English Society

English Society


The origins of ‘England’ began with the departure of the Legions and heterogeneous Romans in the early 5th century. Native British, Brythonic Celts were rapidly dominated by the Nordic Saxon tribe of Angelii people from southern Denmark. There was a progressive acculturation of the Romano British as the Celtic language became displaced (in most places) by ‘old English’. It is from the Angelii that the land took its name. England was subsequently adopted by Viking Danes whose Scandinavian pedigree had a similar source. The Normans whose reign began in 1066 were Nordic people of the same stock and origins. This background and common heritage brought with it several characteristics, customs and similar traditions that have made the English a unique nation with popular beliefs and fair practices.

While there are similarities between the English and their European neighbours, they are otherwise unique in several respects. Firstly, the English of Britain are an island race. They are both insulated physically and seafaring by nature. A past empire has been huge and during which they brought a common language and levels of education to the wider world. The British construct of parliament, laws and regulations have been emulated far and wide. There are today, more than 50 English speaking countries and approximately 375 million people speaking English.

In England, we have inherited in the conclusions to many overseas and local battles, a democracy that provides justice, general fairness and security for all law-abiding citizens. It will be true to say that society is not evenly distributed and that clearly a class system exists, caused by an ancient order of inheritance. The English have not experienced the dispossession of estates since the Norman conquest, unlike much of Europe, whose nobility has greatly suffered under revolutions.

Our Government is based on two houses, the House of Lords that continues in some degree, to represent a hereditary upper-class and the House of Commons representing the wider populace. There has been considerable change since the Second World war that removed much of the prior influences by the landed gentry. The reasons for our successful democracy can reasonably be traced. Unlike most of our European neighbours, we have retained the basis of hereditary principles. Our monarch remains the Head of State. In this role the monarch does not dictate but provides confidence and endorsement to political decisions.

The English, like our European counterparts, were historically an agricultural community, before the Industrial Revolution and before they famously became known as a ‘nation of shop keepers’. Certainly, it has been a history of the developing boroughs, the flourishing guilds, traders and seafaring merchant adventurers.

Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, society appears to have been relatively fixed and unchanging for several centuries while gradually differences occurred in ‘forest law’ and primary regulations. The Norman French feudalism influenced the demands for military service but did little to change the general language of the peasantry. The 12th to the 14th centuries were generally prosperous. Agriculture was productive until an overpopulation and poor weather led to great famine in 1315-17 which affected all of Europe. An outbreak of the ‘Black Death’ in 1348 killed off half of the English population. The old ‘demesne’ manorial system was then effectively ended. The ‘Peasant’s Revolt’ in1381 (anti poll taxes) and the costs of the ‘Hundred Years War’ with France caused great economic tensions.

The cleric John Ball encouraging the rebel peasants

An increasing population prior to the ‘Black Death’ had led to many farm workers moving into town dwelling. The 13th century experienced a mini-industrial revolution in the wool industry. The plague in middle of the 14th century and the reduced numbers in the working population brought new powers to the peasants and new-found freedoms. New laws were introduced to control the economy.

The Tudor dynasty, prior to the ‘Reformation’ was a relatively stable period when compared with the previous waring years, although English Poor Laws were initiated in 1536 in order to reduce vagrancy and assist the incapable. The early ‘poor laws’ were later considered an insufficient deterrent to beggars and considered by some that the provision of benefits encouraged more vagrancy. A ‘Statute of Labourers’ of 1551 had required that everyone who could work did so. Wages were set at pre-plague levels and that food was not over-priced.

Reformation during the 16th century and the rise of Protestantism effected the decline of feudalism and brought changes to the peasant economy. Before they were broken up, the monasteries had formed an important part of the social welfare, giving alms and looking after the destitute. These changes culminated in the Poor law. English civil war during the 17th century caused huge social destruction and a rise in Puritanism. This was reversed after the Restoration of the monarchy. A British Empire had been rapidly forming after 1606. The great population moving into London were decimated by plague before this was followed by the disruptions of the Great Fire.

