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The education and training of gentry sons in early-modern England

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This paper explores the education and training received by the sons of the English gentry in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Using information from the herald’s visitations of four counties, it offers quantitative evidence of the proportion of gentry children who entered university, spent time at one of the inns of court or became apprentices in London. We show that over the period there was little change in the educational destinations of gentry sons: university and apprenticeship absorbed roughly equal proportions; the inns of court slightly less. We also show that a son’s position in the birth order had a very strong influence on the kind of education he received. Eldest sons were much more likely to go to university or one of the inns of court. Younger sons were much more likely to become apprentices in London – as we show, trade clearly was an acceptable career for the gentry. There is little sign of a change in the status of different educational choices in this period. Our findings confirm some traditional assumptions about the importance of birth order and normative expectations in determining the life-courses of gentry children in the seventeenth century: historians should not over-state the autonomy of elite children in deciding their futures.

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