Thirty-Pound Gentlemen and the Jacobean Inflation of Honours
The term thirty-pound gentlemen refers to the men who were able to buy their way into the gentry by purchasing titles. This practice was instituted by King James, and, as David Riggs notes, his
Scottish cronieswere often the ones who
collected the [. . .] bribes(123). In the case of this particular phrase, the title of gentleman would have cost thirty pounds. However, the monetary figure varies, and thus so does the term for those who moved upwards on the social scale by way of making a payment. In addition to these terms, the phrase
inflation of honoursis also used by modern historians to denote this practice (Stone,
Social Mobility24). As Lawrence Stone notes,
the most fundamental dichotomy within the society was between the gentleman and the non-gentleman, a division that was based essentially upon the distinction between those who did, and those who did not, have to work with their hands(
Social Mobility17). This distinction explains the desire of commoners to become gentlemen. Upon acquiring a title, one would move up considerably in social standing. James was able to capitalize on this desire for social climbing, using the money he collected to finance his own spending (Stone,
Inflation of Honours47–48).
The 1605 play by Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston entitled Eastward Ho! satirizes this new class of gentleman. Sir Petronel Flash is a debauched knight who, had it not been for his bought title, would have remained the unimpressive-sounding Mr. Flash (Riggs 122). In this instance, he has bought a knighthood for thirty pounds. This point is made clear in the following exchange between two gentlemen in Eastward Ho!:
First Gentleman: I ken the man weel, he’s one of my thirty-pound knights.Second Gentleman: No, no, this is he that stole his knighthood o’ the grand day for four pound.(4.1.197–200)
Riggs explains that
lest anyone fail to grasp the reference to James, First Gentleman turns into a comic Scotsman with a heavy brogue while speaking the line that refers to ‘his’ thirty-pound knights(123). The passage assumes that something that can be bought can also be stolen, like any other commodity.
During James’s reign, the practice of selling knighthoods became popular. Stone records that
there was a remarkable increase in the number of the upper class, which trebled at a period when the total population barely doubled(
Social Mobility23–24). He identifies the growth of each level of the upper class:
the number of peers rose from 60 to 160; of baronets and knights from 500 to 1,400; of squires from perhaps 800 to 3,000; of armigerous gentry [gentlemen allowed to wear a coat of arms] from perhaps 5,000 to around 15,000(24). While Stone does qualify that these increases resulted from a variety of factors—the extremely high rate of reproduction among the gentry, as well as the creation of new wealth due to trade—these increases were in large part influenced by the practice of the inflation of honours (
Social Mobility24). Kevin Sharpe notes that, historically, scholars have not paid enough attention to the impact that the inflation of honours had on early Stuart society (322).
The practice of buying titles had a significant impact on the way in which the monarchy was perceived. In
The Inflation of Honours 1558–1641,Stone calls the
open sale of titlesin the seventeenth century
a crying scandal,and suggests that the titles bestowed in such a way were no longer viewed as legitimate. The decision to sell titles betrayed the system of bestowing honours as
fundamental[ly] artificialand exposed it to
public contempt and ridicule(45). This mockery of the inflation of honours is clear in the above passage from Eastward Ho!
Naturally, as a result of the increase in the number of gentlemen, the cachet associated with being a gentleman waned. By 1682 Sir William Dugdale reluctantly agreed that
these Marks of Honour [. . .] are now by most people grown of little esteem(qtd. in Stone,
Inflation of Honours48). The enormous growth of the lowest titled rank—armigerous gentry—from 5,000 to 15,000 would have greatly debased the prestige of having this title (Stone,
Social Mobility24). The increase in the number of armigerous gentry made those belonging to the nobility (the upper ranks of the gentry) increasingly concerned about the exclusivity of their positions.
There was some debate surrounding the sale of the title of esquire and the consequences of this practice. Originally the title was used only for the younger sons of peers and their male heirs, knights’ male heirs, and judges, sheriffs, and justices of the peace. But Sir Robert Knollys suggested that the title of esquire should be sold in a similar fashion to the title of gentleman (Stone,
Inflation of Honours48). However, this move was blocked by aristocrats (the elite members of the gentry) who were fearful of losing their prestigious position in society. This decision to block the sale of esquiries demonstrates the alternative view about the selling of titles. For those without titles, the ability to purchase the ticket into honourable society was positive. For those who already possessed titles, the inflation of honours represented a threat to their elite
- Chapman, George, Ben Jonson, and John Marston. Eastward Ho! Ed. R.W. Van Fossen. Revels Plays. Manchester; New York: Manchester UP, 1999.
- Riggs, David. Ben Jonson: A Life. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.
Crown, Parliament and Locality: Government and Communication in Early Stuart England.The English Historical Review 101.399 (1986): 321–50.
Social Mobility in England, 1500–1700.Past and Present 33.1 (1966): 16–55.
The Inflation of Honours 1558–1641.Past and Present 14.1 (1958): 45–70.
Last modification: 2016-05-27 14:37:29 -0700 (Fri, 27 May 2016) (tlandels)