(This entry is intended to follow on from my previous one, which was a summary of Gregory King’s census figure for England in 1688)
Before the latter part of the 19th century, and the coming of railways, electric telegraph, automatic weapons and national daily newspapers, no central government could ever directly control a country of any size; not even a relatively compact one like England, with its mild climate and easy communications. No army could travel more than about 20 miles a day, and even for a single person a journey from London to the Scottish border could easily take more than a week even in good weather. The central government had few troops, no professional police force, a tiny bureaucracy and little money; and also, crucially, it lacked information, of how many citizens there were, where they lived and how rich they were. Loyalties were mostly local, and concepts of national identity were slow to develop, though they were probably more widespread in 18th century England than in other countries. Consequently, most local power still resided where it always had been, with the local landowning elite; though as society gradually became less violent, the robber barons of the Middle Ages had settled down to being the “gentlemen of influence” by 1700. The landowners remained jealous of their local power, and resented interference by central government. Attempts by the Stuart kings to coerce the landowners had only led to civil war and revolution, and Cromwell’s attempt to rule England by military dictatorship had also failed; so by the 18th century the landowners were generally left in control.
Gregory King’s census of 1688 found a little over 16,400 families of significant landowners, classed as “nobles, bishops, baronets, knights, esquires and gentlemen”, whom we can describe as the “ruling class” of England in the early 18th century, in a total population of 5½ million. Of these, there were only 140 actual noblemen: a major and decisive difference between England and most continental countries. In France, Spain, Poland and other places, there were thousands of nobles, who passed on their status to all their children. Frequently their noble status was indicated by a prefix to the name (“de” in French, “von” in German), and they often had distinct caste privileges: only a nobleman could own land, or become an army officer: in France, nobles were immune from paying taxation. In England it had been decided in the Middle Ages that the great majority of the landowners, even the knights, were legally commoners. These people, the non-noble landowners, were collectively known as the “gentry”. In Parliament, they sat in the House of Commons, which they dominated, and whose importance largely depended on the presence of this large class of rich and independent-minded men. The nobles were too few to constitute a self-perpetuating caste; and as old families became extinct their numbers had constantly to replenished from below: from rich gentry and successful generals and political leaders. (Conversely, all the English nobility were rich, whereas on the continent there were thousands of poor nobles, often little better-off than the peasants around them, but clinging desperately to their caste privileges)
We can say that the real caste division in England was between “the gentry” and “the rest” . But exactly who was a gentleman? In Gregory King’s day it still had a specific meaning: a “gentleman” was a landowner who was rich enough not to have to plough his field with his own hands. Thus a working farmer was clearly not a gentleman, nor was an artisan or shopkeeper. But as the economy grew more complex and the educated middle classes more numerous, difficult questions would arise. It was always accepted that a military officer was a “gentleman”, but what about a clergyman, or a lawyer, or a millionaire merchant? Different pressures were at work here: many of the younger sons of the gentry were sent forth to earn their living in the law, the church, the government civil service, or even in “trade”, but were anxious to retain their social status; whereas it was always the ambition of a successful lawyer or businessman to buy an estate in the country and thus become a “proper” gentleman; or, failing that, at least to be recognised as something better than a mere workman. Two stock characters of comedy were, on the one hand, the farmer or bourgeois with absurd pretensions to gentility, and on the other hand, the country landowner who might be rich but who in in culture and behaviour was a ridiculous bumpkin. As against this, the gentry, and even the nobility, had no objection to marrying their sons to the daughters of wealthy city capitalists (not always with happy results, as illustrated in Hogarth’s series “The Rake’s Progress). In the 19th century the great public schools grew up to train the sons of the middle classes to behave as gentlemen, until in the end we reached the modern definition of a “gentleman” as simply someone with nice manners. The great secret of the English ruling elite was (and still is) not that it was exclusive, but that it constantly recruited successful people from the levels below.
For the vast majority of the people, who lived in villages in the countryside, government was overwhelmingly local, and authority would be represented by the local landowner rather than by someone from the capital. Here a system had been evolving ever since mediaeval times, the essence of which was that everyone had a part to play, the nature of which depended on social status, So a great nobleman would be Lord-Lieutenant of the county; the King’s representative and the commander of the county militia (a notably ineffective organisation, which completely failed to check the Jacobite revolts of 1714 and 1745. A landowning gentleman would hold the office of Sheriff, which dated from the Middle Ages (though sadly there was no Sheriff of Nottingham at the time when Robin Hood is supposed to have lived!), and the gentry would also serve as Justices of the Peace.
The basic role of the J.P.s was to judge minor offences, but as time went on more and more functions were given them: to issue warrants, administer the Poor Law, regulate apprenticeships, maintain the highways, even to assess and collect the Land Tax; but by this time their authority to regulate prices and wages had mostly fallen into disuse. They would be assisted in these responsibilities by those a level below them in the social scale; the farmers, craftsmen and shopkeepers, who would be roped in to serve as parish constable, overseer of the poor or surveyor of highways; and the very poor could in theory be set to labour repairing the roads. All this service was effectively compulsory, and no-one was paid; and not surprisingly some of the jobs were onerous, costly and unpopular.
All positions which involved actual decision-making were held by the landowners. But there were never quite enough to fill all the slots. No Catholic could hold office, and if any other landowner was excluded, it meant he was considered to be too stupid or politically unreliable. No doubt most of them did their best, but the prejudiced, dim, brutal or simply useless J.P. is a stock target for satire from Shakespeare through to Dickens, and even makes an occasional appearance in Kipling. Most people would only encounter direct agents of the central government when the King’s judges came round twice a year to hear the most serious cases at the Assizes, or if there were dealings with the Customs and Excise, which were administered by professional agents
The House of Commons was dominated by the landowning gentry and the sons of peers (who were legally commoners), alongside some eminent lawyers, millionaire London merchants, senior military officers and men who would nowadays be regarded as civil servants. The ancient system was that each county elected two M.P.s, the “Knights of the Shire”, who were almost always major local landowners. In addition (and omitting the M.P.s from Wales, Scotland and Ireland) approximately 200 towns had royal charters which entitled them to choose their own mayors and councillors, arrange their own bye-laws and taxes, have their own magistrates, and also elect their own M.P.s; usually 2 per town. By the 18th century most of these boroughs had become tightly controlled, and usually returned landowners or important outsiders to Parliament rather than their own citizens. M.P.s were not paid, and the expense of electioneering could be considerable, but competition was always fierce, for reasons of family prestige and the openings becoming available for lucrative jobs in the government. Voting would be by the farmers, the educated middle classes, and the better-off shopkeepers and craftsmen, totalling perhaps a quarter of a million throughout the country. Bribery and corruption was widespread.
In many ways, England at the start of the 18th century can be considered as what we would nowadays call a “third-world country”. There were a few people of extreme wealth, ruling the great mass of the very poor, a corrupt political system, and even over-dependence on a single industry, with 80% of the nation’s exports being woollen cloth. Nevertheless England was, with the possible exception of Holland, the most advanced country of the time.