How They Ranked
By Michael J. Cummings © 2003
Since medieval times, members of the royalty and the nobility in England have inherited their titles, lands and privileges. In most of Shakespeare's plays—including Hamlet, King Lear, Richard III, Macbeth, As You Like It,The Tempest, and Measure for Measure—it was the royals and nobles who were the central focus. Rarely were commoners more than supporting characters. However, the clergy—in particular, the Archbishop of Canterbury—did enjoy high social status regardless of ancestry.
Who outranked whom then and now? Following is a top-to-bottom ranking of the high-born in England before, during, and after Shakespeare's age:
1. King 2. Queen 3. Prince 4. Princess
5. Archbishop of Canterbury
The archbishop was Roman Catholic until Parliament approved the Act of Supremacy in 1534, establishing the Church of England as a Protestant entity under King Henry VIII. Events leading to this action commenced in 1527. At that time, Henry embarked on a campaign to win papal annulment of his marriage to barren Catherine of Aragon, enabling him to marry Anne Boleyn and attempt to sire a male heir to the throne. Thomas Cromwell, an ambitious politician and adviser to the king, managed the king’s campaign. But Pope Clement VII steadfastly refused to annul the marriage. On January 25, 1533, Henry married Anne in secret. On March 30, 1533, Thomas Cranmer, a priest who also was secretly married and who enjoyed the king’s favor, became the Archbishop of Canterbury, swearing an oath to the Pope even though he was a de facto Protestant who sympathized with Martin Luther’s revolt against Rome. In April, Cromwell won parliamentary approval of the Act in Restraint of Appeals, which outlawed matrimonial appeals to Rome and acknowledged England as a sovereign empire. In May, Cranmer approved the king’s annulment and, in June, Anne Boleyn was publicly recognized as the English queen. Finally, in 1534, the Act of Succession forced English citizens to acknowledge Henry’s marriage as legal and the Act of Supremacy sanctioned Henry as head of the Church of England. Cranmer, accepting this act as valid, thus became the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury.
Members of the nobility were often referred to collectively as "the peerage." An individual member of the peerage was called a "peer."
6. Duke. The title of the wife of a
duke was Duchess.
Other Terms of Rank
recognized for distinquished service. He was
addressed as Sir, as in Sir John
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