Social Classes of Early Modern England

Welcome to our new categorisation of the social status of early modern England, which is tied to our Class Calculator and its assigned outcomes. Click on one of the categories below to read more about its definitions in our schema. To discover some real individuals who fall into each category, visit our examples pages by following the links in each category below. These examples compile some brief biographies, images, and probate inventories (lists of possessions taken at an individual’s death) for early modern men and women.

Gentry

Elite Middling

Upper Middling

“Profession-al” Middling

Solid/Accumulative Middling

Precarious Emergent/Latent Middling

Precarious Household Middling

Dependent/Contingent Middling

Wage Labourer

Dependent Poor

CategoryCLASS
GentryGentry. You are of established gentry status! This means that you inherited a title like sir, earl, duke, or gentleman, and that you have possessed a coat of arms since birth. 

Established gentry sorts were often very wealthy and frequently had landed estates which were made up of ancestral land and properties passed through generations. They were rich enough that they often did not have to work in order to survive and could employ lots of servants for their houses and wage labourers on their land in order to generate an income. Ideologically, they tended to understand honour as being inherited and expressed through militaristic values (like knightly combat and tournaments), and believed in their inherited right to govern over those of lower status. This is in opposition to new humanist ideas developing during this period, which understood honour as being expressed through behaviour and learnt during someone’s education. As such, although some of these families were much poorer than new gentry and upper middling individuals, idealistically they aligned themselves with ancestral values which place them behaviourally within this group. Literacy among men and women of this group was high, with many being educated domestically by tutors. For example, Anne Clifford and Margaret Hoby, two women whose extensive writing about their lives survives, were of established gentry status. This was, however, a diverse status group which could move between those like William Cecil and Thomas Egerton, who were tremendously wealthy, inherited status and power, who had numerous estates and took on royal and high government offices, to those like Walter Yonge of Colyton in Devon, who was first generation established gentry (his father gained a title), who gained a legal education, and took on offices like MP whilst maintaining work as a merchant. Walter Yonge blurs the boundary between the established gentry and New Gentry, as it is clear he needed to work to maintain his modest properties, and idealistically he gains a humanist education and supports parliament over the King during the civil war.  

Examples:
Bio: Anne Clifford. 1-sentence bio. Read more here.
Bio: William Cecil. 1-sentence bio. Read more here.
Inventory: “short excerpt”, learn more here.
For examples from visual and material culture, click here.
Elite MiddlingElite Middling/New Gentry. You are of new gentry status! This means that you were likely born to a middling family, but may have been granted a coat of arms in your lifetime, and that you became extraordinarily wealthy. 

New gentry individuals were very successful in their careers, most often as merchants, where they became extremely rich. This wealth gave them access to powerful positions such as mayor, MP, or even Lord Chancellor (in the case of Lionel Cranfield, for example). They sometimes gained titles like Earl, or Duke. These individuals would act more like the landed gentry; they would buy up large estates and properties, often move between homes in cities and the provinces, and have lots of servants. They would seek to marry daughters of established high gentry families, and would often buy their property from decaying gentry families who could no longer afford their ancestral home. New gentry sorts would shore up capital, status and power for their families and descendants. They would also facilitate good marriages and excellent education for their children. Often they sought to leave lasting legacies to their locales through large benefactions which were celebrated long after their death. Very few people would manage this meteoric rise in status!

Examples:
Bio: Thomasine Harrington. 1-sentence bio. Read more here.
Bio: Edward Alleyn. 1-sentence bio. Read more here.
Inventory: “short excerpt”. Learn more here.
For examples from visual and material culture, click here.
Upper MiddlingUpper Middling. You are of Upper Middling status! This means you are approaching elite status through significant political office or influence, land, and wealth. However, although you may have just been granted a coat of arms, you have not necessarily inherited status, power or capital to pass onto descendants.

