Forms of Address for Non-Nobles
The term gentles should be reserved for those who are of gentle birth: nobles, knights, and their descendants (with or without titles). To address a crowd, say "good folk" or "good people" or some such thing, but not "good gentles".
The gentry are un-titled landholders, who come from noble families. In particular, they are descendents of younger sons of the nobility.
Gentility has to do with land owning and acenstry, not good manners, though manners may be considered a mark of gentility.
Only those of gentle birth are addressed as Master and Mistress.
Gentle birth also has little to do with money. You may be gentle and "land poor", meaning you have plenty of land but no cash. This sometimes applies to noble fmailies, though it is not fair to say that any merchant has more money than any nobleman.
Knightly estateKnights are not noble but they are gentry. Knighthood is not hereditary.
A knighthood is essentially a battlefield honour, sometimes given for other kinds of service. Walsingham's is for diplomacy, you might say.
Knighthood no longer comes with land or an income, as it did in earlier times, although it will require you to spend more to maintain your estate or standing..
Sir Henry Sidney turned down a barony because he believed he couldn't afford to maintain a baron's estate.
The middling sort
The term middle class is unknown in period. People are much more specific about their place in society. Say instead: merchants, yeoman, tradesmen, craftsmen, and so on.
The yeomanry are essentially prosperous, non-gentle (and non-husbandmen) tenants, worth no less than £6 per annum, according to Harrison. Their landlords are the gentry landowners.
When yeomen get a little money, they tend to buy land, which makes them landowners, but still not gentlemen. Address them as Goodman and Goodwife, but not Master or Mistress.
If the family is provident and continues to acquire and hold the land for at least three generations, they can apply to be counted among the gentry.
Citizens and burgesses may be considered the urban equivalent to the yeoman class. Refer to this solid backbone of England as good folk or sturdy yeomen.
In the countryside, the lowest rung on the social ladder are those tenants (cottars or husbandmen, but rarely peasants) who work on someone else's land for wages. Their wives may pick up the odd ha'penny here or there for services to wealthier neighbors, such as mending or helping with laundry.
They pay rent in money but also in kind and in services. They are often in debt. Their employers are often yeoman farmers.
In town, people who do common labor for wages are simply laborers. Harrison (1577) lists tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, brickmakers, masons, and other handicraftmen as having the same social standing.
City people of any rank consider themselves superior to country people of the same sort.
Think of them as common or rustic, lesser folk or local villagers, husbandmen or cottagers, or something else pleasant but non-gentle. In Shakespeare, "peasant" is used only as a term of abuse. He preferred to call working men handicraftmen and "rude mechanicals".
Your liveried retainers are not peasants (even if their parents are).
26 March 2008 mps