The Social Status of Upper and Lower Class Medieval Women in 1500s England
Among upper and lower class women there were a variety of social status, rights and privileges. Lower class women were divided into a number of groups: townswomen, farmers and surfs. As there was no middle class during the Medieval Era all of these women occupied the peasant class yet each experienced significantly different lifestyles.
The surf was an indentured servant although not technically a slave. She had no freedom and no rights. She had to serve the lord whose lands she farmed for her entire life. She was only permitted to marry with his permission. She had a difficult, imprisoned life and a very lowly status, the lowest in fact of all English women. If she bore children they too were indentured to the lord. Sometimes a surf could work off her debt to a lord but it seldom happened during her lifetime. If a surf managed to escape the lord's lands and flee to the town for one year and one day then she was declared a free woman. Naturally becoming a free woman was an improvement in living as a surf but it was a rare occurrence since finding and returning a female surf to a lord's lands was not especially difficult. She had no means to support herself in town except through begging or prostitution. When she was returned to the lord she faced a severe punishment so she seldom took the chance to escape.
The peasant woman had a slightly higher social status than the surf since she was a free woman although her life was no easier. Her husband was granted lands by the lord and she worked them alongside her spouse. However the peasant woman could freely leave the farm for the town and take up residence there. This was unlikely however since a peasant woman did not have any skills outside of farming and unless she turned to prostitution she was unable to support herself in the town. She had no right to take her children with her if she abandoned her husband for the town. He always had social and political rights over his wife and he controlled her as his servant within the household.
A townswoman was a merchant. She learned a skilled trade, such as weaver, seamstress or blacksmith. Usually she learned the same trade as her husband and she worked alongside him to earn her living. A young girl could be apprenticed to a family in order to learn a trade but this was very risky. She was vulnerable to the sexual advances of the male in the household and sometimes the mistress of the household sold her into prostitution. There was no guarantee that the female apprentice was able to live safely and learn a trade. If the apprentice decided to marry she had to pay a significant fee to her master and mistress when she left to live with her husband for depriving them of her income. Since she now enjoyed freedom away from what could very well have been abusive employers marriage was preferable to remaining an apprentice and it carried a higher social status.
There were two classes of upper class women: nobility and royalty. The Monarch or Queen or Princess of course was the most powerful woman in England. She was wed to the King or Prince of a particular nation willingly or unwillingly and strictly for political reasons. She enjoyed a life of supreme luxury and had no work to attend to during the day unless she so chose. Her only job was to bear the king heirs to the throne. Due to the infant mortality rate and the need for a male heir she was often pregnant. Although she was a rich and powerful woman who was feared and respected by everyone in England she was subservient to the King. He made all political decisions and he had the right to refuse any of her children as heirs to the throne if he so chose although since they were also his children that was extremely unlikely. Often the King had several mistresses who lived in the castle. This could prove humiliating to the Queen but since she had no right to interfere with her husband's behaviour she was forced to accept the situation and concentrate on her own well-being.
A noblewoman was wed for social reasons to a nobleman when she was very young, often in her teens. She too spent a great number of years pregnant in order to carry on the family lineage. Her marriage was arranged for her whether she liked her husband or not. She worked hard running the castle and taking over her husband's duties whenever he was away at war or off tending to his lands. She was usually able to put aside time during the day to spend sewing and chatting with her ladies-in-waiting. In this manner she was able to learn the latest gossip within her manor and enjoy leisure time. She was highly regarded in English society and it was extremely unlikely that anyone from the lower class would cross her since she could impose a strict punishment against that person. She enjoyed the benefit of a solid education and so was usually literate and learned in music and politics.
Ladies-in-waiting and other female servants of the noblewoman enjoyed a much higher social status than townswomen and peasant women. Working for a noblewoman was highly desirable since servants were well fed, housed and clothed. They were seldom paid depending on their employment status. A lady-in-waiting was paid wages although they were not very high. A kitchen maid on the other hand was a lowly servant and she received no monies for her work. She held the lowest social status within the noblewoman's manor.