Elizabethan Era Class System

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  • 0:41 Social Structure
  • 1:16 The Nobility
  • 2:06 The Gentry
  • 3:03 The Yeomanry
  • 3:46 The Peasantry
  • 4:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Elizabethan era is generally considered to be an English Golden Age, but was this true for everyone? In this lesson, we'll talk about the class system of Elizabethan England and see how society was organized.

The Elizabethan Era

In the late 16th century, from 1558 to 1603, the people of England lived under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and watched as the kingdom grew and expanded. This period, known as the Elizabethan era, is known as one of England's Golden Ages. Shakespeare introduced the world to professional theater. Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe. England even tried its hand at colonization with settlement in North America. Desiring English society to reflect the order and stability of the Crown, Elizabeth encouraged a strict social class system.

Social Structure

Before we get into the social classes, let's talk a bit about what this phrase meant. Social class determined not only people's social status but also where they could live, where they could work, what sort of political rights they had, and even what they could wear. These rules weren't taken lightly, and violating the expectations or restrictions of one's class could be met with violent punishment.

So, what if you didn't like your class? Generally, it was tough luck. There were very few opportunities to increase your social status, and for many it was a virtual impossibility.

The Nobility

So, let's get to know these social classes. At the very top of the Elizabethan social pyramid were the nobility, or the people of noble birth. Almost everyone who was a noble was born into a noble family, although technically nobility could be granted through royal decree to those who proved themselves worthy, generally by warfare, economic prowess, or contribution to the arts. The most powerful noble was the monarch, in this case Queen Elizabeth. Below her were the other nobles.

Now, nobles did have some political rights, and expected the Queen to respect those rights. England did have a Parliament, although it was still young and weak, so most of the nobles' rights were advocated by the few nobles selected to advise the queen. Many British monarchs clashed with their nobles, but Elizabeth chose her court well, and generally they got along.

The Gentry

Just below the nobility were the gentry. The gentry were not nobles, meaning they didn't have noble titles, but were still wealthy and affluent enough that they didn't have to work with their hands. That was very important, since the sort of work you did was a direct reflection of your social class. The gentry included knights, squires, and other wealthy landowners called gentlemen or gentlewomen.

During the Elizabethan era, the gentry became England's fastest-growing social class as the new opportunities in arts, literature, science, and even exploration provided the rare opportunity for some people to develop enough wealth to enter this social class. The gentry could hope, over a few generations, to move into the nobility if they played their cards right and made the right political and financial connections. This desire to move up created a strict line in Elizabethan society. The gentry and nobility were loosely grouped together, while anyone of lower class was considered strictly inferior.

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