Upper Middling status individuals tend to be very well documented because they often take on positions of office within their locales, becoming powerful figures at parish or civic levels. If they did not gain influence through officeholding, then they might hold power in other sectors, by being very wealthy merchants able to buy lots of land or by leaving a lasting legacy in the arts or literature. They often had at least a grammar school education, and would often seek to send their children to universities or the Inns of Court in order to continue their families’ opportunities to maintain or enhance their social status. For example, William Shakespeare, who did gain a coat of arms in his lifetime, might be considered as being of this status because he was very wealthy in comparison to his Stratford upon Avon peers, but did not have lots of shored up wealth to pass onto his descendants. Individuals at this social level often saw themselves as being responsible for those at the bottom of the social scale (the JAMs and the dependant poor) and often helped them through charity. For example, they might take on the office of churchwarden, or overseer of the poor, they might give large amounts of money or land in their wills, or they might employ poor children in their businesses or households. Women at this level might adopt poor children or orphans or make clothing for the poor. Often, these individuals held high social credit, which means that they were very well regarded by their peers and deemed responsible and wealthy enough to be placed in positions of power within their communities. An example of someone securely of this status is James Wathen of Redcliffe parish in Bristol. He was a very wealthy pinmaker who took on the office of churchwarden multiple times in his parish. Wathen bought lots of things for his church including cushions, and an inscribed brass lectern which survives in the church today. He also employed many poor boys of the parish in pinmaking, lifting them out of absolute poverty. These men and women also tended to support charitable institutions such as almshouses, hospitals and spittle houses, though on rare occasions also ended up in need of their help at the end of their lives if they became too sick to continue working or suffered economic misfortune. As such, they are a mobile group who understand how their wealth or influence could be subject to change over time and sought to maintain their status during their lifetimes. 

Examples:
EXAMPLE 1. James Wathen. person 1-sentence with link to page
EXAMPLE 2 Michael Drayton. person 1-sentence with link to page
EXAMPLE 3 inventory with link to page for more/full
EXAMPLE 4 image
Middle“Profession-al” Middling. You are of professional middling status! You are likely to be a doctor, lawyer, member of the clergy, scrivener, or playwright, and so you are defined by your high level of literacy.  

Those of professional middling status might see themselves as ‘gentlemen’ and would have claim to this title if they attended university or the inns of court. However, despite this claim to gentility, these individuals (for the most part) lived, in all other respects, like those of middling status and so should be considered as part of this group. For example, they relied on the income gained from their profession to survive, they often sought to achieve positions of office like town clerk, and they often were not wealthy. In fact, wealth is not a significant indicator of status in this category. There are many ‘poor scholars’ in receipt of charity during this period, and Thomas Greene of Warwickshire, who was town clerk of Stratford Upon Avon for a time, died very modestly in Bristol, despite his education at the Middle Temple. Younger sons of gentry families often ended up in this status group, due to their lack of access to the inheritance their elder brothers had priority over, and so household stewards, tutors, and secretaries, could also, in some instances be considered to sit in this status category. Mobility is a key theme within this category, because literate individuals with a knowledge of the law were often required to travel between London and the provinces, or between locations as part of their job. Reputation is also essential for these men, whose success relies on the strength of their social networks with the landed gentry, urban gentry, and middling officeholders, through which they gained much of their work. Arts professionals such as playwrights, musicians, poets, antiquarians, and artists (as opposed to artisans) could also, in many cases, be considered part of this category, due to their reliance on a good reputation and patronage. It is also important to note that professional middling individuals’ education could also have been gained in service to a town clerk, attorney, or antiquarian, rather than formally. Administrative roles became more and more prevalent through the late sixteenth and into the seventeenth centuries, so many people held these kinds of jobs by the 1620s. However, this is by no means a large social group, and made up a tiny percentage of society. Despite this, due to high literacy levels, it is well represented in textual culture, as these people were central to the production of records and published works of this period.

Examples:
EXAMPLE 1 Amelia Lanyer. person 1-sentence with link to page
EXAMPLE 2 Randle Holme or Samuel Ward. person 1-sentence with link to page
EXAMPLE 3 inventory with link to page for more/full
EXAMPLE 4 image
MiddleSolid/Accumulative Middling. This group (often in the middle stages of life between youth and older age) have some claim on property, often hold minor public office roles, and are doing well in their profession/s.  Many also actively seek to increase their cultural capital (through leisure activities, furnishings, household items, and social networks) and to shore up this status for their families and children.  They have strong networks and social connections with those of both high and low status.

