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Berkshire Family Historian
March 2002

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, March 2002 Contents

The way we were

The following extracts are taken from an anthology of Elizabethan writing originally collected by Professor John Dover Wilson and published in 1911.1 The passages are taken from documentary witnesses of the time and reveal the differences between social classes in the time of the first Queen Elizabeth.

England and the English

The air of England is temperate, but thick, cloudy and misty. For the sun draweth up the vapours of the sea which compasseth the island and distils them upon the earth in frequent showers of rain, so that frosts are somewhat rare; and howsoever snow may often fall in the winter time, yet in the southern parts (especially) it seldom lies long on the ground. Also the cool blasts of sea winds mitigate the heat of summer.

By reason of this temper, laurel and rosemary flourish all winter, especially in the southern parts, and in summer time England yields apricots plentifully, musk melons in good quantity, and figs in some places, all which ripen well, and happily imitate the taste and goodness of the same fruits of Italy. And by the same reason all beasts bring forth their young in the open fields, even in the time of winter. It hath multitudes of hurtful birds, as crows, ravens and kites, and they labour not to destroy the crows consuming great quantity of corn, because they feed on worms and other things hurtful to the corn. And in great cities it is forbidden to kill kites and ravens, because they devour the filth of the streets.

Of gentlemen

Ordinarily the king doth only make knights and create barons or higher degrees: for as for gentlemen, they be made good cheap in England. For whosoever studieth the laws of the realm, who studieth in the universities, who professeth liberal sciences, and to be short, who can live idly and without manual labour, and will bear the port, charge and countenance of a gentleman, he shall be called master. And (if need be) a king of heralds shall also give him for money arms, newly made and invented, the title whereof shall pretend to have been found by the said herald in perusing and viewing of old registers, where his ancestors in times past had been recorded to bear the same.

An Elizabethan huntsman

Of citizens and burgesses

Next to gentlemen, be appointed citizens and burgesses, such as not only be free and received as officers within the cities, but also be of some substance to serve the commonwealth in their cities and boroughs.

Of yeomen

Those whom we call yeomen next unto the nobility, knights and squires, have the greatest charge and doings in the commonwealth, or rather are more travailed to serve in it than all the rest. I call him a yeoman whom our laws do call legalem hominem, a word familiar in writs and inquests, which is a freeman born English, and may dispend of his own free land in yearly revenue to the sum of 40s. sterling: this maketh (if the just value were taken now to the proportion of monies) 6 of our current money at this present. This sort of people confess themselves to be no gentleman, and yet they have certain preeminence and more estimation than labourers and artificers, and commonly live wealthily, keep good hours, and do their business and travail to acquire riches.

Of the fourth sort of men which do not rule

The fourth sort or class amongst us is of those which the old Romans called capite censi proletarii or operae, day labourers,

A woodcut of a sixteenth-century yeoman

poor husbandmen, yea merchants and retailers which have no free land, copyholders, and all artificers, as tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, brickmakers, masons, etc. These have no voice nor authority in our commonwealth, and no account is made of them but only to be ruled, not to rule other, and yet they be not altogether neglected. For in cities and corporate towns for default of yeomen, inquests and juries are impanelled of such manner of people. And in villages they be commonly made churchwardens, aleconners, and many times constables, which office toucheth more the commonwealth and at the first was not employed upon such low and base persons.2

The English - a foreign view

The English are grave like the Germans, lovers of shew; followed wherever they go by whole troops of servants, who wear their masters' arms in silver fastened to their left arms. They excel in dancing and music, for they are active and lively. They are good sailors, and better pirates, cunning, treacherous, and thievish; above 300 are said to be hanged annually at London. Hawking is the common sport of the gentry. They are more polite in eating than the French, consuming less bread, but more meat, which they roast in perfection. Their beds are covered with tapestry, even those of farmers. Their houses are commonly of two stories, except in London, where they are of three and four; they are built of wood, those of the richer sort with bricks. If they see a foreigner, very well made or particularly handsome, they will say, 'It is a pity he is not an Englishman'.3

English snobbery

In London, the rich disdain the poor. The courtier the citizen. The citizen the country man. One occupation disdaineth another. The merchant the retailer. The retailer the craftsman. The better sort of craftsman the baser. The shoemaker the cobbler. The cobbler the carman. One nice dame disdains her next door neighbour should have that furniture to her house, or dainty dish or device, which she wants. She will not go to church, because she disdains to mix herself with base company, and cannot have her close pew by herself.4

1 John Dover Wilson, Life in Shakespeare's England, 1911

2 Sir Thomas Smith, De Republica Anglorum, 1583 (written c. 1551)

3 Paul Hentzner, Travels in England, 1598

4 Thomas Nashe, Christs Teares over Jerusalem, 1593


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