‘The Tree of Commonwealth’: The Social Order in Sixteenth-Century England

The Tudors / Wikimedia Commons

Lecture by Dr. Keith Wrightson / 09.08.2009
Randolph W. Townsend, Jr. Professor of History
Yale University

“The Tree of Commonwealth”

Edmund Dudley / Wikimedia Commons

[We’ll] start with the social order, how people perceived their social world as a whole in the sixteenth century. Okay.

500 years ago, in the fall of the year 1509, a man named Edmund Dudley lay imprisoned in the Tower of London, the great royal fortress which dominated the eastern parts of London, as it still does. He was there on trumped-up charges of treason. Dudley was a lawyer. He had assisted King Henry VII in some very unpopular policies and in 1509 the old king died. The new king, Henry VIII, came to the throne aged only eighteen and won some quick popularity by throwing Edmund Dudley to the wolves. But as he lay in prison awaiting execution Dudley made his peace with man and God by writing a book which he called The Tree of Commonwealth. It didn’t save him and he probably never expected that it would, but it survived and it remains a classic statement of sixteenth-century social values and it can serve to introduce some of the keywords of sixteenth-century society.

In The Tree of Commonwealth Dudley attempted as a loyal subject to describe what he saw as the ideal conditions for the prospering of the kingdom under its new king, Henry VIII. The word that he used in his title, “commonwealth,” was a real keyword of sixteenth-century political discourse. It meant the body politic, the whole of the realm. It also meant the common good, the common interest, the public welfare of society. In discussing it, Dudley, in his book, took the form of an elaborate allegory. He imagined the commonwealth as a great tree. There were four roots of commonwealth: love of God, justice, trust, and concord. And there were four fruits of commonwealth: tranquility, good example, worldly prosperity, and the honor of God. Well, the fruits of commonwealth, this happy outcome of harmonious commonwealth, involved the reconciling, under the guiding hand of the king, of the interests of all the principal social groups so that conflict would be avoided and everyone would be welded into a harmonious commonwealth.

So, in describing the commonwealth Dudley described the various component social groups and he divided the subjects of the realm, in a way that was very conventional, into what he called three ‘estates’ or ‘orders’, three estates, each of which had its role and each of which had its duties.

First of all came the clergy. Their role was to pray for the good of the whole, to sustain Christian values by their pastoral ministry, and to avoid the temptations of worldliness or lusts of the flesh. All of this was explained. Then he turned to the second estate, what he called the ‘chivalry’. The chivalry were the lay elite, ranging in status from dukes at the top down to mere knights, esquires and gentlemen. All of these people were considered to be of ‘gentle’ blood. Their duty was to defend the realm in time of war and to govern it justly in time of peace under the king. They should avoid the abuse of their power as governors or as landlords. They should protect and relieve the poor and the weak and serve the king well. Thirdly, there were those that Dudley called the ‘commonalty’ of the realm: the commonalty. And basically that was all the rest; the common people from the peasantry of the countryside to the great merchants of the cities; all those who were not of gentle blood. Their duty was to work, to get a living that was appropriate for their place in society, to keep their families and to support all the rest. They were advised by Dudley to avoid ‘covetousness’ or greed, to avoid idleness and to avoid what he called “presumption above their degree”; they should keep their place. They should also avoid “grudging and murmuring” against the fact that they were born, as he put it, “to live in labor and pain and for the most part of their time in the sweat of their face.” This is excellent advice for students. [Laughter] I’ll repeat that: avoid grudging and murmuring, accept that you’re here to live in labor and pain and the most part of your time in the sweat of your face.

All of this is a perfectly conventional account of the structures and purposes of the social order in the sixteenth century. It’s partly descriptive of the major component groups of society. It’s partly obviously prescriptive. It’s prescribing how they should live, and in doing so it embodies the central ideals of the social morality of the time as it was conceived by people like Dudley: harmony, duty, order. Now clearly this ideal was communitarian. Dudley was very preoccupied with the commonwealth as an association of interdependent parts, a community. But equally clearly it was not egalitarian. The component groups might be interdependent but they were emphatically not equal. Each group was expected to contribute “in its degree” as Dudley put it; “in its degree,” according to its place. And each group shared in the benefits of the commonwealth “after its degree,” in accordance with its place. Now by ‘degree’ he meant, of course, the different gradations of wealth and status inside each of the three estates. That hierarchical ranking was fundamental to sixteenth-century notions of the social order and people were never allowed to forget it.

