What is a yeoman?

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July 11, 2015 by auntkatefirmin

For some time I’ve been trying to get a handle on the term “yeoman.” Certainly it is possible to get an overview, such as this set of definitions and examples for yeoman at wordnik.

Where does the yeoman fit? Illustration from Morris' A Dream of John Ball via wikimedia.

Where does the yeoman fit? Illustration from Morris’ A Dream of John Ball via wikimedia.

As part of my curiosity and attempts to understand the life of someone like John Seymour of Badbury, father of Dorothy, I checked out The English Yeoman by Mildred Campbell. It was published in 1942, and the focus of the book is the Elizabethan and Early Stuart era, just a bit earlier than most of the wills and documents I’m currently reviewing. Still, it’s been a great read so far and very helpful for filling in gaps that come with the American perspective. If you can locate a copy it’s worth the effort.

The book looks at a number of things relative to yeoman status, and I hope to come back to the portion of the book that deals with material culture and the living circumstances of yeomen, which the author does in part by examining groups of wills and inventories. It provides the broader background I was seeking when I started looking for reference works.

For this post, I will attempt to articulate some of the nuances of “yeoman” as I understand them, leaving room for future speculation on the circumstances of the Seymours and other related families although the specifics may have to wait for more research.

There are many facets of rank and status implied that don’t have modern equivalents – though I may describe them in modern terms. Obviously status can relate to wealth, “tax bracket,” rank in terms of “gentility,” land-holdings, legal standing, and class. Also obviously, few of these are rarely black and white. My interpretations are my own!

From a simplistic point of view, from 1429 there were legal rights that pertained to men with freehold land of 40 shillings a year concerning their standing in the courts and their rights and responsibilities as “men before the law.” Leaving aside jury service, and court cases for another discussion, this implies that a yeoman (in this context) had both a certain type of land title (freehold) and a certain level of wealth/income. A male of the stated income level was also eligible to vote for the “knight of the shire,” or county representative to the House of Commons when elections were held.  From a genealogy point of view the poll books (where available) can be very useful.

Land tenure in the 17th and 18th centuries was a tangle of leftovers from the feudal and manorial systems and it would take examination of Wiltshire documents to make any statements about the Seymours, or other family members, as to whether and how their land tenure reflected their yeoman status (or otherwise) and if there were any Wiltshire trends. In general, the practice and the theory had diverged and I imagine that even those holding shorter term leases (say less than a lifetime or 99 years), as opposed to freehold or even “copy hold,” might still be considered “yeomen” as opposed to “farmers” or “husbandmen” depending on circumstance. Still, it’s probably safe to conclude that those calling themselves yeoman had larger holdings, employed a number of assistants, and might have passed down the property in the family, though it could just as easily have been purchased fairly recently as land was beginning to be more of a commodity rather than being considered a family trust or source of identity and position. Much of the identity of the Seymours and similar families no doubt did derive from their property which provided them the ability to employ others, and to contribute to the local economy, which in turn bolstered their standing in the community. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be safe to assume they were all freeholders. One detail it would be interesting to follow up on in another post is the location of Dorothy’s father, listed as “John Saymer,” who paid 02/10/00 in 1733 related to his tenancy of “Mr Liddiard’s upper farm” – the land tax was one shilling in the pound.

That was a long-winded consideration of the interplay between yeoman standing and land tenure but there is also “wealth” to consider. Comparative wealth, of course, is related to the local economy. Regardless of land tenure, Dorothy’s father was lower on both the wealth and the social scale than “Mr” Liddiard, owner of the “upper farm” in Badbury. The Liddiard family were local gentry (though not the lords of the manor of Chiseldon) and were thus accorded the title “Master,” abbreviated as Mr., which I have not found (so far) used in reference to members of “our” Seymour family in this or earlier generations. That’s yet another post – who were the locals of higher status in Chiseldon, Wroughton, and beyond at that time and what were their ties to “our” families?

A representation of the English Gentleman of this era via wikipedia.

A representation of the English Gentleman of about 1630 via wikipedia.

From a strictly “class” scale it might be said that a husbandman is below a yeoman, who is below a gentleman. Still, one family might contain people of all three categories and all would be considered “gentle” as opposed to “base” born. For example, the grandfather owning, renting, or leasing some property might style himself “gentleman,” his younger son who is not the main heir might be a “yeoman,” and the yeoman’s son might be termed a “husbandman.” To further muddy the waters, all of the above would be “husbandmen” in the sense that they ultimately derive their livings from agricultural labor and they care for, or “husband” their holdings as opposed to a laborer who would be a wage-earner. In other words, as a reminder, some of the words that refer to social standing have other meanings in different contexts. I’ll leave “farmer” out of the mix as it could be its own posting with similar nuances. A yeoman, in some times and places, was also a step higher on the class scale than a tradesman or craftsman but not necessarily more well-to-do or more respected in actual practice.

Gentility is another slippery slope. Certainly a mark of gentility was to possess the right to display a coat of arms, but we have the example of John Seymour (died 1747) who was described as a yeoman in 1705 but whose daughter displayed a Seymour coat of arms on her memorial in the church of St John the Baptist and St Helen in Wroughton. Though they did not style themselves “gentleman,” or “esquire,” the Seymour family clearly had a strong sense of self-worth related to their social standing which might be further examined by looking at the patterns of marriage, the standing of related families, and the education level of the Seymour family members.

In terms of actual social practice, much of who was a leader in any given community probably came down to the size of the community and who was actually present. The actual lord of the manor might not live nearby (the lords of the manor of Chiseldon were the Calley family of London) and in a small community the yeomen might be prominent in church affairs or other spheres where they could garner quite a bit of influence and respect.

A Gainsborough portrait of c1748 showing a couple of the landed gentry, Mr & Mrs Andrews.

A Gainsborough portrait of c1748 showing a couple of the landed gentry, Mr & Mrs Andrews.

To take the example of John Seymour and Mr Liddiard, while I suspect that there was not a “familiarity” in the sense that they were casual in their address and forms of interaction, I believe that neither was there a feeling of “inferiority” as it was possible that they had similar interests, might closely associate in defined social situations like holiday events, could find other occasions in which they might work together such as on parish boards, or might find themselves in situations where they were more nearly peers than otherwise. Yes, there was no doubt a certain deference, but their location in a small community placed them closer together than similar individuals in a less rural context.

As usual, there are as many questions raised as answers found. Anyone who knows of any relevant compilations or studies done in Wiltshire – please comment!  There are fascinating social histories of towns not that far away that provide insight into changes in social standing, wealth, inheritance, and other aspects of material culture. While they certainly aid our understanding of the life of Dorothy Seymour’s family in general, it would be delightful to be able to place the Seymours in the wider network of economic and social connections in Chiseldon, Wroughton, and Swindon.


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