The People of Jamestown: The English
Objective: Students will describe English society as it existed in
the late 16th and early 17th century and explain why the English
began to explore during this time.
Standards of Learning:
Virginia SOL: VS 1d, e, g; VS3a; USI. 4a, 5a
National Standards of History: Historical Analysis and
Interpretation; Historical Comprehension
Materials Needed for Activity:
Video: Discovering Jamestown: The English (Windows Media Player required. Click here to
Slips of paper, one for each student, to draw from a hat. See
Other Helpful Resources:
See the Cultures at Jamestown background essay under Curriculum
hereditary – holding titles, rights, ranks, etc. by means of
inheritance or by succession from one person or generation to
absolute monarch – a king, queen or emperor who rules without
restraint and whose decisions are final
aristocracy – a ruling class; nobles who have inherited positions
gentry – the group or class under the nobility but whose members
belong to upper level society; they usually own land and are
entitled to a coat of arms
The English system of government in the 17th century was based on
heredity, while English society was organized by social rank and
wealth. The aristocracy controlled over 75% of the land. While the
merchant, professional and gentry classes had opportunities to
elevate their status by increasing their wealth, most English
citizens belonged to the lower classes and had no such
opportunities. For all of these groups within English society, the
17th century was a time of change. England had always been an
agricultural country based on grain production. During the 1500s,
however, the demand for woolen cloth in Europe soared. By the
1600s, wool had become the basis of the English economy. In order
to meet this demand, a series of legal actions made it possible
for English landowners to enclose their farms and fence off large
areas as grazing lands for sheep. As a result, landowners, wool
manufacturers and merchants amassed great wealth, while small
farmers and their families were uprooted from their small plots of
rented land and drifted from the countryside to towns looking for
work. Migrating to a new world seemed a hopeful choice for many of
these people who were jobless and homeless. At the same time,
wealthy Englishmen were looking for ways to invest their wealth.
The charter issued to the Virginia Company of London by King James
I in 1606 offered opportunities for many Englishmen, though for
vastly different reasons.
Step 1: Review with students the time period as it relates to
settlement in North America. Talk about exploration as an act of
discovery, and remind students that Portugal and Spain had led the
way for Europeans seeking trade and wealth in Africa and the new
world respectively. The English followed, attempting a settlement
at Roanoke Island which failed in the late 1500s. A number of
other attempts did not result in permanent settlements.
Step 2: Review the meaning of the word “society” (a group of
people with shared institutions and shared relationships). Remind
them that society in England was defined strictly by class and
birth. Wealth, political power, and high social status – based on
land ownership and family connections – were concentrated in the
hands of a small elite class.
Step 3: Prior to watching the video, students should be randomly
assigned a role to play as a member of 17th-century English
society. Allow each student to draw a slip of paper from a hat
which will have his or her role in English society during the 17th
century: aristocracy, merchant, gentry, lower ranks, and poor.
Less than 10% of the slips of paper should be labeled
“aristocracy”; a few more should be split between “merchant” and
“gentry”; most should be labeled “lower ranks” or “poor”. After
students have drawn their rank in English society, tell them to
watch the video closely to determine what it states about people
in their particular rank. Ask students to look for reasons why
someone at their level of society might want to go to Virginia or
prefer to stay in England.
Step 4: Show the video, Discovering Jamestown: The English.
Step 5: After viewing the video, give the students a few minutes
to write down everything they learned about their particular rank.
Reassure students that if they remember only one thing, that is
all right as others who have their rank may remember something
Step 6: The teacher will play the role of roving reporter and move
through the class asking individual students to stand and respond
to the reporter’s questions. Sample questions:
What is your name, and what rank do you have in English society?
What can you tell us about your role in English society?
What kind of home do you live in?
Are you educated? If so, how did you receive your education?
What do you do for recreation?
What are your hopes for the future?
Summary Activity: After allowing all students to participate and
making certain at least one student from each rank of society has
been heard, ask students which group of English society they would
have liked to belong if they had lived in 17th-century England.
Why? Finally, ask members of each rank of society – aristocracy,
merchants, gentry, lower ranks, poor – the following questions.
Discuss other questions which may have arisen during the role
The “Discovering Jamestown” electronic classroom was made possible
by Dominion & Dominion Foundation and John and Dorothy Estes.
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