Let’s leave Edmund Dudley meditating in his cell in the Tower and imagine ourselves instead in one of England’s 9,000 parish churches a few decades later. It’s a Sunday morning. The bells are tolling to call people to church. The church wardens — who were kind of like the teaching fellows of the sixteenth-century parish — the church wardens are patrolling the aisles, getting people sat in their proper place, gentry up at the front, the lowly at the back. They’re chasing out the dogs because people brought their dogs to church in those days and settling everyone down. And once a year the grave, gray-bearded minister of the parish would come into the pulpit and read out from the Book of Homilies. The Book of Homilies were official sermons which were published by the Church of England and were to be read out periodically in the course of the year. He began thus:

“Almighty God hath created and appointed all things in heaven, earth and waters in a most excellent and perfect order. In heaven he hath appointed distinct orders and estates of archangels and angels. In earth he hath assigned kings, princes with other governors under them, all in good and necessary order. Every degree of people in their vocation, their calling and their office have appointed to them their duty and order. Some are in high degree, some in low, some kings and princes, some inferiors and subjects, priests and laymen, masters and servants, fathers and children, husbands and wives, rich and poor… And where there is no right order there reigneth all abuse, carnal liberty, enormity, sin and Babylonical confusion.”

That’s the opening paragraph of the Homily on Obedience; the Homily on Obedience, published for the first time in the 1540s and another neat statement of Tudor perceptions of the social order and its emphasis on hierarchy and degree; order, the word echoing through that opening paragraph. Well, put Dudley and the Homily on Obedience together and you’ve got a world which certainly had certain communitarian ideals, the commonwealth, but one in which it was also assumed that those ideals were best served by maintaining a sort of graduated ladder of authority and subordination within each one of the degrees of society. And indeed the three degrees as Dudley described them can be shuffled together into a single rank order of precedence, as they were when people went on processions, for example. On the back of your handout you’ll find a chart laying out as one hierarchy that classical social hierarchy which you’ve already read about, I hope, in the chapter set from English Society.

The Nobility

University of Wisconsin / Creative Commons

It’s clear that within all of this they were making four kinds of distinctions between people. There were distinctions of function, your role in the commonwealth. There were distinctions of rank and of status. There were distinctions of course of gender and there were distinctions of age — parents and children — and many of these distinctions tended to overlap. So I want now to look at them a little more closely, starting by looking at rank and status, the hierarchy that they emphasize so much — and here I’ll skip along quite smartly because you’ve had a chance to read about this already to some degree, but I’ll just reinforce some of the main points.

At the top of the social hierarchy, obviously enough, stood the king and his immediate family. The king was not only the greatest of the English nobility, which he was, and the greatest single landowner in the kingdom, which he also was, but he was also something special. The king was the ‘anointed of God’ as they put it, ritually anointed with sacred oil at the time of the coronation; the fount of all secular authority in the realm, but also considered to be ruling by the special grace of God.

Beneath the crown came Dudley’s chivalry and that was itself internally differentiated into, on the one hand — and your handout will help with this — on the one hand, the peerage, and on the other hand the gentry. The peerage were the greater nobility. They were the nobles who were distinguished by having inheritable titles which could be passed on to their sons: dukes, earls, marquises, viscounts, barons, lords. They also had a favorable position before the law. They could only be tried by their peers, usually in the House of Lords when Parliament sat. They had the right to sit in Parliament by virtue of their birth and social position. Alongside those great lay nobles one can also place some of the great churchmen, the bishops, the abbots of great monasteries. They also sat in Parliament in the House of Lords because they were the lords of the church — but an important distinction, of course, was that their positions were not inheritable. They were appointed — in the early sixteenth century appointed by the pope, though usually on the advice and recommendation of the king.