Many of this group are prosperous tradesmen, shopkeepers, and artisans—both men and women.  They also include moderately wealthy widows, who have some independent means and often own property and exert influence and hold standing within their immediate communities. Individuals within this group often seek occupy a range of public office roles: these can include churchwardenship (a leading role within the parish), or extend to civic or town duties in the form of clerkship, constables, beadles, or the ceremonial post of swordbearer.  Some might even occupy roles on a city or town council as an alderman or equivalent post.  Such roles confer a civic standing upon individuals, bolstering their professional identities with important moral, religious, and social responsibilities to their communities.  These roles therefore typically require (in ideal terms) social and godly respectability. As such, they not only extend the social networks of these individuals (allowing access to the mayor or to MPs and local and visiting noblemen), they also infer a creditworthiness useful for economic advancement or survival.  Likewise, such posts can be profitable forms of business networking, allowing the chance to engage with wealthier members of society such as merchants, mercers, or successful clothiers.For women, this can sometimes mean inheriting property, in particular inns or taverns that act as community hubs.  This role puts such landladies at the centre of their parishes and suggests an equivalent unofficial “office.”  Other women in this category include skilled workers and property landladies, whose rental income can help support their families and who at their death can put money aside for their children.Saving both financial assets and accruing and passing on cultural capital to children is of interest to many in this group (unlike, broadly speaking, those in the JAMs).  This allows for social mobility not only by passing on material assets but by educating children, passing on musical instruments and making provision for various forms of learning—apprenticeships, school, tutoring, music lessons, and questions of apperance and clothing.  These, however—as with all other categories—are heavily dependent upon region and profession.

Examples:
EXAMPLE 1. Humphrey Beckham. person 1-sentence with link to page
EXAMPLE 2 Nicholas and Margaret Woolfe person 1-sentence with link to page
EXAMPLE 3 inventory with link to page for more/full
EXAMPLE 4 image
JAM(Just About Middling)Precarious Emergent/Latent Middling. This youthful group are well-placed for social advancement, with potential opportunities ahead of them.  Yet in their present situation they have few assets and little money—sometimes even dependent on others for sponsorship.  James Leamen of Ipswich, for instance, was loaned £5 from the town in 1578, who described him as “A poore young man borne in [Ipswich] […] come into debt at Cambridge.”  

They include male students at the universities and men training at the Inns of Court.  Many such individuals did not have family wealth, in particular “sizars”—those who went to university and occupied service or menial roles beneath fully-paying students.  Yet through their education they gain access not only to humanistic learning useful in the busy literate institutions of early modern England from the court to the noble family house, but they also make connections with wealthy and influential figures of the future.  Such experience also has broader cultural significance; Thomas Nashe, for instance, likely met Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene when he was a sizar at Cambridge, and the three went on to have a major impact on the London literary scene in the 1590s (sometimes known as the “University wits”).Other forms of learning and training also set men up for future financial and cultural gain.  Successful apprentices—in particular in wealthier trades such as merchants, mercers, clothiers, haberdashers, drapers—would have the means and connections to make a prosperous living.  Indeed, studies have discouraged us from seeing apprentices as a unified mass; too many differentiations exist.  As such, we might think of certain (possibly lucky) apprentices within this group; the position and influence of one’s father, the amount of money a family has to “place” an apprentice, and the nature of the work all impact significantly upon the extent of that latent social mobility.  Nonetheless, even those not from significantly well-off backgrounds had the potential to develop skills that would help them form a secure household in the future.Although apprentices are in a position of dependence—on the household and teaching of their master—they possess like students a latent capital.  As with other categories here, there was also a spiritual and moral association with their good conduct that was designed to inculcate them into society as godly and disciplined individuals, something enshrined in apprenticeship indentures (which usually lasted from one’s mid-teens for approximately 7 years).  Specific advice manuals were also printed for young men and women, including apprentices and servants.  Women in this category can have a similar “apprenticeship,” albeit usually informally, in a number of ways.  Wealthier or well-placed young women might have the chance for a good humanist education through tutors, which would set them up well for marriage.  In this stage, their mobility is also latent.  Others might have spent years in service, bringing with them into a marriage many skills and the experience of moving between environments and negotiating between high and low social networks—especially if they themselves worked in middling households.  In Bristol in particular, women appear as apprentices as in major guilds meaning that they themselves would also have occupied positions similar to the young men above, giving them the opportunity to earn their own living in the future either related to or separate from marriage.This group individuals are often obscured in historical records, at least at this stage of their life, as their minority places them outside of much official documentation.

