The Yeoman class in Medieval England were the original middle class. Their influence grew over time, and they could live a comfortable lifestyle for the middle ages. Yeoman were free landowners that were not part of the aristocracy. They were often the farmer who owned, and worked his own land as opposed to the feudal peasant who was not free, and tied to the land, and to the lord that owned it.
Yeoman also made up a third class of fighting men, below knights, and squires but above pages, they were much like the sergeants of their day. As a fighting man, they were often first, and foremost an elite longbowman, but it was also their responsibility to be armed with a sword, dagger, and buckler, and be proficient in their use, at least from the 14th century onwards.
Yeoman were often wealthy enough to ride into battle on horseback, and either fight dismounted, or act as skirmishers, guarding prisoners, guarding baggage trains, or fighting alongside their employers, usually a knight or other aristocrat.
When not on campaign the Yeoman may work as the body guard of a knight or other noble, possibly even a king. One may not think a knight would need a bodyguard, however even in armour, when outnumbered a knight would not last long dismounted. When unarmoured in every day situations the yeoman would watch the back of his employer providing close protection when he traveled.
Illustration of the Yeoman in the Canterbury tales.
Yeoman were the only commoners allowed to sit and dine with knights, squires, and nobles. They often worked as Constables or Chief Constables and could hold the position of a bailiff working under a high sheriff. Often they could have duties similar to policing and administration, or could do survey work, or work as a forester. They were often offered a position within the royal forest as a reward for service. The position of forester would guarantee a pension and a steady income later in life. The wealthier yeoman could have impressive homes, and be better off than lesser nobles. While they were not as grand as the manors of the wealthier aristocrats, in comparison to the average dwelling of the middle ages, they could be very comfortable.
15th Century Yeomans house, Sussex, U.K.
One of the most famous of yeoman was Robyn Hode. While Hollywood perpetuates the myth of Robin Hood the Noble, the original stories of the outlaw in the green wood clearly states that he was indeed a yeoman. The first four lines of the “Gest of Robyn Hode” read;
Lythe and listen, gentlemen,
That be of freeborn blood;
I shall you tell of a good yeoman,
His name was Robyn Hode.
The leading candidate for a historical Robyn Hode was a Yeoman Forester from Wakefield, Yorkshire. He was on the wrong side of a Lancastrian revolt and was outlawed and spent some time in the forests of Yorkshire. Eventually he was pardoned by the king and disappears from the record.
While Yeoman did not have the exulted status of the knights, they did factor prominently in the historical and literary record. The yeoman archers of Henry V triumphed at the battle of Agincourt, and the most famous tale of the medieval era about a forest dwelling outlaw Yeoman, is perhaps the most beloved and retold tale in book and film.