So we’ve looked at the peerage, the greater nobility. Then there was the lesser nobility which contemporaries referred to usually as the ‘gentry’. They were themselves internally differentiated into knights, esquires and mere gentlemen. Knights were created by the monarch for service, for service in war, usually, or in government — as indeed they still are. High-ranking civil servants in Britain and military officers very often get a knighthood at the end of their active careers, though the notion of service has broadened somewhat nowadays to include other roles in society. So we have Sir Ian McKellen, also known as Gandalf, [laughter]. We have Sir Paul McCartney, of course, and we even have Sir Mick Jagger [laughter], which proves that he was just a nice boy really all along. [Laughter] So the appointment of knights, the ‘dubbing’ of knights by the monarch, continues of course. In the sixteenth century they were usually selected to be made knights from amongst the leading families of each of the forty counties of the kingdom, and the title could not be inherited. You had to be made a knight again in each new generation. Below them were the lesser gentry of esquires and mere gentlemen. They had no title except the right to be called ‘Mister’. Only a gentleman could be called Mister, and they had the right also to bear a coat of arms.

Collectively, the nobility, both the peerage and the church leaders and the gentry, were the principal landowners of England and Wales. In the county of North Yorkshire for example — it’s up here in the north of England — in the early sixteenth century a study has been done which shows that the nobility, the peerage, owned 27% of the land, the gentry owned 46%, and nearly all of the rest belonged to the church. Land was not only a source of income, the rents which were paid to the great landowners, but it was also a source of power over tenants; it was a source of’ ‘lordship’, as they put it in this period, lordship over men. Some gentlemen owned only a single small estate, some had many, and by the time you get to the peerage some of them had vast territories. The Earl of Shrewsbury, whom we’ll encounter again at various times, owned a great deal of land in the center of England in the counties of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Shropshire, and he was described at the time as being like “a prince in four counties in the heart of England.” He was the biggest landowner by far in that whole region.

So, in any one county those who possessed the land constituted its natural governing class and some of them had been in that position for generations. But whatever pride they took in their rank and their ancestry they knew very well that it was based ultimately upon the land that they possessed — upon their landed wealth. One gentleman, Sir John Lowther, advised his sons as follows: “Without…wealth (the supporter and upholder of gentry and worldly reputation) nobility and gentility is a vain and contemptible title in England and always hath been…Preserve your estate if you will preserve your gentility and nobility of blood, which is nothing else but a descent of riches.” A frank recognition of the realities of the social structure.

The Commonalty

Wikimedia Commons

Noblemen and gentlemen possessed most landed property, but of course they were only a tiny proportion of the population, probably something like 2%. The other 98% were the ‘commonalty’ and of these the majority lived in the countryside. England in the 1520s, the earliest period for which we can make really good population estimates, had about 2.4 million people and not more than 10% of them lived in towns. Indeed, only 5% of them lived in towns that were bigger than 5,000 inhabitants. 5,000 inhabitants was considered a good, big town in the sixteenth century. Wales had a population of only about a quarter of a million and even fewer lived in towns. It’s a mountainous region, very few urban settlements except around the coast. So we’re dealing with an overwhelmingly rural society, but the commonalty were far from being just an undifferentiated mass of peasants.

In rural society, beneath the landowning gentlemen who drew their income from rents, people were normally divided into four subordinate groups. There were yeomen, there were husbandmen, there were craftsmen and tradesmen, and there were cottagers and laborers. You’ll find definitions of these different groups on your handout. Yeomen are sometimes defined as being owner-occupiers who possessed freehold land and they sometimes were, but in fact most of them were tenant farmers. The crucial thing about yeomen is that they were substantial tenant farmers: people who employed labor; people who could produce a substantial marketable surplus which they could sell to the towns. These were the people who were sometimes described as the better sort of people in their villages or the chief inhabitants. Beneath them were husbandmen, small family farmers, generally with holdings of under 30 acres or so; enough to support their families and to produce a modest surplus to sell, but relying for the most part on their direct family labor. Then there were village craftsmen and tradesmen. Some of them might be people of substance. Millers and blacksmiths were able to make a good living, for example. Others were usually poor. Tailors or alehouse keepers who brewed ale were generally relatively poor. Most craftsmen fell somewhere between the two and most of them also farmed as well as performing the duties of their craft. And finally there were the cottagers and laborers. They sometimes held a few acres of land which they rented from a local landlord or from a local farmer. Some of them might have a trade from time to time, but most of them relied upon wages for at least a significant part of their income, working as farm laborers on the holdings of bigger tenants.

