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The Nobility

The Nobility

The noble was a member of the gentry (he was "gentil", and did no labor), but he was also a breed apart. A noble could only be a noble if he was born into it, or was ennobled by the crown (something Elizabeth did very seldom). They were entitled to elaborate forms of address and shows of deference from all of their social inferiors. They could not be imprisoned for debt, nor could they be flogged, tortured or pilloried, and if they committed a capital crime they could not be hanged or otherwise abused; they could only be beheaded. If they were to be tried for an offense, they could only be tried by a body of other nobles.

Most nobles inherited extensive lands and generous incomes, and though there were some commoners in town and country who had more money than many of the nobility, the richest people in England tended to be nobles. Many also ran up prodigious debts, and were in frequent need of new sources of cash.

There were quite distinct degrees of status in the nobility, which contained between each step, numerous sub-steps to account for sons, daughters etc.

In descending order of precedence, the major degrees of nobility were:

  1. Duke/Duchess
  2. Marquis/Marchioness
  3. Earl/Countess
  4. Viscount/Viscountess
  5. Baron/Baroness

These were the only degrees of nobility current in England in the time of Elizabeth, and after the execution of the Duke of Norfolk, there were no Dukes in England. The rank of "Baronet" did not yet exist.

The higher the noble rank, the higher was the status of the holder, though real power was derived not from rank but from the amount of land one owned, one's income, the offices one held and, most importantly, the favor of the Monarch, from whom all power flowed.