It’s a (church) living…

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.

 How many livings existed?

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

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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 liven 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.

 I must admit, after researching all this, I am still left scratching my head as to why Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine would ever have chosen a man like William Collins to serve her parish for life.

For more information see:

Ask Meta filter It’s a living… but WHAT it? 

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 .

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

Mayer, Nancy. Nancy Mayer-Regency Researcher 

by Maria Grace Copyright 2013, all rights reserved

Rectors and Vicars and Curates…Oh My!

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.

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...


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.


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 .

Mayer, Nancy. Nancy Mayer-Regency Researcher 

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

by Maria Grace Copyright 2013, all rights reserved

Of Gentlemen and the Gentry

Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews (1748-49), i...

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I learned one writing lesson very quickly. Do the historical research and get the details right. I don’t know why I hadn’t realized how important this was at the start, but suffice to say the point was well made and I got to work.

I immediately realized I needed to understand the social classes of the Regency era, particularly, what a gentleman was in the first place. The simple answer is that a gentleman is the lowest ranking member of a social class known as the landed gentry. The group was considered upper class, but definitely below the titled peers. The group included:

  1. 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.”
  2. Knight. Originally a military honor, it was increasingly used as a reward for service to the Crown. This was not a hereditary title.
  3. 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 principle landowner in a district.
  4. 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 wealth. Wikipedia 

This group was distinct from the middle class because they were landowners who might live entirely off rental income. Oftentimes the estate surrounding a country house was a large agrarian business consisting of a home farm and numerous rented (tenanted) farms and cottages. Revenues from agricultural enterprises and rents were the primary source of gentleman’s income.

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 1850’s the concept of a gentleman began to shift from land ownership income to a code of behavior. Cardinal Newman said. “It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain … He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him … The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast — all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at his ease and at home.”

For more information see:

David Cody, “The Gentleman”

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

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

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


by Maria Grace Copyright 2013, all rights reserved