One can generalize in that kind of way, but the proportions of the rural population that fell into these different groups varied enormously from place to place. What you can say in general is that rural society was highly differentiated. A large minority of big yeomen farmers, a broad middle band of people who could get a secure living as craftsmen or as husbandmen, and another large minority, probably about a quarter in the early sixteenth century, who put together a rather bare hand-to-mouth living as cottagers and laborers. But most people still had access to the land one way or another. Even cottagers and laborers generally had a small holding and they would have the right to graze their animals on the commons of their village; rights of pasture. Complete dependence upon wage labor was still exceptional in the countryside and I emphasize that because that’s something that was going to change, as we’ll see, in the course of the sixteenth century.

What about the towns then? The townspeople as I’ve said were very much a minority but they were a very significant minority. The towns ranged from tiny market towns which came alive on market day to what were considered the great cities with populations of above 5,000 — and the one truly significant city, the city of London down here in the southeast with a population in the early sixteenth century which had already reached about 55,000. So London was a significant city by the standards of the day. I’ll look at the distribution of towns in another lecture, but the thing to stress today is that even small towns had a much more variegated occupational and social structure than did country villages. They contained merchants. They contained manufacturers. They contained the small number of highly prestigious professional people; lawyers, physicians. They contained more clergy than country villages and they contained also large numbers of unskilled laborers. So much for the range of occupations, but within that range there were considerable differentials of wealth and status. At the top the great merchants of the cities could be men of prodigious wealth who were generally also the rulers of their towns. To give you just one example, a man named Robert Jannys, spelled J-a-n-n-y-s. He was a grocer and he was the mayor of the city of Norwich, here in the East Anglian region, in the early sixteenth century. In 1523, a tax was levied for which the return survived and so we know that Robert Jannys’ personal tax return was bigger than the entire city of Rochester, which was the biggest city down here in Kent. He was a plutocrat and there were men of such prodigious wealth in all of England’s major cities.

Beneath the urban elites were the average master craftsmen of the towns, those who provided clothing, leather goods, metal wares, and so forth from their own workshops. The principal distinction amongst these people was between those who were independent master craftsmen with their own workshop and those who were known as ‘journeymen’, people who worked for wages by the day, skilled workers serving as employees of the master craftsmen. Among the master craftsmen, most of them worked entirely on their own account, producing and retailing their goods, but there were also those in some cities who had become virtually employees of large-scale merchant capitalists who gave them raw materials to work on, collected the finished products, and marketed the goods. This was known as the ‘putting-out system’. You put out work to skilled workers and you collect the goods and market them, and I mention it specifically because it was the form of organization in England’s most important single industry, the cloth industry, the manufacture of woolen cloth most of which was exported to Europe and which was very prominent in certain regions. Norwich was a great cloth city, so were many of the other towns of East Anglia, southern England, and parts of the West Country.

Gender and Age

16th century woodcut showing a pregnant woman sitting in a birthing chair / Wikimedia Commons

We’ve looked then at some of the major distinctions of wealth and status, rank and degree. Let’s turn to two other categories that contemporaries tended to stress: gender and age.

For the most part, so far in talking about wealth and status and rank I’ve been talking about adult men and to do that is an accurate reflection of the attitudes of the time, the attitudes which they held towards the position of women and of the young. Women and young people took their place in the social order from either their husbands or their fathers or their masters, and to that extent it’s been said their social identities were ‘subsumed’, absorbed, into the social identities of the adult male heads of the households within which they lived. When people talked about the social order as a whole, women and children became almost invisible; they were just subsumed into the identities of adult male householders. Nevertheless, contemporary moralists did have very clear views about the place of women and children and the young in general, and in both cases that place was a subordinate one.

