The structure of Elizabethan society
Elizabethan society had a clear hierarchical structure. At the top end of society you had members of the nobility, gentry, yeomen, tenant farmers and merchants. At the lower end of the power structure there were the labourers and vagrants. The definitions for these social groups are:
- Nobility - This social group were very rich and influential, and were at the top of the social scale. They often had a say in how the country was governed.
- Gentry - This group was just below the nobility, and were still considered quite wealthy, but this depended on how much land they owned. The nobility often resented the wealth of the gentry, especially as some men in this social group were not from ‘noble’ or ‘respected’ families.
- Yeomen - Men who held a small amount of land or an estate. They were essentially the lower gentry.
- Tenant farmers - This group farmed rented land that was usually owned by the yeomen or the gentry.
- Merchants - Town workers involved in trading goods overseas and within England (they share a similar level of status to tenant farmers).
- Labourers - People who were employed to work on land that they did not own or rent.
- Vagrants - Homeless people that did not own land or work. They made their living from begging on a daily basis.
Elizabethan society was patriarchal. This meant that it was very male dominated. The husband and the father were seen as the head of any household, regardless of the status of the women in the family.
The structure of Elizabethan government
The structure of Elizabethan government is complex, but easy to understand. Elizabeth governed the country at a high level, and at a local level. Each level also had a power structure, similar to the structure of society.
Government at a high level
1 - The Monarch
Key features: Elizabeth was believed to have been chosen by God. She therefore ruled by ‘divine right’. She had the power to solely declare war and peace, rule in legal cases, grant titles, land, money and jobs to whomever they wished.
Role: To rule the country and to provide stability.
2 - The Secretary of State
__Key features:__The secretary of state was Elizabeth’s most important Privy Councillor. He was the person in government that advised the queen on matters important to the Crown. The most significant person to hold this position was Sir William Cecil.
Role: To advise and support the monarch about serious and intimate affairs.
3 - The Privy Council
__Key features:__The Privy council was made up of leading courtiers and advisers, as well as nobles and top government officials. There were approximately 19 members on the Privy Council, chosen by the monarch. They met at least three times a week, and the meetings were often supervised by Elizabeth.
Role: To debate current issues and advise Elizabeth; to make sure Elizabeth’s final decision was carried out; to oversee law and order , local government and the security of England; to monitor the Justices of the Peace; and to monitor the proceedings of Parliament.
4 - Parliament
Key features: Parliament was made up of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Parliament could only be called and dismissed by Elizabeth. Elections were held before each new parliament, but very few people could vote . Elizabeth I called Parliament ten times during her reign.
Role: To grant special taxation (additional tax to pay for unexpected expenses, such as war); to pass laws (Acts of Parliament); and to offer advice to the monarch.
Government at a local level
5 - Lords Lieutenant
Key features: Each county had a Lord Lieutenant chosen by the monarch. They were members of the nobility and were often also on the Privy Council. They were essential to maintaining Elizabeth’s power across the country.
Role: In charge of raising and training the local militia (military force of ordinary people raised in an emergency) and overseeing county defences; oversaw the enforcement of policies; part of the local government.
6 - Justices of the Peace (JPs)
___Key features: ___JPs were large landowners who kept law and order in their local areas. They were unpaid and they reported to the Privy Council. Being a JP was a position of status, and was a very popular job.
___Role: ___To make sure all social and economic policies were carried out; heard county court cases every three months for serious crimes; part of local government.
- Which social group did not own any land or work, and made their living by begging?
- Which social group were at the top of the social scale and were very rich and influential?
- Which social group were just below the Nobility?
- Who was the most significant Secretary of State in Elizabeth's reign?
- William Cecil
- Justices of the Peace were unpaid, true or false?
- Describe two features of the Elizabethan society (4 marks).
- Your answer should include: rich / influential / nobility / gentry
Explanation: Sentence starters: One feature of Elizabethan society was... For example... Another feature of society was... For example...
- Describe two features of Elizabethan government (4 marks).
- Your answer should include: parliament / privy council
Explanation: Sentence starters: One feature of Elizabethan government was... For example... Another feature of society was... For example...