Nostalgia: Ordinary men did not rule

Cliffords Tower, York, and Castlegate Postern from a 1680 engraving by F Place. In 1664 four Scarborough men were sent to York Castle Prison indefinitely.
Cliffords Tower, York, and Castlegate Postern from a 1680 engraving by F Place. In 1664 four Scarborough men were sent to York Castle Prison indefinitely.

In 1664, four Scarborians were summoned to the bishop’s court at New Malton for not attending Sunday church services and refusing to pay church tithes. When one of them, Peter Hodgson, asked the presiding judge why they should conform, he was struck down with a “great blow on the ear” by one of the court officers. The four were all sent to York castle prison indefinitely where three of them eventually died. Peter Hodgson was the sole survivor. They were all Quakers.

Not only did these “Quakerly dogs” defy parliamentary laws of the land, they outraged contemporary society by refusing to recognise rank. Four hundred years ago, England was obsessed with status. (Some might say that it still is.)

According to Sir Thomas Smith, a respected Elizabethan lawyer, English society was then divided broadly into four groups: the major nobility or aristocracy; the minor nobility of gentry, consisting of knights, esquires and gentlemen; thirdly, citizens, burgesses and yeomen; and “the fourth sort of men who do not rule”. He made no reference to females. So the cardinal sin of the early Quakers was that they regarded women as equal to men in the sight of God. Nothing could have been more outrageously revolutionary.

Even the taxation system took account of rank. For example, the Poll Tax of 1660 differentiated between the annual contribution of a duke (£100), an earl (£60), a viscount (£50), a baron (£40), a baronet (£30), a knight (£20), an esquire (£10), a gentleman (£5), and an ordinary person, sixpence. The greatest gulf was clearly that between a gentleman and “an ordinary person”: a degree of difference as great almost as that between a Christian and a heathen or a white European and a black African.

Though we still have a peerage, baronets and knights, it is no longer the custom to address only the heirs of knights with the right to a coat of arms as “esquires”. Similarly, the terms “Mr” (Master) and “Mrs” (Mistress) have come down in our world: they were once reserved for the gentry and their wives; now they are titles given to all men and their wives. And it is now a matter of customary politeness to call any adult male “Sir”, not just knights of the realm. “Doctor” is another title which has spread down the pecking order. Once it was given only to those who had university doctorates in law, divinity, medicine or philosophy; now almost all physicians claim it and even some dentists.

What Quakers objected to, in addition to attending church (“steeple houses”) and paying tithes (“robberies”), was the bowing and scraping that so-called superiors expected from their inferiors.

In “The Boke of Nurture or Schoole of good manners”, published in 1577, Hugh Rhodes advised “men servants and children” how to behave properly in the presence of their betters. They should never speak first to a gentleman and speak only when asked to reply. When meeting a gentleman they should always take off their hats or caps. So that one Quaker custom which seems to have caused maximum offence was their stubborn refusal to doff their hats to anyone whatever their elevated status. Normally, men kept their heads covered everywhere in public except inside churches.

Subservience to a social superior even extended to his property. A lord’s attendants were expected to remove their hats when his horse urinated or defecated in the street!

Servants and apprentices might live under the same roof as their masters and mistresses, but they still had to observe their lower status. Though wage rates were fixed for many trades and crafts, household servants, especially maid servants, were dependent for their wages on the whim of their employers. There is evidence that some live-in maids were not paid at all, or only irregularly and infrequently.

It was generally accepted that young women had to tolerate the unwanted sexual attentions of their masters. The only case found where a woman in service was released from her master took place at Norwich in 1599. Here the mayor’s court ruled that she was free to go because he had advanced syphilis!

When we come to books on table manners, the gulf between us and our ancestors grows even wider. The seating hierarchy at tables reflected that on the streets, yet one suspects that social superiors were allowed to conduct themselves in disgusting ways denied to their servants. At meals, King James I did everything his inferiors were warned not to do. He did not wash his hands before eating and only dipped the tips of his fingers in rosewater; he slurped his soup, ate noisily, broke wind, belched, spat out food on to the floor; threw bones under the table and scratched his head over the table. He was the dinner guest from hell: hosts must have dreaded his arrival.

In practice, the lower you were reckoned to be in society the greater the punishment you risked if you did not demonstrate utmost respect. In Scarborough’s courts, where the bailiffs sat as magistrates, witnesses and defendants alike had to show deference to them. The two bailiffs and two coroners were always addressed as “your worships” and should anyone challenge their absolute authority the consequences were very painful. As a result, examples of verbal defiance are extremely rare. At one hearing, whereas assault with a knife earned a fine of 3s 4d, to call the bailiffs “knaves” earned the slanderer a colossal penalty of five pounds. One of Scarborough’s butchers who opened his shop on a Sunday and was rebuked by William Foord, coroner and gentleman, was lucky to escape with a standard fine of 3s 4d after he had called him “a snotty foole”. In contrast, “abusing the jurie with base abusive languages” seems not to have raised much indignation: both William Shepherd, who called them “sawcy fellowes” for questioning the accuracy of his “yeard wand in the markett place” and William Slee, who called them “shitbucketts”, were let off lightly. After all, the juries consisted of “ordinary men who did not rule”.