Now of course women (and some of the young) were distinguished by social rank, just as adult men were. Some women in particular might hold positions of great status and power by virtue of their birth and their inheritance, and we’ll meet quite a few of them in the course of the sixteenth century. But nonetheless, although women were obviously distinguished by their rank, they were also collectively distinguished by gender, the social roles deemed proper for the different sexes, and such distinctions were also fundamental to the structure of the social order, as the Homily on Obedience makes clear. In general, women’s place was seen as that of being dutiful adjunct to men as daughters, as wives, as mothers, or as sisters. They had little recognized role outside the household and few opportunities to pursue an independent career — at least in theory it was so.

That subordination was justified by the authority of scripture, Saint Paul was constantly quoted on that point, and it was also justified in English law, especially the law of property. According to English common law, property was vested in male household heads. An unmarried woman who was described in law — using the Norman French that they used in the law courts — she was described in law as a femme sole. You’ll find the term on your handout. An unmarried woman could hold property; she could make a contract; she could engage independently in economic life. But a married woman was subject to the legal doctrine of coverture. She was described in the law as a femme covert and her rights were seriously curtailed by coverture. She could hold no goods independently in marriage unless a separate trust had been erected for her. There was no community of goods. Her husband got a life interest in any lands which she brought to the marriage. All of the movable goods of the family were his and her rights were limited to her ‘dower’. That was usually a third of the land and goods of the family which was reserved when her husband died to keep her in her widowhood and would eventually revert to the main heir of the family.

So that was the law as regards women and in particular their property rights, and all of this was bolstered by widespread assumptions about the allegedly inferior capacities of women, not only in terms of physical strength but also in terms of an alleged weakness of intellectual capacity and emotional stability. (The piece on the longer reading list by Crawford and Mendelson on Women in Early Modern England has an excellent lucid discussion of these issues in its opening chapter, especially the medical attitudes towards women at the time). So, as a result, any failings which were observable in women were attributed not to their unequal opportunities or their restricted education but supposedly their natural weaknesses, and the fact that many men also shared these weaknesses was conveniently overlooked.

The official view of the church on all of this was again read out every year in another homily, the Homily on Marriage. The Homily on Marriage declared:

“The woman is a weak creature not endowed with the like strength and constancy of mind [as men]. Therefore, they be the sooner disquieted and they be the more prone to weak affections and dispositions of the mind more than men be.”

The homilist went on that therefore “a woman must be spared and borne with, the rather in that she is the weaker vessel” — a phrase from the Homily on Marriage which was often repeated. The same homily went on to advise that “men and women should live in a perpetual friendship,” but it was one based, of course, upon the assumption of female acceptance of male authority. One of the greater preachers of the late sixteenth century, William Perkins, a great puritan preacher who preached in the city of Cambridge, said as follows concerning husbands and wives:

“The goodman or master of the family is a person in whom resteth the private and proper government of the whole household: and he comes to it not by election… but by the ordinance of God, settled even in the course of nature.” And he continued — “The goodwife of the house is a person which yieldeth help and assistance in government to the master of the family. For he is, as it were, the prince and chief ruler; she is the associate.”

How far these prescriptions were actually observed in practice we’ll see in the next lecture, and also if you wish to work on it there’s an abundant literature on that issue. But these were the prescriptive values of the time.

Now of course women, whatever their formal subordination to their husbands and their fathers, did of course bear some authority in the commonwealth alongside their husbands. They bore authority over their children and over the servants and apprentices, the young people who lived within their households.

