Social Stratification in English Society

Under English Common Law, you are entitled (in some situations) to a “Jury of your Peers.”  As Americans, we frequently misinterpret “peers” to mean people like us.  This is because with the adoption of the US Constitution in 1787, we officially renounced all references to “peerage” and titles of nobility in our country. 

“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

— US Constitution, Article 1, Section 9

When we were ruled by the English Crown, however, “peers” referred to members of the peerage or nobility.  So, who are these people?

The first hereditary nobles in England were created by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. The number and types of nobles expanded in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as English kings created new titles to reward their followers and maintain political stability in the feudal system. By the eighteenth century the hereditary aristocracy in England was well established and consisted of five levels of nobility, along with a sixth inherited title that, while prestigious, did not convey noble status. Most nobles attained their position by birth; however, the monarch had the authority to grant noble status in recognition of meritorious service on behalf of the crown and country. Appointment to some positions also conferred nobility.

Obviously, at the very top of the social hierarchy sits the King and the royal family.  Just under the royals are the dukes, the highest rank within the peerage universe.  There have always been very few Dukes and most had a very close historical connection to the royal family. In fact, some Dukes were actually members of the royal family. When the title was introduced, all those holding the rank of duke were male members of the royal family. Over the centuries, the title of Duke was granted to leaders of specific regions and royal blood was no longer a prerequisite for such rank.

The title one step below the level of Duke is the Marquess (different from the French Marquis but of the same social strata). This title was rank number two in the peerage, and they were very close to the title of Duke in importance. According to Queen Victoria, the title Marquess was to be granted ‘when it was not our wishes that they be made Dukes.’ The title originally referred to a “march lord,” the leader of a border area, territories that were often contested by neighboring peoples or governments. Thus, a Marquess was at one time responsible for defending a part of his monarch’s borders, whereas a duke’s territory was in the country’s secure interior region. The title’s origins lived on in the designation of the wife of a marquis as a “marchioness.” The rank had lost its frontier connotations by the eighteenth century.

The next one down was the Earl; the third rank in the peerage system. At one time, earls collected taxes and other forms of revenue for the monarch, although that responsibility had ended in the mid-17th Century. The most famous earl to serve in the American Revolution was Charles, Earl Cornwallis.  Some earls have location-related titles (remember they are tax collectors) and are referred to by that location.  For example, the last royal governor of Virginia was John Murray, Earl of Dunmore.  Dunmore is a small village in the Falkirk council area of Scotland.

Beneath the Earl was a Viscount, fourth of five ranks in the peerage. Viscounts are literally “vice-counts,” the deputies of earls. Rounding out the five titles of English nobility was the Baron, who had at one time been the holders of land grants from the monarch.  A baronetcy was in effect a hereditary knighthood.  William Penn was a baron. 

Just under the pyramid of nobility are the gentry, then yeomen and then the poor. The gentry consists of baronets (little barons) as well as knights, both of whom were entitled to various social privileges, including the use of the appellation ‘Sir’ before their name. The yeomen are property owners, commonly known as freeholders.  These estates could be farms or even significant businesses or trades.  The poor, of course, are all the people with no significant property and, in the British Empire, no voice in government.

Again, all these titles, except yeoman and poor, were bestowed directly by the King. The five classes of nobility would all be referred to as “Lords” and they had the right, although not the obligation, to sit in the English House of Lords. The King at his own discretion could decide at any time to elevate or demote someone to any one of these levels of nobility. Once you were promoted, you, your first-born son, his first-born son, and so on, were there for life (at the pleasure of the King).

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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