The Democratic History of the English Gentleman

When did a gentleman become a gentleman? Penny Corfield looks at the curious odyssey of the species from Tudor times onwards.

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?

The answer to this ancient riddle has proved historically far from simple. If all men were created equal, how did one get status and another not? In particular, how did one become something as desirable and as nebulous as a 'gentleman' and another face rejection as not 'quite quite'?

Such was the lure of this unofficial title to Englishmen that history was retrospectively amended to bring some illustrious but unlikely candidates into the ambit of gentility. Was Noah a gentleman? Yes, said the anonymous Boke of St. Albans (1486). Was Christ the carpenter a gentleman? Emphatically so, wrote Sir John Ferne in The Blazon of Gentrie (1586):

Christ was a Gentleman, as to his flesh, by the part of his mother:.. and might if he had esteemed... the vainglory of this world... have borne coat-armour.

What about the apostles? Again Ferne was not in doubt. 'The Apostles also were Gentlemen of blood', although he admitted that they had gone down in the world as far as outward occupation was concerned.

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