WILL: Hype or History

(13) On aristocracies

If you suspect something you are not 100% sure and at least have some doubts. In case you are fully certain, you do not have the slightest doubt and usually have no idea. Both Jonathan Bate and James Shapiro are fully certain: an aristocratic writer would have never cooperated with a common writer. Between them lies a frontier, just like the Berlin Wall separated different and hostile forms of society. Or, in social science terms, the gap between the Brahmins and the formerly called Untouchables in the Indian caste system.

Neither Bate nor Shapiro deem it necessary to specify their view of an aristocratic society. But is it not obvious how to view it? Is there not higher nobility, the so-called “peerage”: Duke, Marquis, Earl, Viscount, Baron, who were all addressed as Lord? And lower nobility including the “Knights” who were addressed as “Sir”? Consequently “Esquires” and “Gentlemen” were next in the social hierarchy. And the two latter groups – did they belong to lower nobility, the so-called “Gentry”?

Frequent ambiguities arise if one believes that the hierarchy of titles leads to a reliable and unequivocal criterion for people’s social status. There were indeed Lords by virtue of their office, although they were not part of the higher nobility. The highest ranking Lord, Lord Chancellor (which would be Minister of Justice today) was often no member of High Nobility; the Lord Chief Justices of the three Common-Law-Courts, i.e. King’s (Queen’s) Bench, Common Pleas and Court of Exchequer were practically never part of High Nobility. The chairman of the Court of Exchequer was not called Lord Chief Justice, but Chief Baron, even though he was no Baron in the stricter sense of the social hierarchy. And all judges of the Court of Exchequer bore the title “Baron”.

In his “rororo-Monographic” on Shakespeare Alan Posener properly remarks: “Reality proves to be a bit more disorderly.” (p. 110). Too disorderly for Posener, who is 100% certain and has no doubts, since he continues: “Around this time Shakespeare withdrew from acting and London, dedicating himself to his family, his friends and his property business, as was apt for a Gentleman.1 What Posener, however, does not notice is that the kind of business Shakespeare was involved in the said time, completely disqualifies him as a Gentleman. In a way Posener is right: Though Shakespeare from Stratford was a Gentleman, he was not a Gentleman such as e.g. Oxford was; in “The Arte of English Poesie”, which is the most significant handbook on poetry in the Elizabethan era, Oxford is referred to as “That noble Gentleman Edward Earle of Oxford.”2 “Gentleman” does not always mean “Gentleman”. Being entitled to a coat of arms (like Shakespeare from Stratford) did not make anyone a gentleman in a sociocultural sense, especially with the sort of business he was involved in. The term “Gentleman” simultaneously denotes an ideal of behaviour. In order to be seen as a gentleman in a sociocultural sense you were expected to abstain from such business, as Henry Peacham’s book The Complete Gentleman (published in 1622) explains. What primarily belonged to the behavioural norms of a Gentleman was a “liberality” (meaning generosity) and hospitality.3

Victor G. Kiernan, a reputable historian, hints at the difficulties of defining aristocracy: “It is anything but easy to determine what aristocracy actually means and 16th century views are in many ways unreliable and flexible.” A title was a guarantee, but real property could be a better one. 4 Let us sum up so far: Wealth could have been another guarantee next to a title. But a rich Lord acting in a stingy way would not really have been deemed aristocratic, as he did not live nobly, or, put differently, lacked the two features “liberality” and “hospitality”. Thus, status was not a question of having property but of having high expenses. According to Thomas Smith in De Republica Anglorum you would belong to high nobility (from Baron upwards) if you donated £1000 per year. Smith was a professor for equity law and Greek in Cambridge and at times Secretary of State which equals the tasks of home and foreign secretary (minister) nowadays. 

