Of Social Class, Gentlemen and the Gentlemanly Professions
The nuances of social class and what makes a gentleman a gentleman remains a perennial source of confusion for Austenesque and Regency readers. How these men provided a livelihood for themselves and their families proves even more bewildering as some gentlemen had a profession, others did not, some were wealthy and some could find themselves in very dire straits.
Of Gentlemen and the Gentry
Social class was a huge factor in Regency era life. Birth played a huge 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:
- 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."
- Knight. Originally a military honor, it was increasingly used as a reward for service to the Crown. This was not a hereditary title.
- 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 principal 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 of wealth, especially the inherited kind.
This group was distinct from the middle class because they did not work for a living. Many were landowners who lived entirely off income generated from 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-land owners did not. Thus, Parliament was controlled by those whose wealth came from the land rather than trade until the early 1830's.
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 1800s the English laws of primogeniture, intended to preserve the integrity of large landed estates, made it a challenge for younger sons of the landed gentry to establish themselves in life. If their family did not possess an additional estate for them to inherit or they lacked some other relative to provide an inheritance, younger sons had little choice but to make their own way in the world. The question was how to do so and not lose their status as gentlemen.
Four professions offered them the opportunity to do so, the traditional ‘learned’ professions: the church, the law and medicine and services as a military officer. All required a significant investment in the way of education or purchase of a commission, and provided an income disconnected from sullying one’s hands with work.
In the Regency era, the highest status gentlemanly profession was a military officer, a position requiring a purchased commission. Though our modern sensibilities tend to be uncomfortable with the concept of buying a commission, in the Regency era, the belief was that paying for the rank meant that only men of fortune, character, and who had a real interest in the fate of the nation would be drawn to the military, thus reducing the number of unworthies serving in the officers' ranks. Moreover, since officers ‘owned’ their commission, they would be more responsible with their ‘property’ than someone with nothing to lose. Furthermore, private ownership of rank also implied that since officers did not owe their rank to the King, they would be less likely to be used by the King against the people.
Purchase of commissions also served a practical purpose. The price paid for a commission served as a sort of nest egg for the officer, returned to him when he ‘sold out’ and retired. Thus there was no need to provide pensions for retiring officers, a definite advantage to the crown.
These nest eggs were particularly necessary because army pay was enough to live on but not much more, particularly if one sought to maintain the standard of living of a wealthy family. In general, officers' honoraria (as gentlemen they did not take salaries) were just less than the amount of interest that could be earned by the cost of the commission. It was widely accepted that gentlemen should not profit from their military service. (Prize money, when it could be had was a different thing.) Many sons of wealthy parents who joined the army also had an allowance from their families that helped them to live in the style to which they had been accustomed.
The church was a particularly attractive option if a family had a living they could bestow as they chose. A living meant a guaranteed income and home for the lifetime of the clergyman lucky enough to be appointed to one. But what was a living and how did one manage to get appointed to one?
Two primary types of clergymen could be found in the Regency era, the vicar and the curate. Both required a university education - a standard honors degree from Cambridge or Oxford. Afterwards, the candidate needed a testimonial from his college vouching for his fitness for ordination. He then presented the testimonial to a bishop and made arrangements for an examination to prove his competency in Latin, knowledge of the Scripture, and familiarity with the liturgy and church doctrine as written in the 39 Articles. Once he passed the examination, he was considered qualified to administer the sacraments of the Church. His career would begin at age 23, as a deacon, assisting an ordained priest. At 24 he could be fully ordained and eligible to be in charge of a parish and hopefully obtain a living.
To become a vicar, a man needed a living. A living was essentially a position in a parish church, funded by tithes and possibly other similar sources in the parish. It included a parsonage and often glebe lands that the vicar could farm himself or rent out for additional income. The surest way of procuring a living was to be related to the patron. A well-placed relative might mean he could walk into a living immediately after ordination. Less well-connected individuals could wait ten or twenty years for the opportunity. In the Regency period, once installed in a living, a man was there for life. No one less than the bishop could remove him for cause. Thus, Mr. Collins’ deference to Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice could be considered quite misplaced, as she had no control over his livelihood after she appointed him to the living.
