Tudors society was steeped in the medieval tradition in England, yet it also embraced the changing social norms of early modern Europe. During the Tudor period people were grouped in a hierarchical system with the King at the top. The nearer to the top of the system you were, the richer you were. If you were born poor there was little chance of you becoming rich. People were taught by the church that their position in life was determined by God. However, it was through the church that some men who were born poor managed to become very rich and powerful indeed.
This diagram shows the structure of Tudor society.
During the Tudor period the church was very powerful, owning large amounts of land. The people were very religious and attended church services. The church was able to control people’s lives by preaching what they wanted them to believe. During the reign of Henry VIII the church became less powerful as Henry made himself head of the church, dissolved the monasteries and confiscated their land.
Archbishops were very powerful. They owned large amounts of land and were very rich. They were able to influence the King or Queen and played a part in the government of the country. After the Reformation, Archbishops only remained powerful if they supported the monarch.
The Bishops of the most important churches were rich and powerful, playing a part in the government of the country. After the Reformation they only remained in position if they supported their monarch.
Clergymen were poorly paid but were highly respected members of the community that they served. As well as delivering church services they were responsible for the education of those members of the community that could afford to pay, for visiting the sick and counselling the bereaved.
The King or Queen
The Tudor monarch was at the head of the social system. He or she was the richest person in the land, owning vast amounts of land and many palaces. Both rich and poor alike were bound to serve their monarch, failure to do so often resulted in death. The monarch made all the laws of the land and although there was a court system, few judges would dare to pass judgement against the King’s wishes. Until Henry VIII broke away from Rome (the Reformation) and formed the Church of England, Monarchs were subject to obey the Pope. The Tudor monarchs, with the exception of Henry VII, and Mary I who returned the Church to Rome, were head of the Church, the Judiciary and the Government.
Gentlemen were born rich and came from families with titles – Barons, Earls and Dukes. Most owned large country estates and were often given important positions in government. The Monarch would visit his most notable subjects when he or she went on a progress and they would be expected to provide board and lodging for the King and his court. Sometimes this could be as many as 300 persons. If summoned to court a gentleman, or other member of his family, would have to leave their home and travel to London to be with the King.
Yeomen and Citizens
Both yeomen and citizens were fairly wealthy men. They were not born members of the gentry, but were rich enough to own their own houses and employ servants. Yeomen either owned their own land or rented land from gentlemen which they farmed. They were successful farmers and were rich enough to be able to afford labourers to do the heavy farming jobs for them. Citizens lived in the towns. They were rich merchants and craftsmen. Merchants made their living by trading goods with ship owners. Craftsmen were skilled men who could command a good price for the goods that they made.
Labourers worked for Yeomen or citizens and were paid a wage for their work. Labourers were employed to do the heavy back-breaking jobs on the farms or in the craft shops. In 1515 an act was passed which fixed a labourers wage at 3d per day for winter months and 4d per day for summer months with bonuses to be paid at harvest time. A labourer could expect to work from sunrise to sunset in the winter and from sunrise to early evening in the summer. Sundays and major saint’s days were free. Skilled workers were to be paid 5d per day during the winter and 6d for summer days.
These formed the lowest and poorest section of the Tudor social system. They did not work and therefore earned no money. They were forced to beg on the streets for money or food. In 1536 laws were introduced that punished those who could work but chose not to (undeserving poor). The Church helped those who were unable to work due to ill health or disability.
This article is part of our larger resource on the Tudors culture, society, economics, and warfare. Click here for our comprehensive article on the Tudors.