Norbert Elias points out how difficult it is for a modern observer to understand aristocratic society, as “the ethos of saving money for future profit is part of his mindset”... “This civil standard of conduct differs from their understanding of prestige. In societies in which this status consumption ethos prevails, one’s social esteem and reputation depend on the costs and expenses of one’s housekeeping, i. e. the expenses are connected with one’s social status or prestige.5

In 16th and early 17th century England to spend around £1000 per year was like a guideline for every member of high nobility. That is why Edmund, 3rd Baron Sheffield, who was holding the crucial office of Lord President of the Council of the North, was given £1000 per year by James I. It is vital to emphasize that this office/post was as important as the one of the Lord President of Wales. These two posts can well be compared to the one of the Viceroy of Ireland. True, Wales and the North were integrated into the Kingdom of England than Ireland was, but due to regional particularism unrest was to be feared from there (as the two rebellions starting in Northern England, the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 and the Northern Rebellion in 1569 show). For this reason a Privy Council was established and Lord Sheffield was the president.

One would be mistaken if one considered the amount of £1000 as a kind of “salary” for this exercise of office, no, it was a gift of the Crown. The salary connected with high offices was ridiculously small, which again correlates to the specific view the aristocracy held concerning jobs serving the monarch: In no way must this service be seen as a means to an income. In Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Max Weber indicates that the origin of this rejection of income goes back to feudalism; through this attitude the upper ranks set themselves apart from the other classes, especially the merchant class; this also applies to court society. The costs related to the office were to be defrayed by the office itself, e.g. by tax income or custom revenue, or by lease of office. Evidently Lord Sheffield’s revenues were not enough, so that he could not maintain his status and spend money as was expected of him. Consequently he complained to King James in 1604, not about the meagre income through his office, but about the fact that he was nearly ruined. James then granted him an annuity of £1000, exactly the amount that a “Peer” was expected to spend. Lord Sheffield found the amount too small.

The King in turn complained about Lord Sheffield’s complaint to his most important minister Robert Cecil. This letter is not dated, but the period in which it was written can be determined relatively well. It is addressed to Robert Cecil, Viscount of Cranborne. In January 1605 Cecil was lifted into the rank of an Earl (of Salisbury), the next rank after Viscount. In this letter he also mentions the 17th Earl of Oxford in a way that implies he has passed away. It must have been written after Oxford’s date of death, 24 June 1604 and before January 1605.

James justifies his decision to grant Lord Sheffield not more than £1000 by referring to the “Great Oxford” who was not granted more by the Queen; just as his cousin Arabella and a foreign prince from Germany had not been given more either.6

Then James mentions Sheffield who tried to show that he (James) had supported each aristocrat who was ruined, adding that he had served the former state of Elizabeth I. James, however, replied that he was mistaken indeed.

James, however, does not mention the important office Lord Sheffield had to manage: Lord President of the Council of the North. Although Lord Sheffield was mainly ruined by the costs of this office, James did not think this was worth mentioning. To our contemporaries this must seem like a hypocritical suppression. That was, of course, not the case. Feudal hierarchy was based on the principle of honour and loyalty to one’s master; courtly hierarchy was based on the same, but in this case there was only one master, either the king or the prince. Exactly these circumstances of the case were presented, quite adequately, in Molière’s comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Monsieur Jourdain, the protagonist, is a merchant selling textiles and would like to be raised to the nobility, i.e. “gentilhomme”. In the course of time, however, he has concerns that his ambitions might fail, since his father had been a textile merchant as well. (Act IV, Scene 3) His cunning servant Covielle convinces him that the opposite is true, stating that his father was a most honourable gentleman, exceedingly courteous; on top of that he would passionately collect textiles which he would bestow to his friends. In return his friends gave him presents in the form of money. Thus buying and selling are reinterpreted to bestowing gifts without any intention of profit; one’s profession is turned into selfless service. Altruistic and unselfish service to the prince and the common good was the principle that legitimized aristocratic leadership – in contrast to the merchant class aiming at personal profit. This assessment was also widespread beyond aristocracy.