It was during the 16th century that senior lawyers, surgeons, merchants and gentlemen capitalists formed a growing ‘Middle Class’. The Victorian era was influenced by the technology of the ‘Industrial Revolution’ which began a period of new industries, products and services. A cultural transition took place with regard to social values and the arts. The status of the poor was an unavoidable part of urban society. Luddites attacked machinery and new technology while trade unions were initiated to protect the working classes. An agricultural depression had lasted ten years until 1896. Hard times were accompanied by improvements under the Factory Act 1901 dealing with environmental and health standards.

The hitherto settled agricultural society had been severely disrupted by the political events including a demand for farming methods to be improved. This ‘Agricultural Revolution’ caused great upheaval to the peasantry and small farmers. Mass migrations by labourers into towns at this time coincided with the early stages of the upcoming ‘Industrial Revolution’. An argument can be made that the agricultural revolution began to take place during the 16th and 17th centuries rather than the common presumption of the 18th and 19th.

The salient features of this revolution are usually held to be the enclosure of common fields by Act of Parliament, the accompanying replacement of bare fallows by root crops and artificial grasses, the institution and dissemination of the Norfolk four-course system, the introduction of drills and other improved implements, the drainage of farmland, the breeding of new and better sheep and cattle and the supersession of draught oxen by horses.

The pioneers and heroes of this revolution were formerly conceived to be Tull, Townsend, Coke and Bakewell; and even though their stature may now have been somewhat diminished, the original conception of the agricultural revolution has hardly been changed. Adherence is still given to the view that the agricultural revolution, or the opening stages of it, coincided by fortunate chance, with the industrial revolution, which itself commenced with the accession of George III and was more or less complete in time for the Great Reform Bill of 1832.

When we come to examine the conventional criteria of this revolution, the first being enclosure, it proves unsatisfactory. Many parcels of land in the common fields were enclosed by quicksets, all subject to common rights. Such closes were ‘Lammas lands’ and were thrown open at Lammas. If the gates were not left open, the commoners would tear a gap in the hedge! Much open land was free of common-right, putting the land into ‘several’ for all to use. Those subject to common rights were normally referred to as ‘tenantry’ lands.

Regulating laws that affected English society

(Corn Law)

‘Corn Laws’ from at least the 12th century, when the government attempted to regulate the export and import of grain. These laws became controversial at the end of the Napoleonic wars. The supply of imported grain from Continental Europe had been severely affected by the long war with France, so British farmers had been encouraged by government bounties to increase their production. The onset of peace made farmers fearful of bankruptcy. Government therefore agreed to a policy of protection which prohibited imported corn under a certain price. Sliding scales of prices were introduced in 1828 and adjusted in 1842, but the corn laws were not repealed until 1846 after much pressure from the ‘Anti-Corn Law League.

The most important granary was East Anglia, and the largest foreign market was the Netherlands. Government encouraged corn exports from 1654 and helped the growers of grain by payment of bounties from1674. However, from the 1760s, Britain became a net importer of foreign grain. The war from 1793 to 1815 caused hardship. Corn laws kept prices high until their repeal in 1846. American grain began to be imported in large quantities in the 1870s.

An Elizabethan ‘Poor Law’ in 1601 could be divided into two groups: the impotent poor – sick, elderly and those unable to work – classed as “would work but couldn’t”. These were helped via outdoor relief or in alms-houses. Able -bodied paupers were classed as “could work but wouldn’t”. These should be beaten until they realise the errors of their ways.

The Poor Law aimed to provide social stability, to alleviate discontent and distress – through outdoor relief. The social welfare system was based on the village/hamlet – ‘parish’ unit of government, with unpaid, non-professional administrators. Some parishes had more money and were more benevolent than others (there was no consistency of operation).

In 1662, a Settlement Act stated that a person had to have a ‘settlement’ in order to obtain relief from a parish. This was secured by, birth in the parish, marriage (in the case of a woman) or having worked in the parish for a year and a day. A person on hard times would be sent back (expenses paid) to their own rightful parish.

A ‘Workhouse Test Act was introduced in 1723 and between 1723 and 1750, 600 parish workhouses were established in England and Wales. They were directed by local JPs. The inmates would undertake set work in return for relief (a deterrent against claimants). It was a refuge for the destitute, maintained by charitable donations.

