Thursday, May 11, 2017

What makes a Gentleman?

by Maria Grace

The nuances of social class and what made a gentleman a gentleman remains a perennial source of confusion for Regency readers. The pages of Georgian and Regency era fiction are littered with gentlemen, but offer absolutely no explanation of what that title actually meant.

How did one get to be a gentleman—were they born or ‘made’? How did these men provide a livelihood for themselves and their families particularly since it appears that some gentlemen had a profession while others did not. Were all gentlemen equal or did they have differing ranks? Were gentlemen universally wealthy? Were gentlemen common in the population, or really rare birds?

What made a Gentleman a Gentleman?

Gentlemen were, in general, members of the upper classes. But beyond that, how did one recognize this elusive species?

Although many would site land-ownership as their defining feature, this was not fully the case. Not all landowners were gentlemen and not all gentlemen were land owners. The primary quality of a gentleman was that he did not sully his hands with work. His income came from other, more noble sources: passive income from rent and investments and honorariums offered by grateful recipients of their services. Note this was critically different than being paid for one's services. If one was paid for their work, his standing as a gentleman would fall into question. An army officer received an honorarium for his service whilst a common soldier was paid (and not very well at that, but that is another issue altogether.)

A large number of gentlemen were born to the designation. The eldest son of a gentlemen had the potential to inherit the means that made his father a gentleman and that would make him a gentleman as well—a landed estate. The all-important estate was more than a simple farm. It was a tract of land large enough to provide the potential for rental incomes and income from agricultural and land based products like wood or coal, thus funding a gentleman’s life.

So, how much land did it take to get one’s head above the gentlemanly line? In general, a yeoman farmer owned from one to three hundred acres of property that produced £40-50 a year. Over three hundred acres, and a man had a shot at being a gentleman.

What about the younger sons born to gentlemen? If the estate only went to the eldest, could the younger ones manage to be gentlemen, too?

The answer is yes. That is where the ‘honorariums offered by grateful recipients’ clause comes in. There were certain professions for which the practitioner was not directly paid for their services, making them 'gentlemanly professions.' These professions were: the church, the law (as a barrister, not solicitor), medicine(as a physician, not a surgeon) and service 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.

Gentlemanly Ranks

Not surprisingly in a rank obsessed society, there were gradations and ranks among the gentlemen. It goes without saying that titled peers in all their various forms occupied the top of society and were classed at the top of the gentlemanly ladder.

Immediately below the titled peers were the landed gentry. Though definitely part of the upper class, they were lower ranked than the peers. Interestingly, their income might exceed that of peers who might be saddled with debt or other financial difficulties.

Like the peers, the landed gentry were not created equal with some positioned some firmly above others. Within the landed gentry were:
1.  Baronet. A position created by King James in 1611, giving the person a hereditary knighthood that passed to the eldest son, and the right to be addressed as "Sir." These title holders were not considered part of the aristocracy and did not sit in the House of Lords.

2. Knight. Originally a military honor, but came to be used as a reward for service to the Crown. This was not a hereditary title. The number of knights increased dramatically during the regency years, with a particular surge from 1811-1815, when one's service to the crown could have been simply making a pleasing speech.

Neither the title of baronet nor knight conveyed any land or wealth to the title holder, nor any privilege beyond being addressed as ‘sir.’(and his wife as Lady His Last Name—can’t forget that one, right?)

3. Esquire/squire. Originally a title related to a knight’s attendant, it was an honor that could be conferred by the Crown. The title included certain offices such as Justice of the Peace and was used informally, unlike the prior two official titles. A squire was often the principal landowner in a district.

4. Gentlemen. This started as a separate title with the Statute of Additions of 1413. It became used to signify a man who did not have to work for a living. It was not a title and men would not be introduces as Mr. Smith, gentleman.

How many were in the Gentry

So just how many of these gentlemanly types were there?

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 closer to 25,000 or 26,000: 540 baronets, 350 knights, 6,000 landed squires and 20,000 just plain 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.) (Keymer, 2005) Said another way, 98.5% of the population were not of the gentlemanly class. So by that standard, gentlemen were rare birds indeed.


Kelly, Pauline E. (2009) Jane Austen Dictionary. Ink Well Publishing

Keymer, Thomas in Janet Todd (ed.) (2005) Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge University Press

Shapard, David M. (editor) - The Annotated Persuasion Anchor Books (2010)

Gornall, J. F.G. - Marriage and Property in Jane Austen's Novels The Jane Austen Hampshire Group

Austen, Jane, and David M. Shapard. The Annotated Pride and Prejudice. New York: Anchor Books, 2003.

Austen, Jane, and David M. Shapard. The Annotated Sense and Sensibility. New York: Anchor Books, 2011.

Lane, Maggie. Jane Austen's World: The Life and times of England's Most Popular Novelist. 2nd ed. London: Carlton Books, 2005.

Laudermilk, Sharon H., and Teresa L. Hamlin. The Regency Companion. New York: Garland, 1989.


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 comment:

  1. Very interesting. Just one point that needs to be established still, because I continue to see wince-inducing mistakes. A baronet as you rightly say is given the honorific "Sir". He is addressed as "Sir Firstname" and never "Sir Lastname".


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