A parallel for these semantic metamorphoses is to be found in the play “Return from Parnassus” (ca. 1602), Act I, Scene IV:

Stercutio: Son, is this the gentleman that sells us the living?
Immerito: Fy, father, thou must not call it selling, thou must say, is this the gentleman that must have the gratuito.
Stercutio: O is this the grating Gentleman, and how many pounds must I pay?
Immerito: O thou must not call them pounds, but thanks…
Academico: Not pounds but thanks? see whether this simple fellow that hath nothing of a scholar, but that the draper hath blacked him over, hath not gotten the style of the time.

The very same state of affairs is discussed in the fields of a historic analysis by G. E. Aylmer:7

It was predominantly office holders who were granted annuities under the Privy Seal, in contrast to the Large Seal of the Lord Chancellor; moreover, it seems to have been common practice to give annuities and pensions under the Privy Seal. In fact they were payments for the practical exercise of an office, even though. the specific office was not mentioned

Oxford’s annuity on 25 June 1586 was also bestowed under the Privy Seal. Some Oxfordians concluded that this must therefore have been a secret service transaction, perhaps for the sale of nationalist propaganda in the war against Spain. But the use of the Privy Seal does not necessarily imply that. It is not known to me when the Privy Seal was used for such a present for the first time, but it was used by Henry V, as is to be seen in the Calendar of Close Rolls, 8
One of the reasons for its use was that the procedure with the Large Seal was more time-consuming.
Nevertheless it is ponderable to think that Oxford’s annuity was given for an office or a service. As could be seen, the reason why an annuity was given was rarely mentioned. So we will probably never learn about a possible office or service.
Or maybe we will?
A diary entry by Vicar John Ward, who took up his job in Stratford in 1662, reads:
According to Vicar John Ward of Stratford, he had heard “that … Mr. Shakespeare … supplied the stage with 2 plays every year, and for that had an allowance so large that he spent at the rate of a 1,000l. a year” (entry in his diary – c. 1662) (Chambers 2, 249).

Edmund K. Chambers classifies the information on Shakespeare in the diary of Vicar Ward as “Shakespeare myth”9. But in volume I he explains – with reference to another diary entry on a drinking bout including Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton – according to which Shakespeare was supposed to be attacked by fever leading to his death: “There is no reason to reject this report”

Is there any obvious reason to discard Vicar Ward’s information on the two plays and the yearly annuity of £1000 as a myth? Yes, as long as you stick to the myth of the man from Stratford. If you throw this myth overboard, Shakespeare’s annual expenses of £1000 are no longer a myth.

Then, of course, the question often asked is why nothing about this cover-up has leaked or become known. Perhaps an answer is that we are prone to getting information as fast-food. Therefore: go to Vicar Ward!


Excursion: Nobility, “honesty” and the ennobling look of the others

 Shapiro vehemently and somewhat condescendingly demands the sociocultural perspective, but his idea of an aristocratic society rests on genealogy rather than historical reality. For this reason Shapiro and Bate rather attend sociohistorical lessons themselves than teach others.


At the onset of the 15th century the political leadership role of the aristocracy was by no means undisputed. Sir Thomas More (1478 – 1535), at times Lord Chancellor, considered the nobility as political superfluous, even harmful. What he, amongst other Kings, severely criticised was their hostility to education. The French, i.e. the French nobility, as Baldesare Castiglione writes, only know the nobility of weapons and disrespect everything else; as a consequence they do not appreciate scholarship, but detest it and regard all learned human beings as highly low creatures; for them to be called “clerc” appears to them to be an insult.10

But even in Italy at Casitglione’s time (his book was printed in 1524, but written several years earlier) the sabre-rattling type of aristocratic who proclaimed everywhere “he chose weapons as his wife” still existed and was seen as contrast to the refined and erudite ideal courtier.11

Even in the midst of the 15th century the humanist Leon Battista Alberti reproached part of the aristocracy for their hostile attitude towards education: “Who would deny the education of the mind to be essential? Even a born nobleman would be considered a fool if he lacked education! I, for my part, would like to see the young nobles with a book in their hand rather than a falcon on their fist; I have no admiration for people who think it is sufficient if you can write your name and manage to add up the amount of money they owe you.”12

