Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Vicars and curates and livings…oh my!

By Maria Grace

In the 1800’s the English laws of primogenitor, 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.

Traditional ‘learned’ professions: the church, the law and medicine had a respectable character as ‘liberal professions’ befitting gentlemen. So these, together with the armed forces formed the primary options for gentlemen's younger sons.  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.


To qualify for a living, a man had to be ordained. The process started with 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. 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 japanware) 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 and obtain a living.

Obtaining a Living

For all but the luckiest young men, the real challenge began at this point. The surest way of procuring a benefice 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.

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. 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.

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. 

Oxford and Cambridge colleges controlled nearly 5% of benefices, presenting them as gifts to fellows and masters who wished to marry and leave academic pursuits. Another 10% or so belonged to the Crown, to be 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. 

The value of 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. 

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 might chose to farm it himself or rent it out to a tenant farmer.

Enter the curate

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. A vicar could resign his duties to a curate once he obtained the permission of his bishop. Many hired a curate from the beginning of their incumbency. Others only did so when they had to retire.

A curate was usually a young man just recently ordained, who assisted or sometimes performed the duties of a clergyman. A curate’s wages would be paid from the vicar’s own pocket and typically were very low, as little as £50 per year, not enough to afford a maid. Moreover, 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. 

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.

Parish duties

The clergyman’s duties in the church included holding service on Sundays and hold Holy Communion at least three times a year. Midweek duties included baptisms, marriages and funerals and visiting the sick.

Outside of the church, the clergyman officiated at parish meetings to discuss 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. The parish also appointed two Surveyors of Highways to supervise the maintenance and repair of the roads. Thus, whether vicar or lowly curate, the clergyman played a major role in the life of his parish community.

For more information see:
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. Harry N. Abrams
MacDonagh, Oliver . (1991) Jane Austen, Real and Imagined Worlds.  Yale University Press.
Sullivan, Margaret C. (2007) The Jane Austen Handbook. Quirk Books.

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.


  1. So interesting, Maria! Well-researched and informative piece which made me think of so many familiar stories. It was a real pleasure to read it.

  2. Very interesting and informative! I've always been curious about that! Thank you for sharing :-))

  3. Wonderful post! One of my all-time favorites on this blog.

  4. Most helpful and interesting! Thank you, Maria Grace!

  5. I agree, very interesting. Thank you for your research.

  6. Makes me wonder how on earth Mr Collins managed to not only get himself ordained but obtain a valuable living from Lady Catherine.
    Thank you for enlightening me on this negflected subject.

  7. Please forgive my typo

  8. Ridiculously enough, the advowson still exists in some form. A local parish was just recently choosing a new vicar, and the family who still hold the advowson had to be consulted and were present at the job interviews along with the bishop.

    I don't know if the family had right of refusal, or whether incorporating in them in the process was a legal courtesy only.

  9. Very interesting and informative post, Maria.

  10. Quite, quite fascinating, Maria! I forget how much money Charlotte Bronte's father received a year...I seem to remember two or three hundred pounds. Does anyone know? Anyway, now I truly understand why curates are so often referred to as poor...as poor as a curate!

  11. Very interesting - I have Edward Ferrars in my mind, and if he really did not mind being poor - and what challenges he and Elinor faced. Thank you.

  12. May I ask a question? At the end of the 18th century, would it have been normal for a curate or vicar to have a wife?


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