England in 1485 was agricultural and rural. Only 5% of the population of 2.2 million lived in towns of over 5,000. But by 1600 the population had risen to 4 million, affecting prices and wages. Some economists estimate that the cost of living rose over 350% between 1510 and 1610. Inflation growth hit the poor harder than the rich.

Population growth accelerated the commercialization of agriculture and encouraged trade and commerce. The wool industry expanded to Southern Europe, thanks to the "new draperies" introduced by Flemish refugees. The Muscovy Company (1555), the Levant Company (1581), and the East India Company (1600) were only a few of the important trading companies founded during the 16th century.  Internal trade also expanded greatly, with London its hub.

Most Englishmen and women viewed society as hierarchical and static. There was a great chain of being in which every person had a "place" and "function." One was expected to know one's place and stay in it.

In his 1577 Description of England, William Harrison listed four separate social categories, each with numerous subdivisions: 1) gentlemen, 2) citizens and burgesses, 3) yeomen and husbandmen, and 4) artificers and laborers. In all the orders, a woman's status depended on that of her father when unmarried and her husband when married.

The top of category #1 was the ruler who acquired his throne through primogeniture and ruled by divine right. Under the king was the peerage, consisting (in order of precedence) of dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons. The average annual income of a peer was 1000 pounds.  Harrison put some non-peers also in category #1: knights, esquires, and gentlemen. These men derived their wealth from land and disdained manual labor.

Category #2 consisted of wealthy individuals who had to work for their living. A citizen was a tradesman or merchant with certain specified business privileges; a burgess was an eminent citizen who had served his town politically.

In category #3 yeoman usually owned or leased a farm of 100 or 200 acres, and because they were at least 40 s. freeholders, they were entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. Husbandmen farmed rented land of about 30 acres.

Category #4 consisted of those whom Harrison said had "neither voice nor authority in the commonwealth, but are to be ruled and not to rule others."