 Aristocracy and Education

Even in the first quarter of the 16th century the hostile attitude towards education prevailed among the aristocracy. In 1517 the English humanist Richard Pace states that during a conversation with a nobleman he was told it befits a nobleman’s son to blow the horn, be a skilled hunter and bear a falcon elegantly. He would rather see his son hanged than educated, since all educated men were beggars. “You are a fool” Leon Batista Alberti calls after him 70 year later. “You are a beggar” would be the echo.

During his five-year-long captivity in Spain (1580-85) the French Huguenot leader François de la Noue wrote his Discours politiques et militaires. In it he expresses his regret that his contemporary French noblemen far too often desire hunting and fighting rather than educate their children to “choses honnestes”. According to la Noue nobility implies more than being fighters and hunters, it demands “choses honnestes”, which is based on education in the first place.13

Going back to the science of history instead of yellow press articles – we find a French historian who reveals two distinguishing features concerning noble and common. The Tabureans and the Ronsards stemmed from the same social class. “While the Tabureans continued earning money commercially, you will not find any income from business or benefice. Not only was the poet’s father given the title ‘chevalier’ [knight], but his son had a career as courtier. They were considered noblemen in all places which did not apply to the Tabureans. The difference lies more in their lifestyle than in the age of the noble house.”14 Elsewhere in the book the same historian explains: “In 16th century France nobility was not primarily a legal status. It was, above all, a social status founded on the lifestyle of people and their mindsets.”15 One may add more than on the lifestyle on the person’s social appearance.

The example of the Ronsards offers us two criteria for one’s affiliation to nobility:

  • Abstaining from having an income through commercial activity
  • a certain lifestyle, but not tradition, as Pierre de Ronsard’s father was the first nobleman in his lineage

 Commoners and Nobles

The example of the Ronsards shows that it was relatively easy to climb the social ladder and become a member of the nobility. In England the London merchant Lionel Cranfield rose to the Earl of Middlesex and Lord Treasurer. What Cranfield, however, could no longer do after entering the service of the King was to work as a merchant. But the line between commoner and nobleman was no iron curtain. Why, as Shapiro and Bate claim with an air of deeper knowledge, should a nobleman, for instance, not work together with the writer John Fletcher? John Fletcher was the son of Richard, Bishop of London from 1595 to 96, the second highest ranking Bishop after the Bishop of Canterbury. Bishops would have their seats in the House of Lords. With the same, if not more justification one might ask how John Fletcher managed to work together with the merchant Shakespeare from Stratford, despite his descent.

Let us return to la Noue’s “choses honnestes” and our unknown gentleman who would rather see his son hanged than educated. In a later handbook of education for young noblemen, The Scholemaster, written between 1563 and 1569, published posthumously in 1570, the humanist clearly states what a nobleman jeopardises in case of “dishonest” conduct. In fewer pages than Elyot Ascham uses the word “honest”; Sir Thomas Elyot says in his handbook of education: “You, sons of noblemen, are to be blamed yourselves, as it has become customary that children from lower classes belong to the wisest and most proficient advisors.”16

Thus Sir Thomas Elyot in The Book of the Governor read his and his like-minded friends the riot act. The book is addressed to future “governors”, i.e. political leaders. Elyot’s recommendations can be summed up in one sentence: In order to be “governor” the nobleman is expected to have education as his conduct is supposed to be “honest”. Put negatively, the message to our unknown Gentleman reads: Unless you do not thoroughly correct your views, the time of your being a gentleman will be over soon. There is hardly any line concerning hunting and falconry. Elyot views the latter as a leisure-time activity that is “honest”. Even dancing and certain games. But what is meant by “honest” in this case?17


A look into Cotgrave’s French-English dictionary (published in 1711) is quite revealing: you find 17 meanings for “honneste”: honourable, good, virtuous, fair, truthful, sincere, “gentle” (probably meaning noble or aristocratic rather than friendly), civil, polite, worthy, noble, respectable, of good reputation, decent, excellent, handsome, befitting. The nouns and correlating adjectives mean practically the same. There are, however, some more meanings: self-controlled, being in control of one’s passions, moderate, adopting a middle course, etc.

