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In this lesson we explore the concept of landed gentry. A slightly nebulous term including several classes of people, landed gentry in Great Britain were those who did not have to work for a living and did not hold a title.

Landlords of Old

Landlords in the modern world are often viewed with a certain level of disdain. Terms like ‘slumlord’ conjure images of greasy con-men who own run-down properties and never fulfill promises about fixing the plumbing. Caricatures like Don Knotts’ bumbling character Mr. Furley in Three’s Company certainly do not add any prestige to the title.But in early modern and Victorian England, being a landlord was a requisite to acquiring a title. Indeed, many Englishmen strove to be landlords since not having to work by living off rental and other owned property meant you were part of the landed gentry. This was considered a trait of the highest strata of British society, a far cry from the images of landlords today.

Definition

The landed gentry, according to the customs of early modern British society, were a group of individuals who did not have to work for a living. Their living could come strictly from the rents of properties, farms, and in later eras, buildings, and explicitly not from economic trade (even if the persons involved were not directly involved in the active trading). Furthermore, the landed gentry were specifically untitled aristocrats (i.e.

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, not part of the peerage). For example, those who had received Baronages, Dukedoms, or the like, were higher than the landed gentry on the social ladder and not considered a part of the class.

History

The landed gentry in Great Britain has always been an amorphous group, shaped and changed with the ebb and flow of economic trends throughout the last 500 years. With this in mind, it is safe to say the landed gentry traditionally included several types of men.

Gentlemen, for instance, were generally the poorest of the landed gentry, and although they did not need to work for a living, often lived off income from just a few farms or properties. Knights traditionally did not have to work and received an income from the crown in return for military service or some other form of service that glorified the crown. Baronet was the highest of these titles, and although its conferment usually included a few lands, it was often not considered part of the proper peerage since King James had created and sold the title in the early seventeenth century in the hope of raising funds.In the 1830s, English publisher John Burke published a book listing all of the names of those in Great Britain considered part of the landed gentry, their family histories, and their coat of arms if they were entitled to one. The book, titled A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry; or, Commons of Great Britain and Ireland, is often referred to as Burke’s Landed Gentry. So popular was the book and the landed gentry within its covers that numerous editions were revised and published for over 100 years, ending in 1972.

Burke and his book are often attributed with the popularization of the phrase ‘landed gentry.’Though the idea and importance of landed gentry has largely disappeared in modern day Great Britain, its legacy has had a lasting impact on British attitudes toward work, affluence, and social structure. Indeed, interest in the legacy of the landed gentry remains so popular that in 2001, a revived edition of Landed Gentry was published, albeit without regard for the same strict rules regarding work and/or land.

Lesson Summary

  • The landed gentry were a class of people who did not have to work for a living, but also did not have a proper, royally conferred title.
  • ‘Landed gentry’ was an ever-changing term, but it included classes of men considered knights, gentlemen and baronets.

  • Burke’s Landed Gentry attempted to document all the landed gentry of Great Britain. The book was published from the 1830s until 1972.
  • The idealized view of the landed gentry still affects British society today.

Landed Gentry: Terms & Definitions

Terms Definitions
Landed gentry Englishmen who did not have to work, often living off rental and other owned property; untitled aristocrats that included gentlemen, knights, and baronets
Gentlemen the poorest of the landed gentry; usually owned a few farms
Knights received an income from military service and providing glory to the Crown
Baronet the highest of the landed gentry titles; not a proper peerage since it was invented by King James to raise funds
John Burke published A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry; or, Commons of Great Britain and Ireland in the 1830s until 1972; it contained the landed gentry’s names, histories, and coat of arms

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Describe the landed gentry
  • Outline the history of the landed gentry
  • Identify the importance of the book by John Burke

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