In 1776 the official workhouse returns showed an existence of around 2000 workhouses each with between 20 and 50 inmates. Costs were high, and the State would not interfere. The Gilbert’s Act, 1782, allowed groups of parishes to form Unions – joint poor-houses for the totally destitute. Able-bodied paupers were excluded. They were provided with outdoor relief and or employment near their own homes. Employers were subsidised to provide wages.

The ‘Speenhamland System’ was introduced in 1795 by magistrates of Speenhamland to relieve extreme poverty. This offered allowances to supplement wages, calculated on prices of a gallon loaf of bread (8lbs 7oz) and the number of dependant children. Some areas allowed between 1/6d and 2/6d per child against the labour rate paid by local farmers and as necessary, was supplemented by the parish.

(Select Vestry)

In 1818 the Select Vestries Act required plural voting in the parish vestry and depended on the rateable value of property. A landowner of property worth £50 was eligible for one vote, plus one more vote for every £25 up to a maximum of six votes. This scale was used later for the ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’ for election of the Guardians of the Poor. Vestries were told to distinguish between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. This Act provided for employment of overseers and improved operations. Under this legislation two JPs were needed to force Vestry to give poor relief.

Attitudes toward the poor changed when it was thought that charity could lead to idleness and an excess rural population. Reforming legislation of 1831 – 41 included a Royal Commission and in 1834 a ‘New Poor Law’ came in under the ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’. This attempted to organise poverty relief and to reduce the high costs. This new administration probably harmed the relatively defenceless rather than encourage improvement among the idle able-bodied. It did much to limit the power of the local rural truant. Generally, it was less flexible than the old poor law.

In the 19th century, most members of the working classes would be in poverty at some stage of their lives, due to unemployment, sickness, old age and so on. Family would tend to provide the necessary support and credit in times of hardship. The poor were therefore, ‘encouraged’ to work. The new Poor Law was seen as the final solution to the problem of pauperism –  and to improve the character of the working man.

Anti-Poor Law propaganda reached a climax in 1837, when attempts were made to form Unions in the industrial north. The anti-Poor Law propaganda was formed in the north when trade depression caused angry riots. Referred to as the ‘Hungry 40s’ there were riots in Bradford, Huddersfield and Dewsbury. The 1837 Act or actions was considered to be the cause of northern Chartism.

Some were very willing to work but unable to find employment. The old relief system had been interfered with by central government. When trade was bad, the workhouses became over full. In 1849, Mayhew investigated urban poverty. It showed that destitution was because of inadequate wages. This led to the 1848 Public Health Act.

The new system adapted to local circumstances. The parish remained the centre for collection of poor rates until 1865. Outdoor relief was often inadequate. Those sent to the workhouse were usually those unable to look after themselves – the old, ill and very young. Larger workhouses were cheaper. The Poor Law Amendment Act came into force 21 August 1834 and was specifically aimed at discouraging people from applying for relief. The Poor Law Commission became, in 1847, the Poor Law Board. Its HQ was at Somerset House.

Parishes were linked with Unions, each Union controlling the relief in its area. By 1838, 13,427 parishes were incorporated into 573 Unions. By 1868, the whole country had been unionised. From then the economy improved, Chartism distracted attention from criticism. The Poor Law Amendment Act treated the symptoms but not however, the causes of poverty.

In Conclusion, it seems to me that the personal successes of English society are, not surprisingly, dependant on family, health, inheritance, education and good fortune! Some mention should also be made of the English ‘Social Class System’.

Traditionally, at the base, and vast majority of the population were:

Working Class comprising – Cottagers, labourers and servants. Above which the Husbandmen and artisan tradesmen, tenants (including freemen, commoners). Next were the Yeomen (farmers) and shop and hall keepers (freeholders).

Middle Class –    (the educated) Clergy, gentry, merchants, professionals and landowners

Knight (honourable recognition) Baronet (hereditary, below peerage)

Upper Class –      (the elite) Aristocracy – noble peer, ranging from baron to duke

(at the top) Royalty – members of the royal family

In modern parlance, an elite class may refer to the long established (seated) middle class, prosperous professionals, celebrities and successful business people. Below which the traditional working class includes those ‘skilled’ and ambitious to raise their status through education, property ownership etc. The lower class is now considered to be the chronically unemployed, uneducated and without purpose in modern society. The lower middle class (large population) is traditionally the office/factory workers and mortgage paying public. Upper middle classes are those with ‘old money’, hereditary estates and public-school educations. It may include members of the peerage and substantial landed estates.


