English Class System in the 16th Century

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Few societies have seen as much change as England during the 16th century. Still, the social classes that grouped that country remained largely intact, despite some internal challenges. In this lesson, we will discuss these internal changes and how it affected the class system in England.

England in the 1500s

While a whole new world was being opened up in the Americas, England was in many ways a society trapped in an Old World mindset. However, as the 1500s continued on, there were some major changes to English society. There was a stronger respect for the middle class, and the emergence of a new group somewhere between noble and commoner that was definitely not either. In this lesson, we'll track the development of the class system in 16th century England, seeing how these differences affected life during that period.


As had long been the case in England, the nobility reigned supreme on the social pyramid. Ranking just below the monarch, many nobles actually had blood ties to the crown. Many more had proven their worth - or at least their grandfathers had proven their worth - in service to the Crown. They were regional masters of their domain in a time when the central government in London was still trying to settle a way to control the whole country effectively. In fact, to keep an eye on this bunch, the monarch would travel around the country for weeks at a time, visiting noble residences to be sure that loyalty was guaranteed.

Elizabeth I was Queen for much of the late 1500s and therefore head of the social structure


The biggest threat to the nobility did not come from an over-eager monarch, however. Instead, a number of commoners had accumulated vast sums of wealth. While much of this was off the wool trade with the European Continent, as the century went on more and more of it came from commercial ventures in the New World. This social class was referred to as the Gentry, or sometimes the Aristocracy. For years, English society didn't know quite what to do with the gentry. Ultimately, they would become part of the political powerful ruling classes in later centuries, but for the 16th century, they were wealthy, but still seeking to gain power anyway they can.

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