Social Rank

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Social rank

Society in the seventeenth century was very hierarchical with the monarch at the top of the social order. One of the difficulties facing us today is that many of the titles that were used have a different meaning today: 'gentleman' for example, had a fairly clear meaning in 1650 whereas today it tends to be used merely as a synonym for 'man'.

Social rank in seventeenth century England can be a complex issue but this is an attempt to clarify some of the points.


Below the level of the royal family, the most privileged individuals in England were classed as the Nobility. This group included (in descending order of seniority) Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Viscounts and Barons. Dukes were usually referred to as 'The Duke of…' while the other title holders would usually be referred to as 'Lord'. So Robert Hungerford, 2nd Baron Hungerford, was referred to in writing as Lord Robert Hungerford.1 2 Members of all of these groups were entitled to a seat in the House of Lords and had privileges in law and in taxation.3

Peers were (and still sometimes are) referred to as 'The Lords Temporal'. You may also see references to 'The Lords Spiritual'. These were (and are) the senior clergy of the Church of England (the Archbishops of Canterbury and York along with many, but not all, Bishops).

The nobility are fairly easy to identify in written and printed sources.


Members of this group included Baronets and Knights. Both would be identified as Sir John Smith, for example, but in writing a Baronet would typically be Sir John Smith Bt (or Bart).

There were exceptions however. In some cases men who had a degree of Bachelor of Arts (BA) was referred to as 'Sir' in written documents. For example, there is a letter relating to a school in Bromyard, Herefordshire, that identifies a man who was a master at the school as Sir John Bastennal. It seems unlikely that he was a true Knight because he was employed as a schoolmaster earning £3 9s 11d a year. In another case 'Sir Robert Coventry' was described as the master at Coventry free school while 'Sir William Dalam' of Stratford upon Avon was identified as a clerk in the sixteenth century. Those with a higher degree would have been identified as 'Master' as was 'Master John Richards' who was schoolmaster at Wye in Kent.

An Esquire (usually abbreviated to Esq.) was originally in the service of a Knight but by the seventeenth century this had changed. In theory, they were the male heirs of the younger sons of peers, male heirs of knights or men whose families had held the title of esquire for many years.4

As a result a man identified as Esquire would have been regarded as a member of the gentry ranking just below a Knight in social status. The individual's status, name and place of residence were usually all included in written or printed material as in 'William Bradbourn of Lee Esq.'.

A Gentleman meant, traditionally, a man of gentle birth who was the younger son, brother or heir of an esquire.5 By the seventeenth century, the term was usually applied to someone whose income was derived mainly from renting out land and not from manual labour. In other words he did not have to work as in 'Those are call'd gentlemen, that live in idlenesse yet deliciously of the profits of their estates, without having any care to cultivate their lands.'6

In reality, if an individual could convince his neighbours that he was a gentleman by virtue of the quality of his house, the style of his entertaining, the number of servants that he had and the memorials he erected, then it is very likely that he would be accepted as a gentleman.7 Among these would be successful lawyers and merchants who had amassed enough money to buy a country estate and yeomen who had built up their land holding over a period of time.8 Those who chose to remain in towns and cities did not have the status that they would have achieved had they bought a country estate. Even so, they were accepted as gentry although of lower status than their country equivalents.9 Many of these endowed various charitable organisations which may have helped them achieve the status of gentleman.


In earlier times a yeoman was anybody of the middling sort dwelling in the countryside, as against the town. They were usually farmers but might have been servants.10

By the end of the Tudor period, Yeomen were 'more numerous, more wealthy and more important'.11 They were, broadly speaking, men who owned and farmed their own land, meaning that they were classed as below the rank of gentleman because they worked to earn a living but above the rank of tenant because they owned land.


A husbandman was further down the social scale and was a tenant farmer or smallholder. If he was the latter he would have owned a small plot of land but it would not have been enough for his and his family's needs. As a result he would have worked for a larger landowner as well as working his own land.


Below that level were labourers and servants.


One point in all of this is that, once a man entered the Church, especially once he was appointed to a living, he would be regarded as gentry, regardless of his origins.


1   'Robert Hungerford' The British Museum online
2   Corpus Christi College, Oxford Wase Collection CCC 390/2.228-9
3   Keith Wrightson English Society 1580-1680Hutchinson 1983 p23.
4   Ibid.
5   Keith Wrightson English Society 1580-1680Hutchinson 1983 p24
6   E. Dacres Machiavel's discourses upon the first decade of T. Livy 1636. I 219
7   Keith Wrightson English Society 1580-1680Hutchinson 1983 p25
8   Keith Wrightson English Society 1580-1680Hutchinson 1983 p26
9   Keith Wrightson English Society 1580-1680 Hutchinson 1983 p27
10 G.M. Trevelyan English Social History Book Club Associates 1973 p10
11 G.M. Trevelyan English Social History Book Club Associates 1973 p123