Servants and Masters

Each wealthy household had servants, butlers, and stewards as status symbols of their class standing and to provide comfort for the master and mistress of the house. Male servants were called serving men; women, serving maids. The term valet, or simply man, came into use about 1567. In Romeo and Juliet Benvolio refers to Romeo's personal servant as “his man.” As the master of the house, it was undignified to do almost anything for oneself, even lighting your pipe (as long as the servant was nearby).

Servants used their wits to rise in the world, to create an even better place for them and their children. A kitchen helper might aspire to become a butler in a great house. Servants were generally not paid a weekly or monthly wage, but they expected vails (tips) or douceurs (sweeteners) for their services. A good master was paternalistic but stern. His superior station was God-given.

Rules of Working in a Great House

This list of “rules” comes from A Book of Orders and Rules, written by Sir Sibbald David Scott in 1595.

A servant must not be absent from morning or evening meals or prayers lest he be fined two pence for each time.

Any man waiting table without a trencher (small tray) in his hand, except for good excuse, will be fined one penny.

For each oath, a servant will be fined a penny.

Any man provoking another to strike or striking another will be liable to dismissal.

For a dirty shirt on Sunday or a missing button, the fine will be sixpence.

After 8:00 A.M. no bed must be found unmade and no fireplace or candle box left uncleaned, or the fine will be one penny.

The hall must be cleaned in an hour.

The whole house must be swept and dusted each Friday.

Any man leaving a door open that he found shut will be fined one penny unless he can show good cause.


As we've seen previously, young men sought patrons for their advancement. Nobles drew gentlemen like honey attracts flies, creating a feudal relationship based on personal loyalty, gifts, and favors. Some of the gentry put their sons into great homes for their education and advancement.

Nobles, or lords, maintained retainers or personal attendants, some of whom acted as bodyguards. To see that they had work to do they were also given household positions, such as gentleman or yeoman.

A noblewoman drew her cortege from relatives and the daughters of the gentry. Her gentlewomen joined her in sewing, minding the children, dispensing charity in the neighborhood, and taking charge of her clothing and jewelry. If the noblewoman felt a young unmarried girl from a good family was worthy of her help, she would find a suitable marriage.

  1. Home
  2. Shakespeare
  3. Scenes from Elizabethan Life
  4. Servants and Masters
Visit other sites: