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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 14. Gradual change in social conditions; amalgamation of New and Old Nobility

Although the contrast between court and country which has served us as a text is rhetorically overstated, yet there can be no doubt that the increasing sense of the more intense, and more diversified, ways of life and thought now characteristic of the court and of the capital in or near which was its ordinary residence, as well as of the classes of society finding in that court and capital the natural centres of their wider interests and more ambitious projects, had contributed largely to the gradual change in the social conditions of Elizabethan England. As yet it had by no means lost its insular character; it was still completely isolated from the rest of Europe so far as its language was concerned, together with its literature, of which the continent knew nothing—unless it were through the violently coloured glass of the performances of English comedians. At home, the people was gradually losing the character of a mainly agricultural community, of which the several classes, though not differing very much in their standard of tastes, amusements and, to some extent, even of daily toil, were broadly marked off from one another by traditional usage, and in which society still largely rested on a patriarchal basis. Necessarily, it was an informal line, and one to be effaced with very great rapidity by the revolving years which divided what remained of the old nobility from the new that had sprung up by their side or taken their place. The demarcation between nobility and gentry, which, in England (where the contention between the armed nobility and the commons had come to an end with the conflict between the two races), had long since ceased to be definite, now retained little social significance. More striking was what has been justly recognised as one of the distinctive phenomena of this age—the growth of closer relations between the nobility and gentry, on the one hand, and the wealthier class of burgesses, the merchants, on the other. As a matter of course, this tendency to the removal of traditional distinctions was deplored by contemporary observers, anxious to escape the stigma of a tacit assent to the inevitable processes of social evolution. In this case, the change was hastened partly by intermarriage, partly by the custom according to which younger sons of noble or gentle families frequently took to trade, when they did not prefer to enter the service of their elder brothers. It was further advanced by the fact that it was becoming not unusual for gentlemen landowners to seek to make industrial and commercial profits out of their estates (instead of valuing them, as in the old warlike days, for the number of retainers furnished forth by them), “turning farmers and graziers for money,” and, like other farmers and graziers, making the soil do something besides sustain themselves and their families. Class interests and habits thus met halfway, so that the upper and the upper middle class, as we might call them in our ugly terminology, tended to amalgamate, and a practical stratification of society was introduced, destined to a long-enduring existence in English life. And there was also set up that form of social pride which an acrimonious moralist like Stubbes could denounce as a capital instance of the vice which he regarded as the “verie efficient cause of all evills.” Everyone, he says, vaunts himself, “crying with open mouth, I am a Gentleman, I am worshipful, I am Honourable, I am noble, and I can not tell what: my father was this, my father was that; I am come of this house, and I am come of that.” It need hardly be said that a powerful impulse was added to this widespread desire to claim the distinction of gentility by the practice introduced under James I of the sale of peerages and baronetcies—the latter an honour specially invented for the purpose. The general movement of the well-to-do classes of society towards equalisation on the basis of exclusiveness manifested itself, among other ways, in the wearing by many persons not belonging to the nobility of the sumptuous apparel which had hitherto been held appropriate to that class only. In the Elizabethan age, though merchants still dressed with fit gravity, their young wives were said to show more extravagance in the adornment of their persons than did ladies of the court. So far, however, as landowners in a large part of the country were concerned, the infusion of the new element must have overthrown many cherished traditions of life and manners, and, while bringing the country into closer contact with court and town, have contributed to substitute, for the easy-going and quiet conditions of the past, a régime in which “lawyers, monopolists and usurers” became founders of some of the county families of the future.