of their hands, whereby the buyer is often sore defrauded, and findeth to his cost that haste maketh waste, according to the proverb.
Oh, how many trades and handicrafts are now in England whereof the commonwealth hath no need! How many needful commodities have we which are perfected with great cost, etc., and yet many with far more ease and less cost be provided from other countries if we could use the means! I will not speak of iron, glass, and such like, which spoil much wood, and yet are brought from other countries better cheap than we can make them here at home; I could exemplify also in many other. But to leave these things and proceed with our purpose, and herein (as occasion serveth) generally, by way of conclusion, to speak of the commonwealth of England, I find that it is governed and maintained by three sorts of persons
2. The gentlemen which be divided into two sorts, as the barony or estate of lords (which containeth barons and all above that degree), and also those that be no lords, as knights, esquires, and simple gentlemen, as I have noted already. Out of these also are the great deputies and high presidents chosen, of which one serveth in Ireland, as another did some time in Calais, and the captain now at Berwick, as one lord president doth govern in Wales, and the other the north parts of this island, which later, with certain counsellors and judges, were erected by King Henry the Eighth. But, for so much as I have touched their conditions elsewhere, it shall be enough to have remembered them at this time.
3. The third and last sort is named the yeomanry, of whom and their sequel, the labourers and artificers, I have said somewhat even now. Whereto I add that they may not be called masters and gentlemen, but goodmen, as Goodman Smith, Goodman Coot, Goodman Cornell, Goodman Mascall, Goodman Cockswet, etc., and in matters of law these and the like are called thus, Giles Jewd, yeoman; Edward Mountford, yeoman; James Cocke, yeoman; Harry Butcher, yeoman, etc.; by which addition they are exempt from the vulgar and common sorts. Cato calleth them Aratores et optimos cives rei publicæ, of whom also you may read more in the book of commonwealth which Sir Thomas Smith some time penned of this land.