Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Aristocracy in England

by Evelyn Tidman

While researching my new seventeenth century novel (as yet unnamed) which is a sequel to For The King, I was surprised to discover that events were governed largely by the aristocracy and ‘gentry’ as Roger L’Estrange refers to them, he being a member of that class himself. He uses phrases such as ". . . Rochester, more particularly prepared, by the prudence and example of the gentry there engaged . . ." and " . . . your soldiery was so zealous and your gentry so cautious . . ."

So what, exactly was the role of aristocrats in England during the seventeenth century?

Today, in a largely ‘classless’ society, the term ‘aristocracy’ or ‘nobility’ has little meaning. Dukes, lords and knights have little to do with the lives of ordinary people. Indeed, many view the aristocracy as a privileged class who have inherited wealth, land and titles without working for it. Many see it as an unfair system, dating back to the mists of history. However, during the first world war, and also to some extent in the second, many of the officers in the armed forces were from the nobility.

To us it may seem archaic. Why should someone born to privilege be considered capable of commanding a battalion when a member of the lower orders were not? Are they more knowledgeable than the rest of us mere mortals? More intelligent? Today, education has become the great leveller, putting university education within the theoretical reach of all, but it was not always the case.

The word ‘aristocracy’ comes from the Greek, the product of the thinking of philosophers Plato and Aristotle. It literally means ‘rule of the few best’ that is, the morally and intellectually superior governing the interests of the entire population.

Gainsborough Old Hall, medieval manor house,
built by Sir Thomas Burgh 1460-1480

In England during the Middle Ages, the king owned the whole country. However, as one man, he could not govern the whole lot on his own. So he conferred land, or ‘manors’ on certain ones known as ‘barons’ or lords. Hence the term ‘lord of the manor’. Each baron had to swear allegiance to the king, to fight for him, raise an army for him, and also pay him rent for his manor. He also gave the king advice, thus helping him to govern.

In their turn, the barons had knights and fiefs and gave them manors. The knights supported and served the lords and fought for them for between forty and sixty days a year. Beneath the knights were the serfs or villeins, the ordinary people, who served the knights, worked the land, paid rent in money and kind to the knights, and the men of which served as soldiers when required. In turn the peasants were allowed land to live on and work and were given firewood and grazing rights on the common.

The landowner was responsible for his people, particularly for law and order and the dispensing of justice. In times of famine, the landowner should see that his people survived. He was also the justice of the peace. It was a practical system which seemed to work when the lord was a fair and just man. If he were not, then, of course, it was open to abuse.

This system of government continued throughout the centuries, and the king continued to grant lands and new titles to men who had assisted him. By the time of the seventeenth century, the system had evolved into the government of Britain, the aristocracy having the right to sit in the House of Lords in Parliament. The gentry, often descended from younger sons of the aristocracy, could sit in the House of Commons. However, just as formerly, each lord was responsible for his people.

In my English Civil War novel For The King, when Sir Hamon L’Estrange was arrested on the count of treason and paraded before the people of King’s Lynn for them to choose whether to send him to stand trial, they said: "What be you thinking, Tom Gurlin? Send Sir ’Ammon to Wisbech? Sir ’Ammon who succoured us in distress, fed our children when we lacked bread? We hin’t that lacking in gratitude. Our little’uns hin’t going to blush with shame in remembrance of this day!" Whilst the speech (Norfolk dialect) is fictional, the sentiments are recorded history. It shows how ordinary people viewed their lords and the responsibilities of those lords.

Hunstanton Hall, home of Sir Hamon L’Estrange.
The original medieval hall burnt down in 1850.
The gate house is 15th century, and the wings are 1623.

In times of war, the common people looked to their lords for direction and protection. During the English Civil War, when the New Model Army under Cromwell used violence to keep people in order, the people looked to their lords to solve the problem. They trusted them to lead them into battle and viewed them as men educated for that very task. In turn their lord directed them, called on them to fight with him, but also fed, armed and clothed them and paid them wages out of their own pockets for the duration of their military service, compensating them for their loss of earnings while on the campaign.

Where the common people did not have the contacts nor the understanding of the political goings on at the top, the aristocracy did. They were at the forefront of policies and law-making. Importantly, they knew each other. A network of the nobility stretched across the land strengthened by marriage ties. Common people accepted that they did not have the education, nor the contacts, to understand politics or laws. They left that to the nobility. That was their job, and they were educated accordingly. It is why schools like Eton and Harrow came into existence and why only the sons of the aristocracy could get into university. One of the favoured subjects of education was Law. The aristocracy knew how the system worked.

Of course, no society is perfect, and the nobility under the feudal system were far from perfect. But when decent men acted honourably towards their people, the system worked.

However, the English Civil War challenged the old order. With the murder of King Charles I, England changed forever and began the march to the political system in existence today. When a jumped-up commoner called Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector and ruled the country instead of the King, it changed the role of the monarchy and therefore the aristocracy. Today, the lord of the manor no longer has any control over the common people unless they be in his direct employment.

Unless, of course, he happens to be a member of the government.


Evelyn Tidman is the author of For the King: Roger L’Estrange and the Siege of King’s Lynn, One Small Candle: The Story of William Bradford and the Pilgrim Fathers, and Gentleman of Fortune: The Adventures of Bartholomew Roberts, Pirate, available on Amazon.


  1. To see the other side of the coin I recommend E.P. Thompson's book "The Making of the English Working Class".

  2. Amazing how this feudal arrangement evolved into the present day Parliament.

  3. Time and again, love the insights and research on this site. FYI, I have nominated you for a Versatile Bloggers Award. Check it out here:

    1. Hi Sally,

      Thank you! I'm glad you enjoy the blog. I read your post, and because we have just history posts here for the most part, we cannot do a post like that but really appreciate the nomination. Best wishes!


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