English Society has had its arch critics, particularly over inheritance and the distribution of wealth, power and privilege. Coming from ancient Rome have been the ideals of an egalitarian society. Unfortunately, there is no easy route to a Utopian economy.

The ancient agricultural society was completely upset by industrial advancement and the movements toward an urban lifestyle. Enclosure of the common lands began forcing people off the land and into the towns. Competition for work and homes created a large working class and corresponding poverty.

During the 19th century, certain philosophers played an important role in revising many aspects of the politics of the old regime. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) produced several essays including “Common Sense” and the “Declaration of Independence”, the foundation of the American Constitution. He was accompanied by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) who contributed much to English and American Society.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) an aristocrat by birth rebelled against materialism and the seemingly unfair advantages of inherited controls. Shelley is said to have conceived ‘Socialism’. Karl Marx (1818-1883) further developed the principles that might create a Communistic society.

Karl Marx is known to have taken his inspiration from the essays and poems of P B Shelley. ‘Socialism’ (1888) was advanced by Edward and Eleanor Marx (1855-1898) Aveling, daughter of Karl Marx. Aveling produced essays and lectures about Shelley’s Socialism. Karl Marx had described P B Shelley as the inspiration of the Chartist philosophy. Chartism was a working-class movement that emerged in 1836. Its aim was to gain political rights and influence for the working classes leading to ‘A Peoples Charter’.

Generally, back then, there was a belief that enclosures, the hierarchy in English Society and ownership of property were leading to destruction and over-population. Inherited rights inevitably would lead to forms of slavery. Communism/socialism opposed inheritance. Equality by sharing appeared to be an ideal toward the levelling of society. It has always been my view that inheritance should carry the principle of responsibility.

Socialism viewed the need to abolish property ownership and to restrict immigration (to limit populations). Centralised credit would be in the hands of the State – but who owns the State – (everyone). With no ‘free market’ all prices/charges are set by the State. The outcome of which, inevitably leads to a ‘black market’.

Communism is a socio political and economic ideology. It forms a cooperative ownership. Society does not consist of individuals but expresses the sum of interactions within which the individuals stand (Karl Marx 1858). Capitalism can provide limitless opportunities and encourages greater innovations. Consumers compete, leaving them to choose their consumption. Capitalism suits the individual while communism/socialism defers to government.

Inheritance through ‘primogeniture’ may be regarded as an unfair system set to preserve power. It preserves the bulk of an estate which ends up with an eldest son. By so doing it often saves an otherwise breakdown of a rural estate and avoids damaging the ancient landscape.

Shelley’s platonic philosophy of life believed that society struggled between good and evil. Rebellious toward the existing traditions, he was turned out by his father. He remained troubled and unhappy with the established conventions toward marriage, the Church and the monarchy. However, Shelley was optimistic in regard the future of mankind. He looked toward a future of regeneration and a golden age removed of poverty and suffering where all would enjoy freedom, love and justice. This would amount to equality everywhere.

Conclusions:- These ideals are all well and good but what would be the economic outcome. He believed in ‘levelling’ society and his essay “A Philosophical View of Reform” was well read. It suggested the reform of the English parliament to make it more representative (it has been). He advocated the independence of Ireland and repealment of the Act of Union! (no surprise there).

Shelley supported the writings of Thomas Paine with his “Rights of Man” and Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”. Perhaps his legacy was the rise in Communism and the preaching’s of Marx and Lenin. Clearly he was sincere in his concerns for the poor, infirmed and his regard for nature in the countryside.


I am convinced that absolute democracy does not work satisfactorily. Communism of the type operated in China, North Korea and previously in the Soviet States of Russia have been harshly ‘controlled’. The idea of a broad democratic ‘comradeship’ is commendable, but this is rarely the total outcome. Conversely, it may seem that ‘Capitalism’ with freer trade restrictions and lower taxation can result in an unbalanced advantage privileging the few, particularly via inheritance.

