A History of English Society

By Tim Lambert

Celtic Society

At the top of Celtic society was a class of nobles headed by a king or chieftain. Below them were the craftsmen (of whom metalworkers were the most important). Then came the farmers who provided the food supply and also fought for the chief. The Celts were divided into tribes. There was no political unity among them and a great deal of fighting.

Roman British Society

After the Roman Conquest, upper-class Celts adopted the Roman way of life. They built villas modeled on Roman buildings and they enjoyed luxuries such as mosaics and even a form of central heating called a hypocaust. Wealthy Romans also had wall paintings called murals in their houses. In their windows, they had panes of glass.

However Roman rule probably made little difference to most poor Celts, especially in the north and extreme southwest of England. For them, life went on much as it had before. Their houses remained simple huts.

Like the Celts before them and the Saxons after them the Romans kept slaves. A slave was simply a piece of property and could be bought and sold like an animal. Most people probably treated their slaves reasonably well simply to keep them working efficiently. However, no doubt some masters were cruel. Probably slaves who worked in mines were the worst off. However, some slaves managed to gain their freedom or were given their freedom by their masters.

Saxon Society

Kinship (family ties) was very important in Saxon society. If you were killed your relatives would avenge you. If one of your relatives was killed you were expected to avenge them. However, the law did provide an alternative. If you killed or injured somebody you could pay them or their family compensation. The money paid was called wergild and it varied according to a person’s rank. The wergild for killing a thane was much more than that for killing a churl. Thralls or slaves had no wergild. If the wergild was not paid the relatives were entitled to seek revenge.

At first Saxon, society was relatively free. There were some slaves but the basis of society was the free peasant. However, in time Saxon churls began to lose their freedom. They became increasingly dependent on their Lords and under their control.

English Society in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages society was like a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid was the king. Below him were the barons or tenants-in-chief. The king granted them land and in return, they had to provide so many soldiers to fight for so many days a year. They also had to swear an oath of loyalty to the king and they became his vassals. The barons granted land to knights. In return, they had to fight for so many days a year.

However, this system proved awkward. If a knight had to fight, say, 40 days a year when the 40 days were up he would return home even if the king were in the middle of a campaign. Kings began to allow the barons to pay ‘shield money’. They used the money to pay soldiers when they needed them.

At the bottom of society were peasants. Most were serfs or villeins. They were not free and could not leave their land without the lord’s permission. Furthermore, as well as working on their land they had to farm the lord’s land for 2 or 3 days a week. They also had to work extra days for him at busy times like harvest. (Although in time more and more lords allowed them to pay money rents instead of doing labour service).

Villeins also had other burdens. For instance, when a villein died his son had to give the lord the best animal before taking over his father’s land. Usually, peasants had to grind their grain to flour in the lord’s mill (and give him a portion of their grain). In some places, they also had to bake their bread in the lord’s oven.

However, if you could escape from your village to a town for a year and a day you then officially became free. Moreover, the Black Death severely weakened the villeinage system. At the time of the Domesday Book, the population of England was around 2 million. By the end of the 13th century, it had probably risen to about 6 million.

However, in the early 14th century, the climate deteriorated and there were a series of famines. The population began to fall. The Black Death of 1348-49 killed about one-third of the population of England. So many people died there was a serious shortage of labor and lords were willing to ‘poach’ workers from other lords by offering them higher wages. Parliament tried to fix wages by law to prevent them from rising but this was impossible to enforce. By the 15th century, the system of serfdom or villeinage had broken down in England.

The Church also owned vast amounts of land and livestock. Furthermore, the peasants had to give a tithe or one-tenth of everything they produced (crops, eggs, animals) to the church. Many bishops and abbots were rich and powerful.

In the Middle Ages, the king ruled by divine right. In other words, people believed that God had chosen him to be king, and rebellion against him was a sin. However, that did not stop rebellions!

Kings had limited power in the Middle Ages and rebellion was easy. A great deal depended on the personality of the king. If he was a strong character he could control the barons. If he were weak or indecisive the barons would often rebel. Warrior kings who fought successful wars were the most powerful as they were popular with the nobility.

English Society in the 16th Century

Tudor society was divided into four broad groups. At the top were the nobility who owned huge amounts of land. Below them were the gentry and rich merchants. Gentlemen owned large amounts of land and they were usually educated and had a family coat of arms. Most important gentlemen never did any manual work that was beneath their dignity.

Below the gentry were yeomen and craftsmen. Yeomen owned their own land. They could be as wealthy as gentlemen but they worked alongside their men. Yeomen and craftsmen were often able to read and write. Below the yeomen were the tenant farmers who leased their land from the rich. There were also wage laborers. They were often illiterate and very poor.

In the 16th century, about 50% of the population lived at the subsistence level. In other words, they had just enough food, clothes, and shelter to survive. However, it was possible to move from one class to another. With hard work and luck, a husbandman could become a yeoman. A yeoman could buy a coat of arms and become a gentleman. An ambitious young man could rise in the world.

