Gentlemen, Gentry and Regency Era Social Class

Regency LIfe copyDuring the Regency era social class played a huge role in all aspects of life.

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:

  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” but not ranked as a peer, therefore could not sit in the House of Lords.
  2. Knight. Originally a military honor, it was increasingly used as a reward for service to the Crown.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.
  3. 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.
  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, especially the inherited kind.

VictorEmanuelI2The 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 Parliament’s House of Lords, though. 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.”

References:

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

 

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14 comments

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    • Carol on September 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm
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    This article, as usual, was very interesting . I can only imagine the amount of research you must do to be able to enlighten and entertain us.

    Thank you!

    • ki pha on September 22, 2013 at 3:24 pm
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    I’ll have to keep this on my research tab and my remember for important information list. Thanks for this post.

  1. Maria,
    Could a baronet also be a knight? Since they were both addressed as Sir firstname, it’s a bit confusing, no?

    1. I suppose it is possible. But since a knight is a lower title than a baronet, I think it unlikely that a lower honor would be bestowed when a higher one is already possessed.

      1. I was thinking that if the knighthood was awarded for a military endeavor, the monarch, in a spirit of generosity for a favorite subject, might also bestow the baronetcy.

          • Adam Quinan on May 20, 2014 at 8:45 am
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          Certainly a man could have more than one title or award, especially if he started quite young on his career of success.

          Edward Pellew was a frigate captain who was awarded a knighthood in 1793 for his success in one of the first actions of the French Revolutionary War.
          Then in 1796 he was awarded a baronetcy for his heroism in rescuing the crew of a stranded troopship. Later in 1814, he was created Baron Exmouth and in 1816 Viscount Exmouth.
          In 1832, he was awarded a second knighthood, that of the Order of the Bath.

          1. Thanks for sharing the information!

    2. Definitely. So could peers. The Order of the Garter, the most prestigious order of knighthood, was and still is given to many members of the peerage. The orders of knighthood convey different levels of distinction and were often given for personal service to the sovereign. If a baronet was knighted his style wouldn’t change, but he would appreciate the honor.

      Interesting post, Maria. Romance tends to concentrate on the nobility, but there were “commoners” equal in wealth and importance to many peers. They could sit in Parliament in the House of Commons which, by the 19th century, was already the more powerful house.

    • Adam Quinan on May 20, 2014 at 8:48 am
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    I was just trying to find out how much a reasonable country estate would cost to purchase for an up and coming family.
    In Pride and Prejudice, we see Charles Bingley with a fortune of around £100,000 looking to buy an estate. How much of his capital would be invested in such an estate.

    1. The best answer I have been able to find does not have a reference attached, so, though it makes sense, proceed with caution. The source suggests the yearly earnings on an estate represent about 5% of sale price/value of an estate. So an estate producing 2000 pounds a year would be valued at about 40,000 pounds.

      Hope this helps.

    • Rosie on August 4, 2015 at 3:42 pm
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    A baronet and a knight ARE NOT the same. A baronet is an hereditary title awarded by the British Crown. It is the only hereditary title that is not part of the peerage.

    A knight is of a lower rank than a baronet, even if both are given the title of “Sir”. But a knighthood is not an hereditary title.

    1. Rosie,
      if you read this carefully, I think you will find that I said exactly that. Sorry for the confusion.

    • Caitlin on March 6, 2016 at 12:17 pm
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    Hi, would you mind telling me where you got your information about the gentry class, especially the statistics. Your resources seem to be more geared toward being a gentleman.

    1. The references are all listed at the end of the article. Hope that helps.

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