The social structure in Elizabethan England

Liza Picard describes how, between the Queen at the top and the beggars at the bottom, there was jockeying for position in the different levels of Elizabethan society.

There were the very rich, and the very poor. Little has changed? – Except perhaps, that the rich people were so oblivious to the poor, and the poor had so few prospects of ever being rich.

The Queen

Queen Elizabeth was at the top of the social pyramid. When she chose to show herself to her subjects she glittered with jewels and gold like an icon. There could be no mistaking who she was. She rode on horseback, or on a litter, carried above the eye-level of the crowd. They were not to know that the glamour of her richly embroidered and bejewelled clothes was frugally maintained by constant refurbishing and altering – she even wore refurbished robes that had belonged to the previous queen, Mary Tudor.

Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1583

Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c.1583

As ruler of the country, iconography, glamour and displays of wealth were important tools of propaganda for Queen Elizabeth.

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Usage terms © Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) in Ceremonial Costume (oil on canvas), Zuccari, or Zuccaro, Federico (1540-1609) / Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, Italy / Bridgeman Images

The court

The Queen was ‘the fount of honour’. The quickest route to such honour, and influence, and power, and wealth, was via the court, and the best way of succeeding there was to attract the Queen’s attention. Many an aspiring young man mortgaged his family estates in the country, spent the proceeds on ultra-fashionable garments, and set out for London. He might not succeed, in which case he slunk back to the country hoping to retrieve his shattered fortune. But for those that did, including Christopher Hatton, Francis Drake and Elizabeth’s godson John Harrington, royal favour could provide a good, if precarious, living.

Another possibility was to stay in your family mansion and invite the Queen to visit you there. If she accepted, an immense expenditure on house and grounds would be needed, which would be wasted, if in the end the royal visit never happened.

An Entertainment for Elizabeth I at Elvetham, 1591

An Entertainment for Elizabeth I at Elvetham, 1591

This woodcut shows the lavish spectacle prepared on Edward Seymour’s estate for a visit by the Queen.

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Portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, c. 1600

Portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, c. 1600

Southampton was well-known at Elizabeth’s court for his flamboyant looks and clothing. But he was disgraced after marrying Elizabeth Vernon, one of the Queen’s maids of honour.

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Private collection; on loan to the National Portrait Gallery, London


Outside the glittering court circles, the merchants led comparatively quiet lives. Most lived in London. The focus of their ambition was to be the lord mayor of London, elected by the aldermen. The mayor was powerful enough, on occasion, to oppose the monarch, for example, when the City insisted that theatres should be closed during an epidemic of plague in London, although Elizabeth would have preferred them to continue since she enjoyed a good play.

16th-century costume guide

16th-century costume guide

A Venetian merchant.

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The livery companies

The sinews of the merchants’ community were the livery companies. (They still flourish, and still wield enormous influence in the City.) There were nearly a hundred companies in London, of which 12 were ‘Great companies’, controlling between them almost everything that was bought and sold in London, from pins – the Haberdashers – to wine – the Vintners. The Clothworkers controlled the finishing processes of cloth, the Ironworkers supplied iron bars for the building trade, and iron rims for wheels. The Carpenters regulated the building trade as all new buildings used timber. The Goldsmiths supervised the quality of gold and silver articles, which had to be marked in their Company’s hall (‘hall-marked’) before they could be sold. The livery companies, in short, had Elizabethan trade sewn up.


A young man would be apprenticed to a master belonging to a livery company, to learn the trade. Some companies, such as the Goldsmiths’ Company, could charge a considerable premium for an apprenticeship indenture. As he progressed, the young man changed from a liability needing to be shown every detail, to a trusted employee who could negotiate on behalf of his master, handling significant sums of money. The life of an apprentice was not always enjoyable. He had no right to pay, although his master might voluntarily recognise his usefulness if he stayed the course and proved his worth. The apprenticeship lasted at least seven years, sometimes longer, during which the young man was bound to ‘serve his master faithfully and keep his (trade) secrets’. He could not hope to be released until he was at least 24. During this hormone-driven period of his life ‘he shall not commit fornication nor contract matrimony … he shall not play at cards … or any other lawful game. He shall not haunt playhouses nor absent himself from the master’s service day or night unlawfully …’ The master’s obligations were only to keep his apprentice in food and lodging, and clothe him in the plain blue clothes appropriate to his standing, and teach him his trade. No wonder that the drop-out rate was so high, often around 50 per cent. Some who had learned enough marketable skills decided to try their luck in the provinces, after several years of near-servitude in London. From the frequent references to apprentices brawling and rioting and attending playhouses, one suspects that the strict rules preventing them from almost any normal enjoyment were often flouted.

Once the apprentice had completed his term, he became a freeman of London. He could either become a journeyman – paid by the day, or, in French the journée – or set up on his own account. If so, he would rise through the ranks of his company until he became entitled to wear its distinctive uniform, or ‘livery’.

Rebellion by London apprentices in 1595

Rebellion by London apprentices in 1595

Appalling social conditions prompted an uprising of 1,000 apprentices in London.

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Other employments

For those who had not managed to climb on to the livery company ladder, finding a job was more complicated. There were places in educated families for ‘governors’ – tutors – but not for governesses: daughters were taught by their mothers. Rich men maintained huge households. The Earl of Oxford came on a social visit to London in 1562 with 140 mounted retainers, all wearing his livery to show their allegiance. Small families employed one or two serving men and servant maids. Ships’ captains would sign on almost anyone; there might be a chance of prize money, but a greater chance of death by shipwreck or disease. In the countryside, there was usually seasonal work to be had. But there was no security, no pension, let alone any right to sick pay.

Declaration of the Diggers of Warwickshire, 1607

Declaration of the Diggers of Warwickshire, 1607

Enclosure of land cause massive hardship and poverty for labourers in rural England.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The poor

What happened to the poor, the people who could find no work, or were too disabled to work? The monasteries used to look after them, but no longer. It finally dawned on the government that the poor could not just be left to die; something had to be done for them by the state. It came, at first, and cynically, in the shape of begging licences, limited to an area, such as a parish, and a period, between six months and two years. Since it was made so difficult to obtain them, many were forged.

The welfare system

By 1569 some sort of welfare system was in place in the City of London, an example followed nationally by a general Act of 1572 which formed the basis of the national Poor Law until 1834. Its aim was to separate the ‘poor, aged and impotent [i.e. disabled]’ people, whom the state could and should help, from the thriftless and work-shy, whom the state would not help. The system became more and more complicated, but it functioned, in its own way. The poor were not, in theory at least, left to starve.

© Liza Picard

  • Liza Picard
  • Liza Picard researches and writes about the history of London. She spent many years working in the office of the Solicitor of the Inland Revenue and lived in Gray’s Inn and Hackney, before retiring to live in Oxford.