English Society in the 17th Century

During the 17th century, the status of merchants improved. People saw that trade was an increasingly important part of the country’s wealth so merchants became more respected. However political power and influence were held by rich landowners.

At the top of society was the nobility. Below them were the gentry. Gentlemen were not quite rich but they were certainly well off. Below them were yeomen, farmers who owned their land. Yeomen were comfortably off but they often worked alongside their men. Gentlemen did not do manual work! Below them came the mass of the population, craftsmen, tenant farmers, and laborers.

At the end of the 17th century, a writer estimated that half the population could afford to eat meat every day. In other words, about 50% of the people were wealthy or at least reasonably well off. Below them, about 30% of the population could afford to eat meat between 2 and 6 times a week. They were ‘poor’. The bottom 20% could only eat meat once a week. They were very poor. At least part of the time they had to rely on poor relief.

By an act of 1601 overseers of the poor were appointed by each parish. They had the power to force people to pay a local tax to help the poor. Those who could not work such as the old and the disabled would be provided for. The overseers were meant to provide work for the able-bodied poor. Anyone who refused to work was whipped and, after 1610, they could be placed in a house of correction. Pauper’s children were sent to local employers to be apprentices.

On a more cheerful note in the 17th century in many towns, wealthy people left money in their wills to provide almshouses where the poor could live.

English Society in the 18th Century

In the early 18th century the population of Britain was about 6 1/2 million. In the late 18th century it grew rapidly and by 1801 it was over 9 million.

Owning land was the main form of wealth in the 18th century. Political power and influence were in the hands of rich landowners. At the top were the nobility. Below them was a class of nearly rich landowners called the gentry. In the early 18th century there was another class of landowners called yeomen between the rich and the poor. However, during the century this class became less and less numerous.

However other middle-class people such as merchants and professional men became richer and more numerous, especially in the towns. Below them were the great mass of the population, craftsmen, and laborers. In the 18th century, probably half the population lived at subsistence or bare survival level.

In the early 18th century England suffered from gin drinking. It was cheap and it was sold everywhere as you did not need a license to sell it. Many people ruined their health by drinking gin. Yet for many poor people drinking gin was their only comfort. The situation improved after 1751 when a tax was imposed on gin.

British Society in the 19th Century

In the early 19th century Britain was an oligarchy. Only a small minority of men (and no women) were allowed to vote in national elections. The situation began to change in 1832 when the vote was given to more men. Constituencies were also redrawn and many industrial towns were represented for the first time. The franchise was extended again in 1867 and 1884. In 1872 the secret ballot was introduced.

However, in the 19th century, at least 80% of the population was working class. To be considered middle class, you had to have at least one servant. Most servants were female. (Male servants were more expensive because men were paid higher wages). Throughout the century ‘service’ was a major employer of women.

In the 19th century, families were much larger than today. That was partly because infant mortality was high. People had many children and accepted that not all of them would survive.

Organised religion was important to many people in the 19th century. Nevertheless, in 1851 a survey showed that only about 40% of the population were at church or chapel on a given Sunday. Even allowing for those who were ill or could not make it for some other reason meant that half the population did not go to church. Certainly many of the poor had little or no contact with the church. In 1881 a similar survey showed only about 1/3 of the population at church on a given Sunday. In the late 19th century organised religion was in decline.

Poverty in the 19th Century

We know more about poverty in the 19th century than in previous ages because, for the first time, people did accurate surveys and made detailed descriptions of the lives of the poor. We also have photographs and they tell a harrowing story.

At the end of the 19th century, more than 25% of the population was living at or below the subsistence level. Surveys indicated that around 10% were very poor and could not afford even necessities such as enough nourishing food. Between 15% and 20% had just enough money to live on (provided they did not lose their job or have to take time off work through illness). If you had no income at all you had to enter the workhouse.

The workhouses were feared and hated by the poor. They were meant to be as unpleasant as possible to deter poor people from asking the state for help. However, during the 19th century, workhouses gradually became more humane.

British Society in the 20th Century n British society changed greatly during the 20th century. In 1914 only about 20% of the population was middle class. By 1939 the figure was about 30%. In the late 20th century the number of ‘blue-collar’ or manual workers declined rapidly but the number of ‘white-collar’ workers in offices and service industries increased rapidly.

In the 1950s large numbers of West Indians arrived in Britain. Also from the 1950s, many Asians came. In the late 20th century Britain became a multi-cultural society.

There was another change in British society. In the late 20th century divorce and single-parent families became much more common.

In the early 20th century it was unusual for married women to work (except in wartime). However, in the 1950s and 1960s it became common for them to do so – at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Before the 20th-century housework was so time consuming married women did not have time to work. At the same time, the economy changed. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew to create more opportunities for women.

Also, in the 1950s young people had significant disposable income for the first time. A distinct ‘youth culture’ emerged, first with teddy boys, then in the 1960s with mods and rockers, and in the late 1970s with punks and also with rock music. A revolution in music was led by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley.

Last Revised 2024