Social Structure

Elizabethan England had four main classes: the Nobility, the Gentry, the Yeomanry, and the Poor. A person's class determined how they could dress, where they could live, and the kinds of jobs people and their children could get.

A nobleman was rich and powerful and therefore during the reign of Elizabeth as well as the reigns of her father and grandfather Henry VIII and Henry VII, the monarch rarely appointed new nobles. They viewed the noble class as a threat to their power and liked to keep their numbers small. A person could become a noble either by birthright or by grant from the king or queen. Nobility could lose their fortune, but it took a high crime like treason to lose their title. 

 

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The gentry were knights, squires, gentlemen and gentlewomen whose fortunes were great enough that they did not have to work with their hands for a living. Their numbers grew rapidly, and became the most important class during Elizabethan time. They could start as a knight and through generations and marriages they could gradually build a wealth and title. Most of the important people of this time came from this class.

The Yeomanry were the ‘middleclass'. They could live comfortably with the little savings they built up, but at any moment, be it illness or famine, could lose everything. While the gentry spent their wealth building large homes, the yeomen used their wealth more simply and instead worked to expand their land and improve it.

At the bottom were the Poor who for some reason or another found themselves without money, food, or shelter. Because their numbers were increasing, the Poor Laws were passed to assist them. Any Poor person found guilty of being able to do an honest day's work but who chose not to, could be sentenced to death.



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