Landed Gentry: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

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., 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.'

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