In Elizabethan England, class was not as fluid as it is today. It was broken up in more structured classes: the monarchy, the nobility, the gentry, merchants, yeomen, and laborers. These classes were determined by their ancestry, upbringing, and contribution to the crown.
The class of the monarch was given to a person who was the king or queen. During this period Elizabeth I and James I were ruled from 1558–1603 and 1603–1625 respectively. Elizabeth rose to this position by being one of the three children of Henry VIII. During her reign, England enjoyed a “Golden Age” as her policies led to economic prosperity and much cultural achievement.
Underneath the monarch was everyone else. First, there came the nobility. The class of nobility was often broken down in other subsections. These subsections included duke, earl, baron, and more. Oftentimes, you would need to be born into this class or have a great contribution to the crown. The class after this was the gentry also known as the class for knights, gentlemen, gentlewomen, and squires. The way one would rise to this class was through having a great sum of wealth. Then came the merchants who were the people that sold goods and gave out services for the rest of the population. They were not poor but they were not extremely rich. Second to last came the yeomen. The yeomen were the framers, craftworkers, and tradesmen. Generally, they were not wealthy and oftentimes they could not afford extensive medical attention. However, they always attempted to grow their business and expand their land. Lastly, came the laborers. These people were the peasants and servants. These people had a hard life and did the menial tasks that were needed by the classes above them.
During the Elizabethan era, the middle classes, particularly merchants, did extremely well due to the many policies enacted by Queen Elizabeth I. These policies included transatlantic trade which led England to the great economic powerhouse in the world. Through this wealth the middle class experienced an increase in rights. The merchants and yeomen were able to read and write. These were things that in previous centuries would have been very unusual. However, this increase in rights was not enough for this growing middle class. They wanted equal rights between themselves and parts of the nobility. This planted the seeds of revolution!
Further Reading: Wrightson, Keith. English Society, 1580–1680, Routledge, 1982.