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gentry. Technically the gentry consists of four separately defined groups, socially inferior only to the ranks of the peerage and—within a European definition—part of the nobility, although not entitled to the privileges of the nobility. The senior rank is that of baronet, a position founded in 1611 by James I, giving the possessor the hereditary right to be addressed as Sir. The second rank is that of knight, originally a military honour, but increasingly employed in a secular manner as a reward for service to the crown. Theoretically the number of baronets and knights can be established at different periods, but this is not the case with the third and fourth categories of gentry, esquires and gentlemen. The term ‘esquire’ originally had connotations with the battlefield. In the 14th cent. it was an honour which could be conferred by the crown, and by the 16th cent. it had a specific Office of Arms definition. Certain offices, including that of justice of the peace, automatically carried the appellation. Heraldic visitations, which began in 1530, were designed to oblige anyone claiming gentry status to prove their right. Increasingly through the 16th and 17th cents. the heralds found it difficult to enforce their authority, and numbers proliferated, both of esquires and particularly of the fourth gentry rank, that of gentleman. ‘Gentleman’ emerged as a separate title in connection with the statute of Additions of 1413 and, like esquire, was originally closely defined.

The inability of the heralds to limit the use of ‘esquire’ and ‘gentleman’, particularly after the Restoration when visitations gradually declined, made counting numbers problematic. In 1688 Gregory King estimated the number of gentlemen variously at figures ranging from 12,000 to 39,000, and when in a parliamentary debate during the 1690s one MP suggested a round figure of 100,000 gentlemen, another promptly doubled the estimate. Over time the issue was complicated by the idea of the gentleman, a social construct which could incorporate all members of the peerage and gentry.

The concept of the gentlemanly way of life was current in the 16th cent.—even the king, it was argued, could not make a gentleman—and became increasingly important by the 19th cent. A gentleman was a man who held a social position not purely dependent on the suffix ‘gent.’, but implying a style of living, usually without manual labour, and with connotations for the defence of honour.

In terms of wealth, contemporary social commentators such as King and Joseph Massie placed the gentry immediately below the peerage, while Daniel Defoe argued that £100 a year was the minimum income required for a man to be a gentleman. Certainly this was the qualification figure required for JPs and land tax commissioners, suggesting that it was widely recognized to be the bottom end of the group. However, such were the vicissitudes of English fortunes that the link with wealth was far more complex than King and Defoe appeared to recognize. Since there were no automatic channels of admission to the peerage, some very wealthy men remained socially as gentry simply because they had no title. This anomaly is clearest by 1883 when John Bateman's survey of landownership revealed that 186 out of 331 landowners with 10,000 acres or more were gentry in this sense. This was the case despite a considerable expansion of the peerage from the late 18th cent. onwards.

Informed estimates suggest that the gentry owned about 50 per cent of the landed wealth of the United Kingdom from the 17th cent. onwards. This position was maintained by the queue of businessmen, merchants, bankers, and industrialists to invest part of their fortune in landed estate. Few of these men attempted to climb to the top of the landownership tree, and many were happy with a villa and a few acres close by a town. Despite some controversy in recent years it is apparent that their numbers were considerable and helped to maintain the overall landholdings of the gentry until land began to lose its social caché in the agricultural depression of the late 19th cent.

The link with landownership has to be treated with care since contemporaries were by no means clear in their understanding. Increasingly a man was a gentleman depending on his style of life, his manners and bearing, and without reference to his ownership of landed acres. This has given rise among historians to the concept of the town or urban gentry, people who lived in towns but in a genteel manner, enjoying a reasonable income but lacking the landed acreage or the mansion associated with the country gentry. Many of these were members of professions—lawyers, doctors, and clergy—rising in status and in numbers during the 18th cent. As a result, the gentry as a social group has traditionally lacked cohesion, although today the term seems to apply colloquially to country dwellers with a substantial holding of land, as it did for Gregory King.

Quite separate from the gentry as a social group were a number of honours recognized and invented as carrying gentry titles. Men knighted for service to the state were dubbed ‘knight bachelor’, to distinguish them from the military service knighthoods. Originally the Order of the Bath was the most significant of these, exclusively limited to 35 members until the early 19th cent.

From 1814 the number of orders, and the membership of the orders, proliferated. In 1818 the Order of St Michael and St George was founded for natives of the Ionian Islands and Malta, and this began a wave of new orders, many of them connected with India. In 1843 there were 451 knights bachelor and 787 members of the orders, but these numbers swelled rapidly, and by 1915 there were over 4,000 members of orders. With the decline of the empire in the 20th cent. the position changed, but the number of orders—many of them of antiquated origin in Britain's role as an imperial nation—can still be read twice a year in the New Year and Queen's Birthday honours' lists.

John Beckett


Beckett, J. V. , The Aristocracy in England, 1660–1914 (Oxford, 1986);
Heal, F. , The Gentry in England and Wales, 1500–1700 (Basingstoke, 1994);
Mingay, G. E. , The Gentry: The Rise and Fall of a Ruling Class (1976).

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gentry A term applied to the stratum immediately below the aristocracy (see UPPER CLASS) in the social hierarchy of late medieval and early modern Britain. Untitled, the gentry were an intermediate grouping whose wealth lay in landholding, mineral rights, or rents from urban property. They were tied loosely to the nobility by marriage ties and similar lifestyles, and to the middle class by family ties and their interest in farming. At various times this rather diffuse stratum has been held to have played a decisive part in English history; for example, by sponsoring the agricultural revolution and the commercialization of farming during the seventeenth century, and (conversely) offering a ‘gentlemanly ideal’ to the sons of nineteenth-century, industrialists (a factor which is sometimes said to have contributed to Britain's relative lack of success in manufacturing).

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gen·try / ˈjentrē/ • n. (often the gentry) people of good social position, specifically (in the UK) the class of people next below the nobility in position and birth: a member of the landed gentry. ∎  people of a specified class or group: a New Orleans family of Creole gentry.

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gentry gentle birth XIV; people of gentle birth XVI. prob. alt. of †gentrice (XIII) — OF. genterise, var. of gentelise, f. gentil GENTLE, by assoc. with †gentlery (XIII).

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persons of the upper class collectively, 1585.