The Elizabethan Era, ranging from 1588 to 1603, is often referred to as the golden age of English history.
This “golden age” represents the height of the English Renaissance as theatre, music, and the fine arts continued to thrive while other developments occurred in the fields of science, technology, and exploration. This was made possible by a strong social hierarchy composed of the monarch, nobility, gentry, merchants, yeomanry, and laborers. These classes were able to work together to make the Elizabethan Era the prosperous epoch that history recognizes it to be. During the Elizabethan Era, at the top of the social pyramid was the Monarch, specifically Queen Elizabeth I.
She was the sixth ruler of the Tudor period, ranging from 1485 to 1603. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, who was executed when Elizabeth was just two years old. Declared an illegitimate child, Elizabeth had an extremely difficult time rising to the throne, but eventually did so in 1588. Considered by many to be England’s best monarch, Elizabeth was a wise and just queen and made sure to choose the right advisers, who she heavily relied on. Unlike her predecessors, Elizabeth was more moderate with her actions, following the motto “video et taceo”, translating to “I see but say nothing.
” Similarly, while Elizabeth was expected to marry and produce an heir to continue the Tudor line, she never did, making her the last ruler of the Tudor period. Following Queen Elizabeth I on the social ladder was the nobility. Those who made up the nobility were rich, powerful, and owned large households. In order to be in this class, one would have to be born into it or receive a grant from the queen. There were only about 55 noble families, headed by a duke, a baron, or an earl. During the War of the Roses, many nobles died while other members lost their title by committing crimes such as treason. Because Elizabeth viewed this class as a threat to her power, she would rarely appoint new nobles to replace those who died or lost their title.
Nobles were expected to serve in an office, such as in the court or parliament. While there were benefits to being a part of this class, many fell into debt because they were expected to maintain huge households and enjoy lavish entertainment. The next social class was the gentry which was composed of knights, squires, gentlemen, and gentlewomen. This class grew tremendously during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, becoming the most important social class in England. People who were not born into nobility became a part of this class by being wealthy landowners. In fact, they were typically as wealthy as nobility and had the work ethic of those in the lower social classes they came from. This class was the backbone of Elizabethan England as gentry served in the government, some even serving as the queen’s ministers.
Additionally, they made significant contributions such as leading the way to the English colonization in America. Below the gentry on the social hierarchy were the merchants. During this time period, England witnessed the rise of modern commerce, with cloth and weaving leading the way. Thus, the merchant class benefited from the prosperity of the wool trade.
In addition, shipping products from and to England became a profitable business, as merchants were able to monopolize this industry and continuously increase the prices of foreign goods. Unlike the previous three classes, merchants lived a very quiet lifestyle, mostly in London. Many members of this class yearned to become the Lord Mayor of London, a position of power that would allow them to oppose the monarch. After the merchants came the yeomanry, the rural equivalents of citizens. Considered part of the “middle class”, members of this class worked on their own land or land owned by others and made enough money to live comfortably, sometimes being even wealthier than the gentry. With their money, yeomanry improved and expanded their land, rather than building large homes. However, through illness or misfortune, members of this class could easily plunge into poverty.
People within this class took up jobs as farmers, tradesmen, and craft workers and produced food for others. They took religion extremely seriously and were educated enough to read and write. Finally, the last class in the social hierarchy consisted of laborers. People within this class were either beggars or worked as artisans, shoemakers, carpenters, brick masons, or another profession that involved them working with their hands. As they were very poor, they worked very hard to keep what little that had and were able to own a very small cottage at best.
Members of this class usually worked for large landowners and were not paid well. Under Queen Elizabeth I, the government passed the Elizabethan Poor Laws which assisted laborers by being one of the world’s first government-sponsored welfare programs. However, any laborer found guilty of being able to work and choosing not to could have been sentenced to death.
As can be seen, the social stratification during the Elizabethan Era provided a stable structure that ensured certain jobs would be completed and particular skills would exist. This allowed England to thrive during the “golden age” with developments in many different fields. However, being born into the right family seemed to play a major factor in getting into high social classes. In contrast, in America, even if one is dirt poor, they can work hard to climb up the social hierarchy. Not only does this drive the poor to improve their status and wealth, but those with nobility need to work hard to keep their position and fortune.
Thus, even though a stable social structure is crucial to the success of a society, it is important to remember that it should not be kept rigid.