There was no "middle class" in 17th Century England

+12 votes
326 views

I've been tagging profiles who connect to gateway ancestors with the EuroAristo template for a while now, and after correcting a bunch I've seen the phrase 'middle class' in many profiles which is there for modern eyes but is very deceptive and causes some errors. You have to be extremely suspicious when you look at family histories that claim descent from nobility or royalty to evaluate their social class. While we can approximate it using wealth or status, there was no middle class in 17th century England.  

Ask yourself "Was this ancestor a gentleman"?  Property or a title makes this easy. One hint is occupation - military officers, clergy and lawyers were deemed gentlemen and would marry daughters of gentlemen. It was much more difficult to get into these occupations as a freeman, but certainly happened. The last two were usually achieved via attendance at University, which is not that different than today!

Many immigrants with wealth had some background in commerce which was definitely a lesser occupation for sons of gentlemen because this is where relatively wealthy freemen and poorer sons who had no inheritance mixed together. Its not a 'middle', it's two hierarchies which one could pop over into one or the other track based on your income and conduct. Along with University attendance, this is why I think people like my ancestor John Weston's children and grandchildren were able to join the gentry easily even though socially he doesn't seem to qualify.

Farmers and more mundane occupations (wheelwright, glassmaker) were definitely not considered gentle no matter how much $ you earned and it would be very unusual to marry daughters of gentlemen. Many early immigrants were farmers so I always wonder how the son of a lawyer comes to New England and starts farming. But these occupations were so important in colonial times they were very important people with high status akin to gentlemen in England.

Life in the colonies for freemen was in many ways much better than their life in England, but for gentry it was significantly more difficult  so outside of the upheavals surrounding the English Civil war the odds of one of the upper class emigrating are extremely low. The economic circumstances made everyone very similar unlike in England, and the economic similarity grew into what we like to call 'middle class' today.

in Genealogy Help by Kirk Hess G2G6 Mach 6 (64.2k points)
edited by Kirk Hess

Here's an essay which I think illustrates what I was thinking - he argues we should view 'estate', 'order' and 'condition' since that's how pre-modern societies viewed themselves, while class is a modern concept.

3 Answers

+4 votes
Thank you so very much for wonderful insight.  Our individual histories, woven into the marvelous intertwining that is Wikitree is a incredible insight into 'true' history.  And now, when the greater availability of DNA resources to add confidence to our long time research, things are often *revealed* that are almost un-imaginable.

When having my own DNA done, I had been confirmed on my huge amount of Norwegian, but much to my surprise, I am even more Scot/Irish; and the hugest shock of all came when I used Wikitree's 'Relationship Finder' & got results that I am 9th cousins once removed with the Queen of England.

There was so much turmoil in the 1700s, that sometimes it's hard to remember that at one moment a person could be the King/Queen's honored Court, and the next you could be looking at a very painful death (drawn and quartered).

I don't know how, but the Pre-1700 tag might be added to your message.
by Debra Allison G2G6 Mach 2 (22.5k points)
+7 votes
The middle-class was much smaller (and relatively richer) than today but it did exist. Upper-class or nobility status was defined by land/title ownership. You didn't need a job because your lands generated an income. Primogeniture preserved landholdings but subsequent sons had to earn a living and so were sent into the Church or Military as you say. Although accorded the status of gentlemen they were already middle-class. They were joined by other university-educated professionals (lawyers, doctors, university fellows and, later, bankers). There was also a growing "civil service" of administrators focused on the King's household. Men like Geoffrey Chaucer or Samuel Pepys rose from modest beginnings via positions at court but were never remotely upper-class.

The mercantile class of the City of London are also difficult to categorise but I think you must also include the upper echelons of the guilds as middle-class whatever their origins. The English nobility has always had a flexible approach to inclusiveness where large amounts of money are concerned. It would be relatively easy for a rich merchant to buy his way into land and titles and have his children enter the nobility even if he were regarded with a bit of disdain as a parvenu. Some seemed happy remaining businessmen however. There's no evidence of Richard Whittington even being knighted (he probably was) and although he owned a few houses he never purchased significant land. He himself was a third son of a landed gentry family, sent to London as an apprentice.
by Matthew Fletcher G2G6 Pilot (107k points)

Samuel Pepys is a great example - with modern eyes he's the son of a London tailor who went to college, worked for the government his whole career and retired to the country in a nice house. We call this 'upper middle class' today.

But look at him again - he's clearly a member of the gentry, and he was landed when he died - his estate must have enriched generations of lawyers due to its complexity.

So I agree he's not in the same social or economic class as his first cousin once removed Edward Montagu,1st Earl Sandwich, but he's very similar to Montagu's daughter Jemima's father in law.

+3 votes
"Life in the colonies for freemen was in many ways much better than their life in England, but for the upper class it was significantly more difficult  so outside of the upheavals surrounding the English Civil war the odds of one of the upper class emigrating are extremely low."

Case in point, I have an ancestor, Richard Battiscombe (not yet in Wikitree) who was a non-conformist (Puritan) landed gentry (2nd son, but it is clear from the will that the eldest son would/did  inherit "in name only" (see https://archive.org/stream/newenglandhisto64unkngoog/newenglandhisto64unkngoog_djvu.txt , which has the will, and where Richard is described as haberdasher) ).

He went to the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Hingham) in the 1630s, but returned to England when it was safe for Puritans (due to the Roundheads winning the Civil War).
by Janet Gunn G2G6 Mach 9 (99.8k points)
There was notable re-migration as conditions improved in England for non conformists, and that will is an interesting one because that family wasn't very wealthy numerically, but those modest looking annuity incomes of £15-20 a year are probably worth a lot more today.
That could be an interesting project-- families that emigrated during the PGM but returned to England after the Puritans gained power there.

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