Social Structure in the 16th Century

Life in the 16th century was by and large governed by two important factors- religion and social structure. To the contemporary mind social order and position represented a structured world; the bible advocated the ‘natural order’, and it is fair to say that generally the population believed this and knew their place or degree. It is important also to realise that people during this period (particularly the uneducated, and therefore the majority of the population) through the constraints of their society and culture, rarely thought ‘individually’ and saw themselves as part of a family, parish, guild, or community.

In his ‘Description of England’ (1577) William Harrison reported…."We in England devide our people commonly into four sorts, gentlemen, citizens or burgesses, yeoman, and articifers or labourers." This is a somewhat simplified view, but it does indicate that 16th C English people saw themselves as belonging to a particular social group. The diagram below, which shows society as a ‘pyramid’ is useful:

Beggars /poor

England (as well as the rest of Europe) was a largely rural society during the 16th C – it’s main source of income being the export of woolen cloth – and perhaps as many as 90% of the population lived in the countryside. The GENTRY owned the majority of land, and were by birthright the ‘natural leaders ‘of the community. This group counted for just 1% of the population (c. 4,500 families in 1524) ; their average annual income being £200-£500.

Yeoman (middle to large farmers) regarded themselves as ‘freemen born’, and largely held freehold land; many of these were growing in wealth – their average income being £50-£100 per year. It was usually the sons of yeoman who served in the militia.

Husbandmen were small farmers – generally subsistence farming on rented land, earning rarely more than £20 (typically £10 ) . It is interesting to note that contemporaries grouped husbandmen with articifers (‘manual’ craftsmen such as tailors, cordwainers, and carpenters ) ; many rural craftsmen were poorly paid and had to rely on labouring work to augment their income.

Day Labourers made up the majority of the rural populace. It is important to realise that there were two thirds as many women labourers as men ( which, considering the workload of their domestic roles, says a lot of the actual position of most women during our period) .

Sercants in Husbandry were contracted (usually annually) to masters or mistresses and did any kind of manual work required of them – usually of the household or farming kind.

Although it was clearly possible to rise up the social scale (certainly to yeomanry ) we should realise how easy it was to drop downwards – even to the level of the beggars and poor; this could be caused by poor harvests, harsh winters, injury, widowhood or simply hard luck! – but it was not uncommon during the period.

At least 70% of the rural population consisted of the ‘vulgar and common sorts’ – that is the husbandmen and those below them. Even so it is safe to conclude that social structure, stability, family and community were just as prevalent to this majority of the population as they were to to townspeople and the numerically few ( but influential) yeoman, gentry and nobility, and that they are an important factor when attempting to understand the minds of 16th C people.

Written by Andrew Abrams. Copyright © 1999 The Tudor Group