Birth was a key factor in determining one’s social standing. For some, especially the eldest son and heir, their standing was established with an inherited title and fortune. For others, especially younger sons, inheritance of land or fortune and occupation played a primary role. For most women, their place in society was determined by the status of the man they married.
Titled peers in all their various forms occupied the top of the social ladder. Immediately below them were the landed gentry. Though definitely part of the upper class, they were definitely lower ranked than the peers even though their income might exceed that of peers who might be saddled with debt or other financial difficulties. Like the peers, the landed gentry was divided into various ranks, positioning some firmly above others. Within the landed gentry were: The group included:
- Baronet. A position created by King James in 1611, giving the person a that passed to the eldest son, and the right to be addressed as “Sir” but not ranked as a peer, therefore could not sit in the House of Lords.
- . Originally a military honor, it was increasingly used as a reward for service to .An address (formal speech of respect or thanks) to the monarch was a frequent means of attaining the honor of knighthood. This was not a hereditary title.
- Esquire/squire. Esquire was an informal title, often given to gentlemen, especially prominent landowners, who had no other title. 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.
- 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, especially the inherited kind.
The landed gentry was distinct from the middle class because they were landowners who might live entirely off rental income. Oftentimes the estate lands surrounding a country house amounted to 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.
Landowners also had the right to vote, which non-landowners did not. Thus, Parliament was controlled by those whose wealth came from the land rather than trade until the early 1830’s. None of these ranks sat in . That honor was reserved for the peers.
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.)
In order to join the ranks of the gentry, a man had to buy a country house and estate lands which would be rented by tenant farmers or worked by others hired for the purpose. That done, all financial ties with business had to be severed to remove the stain of trade from the family, since a gentleman did not work his own lands or do manual labor like a yeoman farmer (small landowner) did. Toward the latter half of the 19th century, with the rise of the industrial revolution, the later requirement was relaxed
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 income from land ownership 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.”
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