Who were the gentry?
In 17th- century England, there were three classes, which in turn were composed of ranks
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”.