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.
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).
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.
persons of the upper class collectively, 1585.