Who were the gen­try?

In 17th- cen­tury Eng­land, there were three classes, which in turn were com­posed of ranks

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THE NO­BIL­ITY

The 60 Peers of the realm were Eng­land’s ‘higher no­bil­ity’. The gen­try were the ‘lower no­bil­ity’. In both cases, sur­names tended to be French-sound­ing – re­flect­ing Nor­man ori­gin – or the name of the manor of which their Nor­man an­ces­tor had been made feu­dal lord. How­ever, many ‘new rich’ (with sur­names re­flect­ing pro­fes­sion, father’s name etc) rose into the gen­try. There were two kinds of gen­try:

• County gen­try were very wealthy, armiger­ous (had the right to bear coat armour, usu­ally by le­git­i­mate de­scent from a knight or peer), and might be county sher­iffs or mag­is­trates. They in­cluded knights ( be­ing a knight was very ex­pen­sive, de­mand­ing un­paid pub­lic ser­vice. You had to be­come a knight if you were an esquire, your in­come rose over a cer­tain thresh­old, and you were sum­moned to be knighted. Re­fusal in­voked a fine) and esquires (armiger­ous but not as wealthy as a knight – or not yet knighted; of­ten the el­dest son or el­dest line de­scen­dant of a knight).

• Parish gen­try were less wealthy and in­cluded the armiger­ous gen­tle­men (of­ten a younger line de­scen­dant of a knight or esquire) and the non-armiger­ous gen­tle­men (who could live like gen­tle­men).

THE ‘MID­DLING SORT’

Be­neath th­ese was the ‘mid­dling sort’. In or­der of wealth, th­ese en­com­passed the yeomen (‘half farmer/ half gen­tle­man’), mer­chants, hus­band men (who tended to ‘take to the plough’ them­selves) and mas­ter crafts­men.

THE ‘LOWER SORT’

Be­neath th­ese was the ‘lower sort’: small-hold­ers, crafts­men’s work­ers, and land­less labour­ers.

Rank bor­ders were am­bigu­ous. Most ‘yeomen’ were termed ‘hus­band men’ un­til the 17th cen­tury. Younger and il­le­git­i­mate sons would usu­ally be at least one rank below their father. Robert Wood­ford, Esq, of Northamp­ton’s son, the di­arist Robert (1606-54), was ranked “hus­band man”.

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