My studies of the social sciences result in personal conflict. It is difficult to reconcile my love of the English tradition, particularly with the ‘Freedom’ in an entirely compatible society. Of course, these were the similar conflicts discussed during the 1830s that resulted in the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the Municipal Corporations (Reform) Act 1835.

The creation of a ‘level’ society, in my opinion, can allow a high degree of laziness (leading to dependency). Margaret Thatcher was condemned by many for promoting a philosophy of ‘work, gain and retain’. It seems perfectly reasonable that any aggregation following commitment can be retained and passed to one’s progeny. As somebody who believes in the preservation of traditions, an elected parliament and property rights, I must be a self-declared conservative in the political sense.

On the other hand, I entirely support the need to assist the less capable and infirmed. It is essential that we abide by the laws of the land and respect one another. It must surely be a happy blend of a democratic approach to conservatism. Equality runs in the face of capitalism. For a strong democracy we would require a clear understanding of the works of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates combined with the studies of Adam Smith to find a more precise answer.

Social interactions probably begin with the needs for protection, safety and belonging in a society. Studies of the law and an understanding of local traditions are in my opinion fundamental. Social emotions are counter factual and often unsolvable by the individual. Anger and aggression lead to irrational choices. Traditional actions and activities may be ‘cultural’ reactions.

It seems to me that democracy is desirable to most well thinking people. However, this has to be supported by some form of governing capital. English society has attempted ‘equalism’ (tempered by religion) and was almost achieved under Cromwell’s ‘Commonwealth Protectorate’. The very body of typical English society is instinctively drawn to its traditions. However, republicanism was vastly overthrown by the majority and the monarchy recalled.

Our system of elected government, under the two houses of parliament (not controlled) by an historic sovereignty has provided a cohesive society. Civic activities and traditions have ensured the psychological support that created our English society leading up to the present day.

My conclusion is that ‘inheritance’ and ‘custom’ while not leading to equality, does however, provide the all-important continuity that is unique to the English nation. Without doubt, inheritances and any form of privilege must always be treated conscientiously and with respect.


A brief comment about the political changes in English society during the 19th century. Development of the Industrial Revolution brought many changes to the long-established protective politics of manorial lordship. Unpopularity of the Corn laws led to political protests and a call for repeal by the likes of Richard Cobden who was developing a form of ‘Liberalism’ into conservative politics. It was this form of protest, over poverty and the corn laws, that led to the famous ‘Peterloo’ massacre near Manchester. At the incident in 1819, eighteen members of the public among a crowd of 60,000, were killed protesting for universal suffrage and equal representation. The backlash from this event coincided with the rise of the ‘Chartist’ movement. It prepared the foundation of Liberal actionists and a radical drive for ‘Free Trade’ politics.

Free Trade campaigns were clearly a retaliation to the governance of the Corn Laws and were ‘anti-protectionist’. Leading the reforms for liberal emancipation was the now famous Sir Robert Peel (who developed the modern Conservative Party). Peel is particularly well known for his policing reforms. He established the Metropolitan Police Force (The Bobbies). These changes to centuries of  ‘Privileged Class’ control and the governance of a paternal form of protectionisms finally came to an end at the beginnings of the 20th century. Although the vote for Women did not get passed until 1818 and election into Parliament before 1928.

The (main) Reform Act, 1832, originally ‘The Representation of the People Act was introduced by Lord Grey, the PM. It widened the recognition of property qualification to include the small landowners, tenant farmers and shopkeepers. Most importantly, it provided the ‘vote’ to all householders who paid an annual rent of more than £10. The Act created 67 new constituencies and  it abolished tiny districts. There was much opposition to the Act coming from the establishment of the aristocracy and the House of Lords. The Act was passed following a building pressure from moderate conservatism and public politics of the time.

Lord Grey’s ‘Whig’ party contested power with the ‘Tories’ under the leadership of the Duke of Wellington (PM of a centre right conservative party). Grey went on with his reforms wishing to remove  any apparent semblances of unfair privilege in local government. These actions culminated in the publication of the ‘Municipal Corporations Act, 1835’. This most important legal action was heavily influenced and terminated the historic traditions of local government by free burgesses since the Middle Ages.

For details of the Act, select Category Subject ‘Laws’ and access ‘Privilege of Freedom’ (PDF) page 24 of 44.

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