The right to appoint a living was called an advowson and was a piece of property considered part of an estate to be bought, sold and inherited. Typically an advowson sold for five to seven times the annual value of the living. Instead of selling an entire advowson, a gentleman strapped for cash might sell just the ‘right of next presentation’ as did Sir Thomas Bertram in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. An extremely fortunate clergyman could own an advowson and appoint himself to a living.
Still, having a living did not guarantee the holder a life of wealth and ease. An 1802 figure suggests a third of the benefices brought in less than £150 a year and some 1,000 of those less than £100. (£50 a year was more or less equivalent to our minimum wage.) A clergyman needed an income £300-400 per annum to be on the level with the lesser gentry.
A vicar could resign his duties to a curate once he obtained the permission of his bishop. Many hired a curate, who would be paid out of the vicar’s own pocket, from the beginning of their incumbency.
A curate was usually a young man just recently ordained, who assisted or sometimes performed the duties of a clergyman. As members of the clergy, curates were regarded as gentlemen. Despite their official standing, the subservient nature of their position and their paltry incomes (as little as £50 per year, not enough to afford a maid) often caused some of the gentry and peers to hold them in disregard.
The law was a less distinguished profession than the military. Moreover, ‘livings’ did not exist for those outside the clergy, so a legal man’s salary might vary dramatically during his lifetime, making it somewhat less desirable, though less dangerous than the military and less prone to chance than obtaining a living.
In the practice of law, two sorts of professionals existed, the barrister and the solicitor. The barrister was essentially a trial lawyer and considered a gentleman. The solicitor dealt with other aspects of the law, like writing contracts and was considered a member of the middle class.
Becoming a barrister was an expensive proposition, costing as much as £2,000 . A young man typically went first to study at university, then would apply to one of the Inns of Court. The Inns of Court were the equivalent of a law school, but there was no specific curriculum. The students would study on their own and rub shoulders with established barristers and ‘eat their dinners’ with them. These dinners were actually dinner meetings which would include lectures or mock court sessions. At the end of three to five years, senior members of the Inn of Courts would determine who would go on to be called to the bar (present cases in court. Those not chosen could earn their livelihoods as solicitors, who usually only had five years' training as an apprentice clerk in a legal office.
Barristers were considered gentlemen because they were not paid a salary, but a gratuity. Clients approached solicitors for their need of a trial lawyer. Solicitors then came and offered the barrister a case. Solicitors acted as a go-between for the barristers and clients, taking a portion of the gratuity as their fee.
An established barrister earned £4,000 a year on average, with some making as much as £15,000. Barristers were also favored for government appointments and cabinet positions. With all the impediments to entry though, only a small number of barristers actually practiced. In 1810, less than 600 barristers existed to address the courts.
The final and arguably least prestigious gentlemanly profession was medicine. As with lawyers, extensive training and apprenticeship were required to practice and two social strata of practitioners existed, one a gentleman and one firmly middle class. Though occasionally physicians might be knighted, in general their profession did not bring them the notoriety or interaction with superior society that the other gentlemanly professions might afford.
Traditionally, many medical men practiced with little or no formal education. However, during the Regency era, medical schools attached to major hospitals developed. Many young aspiring physicians chose to train and qualify for the newly-established medical licenses by attending these. To be a physician, a young man studied and trained at a hospital. When his studies were complete, he would be considered a gentleman.
A surgeon, the equivalent of today’s general practitioner, treated everyday ailments of common people. His education was more apprentice than university training and he was considered, like the solicitor, part of the middle class.
A physician’s income would usually be considerably lower than that of a barrister. He typically made an adequate living, around £300, paid in gratuities, not fees for services rendered. A specialist, or consulting physician, or one who had rich patrons to keep him on a retainer might earn as much as £2,000
Articles in this Series
- Social Class, Gentlemen and the Gentlemanly Professions
- Vicars, Curates and Church Livings
- To be an Officer and a Gentleman
- Naval Officers: Self-made gentlemen
Barristers, solicitors and clerks
Coming Soon: Doctors, surgeons and Apothecaries
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Kelly, Pauline E. (2009) Jane Austen Dictionary. Ink Well Publishing
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