“Honest” is derived from Latin “honestas”; Elyot frequently refers to the bilingual edition of Cicero’s “De officiis”: “As what is decent [decet], is honest [honestum] and what is honest is decent.”18 What is supposed to be decent is often called “decorum” in English literature at the time. The term “honesty” must not be equated with “honour” in English or French; it has nothing to do with the old feudal term. This meaning has not necessarily become lost and, among others, lives on in the institution of the duel; but to prove one’s suitability for the role of a political leader what matters is “honesty”, in a wider sense meaning to behave as is fitting. In the 1580s, probably in connection to Stefano Guazzo’s La Civil Conversazione (translated into English in 1581), which means civil conduct and not “conversation”, the work “civility” is identical with “honesty”: “E conversazione civile non vuol dire altro che conversazione onesta, lodevole e virtuosa“. (“And civil conduct means nothing else but honourable, laudable and virtuous behaviour”).19

Roman Aristocrats

Although not hinted at directly, Tacitus’ influence is obvious in Elyot’s book, especially in the 14th book of the Annalen, which focusses on Emperor Nero and his strong inclination to appear as a singer and as an actor in public. Hegel notices: “The fact that Nero appeared in the theatre as singer, zither player and fighter was most disgraceful. Being only spectators the Romans found it strange and did not appreciate it.”20 Reading Tacitus one must specify Hegel’s remark a bit. Roman aristocrats were definitely permitted to sing and act, but only within their private sphere, not in front of the eyes of the audience, the common people named “Vulgars”. After dictator Sulla’s withdrawal from politics he indulged in acting, but only privately. Even Tacitus does not blame Nero for his acting as long as he shuns the public. The Roman aristocrat’s singing and acting was reserved for the private sphere; he should not expose himself to the eyes of common people and not tolerate them as spectators.

 Inadequate conduct of aristocrats

The above mentioned taboos do not differ from the ones John Seldon (1584-1654) mentions in his Table-Talk:

 “Tis ridiculous for a Lord to print verses, ‘tis well enough to make them to please himself but to make them publick is foolish. If a man in a private Chamber twirles his Band string, or playes with a Rushe to please himselfe, ‘tis well enough, but if hee should goe into Fleet streete & sett upon a stall & twirle his bandstring or play with a Rush, then all the boyes in the streete would laugh att him ”.

And then he places these actions on a par with a Lord trying to indulge in children’s games in the lanes: “All children would laugh and sneer at him,”21 he concludes. As well Elyot considers music, singing, painting or acting recommendable activities for an aristocrat, but it was never to be done in public. He mentions Nero as a warning and deterrent example as he would play the harp or lyre at a public place or in the theatre on many summer days – being watched by the Roman people. Should he paint and speckle himself with it, people would not show any more respect for him as with a craftsman. Should he publicly appear as a singer people would forget their deference as this resembles the action of a common servant or minstrel.

The aristocracy would squander their leading role in the state if they shunned education and did not set a standard for good and “honest manners”. Ascham writes:22 “Take heeds you great ones in the Court, yea though you be the greatest of all, take heed, what you do, take heed how you live. For as you great ones use to do, so all mean men love to do. You be indeed makers or marrers of manners within the Realm.”
In a similar way Shakespeare in Henry V.2 tells his wife: “Dear Kate, you and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country’s fashion: we are the makers of manners”