Servants were generally young, generally aged between about fourteen and the mid-twenties. They were generally hired on annual contracts and they lived in the households of their masters and mistresses, and in return for their labor they were fed and clothed and given lodging and a small wage which was very often paid only once a year. Some servants stayed with particular households for years and might form quite a close bond with their masters and mistresses, but most moved on at the end of each year. They would go to the hiring fair and be hired into a new household, moving around an area from village to village until they would eventually settle down and marry in their mid- to late- twenties. In the towns, the duties of servants were largely domestic and servants were mostly women, leading some towns to have an unbalanced sex ratio in favor of women. In the countryside, both male and female servants worked on the farm, engaged in domestic tasks or in agricultural tasks. They were known as ‘servants in husbandry’ because they engaged in husbandry — agricultural work. But whatever the case servants were a very large and a very distinctive part of society, a distinctive part of the labor force in particular in sixteenth-century England. It’s been estimated that perhaps a quarter of the entire population lived in other people’s households as servants, and it’s been estimated that 60% of the population aged between fifteen and twenty-four were living as servants at any one time — so it was a distinctive element of the population and a distinctive phase of the life cycle for most young people. While they were living through that stage they lived under the authority of a master and a mistress in a household which perhaps did a great deal to shape their social expectations, particularly their expectations regarding authority; part of their socialization.

Apprentices were predominantly urban and they were usually male, young men in their late teens and early twenties for the most part. One tends to think of apprentices as little boys sent out to learn a craft at the age of seven or ten. In fact, they were more like modern students. They were generally in their late teens and early twenties, and they had been bound by an indenture, a legal indenture, to a master to learn a trade over a period of years. Usually, apprentices were migrants to the towns. They’d come in to learn a trade, were bound, lived in with their masters, and, like servants, they were very numerous. It’s been estimated that in 1550 about 10% of the population of London were apprentices. They differed from servants in that they tended to stay with their master for the whole period of their training, which was usually a period of seven years. They enjoyed a superior status because they had superior prospects in life. One day they would be skilled journeymen and then perhaps master craftsmen themselves and they were aware of this distinction. But in the meantime they too lived very much under the authority of their masters.

So most of the young then lived in positions of subordination and they had social identities which were merged with those of the adult householders under whose authority they lived. To give you one example of this I recently encountered, I was looking at the deaths recorded in parish registers in a plague year in the early seventeenth century and it was striking that servants were not recorded under their own names. When servants had died of the plague and were buried they were put down in the parish register as “Robert Foster’s maid” or “a man of John Atkinson” or terms like this, the actual name of the servant not mentioned. They’re just anonymous; they’re attributed to their master or their mistress when they were buried. It’s just a striking example of that kind of social submergence within the identities of their superiors.

Outside the household too the prevailing ideal of the age was what’s been called gerontocratic. That is to say, the old should rule; the young should serve and show respect. The moralists of the time when they wrote about youth conventionally saw it as a time of hope but also of danger. The young were conventionally portrayed as being unusually subject to fits of passion, to rashness, to volatility, to intemperance, and to sexual lasciviousness. Where they got this idea from one can’t imagine. [Laughter] Wisdom and self-control were regarded as coming only with age, and accordingly there was a preference for age and seniority in all institutional life. Well, one could say, “well, that’s just the same today,” but one important difference is that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a far larger proportion of the population were young. The high birth rates of the time and the low life expectancy meant that the population was far younger than is the case today. Far fewer people lived through to their fifties and even fewer to their sixties when they enjoyed these positions of authority.

So then the young lived also in a situation of subordination. True adulthood came only when they eventually married and achieved economic independence and had households or workshops or their own. Then young men were transformed into masters of families, young women were transformed into mistresses of families, and their place in the social order shifted upwards accordingly. From that point on, differences in their rank were paramount for men in the public domain of society at large, though within the household differences of gender of course still held their place.

This was a very highly structured and stratified society. It was inegalitarian in its social ideals. It was conceived of as a commonwealth, as an organic whole, but one constituted of people whose opportunities and experiences were very far from uniform or equal, and that structured inequality was taken to be part of the natural order of society. Indeed, it was taken to be ordained by God, as we’ve seen. It was a predominantly rural society in which most people gained their livings from the land but in which a large minority were also engaged in manufactures and in trade. It was a world in which most people still aspired to gain their living relatively independently, on the land or by practicing a trade, but in which a large minority already depended on selling their labor and skills to others. Throughout the whole structure, the household was the principal place not only of residence but of economic production and it was the most immediate unit of authority under its master and mistress. It’s been said that to a very large extent social organization in this period was domestic organization focused on the household, be it the humble household or the great household of the aristocracy or indeed of the monarch himself.