Examples:
EXAMPLE 1. Edward Alleyn (young). person 1-sentence with link to page
EXAMPLE 2 James Leaman. person 1-sentence with link to page
EXAMPLE 3 inventory with link to page for more/full
EXAMPLE 4 image
JAMPrecarious Household Middling. You are in the Precarious Household Middling.  This category broadly represents households (though sometimes individuals) who are of some independent means, run their house, and have some skilled trade but whose financial status is not stable. They can therefore be forced to rely on charitable support and are highly liable to drop into the Dependent Poor.

These individuals, broadly speaking, are not so geographically mobile, often rooted in their local community and the structures in and around their household.This group likely includes the majority of handicraftsmen, artisans, or shopkeepers and their families, who probably hired few if any servants.  Although these individuals ran their own businesses, they had little capital and few assets beyond their domestic spaces.  Changes in trade capacity or personal circumstances could easily push them into poverty, though equally they could provide opportunity for greater enrichment.  But this group also have access to range of cultural materials from printed texts to decorative furnishings within their houses and shops.  The details of such materials remain hazy, as inventories that record such items were not usually created for these, less wealthy, individuals.  Yet many (but not all) would have been “freemen” of their respective locales, with access to livery company activities and with opportunities for small-scale local office. This conferred upon those who took such positions—beadle, watchmen, lower but distinguishing roles in the musters—a degree of moral responsibility and worth, charateristics that would have been helpful if charitable support were needed in the future.  Indeed, these individuals may even have or have had the capacity to engage in moderate acts of local charity or in supporting the provision of charitable institutions, but their precarious status means they too may risk depending on the benefaction of others. In positions of office or livery company structures, male householders would have rubbed shoulders and entertained and been entertained by those of significantly greater financial and political status, thereby furnishing them with potentially advantageous social networks.  Women in this category, as in most others, would have worked too, producing foodstuffs in the house and perhaps producing items for sale or exchange.  This group are therefore industrious both at home and abroad. Beyond families, this group might include, for instance, orphans who had been placed in good households that may lead them to a solid apprenticeship and the promise of future social mobility, though such progression is by no means guaranteed. 

Examples:
EXAMPLE 1. Thomas Cowper. person 1-sentence with link to page
EXAMPLE 2. Lettice Greene. person 1-sentence with link to page
EXAMPLE 3 inventory with link to page for more/full
EXAMPLE 4 image
JAMSDependent Middling. These individuals are not independent but neither do they work for a wage (Wage Labourers) or depend on poor relief or charity (Dependent Poor).  Instead, they live off the wider “middling” structures that surround them, in particular their inheritance, their families, and their savings or existing capital.[See more]In large part, this category is determined by age: either those who were very young (children and young teenagers) or those past the age of work or household management had some contingent status or were dependent on those around them while nonetheless living relatively well. Ageing individuals, particularly those women unable to leverage their situation (either by rent or other income) and therefore were dependent on their sons or wider family.  Many middling women, for instance, would be given “houseroom” in their husband’s wills, granting them a small area of the house (a chamber and a parlour, for instance) over which they have autonomy but within a larger house owned and ruled by other members of the family.  Nonetheless, these individuals often keep many of the material goods they have amassed, such as kitchenware, clothes, or decorative items (like rings) and as such display a degree of material wealth and comfort. This situation also extends servants in good houses—those furnished with cultural items such as books and a regular, favourable income that distinguishes them in some sense from wage labourers (though the distinctions here are not hard and fast). Children before apprenticeable or marriageable age also fall into this category, although the range of opportunities that might fall to them is very wide.  Some may be furnished with musical instrument tuition or attend a good school—setting them up for progression into one of the higher social categories—while others might have more moderate means bestowed upon them but nonetheless be well-placed (culturally, socially, and economically) to move onto degrees of independent wealth and status.Lastly, this might include younger adults, too, who had reasonable cultural and social capital but little independent means.  Women in particular who had not yet married might still live with their families, where they might enjoy entertainment, living standards, and wide social networks of varying “middling” degrees.

