Of Gentlemen and the Gentry

Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews (1748-49), i...

Image via Wikipedia

I learned one writing lesson very quickly. Do the historical research and get the details right. I don’t know why I hadn’t realized how important this was at the start, but suffice to say the point was well made and I got to work.

I immediately realized I needed to understand the social classes of the Regency era, particularly, what a gentleman was in the first place. The simple answer is that a gentleman is the lowest ranking member of a social class known as the landed gentry. The group was considered upper class, but definitely below the titled peers. The group included:

  1. Baronet. A position created by King James in 1611, giving the person a hereditary title that passed to the eldest son, and the right to be addressed as “Sir.”
  2. Knight. Originally a military honor, it was increasingly used as a reward for service to the Crown. This was not a hereditary title.
  3. Esquire/squire. Originally a title related to the battlefield, it included a squire or person aspiring to knighthood, an attendant on a knight. Later it was an honor that could be conferred by the Crown and included certain offices such as Justice of the Peace. A squire was often the principle landowner in a district.
  4. Gentlemen. This started as a separate title with the statute of Additions of 1413. It is used generally for a man of high birth or rank, good social standing, and wealth. Wikipedia 

This group was distinct from the middle class because they were landowners who might live entirely off rental income. Oftentimes the estate surrounding a country house was a large agrarian business consisting of a home farm and numerous rented (tenanted) farms and cottages. Revenues from agricultural enterprises and rents were the primary source of gentleman’s income.

At the start of the 19th century the landed gentry made up only a small part of the population. Whereas the peerage included about 300 families, the landed gentry encompassed:  540 baronets, 350 knights, 6,000 landed squires and 20,000 gentlemen. This group totaled about 1.5% of the national population and possessed about 16% of the national income. (Interestingly this is not out of line with the statistics in the US for 2010.)  None of these ranks sat in the House of Lords in Parliament. That honor was reserved for the peers.

In order to join the ranks of the gentry, a  man had to  buy a country house and estate lands. That done, all financial ties with the business which had made him wealthy had to be severed to remove the stain of trade from his family. With the rise of the industrial revolution, though, the later requirement was relaxed toward the latter half of the 19th century. These newly minted gentlemen did not have the prestige attached to those  from “old families” who inherited landed estates over a number of generations.

In the 1850’s the concept of a gentleman began to shift from land ownership income to a code of behavior. Cardinal Newman said. “It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain … He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him … The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast — all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at his ease and at home.”

For more information see:

David Cody, “The Gentleman”

Kelly, Pauline E.  (2009) Jane Austen Dictionary. Ink Well Publishing

Keymer, Thomas in Janet Todd (ed.) (2005) Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge University Press

Cardinal Newman.”The Definition of a Gentleman” from The Idea of a University, a series of lectures given in Ireland, 1852.

Laudermilk, Sharon & Hamlin, Teresa L.   (1989) The Regency Companion. Garland Publishing


by Maria Grace Copyright 2013, all rights reserved


2 pings

Skip to comment form

    • Matt on January 11, 2012 at 11:12 pm
    • Reply

    Fascinating reading, i’ll have to check out that victorian era source. Was any reason cited for the switch to a behavioral rather than economic definition? My two farthings are that it was a response to the rakish behavior of the Georgian period.

    1. The sense I got was that some of the change came from the economic shift. The the industrial revolution and the changes it brought, agriculture and land ownership was not nearly so powerful as it once was. People do not like to give up status so education and refinement in taste and behavior began to grow in importance since those were not lost in the industrial revolution. That was my take away, anyhow.

    • Robin Helm on January 13, 2012 at 3:39 pm
    • Reply

    Very interesting, Grace. I’ll check back on your research when I start my fourth book (after I finish Legacy).

  1. Nice clarification- thanks! (One of those things where you know it is “something like that” but not exactly what.

  1. […] Since all officers were supposed to be property holders of some measure, they were all considered gentlemen and afforded the according status. Brighton beach sketch from early […]

  2. […] befitting gentlemen. So these, together with the armed forces, formed the primary options for gentlemen’s sons. Vicars, barristers, physicians and army officers were not paid directly for their work. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: