Vicars, Curates and Church Livings

Vicars, Curates and Church Livings

I must confess, trying to understand the Regency clergy just about drove me over the edge. References didn’t answer my questions, then they would contradict one another. I thought I’d pull my hair out. Nancy Mayer at Nancy Mayer-Regency Researcher came to my rescue and straightened out so much of  my confusion. Thank you, Nancy! Please, take time and check out her wonderful site.

Jane Austen often wrote of clergymen with church livings and gentlemen with livings to bestow. What exactly was she talking about? In short, a living meant a guaranteed income and home for the lifetime of the clergyman lucky enough to be appointed to one. Since the incumbent did not receive a wage or sully his hands with works per se, it was considered a gentlemanly profession and many younger sons of gentlemen pursued the church as their career. The three different types of clergy populated the parish church: the rector, the vicar and the curate. The latter two are the ones we hear about most but it is worth taking a moment to consider the rector, too.


Caricature of Reverend Canon Edgar Sheppard D....

Reverend Canon Edgar Sheppard


One of the reasons for confusion about this position is that the rector did not have to be an ordained man -- it might well be a college, a group, bishop, a nobleman, or even a female. The rector was simply the one who received the 'greater' tithes, 10% of the cereal crops grown in the parish, (which might be as much as 75% of the total tithes), in compensation for the freehold (land) used by the church. Beyond his clerical responsibilities, the rector played an active role in the social life of the neighborhood and in its civil administration, carrying out such duties as the registration of births, deaths and marriages, sitting on the magistrates’ bench and so on.



The vicar is the more commonly encountered cleric. Though some parsons might have been devoted to their flock, the church on the whole had a reputation for idleness. Sincere faith was not a necessary quality for ordination as a minister of the Church of England. With enough money and connections a man might be ordained and installed in a desirable living.

A living, (a parish church), was typically set up so that a rector or a vicar presided. 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. An income and home for life would certainly be appealing; however, the if the holder of the living wished to retire he had to employ a curate to take charge of a parish.

Whether or not a vicar had the resources for hiring a curate depended on the parish itself. His portion would be the lesser tithes, 10% of the parish's produce and livestock. In some vicarages this might be as little as £50 a year. (For reference, this is roughly the equivalent of a minimum wage job.) In other parishes, the lesser tithes could amount to a considerable sum. Some hints in Pride and Prejudice suggest the Kympton living might have amounted to £500 -£600 a year.

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. Others only did so when they had to retire. A vicar did not have to give up the parsonage house to the curate. He might continue to live in it himself and leave the curate to find his own living quarters somewhere within an easy distance of the church.  

English: The Old Curate's House, Bramdean A cu...Curate

A curate was usually a young man just recently ordained, who assisted or sometimes performed the duties of a clergyman. Though they might do all the work of the parish, their salaries were often meager, perhaps as little as £50 per year, not enough to afford a maid. Even at trifling wages, a curacy was not easy to obtain. In the early 1800’s curates made up close to half of the clergymen.

Even with a position, their future was not secure. The death of the incumbent did not imply the curate would ascend to the living. Moreover, there was no guarantee that the successor would even continue to employ the curate.  A curate did not retire unless he had private means of support because the church offered no pensions. As members of the clergy, curates were regarded as gentlemen. Despite their official standing, the subservient nature of their position and their paltry incomes caused some of the gentry and peers to hold them in disregard.  

 How many livings existed?

Not sure when the renovation at the front fini...

Image via Wikipedia

Approximately 11,500 benefices or livings existed in England and Wales at the end of the 18th century. This sounds like a sufficient number; however, over half the ordained clergy never received a living. Patrons owned livings. Oxford and Cambridge colleges controlled around 5%, giving them as gifts to fellows and masters who wished to marry and leave academic pursuits. Another 10% or so belonged to the Crown and were  presented to government supporters. Bishops and cathedral chapters possessed about 20%. The gentry and aristocracy held the largest share, on the order of 60%. Most great families had at least one or two livings at their disposal.  


How much income did a living provide?

The majority of England's parishes were small. 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. (Remember, about £50 a year was more or less equivalent to our minimum wage.)  A clergyman needed a  living of £300-400 per annum to be on the level  with the lesser gentry. Incomes might be increased by serving more than one parish, but this seldom resulted in real wealth. Only a third of all clergy acquired more than one living. Slightly more than one in twenty held more than two benefices and of these few had as many as four or five.

Additional income might also be found through teaching or cultivating gardens and the glebe (acreage provided by the parish.) The amount of land varied by parish, some only had a field in others, fifty acres or more. The incumbent either chose to farm it himself or rented it out to a tenant farmer.

English: Engraving of Steventon rectory, home ...

The parsonage Jane Austen lived in

A living also included a parsonage house. The patron, not the church took responsibility for providing hosing for the clergy. Landowners might improve the parsonage in the hope of attracting an incumbent of education and breeding, fit to dine at his patron’s table. Many vicarages, though, were in poor condition.  


How did one get a living?

The surest way of obtaining a benefice was to be related to the patron. A well-placed relative might well mean walk into a living immediately after ordination. Less well-connected individuals could wait ten or twenty years. The right to appoint a clergyman to a living was called an advowson and considered a form of property to be bought, sold and inherited.

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 Mansfield Park. Typically an advowson sold for five to seven times the annual value. Such a sale had to take place during the lifetime of the incumbent. Sales after the incumbent’s death were a crime called Simony and would result in the loss of the advowson. An extremely fortunate clergyman could own an advowson and appoint himself to a living. 


Taking orders  

In Jane Austen’s writing we encounter a number of characters like Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram who are planning to take orders. Her readers understood what that meant, but the concept is a little foreign to us, so here’s a quick rundown on what ‘taking orders’ meant.  


Requirements for taking orders  

To be considered for ordination, a candidate needed a  degree from Cambridge or Oxford. No theological colleges or courses of study existed so a standard honors degree satisfied the requirement. Afterwards, the candidate needed a testimonial from his college vouching for his fitness for ordination. Finally, he needed to locate a bishop and make arrangements for an examination that would satisfy the bishop of his competency in Latin, knowledge of the Scripture, and familiarity with the liturgy and church doctrine as written in the 39 Articles. Some bishops made only a cursory examination in these areas, only a few took their responsibilities more seriously.

After Japanning (slang for ordination referring to putting on black cloth, from the color of black japan ware) a man was 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. After ordination, a priest (curate, vicar or rector) would still be referred as Mr. Surname as was Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. He would never be referred to as Reverend in speech although he might receive letters as ‘The Reverend W. Collins’. Only if he attained higher standing in the church would his form of address change.


What did the clergy do once ordained?  

The clergyman's basic duties were to hold church service on Sundays and  hold Holy Communion at least three times a year. The service, which might last as long as three hours, began with the clergyman declaring a the general confession of sins.  The congregation repeated this after him and then he pronounced God's forgiveness. Following this a psalm of praise and thanksgiving and passages from the Old and New Testaments were read. Then everybody stood and repeated the Apostles' Creed.

After all this, a sermon might be read. Most priests took their sermons from books published for the purpose. Some would read extracts from the printed text. In other cases, adaptations might be written to suit particular circumstances. In general congregations enjoyed the use of familiar texts. Few clergymen wrote original sermons.

Midweek duties included baptisms, marriages and funerals and visiting the sick. In addition, parish meetings, at which the clergyman officiated, discussed local affairs including charity, parish employment, care of the poor, repair and maintenance of the church and election of the churchwardens. The parish was responsible for the administration of the poor laws and elected Supervisors of the Poor who collected the Poor Rate taxes from the wealthier parishioners. Road maintenance was also a responsibility of the parish and two Surveyors of Highways were appointed to supervise the maintenance and repair of the roads. Thus, the clergyman played a major role in the life of his parish community.    


Regency Life


Articles in this Series

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Barristers, solicitors and clerks

Coming Soon: Doctors, surgeons and Apothecaries

A Preference for Ginger

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Collins, Irene. (1998)  Jane Austen, The Parson's Daughter . Hambledon Press.

Collins, Irene. (2002)  Jane Austen & the Clergy. Hambledon Press.

Day, Malcom. (2006) Voices from the World of Jane. Austen David & Charles .

Grose, Captain (Francis). (2004)  Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811 ed. Ikon Classics

Le Faye, Deirdre.  (2002).   Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels.

 MacDonagh, Oliver and Harry N. Abrams. (1991) Jane Austen, Real and Imagined Worlds.  Yale University Press.

Mayer, Nancy. Nancy Mayer-Regency Researcher  


 Sullivan, Margaret C. (2007) The Jane Austen Handbook . Quirk Books

by Maria Grace Copyright 2013, all rights reserved


1 comment

    • JanetR on December 8, 2016 at 9:36 am
    • Reply

    In Jane Austen’s novels the clergymen who are identified as rectors are William Collins and Edward Ferrars. And Charles Hayter is to be a rector in the future.

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