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Appleby History > Alan Roberts > Early Modern Villagers

Appleby Families: Villagers in Early Modern Times

A breakdown of the early modern village social order by social rank and status.

by Alan Roberts


Introduction - below

  1. The Appleby Gentry - the 'richer sort'
  2. The Appleby Clergy - a comfortable living
  3. The Appleby Yeomanry - 'gentlemen in Ore?'
  4. Husbandmen
  5. Traditional and Cottage Craftworkers
  6. The Labouring Population - 'a poor beggarly sort of people'
  7. Servants
  8. The Appleby Apprentices
  9. An Emerging Social Group: The Poor and Destitute
  10. Vagabonds, Itinerants, Squatters and Illegal Immigrants 

See also: Appleby Family Lists: Family Names from the Early Modern age


Population increases in the late Tudor and early Stuart periods accentuated a trend towards economic and social polarisation felt throughout the midlands. Population growth forced food prices to rise putting increasing pressure on the more vulnerable sections of the population. Studies have shown that living costs in England rose three or fourfold between 1550 and 1700 and this was matched by increases in rents and entry fines for holdings. While the more substantial farmer grew rich fattening livestock for urban markets, the smallholder with only a modest surplus faced increasingly lean times. His greatest problem was to avoid being ‘squeezed out’ by his more prosperous neighbours seeking to enlarge their holdings. Day-labourers and others on fixed incomes who had no land of their own were particularly hard hit. Inflation tended to widen the social gap between rich and poor. Wealth disparities hardened social divisions and made men more aware of rank and status. In Appleby these changes were reflected in the growing social divisions within the village.

Changes in contemporary views of status and rank

The period from 1550 to 1700 witnessed major changes in social relationships at village level. R.H. Hilton’s studies of the English peasantry suggest that there not much social distinction between ordinary villagers below the rank of gentry until the late medieval period.  Labourers, husbandmen and craftsmen all saw themselves on about the same level. Late seventeenth century England was, by contrast, a highly stratified society with marked inequalities of wealth, status and power. Contemporary writers describe a society obsessed with social status. Two famous Elizabethan social commentators, John Harrison and Sir Thomas Smith, echoed the conventions of their day when they divided society into four ‘degrees of people’. First came ‘those whom their blood doth make noble and known’, next the citizens and burgesses, then the yeomanry, ‘who commonly live wealthily’ as freeholders or farm tenants. Finally, listed together in no particular order were ‘the fourth sort of men which do not rule’ -  ‘day-labourers, poor husbandmen, landless merchants, retailers, copyholders, and artificers’. This was how the gentry saw society, their emphasis was upon the minority of the wealthy and powerful rather than the vastly more numerous group at the lower end of the social scale. The gentry’s wealth and pre-eminence pushed other groups into the background. Later interpretations introduced some fluidity into the order of precedence. In 1600, for example, Thomas Wilson remarked that the yeomanry is ‘decayed and sunk into the commonality’ while their place was taken by a rapacious breed of common lawyer. Others, like John Hooker in Devonshire, combined yeomen and husbandmen together as social equals. But the emphasis remained. Social distinctions were rarely drawn, for example, between a skilled craftsman such as a shoemaker, and an unskilled day-labourer. Women, apprentices and servants, who together comprised more than half the rural population, were hardly mentioned. While allowance is made for social mobility, particularly the social aspirations of the yeomanry, the consensus of opinion before 1600 saw society as an immutable, ordered hierarchy.

By the late Elizabethan period writers were writing about how society was being changed by upstart wealth and influence. Harrison  complained how easy it was for wealthy merchants and freeholders to ascend into the ranks of the gentry, either through their own merit, ‘or by setting their sons to school at the Universities, to the laws of the realm or otherwise leaving them sufficient lands whereon they may live without labour’. His contemporary, Philip Stubbes, railed against the presumption of people even lower on the social scale, the desire of ‘every Butcher, Shoemaker, Tailor, Cobbler and Husbandman, yea every Tinker, Pedler and Swineheard [to] be called by the vaine name of Maisters at every woorde'. While some allowance should be made for exaggeration, these accounts suggest that villagers were seeking to improve themselves.

Gregory King's famous table of 'Ranks, Degrees, Titles and Qualifications', shows how much the social order had changed by 1695.  King's table, dividing society into those increasing and those decreasing the national wealth, reflects a new mercantile division of society.  Although he makes obeisance to old forms of rank, by placing for example, the lesser clergymen earning £50 a year above freeholders worth £60 a year, wealth was regarded as important as breeding in the status hierarchy. But even while it smoothed the path to social advancement, wealth did not automatically guarantee a rise in status.  

Change in the Village Social Hierarchy

At village level the inhabitants themselves defined the social hierarchy.  A statute of Henry V's time, required all litigants to be identified according to their 'Estate, Degree or Mystery'. Practically speaking the functionally literate - those who drew up wills, appraised inventories or witnessed land transactions ­- assigned social position.  Their perception of a man as a yeoman. husbandman, craftsman or labourer assigned him to his social niche although the meaning of various status terms was often blurred by usage. Parish registers and probate records commonly identify parishioners in four different ways: by rank (husbandman, yeoman, gentleman), by occupation (labourer, servant, craftsman), by wealth (pauper), and by marital status (widow, spinster). The Appleby register rarely provides occupations before 1698. But the occupations recorded between 1698-1707 provide a very clear and comprehensive picture of the social order at the end of the seventeenth century, although of course it tends to exclude groups on the fringes of society such as servants, apprentices, the aged, the unmarried, childless couples, recent immigrants from other parishes and nonconformists.  