 Ethics of conduct and attitude

According to Ascham self-discipline belongs to “honesty”. John Lyly sums it up in a concise formula: “That is how my grandfather defined “honesty”: when people live by the law and not according to pleasure, when they pay attention to the middle, which we call virtue; and to live a virtuous life means to act moderately and fairly.”23 Today “honesty” exclusively means “sincerity”, the congruence between inner attitude/ethos and what you do and say. Thus, the home of honesty has been relocated inside, whereas in the 16th and 17th century the main focus of honesty was less one’s inner attitude, but one’s outward appearance. The ethic of the court was, to use Max Weber’s terminology, more an ethic of conduct than an ethic of conviction. If, however, “honesty” was such a loose concept that was used for various activities, such as learning, dancing, horse-riding etc. – was “honest” and “dishonest” to be defined? A simple and realistic answer was given by the French moralist Pierre Nicole (1625-1695). He was convinced that the simple law of decency implies to judge people who violate the law, which is based on a general consensus. That is why they should feel obliged to stick to the rules of civil behaviour as they were set up, even though they are not official regulations. 24

The others’ opinions, their words, their looks played a crucial role in defining “honesty” – they decided whether you belonged to the elitist group or not.

As Norbert Elias has it: “Trying to get a clear and distinct picture of aristocratic society, one immediately recognizes to what extent an individual is dependent on the opinion of the other people associated with the class. He practically, regardless of his aristocratic title, only belongs to this class as long as the others deem him one of them.” 25 Unless the others judge him to be one of them, the aristocrat became instead an “outcast”, at least temporarily. As this process of status assignment in not based on written laws, the modern reader is bound to rely on documents in those days.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets are such a document.



1 Posener, Alan, William Shakespeare (rororo-Monographie) , Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1995, p. 118.

2  The Art of English Poesie, editedby Gladys D. Willcock and Alice Walker, Cambridge 1936, p. 61.

3  Stone, Lawrence, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641, Oxford 1965, p. 39ff)

4  Kiernan, Victor G., The duel in European history: honour and the reign of aristocracy,Oxford 1988, p. 50.

5  Elias, Norbert, Die höfische Gesellschaft, Frankfurt/Main 1983, p. 102-103

6  Akrigg, G.P.V., Letters of King James IV & I, Berkeley 1984, p. 242-4

7  Aylmer, G.E., The King's Servants - The Civil Service of Charles I 1625-1642,  London and Boston 1974, p. 162.

8  Calendar of Close Rolls, Henry V, A.D. 1419-1422, Kraus Reprint, 1971.

9  Chambers, Shakespeare, Band II, p. 249.

10 Castiglione, Baldesar,  Das Buch vom Hofmann, translated by Fritz Baumgart, München 1986, Buch I, xlii.

11 ibid. Buch I, xvii.

12 Alberti, Leon Batista, Vom Hauswesen (Della Famiglia), translated by Walter Kraus, München 1986, p. 85.

13 Hexter, J.H. „The Education of the Aristocracy in the Renaissance“ in The Journal of Modern History, Vol. XXII, No. 1, p. 1-22.

14 Huppert, George, Les Bourgeois-Gentilshommes, Chicago 1979, p. 27.

15 ibid p. 89.

16 Ascham, ibid., p. 14.

17 Elyot, Sir Thomas, The Boke Named the Governor, 2 Vol., London 1880.

18 Cicero, Vom pflichtgemässen Handeln translated by Heinz Gunermann,  Stuttgart 1992, Buch I.27.

19 quoted from Lievsay, John L., Stefano Guazzo and the English Renaissance 1575-1675, Chapel Hill 1960, p. 35.

20 Hegel, Georg W.F., Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte, Frankfurt/Main 1970, p. 357.

21 Selden, John, The Table-Talk of John Selden, London 1896, p. 96.

22 Ascham, ibid., p. 22.

23 Lyly, John, Euphues His England , edited by Morris William Croll and Harry Clemons, New York 1964, p. 241-2.

24 Stanton, Donna C., The Aristocrat as Art. A Study of the Honnête Homme and the Dandy in Seventeenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Literature, New York 1980, p. 131.

25 Elias, ibid., p. 145.