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Yeoman is a term of which the various meanings fall into two main divisions, first that of a class of holders of land, and secondly that of a retainer, guard, attendant or subordinate officer or official. The word appears in Middle English as yeman; it does not appear in Old English. Various explanations of the first part have been suggested, such as jung-mann, young man, and yemo-man, attendant, from yeme, care; but it is generally accepted that the first part is the same word as the Germanic Gau, district, province, and probably occurs in Old Engish as gia in StWrigia, Surrey, i.e. southern district, and other place-names. Thus in Old Frisian is found gaman, a villager; Bavarian, gaumann, peasant.

"Yeoman" thus meant a countryman, a man of the district, and it is this sense which has survived in the special use of the word for a class of landholders. Later there was a transition in meaning to a guard of the sovereign's body and to officials of a royal household. In the British royal household there were, besides the Yeomen of the Guard, a yeoman of the wine and beer cellar, a yeoman of the silver pantry and yeoman state porters. The term also occured in the title of the first assistant to the Usher of the Black Rod, the Yeoman Usher of the Black Rod. In the British navy there are petty officers in charge of the signalling styled Yeomen of Signals.

The extent of the class covered by the word "yeoman" in England has never been very exactly defined. Not only has the meaning of the word varied from century to century, but men writing about it at the same time have given to it different interpretations. One of the earliest pictures of a yeoman is that given by Chaucer in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Here, represented as a forester, he follows the esquire as a retainer or dependant. The yeomen of the ages succeeding Chaucer are, however, practically all occupied in Cultivating the land, although, doubtless from its younger sons, the class furnished retainers for the great lords, men-at-arms and archers for the wars, and also tradesmen for the towns. Stubbs (Const. Hist. vol. iii.) refers to them as "a body which in antiquity of possession and purity of extraction was probably superior to the classes that looked down upon it as ignoble," and Medley (Eng. Const. Hist.) describes the yeomen as in the 15th century representing on the whole "the small freeholders of the feudal manor." Holinshed, in his Chronicle, following Sir T. Smyth (De republica Anglorum), and W. Harrison (Description of England), describes them as having free land worth 6 annually, and in times past 40s., and as not entitled to bear arms, being for the most part farmers to gentlemen, and this description may be accepted as the popular idea of the yeoman in the 16th century.

The yeomen formed the intermediate class between the gentry and the labourers and artisans, the line of demarcation, however, being not drawn very distinctly. The yeomen were the smaller landholders, and in the 15th century were practically identical with the forty-shilling freeholders who exercised the franchise under the act of 1430. Occasionally they found their way into parliament, for in 1446 the sheriffs were forbidden to return valletti (i.e. yeomen) as members, but this prohibition had very little result. Soon, however, the name appears to have included tenant farmers as well as small freeholders. Thus Latimer, in his famous sermon before Edward VI., says: "My father was a yeoman, but had no land of his own"; the bishop represents the yeoman as an exceedingly prosperous person, and the same opinion had been expressed about a century before by Sir John Fortescue in his Governance of England.

The decay of the class began with the formation of large sheep farms in the 16th century, but its decline was very slow, and the yeomen furnished many sturdy recruits to the parliamentary party during the Civil War. Their decay was accelerated during the 18th century, when many of them were bought out by the large landowners, while they received another blow when the factory system destroyed the country's domestic industries. Many writers lament the decay of the yeoman in the 18th and 19th centuries, but this is partly accounted for by the fact that they exclude all tenant farmers from the class, which they confine to men cultivating their own land. Thus the wheel has come full circle and the word meant much the same as it meant in the early part of the 15th century.

The yeomanry stood on the same footing as the volunteers, and may be considered a cavalry branch of the volunteer force; so these auxiliary forces ranked equally in military law. No limit was placed on their number, and they only required the acceptance of their services by the King. They are not held to be effective unless they do a yearly training of five consecutive days, or six days in the year. The yeomanry were included in the Army Act with the militia and volunteers as "auxiliary forces" when employed in military service that is, they become subject to military law.

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Page last modified: 03-08-2012 18:34:08 ZULU