The emerging social order as compiled from entries in the Appleby register around 1700 is summarised in the table below which shows the ‘new’ occupations introduced into the parish in the early modern period. Mr Dunmore’s occupational profile shows that more than half of the Appleby householders were engaged in farming, if day-labourers are included.  There is also a large number and diversity of craftsmen, particularly cottage craftworkers manufacturing clothing and footware (weavers, hatters, tailors and cordwainers) but also an apothecary, a barber and a whittawer, a fine leatherworker or saddler, all offering specialised services catering to the gentry. Most of the craftsmen were comparatively new to the parish.  The earlier period from 1600-1642 was one of relative stability with little change in occupational status. Only 4 new families were introduced to the parish, compared to the period 1642-1700 which saw the introduction of 46 new families. 

Occupational Profiles from Parish Registers c.1700 (after Dunmore)










(see breakdown below)







Traditional Agriculture:














Food processing:







Cottage crafts:





weavers etc




Specialist services:







Sources and Notes

‘Economic polarization … may well be the most readily identifiable indicator of positive ecological reaction’: V.H.T. Skipp, Crisis and Development, 93-99; Wrightson, English Society, 17-38

Figures for the price of a ‘composite unit of foodstuffs’ compared in E.H. Phelps-Brown and S.V. Hopkins, ‘Seven Centuries of the Price of Consumables compared with Builders’ Wages’: E.M. Carus Wilson (ed.) Essays in Economic History (London, 1962), 183. Some rents in Warwickshire rose threefold in the period 1556-1613, and threefold again 1613-48. See M. Campbell, The English Yeoman under Elizabeth and the Early Stuarts (New Haven, 1942), 84-5

K. Wrightson, ‘Aspects of Social Differentiation in Rural England, c.

1580-1660’,  Journal of Peasant Studies, v No. 1 (1977), 33.

Harrison, Description I, chp. 5 p. 18; Sir Thomas Smith, De Republica Anglorum (London, 1583), 26, 29-30, 33.

The State of England Anno Dom. 1600 by Thomas Wilson, Ed. F.J. Fisher, Camden Miscellany, 3rd Series, lii (1936), 17, 25.

John Hooker’s, ‘Synopsis Choreographical of Devon­shire’, Transactions of the Devonshire Association, xlvii (1915), 324.

Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (London, 1583).  See Table from Gregory King's 'Natural and Politicall Conclusions Upon the State and Conditions of England' (1696) in P. Laslett, World We Have Lost, 36-7.

The importance of Henry V's statute is discussed by Mildred Campbell, English Yeoman, 4-5.

For value of status see V.B. Elliott, 'Marriage and Mobility' thesis, 41-56.

The 100 families in Appleby recorded in Bishop Wake's census (1705-16) approximates to the 117 households listed from the register excluding servants, paupers.  However, occupational samples for 1600 and 1640 derived from wills etc. are less reliable as they represent less than half the minimum number of households in the parish.

Changes in the village social order

After the Civil War there was a slowing down or reversal of Appleby’s population growth, part of a general demographic malaise affecting towns and villages throughout the country at this time.  Late marriages and smaller families suggest a more cautious approach to family responsibilities, or fewer opportunities for household formation, after 1640. The demographic fortunes of different parishes begin to diverge after the Civil War.  Recovery depended to a large extent upon economic factors, particularly opportunities for employment in subsiduary occupations.  Migration thus appears in the final analysis as a major determinant of population recovery after 1660, with increases in the numbers of the cottaging poor an unwanted legacy of earlier growth.

 The fragmentary evidence that survives also suggests a trend towards economic and social polarization over the course of the seventeenth century.  This is exemplified in the increasing number of labourers and poor people, the economic decline of the smallholders and the increased wealth of some of the gentry families after 1660.  The period from 1660-1700 saw a broadening of the economic base within the parish as a result of migration.  The establishment of cottage craft industries in Appleby also helped to create a new social order, since the craftworkers, who lacked kinship connections within the parish, were set apart from the traditional agricultural workers and tradesmen.  This process was well advanced by 1670 when assessments were made for the hearth tax, providing a crude reflection of the wealth structure of the parish.

Hearths per household in Appleby,  1664-70

3 or more hearths - 6
2 hearths - 6
1 hearth - 54
Exempt households - 25
Total hearths - 91

(PRO. Hearth tax assessment E 179/245/10; E 179/245/279; exemptions E 179/332/83)

Margaret Spufford defines a 'polarised community' as one in which twenty per cent of households occupied houses of three or more hearths while forty per cent of the labourers occupied houses of one hearth. There can be little doubt that labourers occupied at least forty per cent of the single hearth households in Appleby . On the other hand fewer than a tenth of the householders occupied houses with three or more hearths. Although the social order had not yet been polarised to the extent of Orwell and Chippenham in Cambridgeshire, the increasing number of poor householders had changed the social structure of the parish, causing some of the conflicts and divisions which were beginning to surface. 

©Alan Roberts, November 2000

Next Section: The Appleby Gentry

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