Examples:
EXAMPLE 1. Elizabeth Souch. person 1-sentence with link to page
EXAMPLE 2 Margaret Beckham. person 1-sentence with link to page
EXAMPLE 3 inventory with link to page for more/full
EXAMPLE 4 image
 Wage Labourer. You are not of middling status but are a wage labourer!  Although relatively little is known about this very broad social group, it almost certainly comprised the vast majority of the population: farmworkers, builders’ mates, cleaners, small-scale servants, or ad hoc workers in a range of manual or service tasks.  These individuals depended on payments from their employers—regularly or where work could be found—to get by. 

Although our knowledge of this group is obscured by the relatively few textual sources that survive, individuals regularly appeared in court as both subjects and witnesses (thereby leaving important oral testimony about their work and social relations) and demonstrated that they, like other groups here, had recourse to institutional power structures like the law.  Wages, however, are never guaranteed—especially in difficult years.  Those working in agricultural sectors or rural areas would have suffered, for example, during the “hard” 1590s, when bad harvests and famine were rife.  In cities, wage labour covered a broad array of activities and examples extend from work as a tavern hand to a day rate as a jobbing actor. The term “labourer” need not imply a lack of skill, ability, or socio-economic value; indeed, even where the names of these individuals are elided, their civic value is recorded: in Bristol in 1619, for instance, the city Chamberlain paid “Hughe Tyler 15 shillings 4 pence and 1 shiling for seven days’ work for himself and his man” (357).  Here, the “man” in question demonstrates that wage labourers are deeply involved in the work of artisans and craftspeople “higher” in the social order, though they themselves likely lacked assets, capital, and any independent wealth or property.  These classifications also apply to women, many of whom would take on service roles in middling or elite households or indeed work for their living, like spinsters or silkweavers—a common profession (especially among immigrant women). Relationships with local authorities demonstrate the frighteningly porous divide between wage labouring existence and dependence, but it also testifies to the array of tasks for which a “wage” might be earned: in Bristol, audits record a regular amount set aside yearly to pay “a poore woman for keeping cleane the howse of office and the watering place att the Guildhald doore” (1604, 216).  Cleaners, builders, labourers, farmhands, jobbing actors all had vibrant social lives, as can be just about glimpsed from citations in quarter sessions and court depositions, but details about their possessions, the extent of their social interactions, and their fuller biographies have suffered from a seeming lack of available evidence.  Picaresque tales, ballad literature, and stage depictions paint depictions of what such lived experience might be like, but they threaten to mislead our understanding through caricature, classism, and exaggeration. 
 Dependent Poor. You are not of middling status, but are dependent poor. These individuals are dependent on structures of charity within their parishes for survival. [See More]The dependant poor relied upon donations of bread and money, and/or tools and materials to gain an income. They lived in an almshouse, workhouse or hospital, or they were homeless. Children of this status may be cared for by wealthier families within the parish, apprenticed in order to lift them out of poverty, or placed in service, though often these young people lived difficult lives sometimes working without pay in order to have somewhere to live. The 1601 poor law formalised poor relief in England, and middling and elite status individuals all paid money to their parishes in order to support this vast section of society. This law was enhanced by the many wealthy individuals who gave a lot of money or land in their wills to their parishes in order to support the poor. There are many examples of the dependent poor being supported in churchwardens accounts. For example, in St Peter’s Parish, Ipswich, Matthew Brownbridge gave 20li to enable the poor of the parish to work. Poor men and women benefited from this gift for many years, with individuals being given spinning wheels, wool cards, saws, medical care, and money to see them through sickness. Another Ipswich example is of Tooley’s almshouses whose accounts show inhabitants receiving shoes, clothing, food and fuel as well as a place to live. In Bristol, churchwarden accounts often record individuals being made clothing, children being placed in the care of wealthier individuals and supported with money, the sick being placed in spittle houses and maimed soldiers from Ireland, widows of shipwrecked inhabitants, and poor scholars being given donations to survive. The dependant poor made up a significant part of society, and those of upper middling status in particular had responsibility for ensuring they were provided for to avoid social unrest and vagrancy.