The playright, Philip Massinger, was the son of a provincial gentleman and a tradesman's daughter who was very familiar with the scramble up the social ladder in 17th century society. As such he was well-placed to ask the question "What makes a gentleman?" John Evelyn, in The Mode, 1661, complained: "How many times have I saluted the fine man for the master, and stood with my hat off to the gay feather, when I found the bird to be all this while but a daw." Clothes, it seems, not birth, did maketh the gentleman, at least superficially.
In scene two of The City Madam Sir Maurice Lacy makes fun of the gentleman Mr Plenty with the following words: "Thy great-grandfather was a butcher, and his son a grazier; thy sire constable of the hundred and thou the first of thy dunghill created gentleman." This demonstrates the arrogance but also the fear and dislike that the aristocracy had for those rich men on the rise.
One of the themes of the play is that there should be a distinction between the city and the court. Wives of city merchants, no matter how rich, should not ape their betters in the aristocracy, either in terms of their dress or in their proud attititudes. Their social climbing is ridiculous; inappropriate and a poor example. The character of Lady Frugal, for example, dresses with extraordinary ostentation in her silks and furs despite the fact that she is the daughter of a country farmer who was only "ladified" because her husband made a fortune.
Sir William Craven fits beautifully into this profile of a man on the make. He came from a poor family, he was a self-made man and he rose to be Lord Mayor of London. He married late, when he had made his pile, into the rich mercantile class to which he now belonged. He bought himself a knighthood. His wife was thereby "ladyfied." Craven was also renowned for his charitable giving - another feature of rich London merchants - both in the City and back home in Yorkshire where he endowed a school, rebuilt the parish church, paid for a bridge and causeway to be built and undertook many other good works. He was also a moneylender to the aristocracy, which increased his fortune immeasurably.
Despite this rampant and some might say entirely admirable social climbing, Craven was still very much a man of the upper middle classes, not the aristocracy, when he died in 1618. What happened next in the Craven family, though, was possibly even more interesting in terms of upward mobility. In his will Craven specified that his wife (for obvious reasons now one of the most sought-after widows in London!) should invest some of his billions in land. This she did, buying estates at Combe Abbey, Ashdown, and Stokesay amongst many others. This was an interesting move. Arguably land was a good investment but it also had strong social implications as well. Craven was posthumously moving his fortune and his family's social positioning from the middle to the upper class.
The transformation of a "poor" family into an aristocratic one was achieved in only two generations when Sir William Craven's sons William and John became respectively First Earl of Craven and Baron Craven of Ryton. The entire family in fact moved up the social scale with Sir William's brothers and sisters and their children becoming country gentry and moving on the edge of aristocratic society. At the end of the 16th century no one would for a moment have considered the apprentice William Craven to be a gentleman. In 1664 his sons were undeniably aristocrats in that they both held titles in the peerage.
Interestingly William First Earl of Craven chose not to further consolidate his family's position in the aristocracy through a rich marriage. A suggested betrothal between him and Lady Mary Cavendish did not come off and he never married at all. And although he was undeniably a member of the court and prominent in the aristocracy, old prejudices of blood and title still persisted. The First Earl was very much looked down upon as an arriviste by members of the "old" nobility. It was ever thus...