Gentry: Definition & Meaning

by | Jun 29, 2024 | Aristocracy, Nobility, Noble Titles, Royal Titles

Gentry is an age-old word, dating back to the 1300s. Yet it’s still used quite regularly in modern language, evoking a vivid period in history or a certain level of sophistication. But what exactly does gentry mean?  

What Does Gentry Mean? 

In essence, gentry means a quality of nobility, whether that’s a direct connection to the official noble ranks of the ages, or a more general sense of honour, courage or altruism. 

The word stems from the Old French variations of gentelise, which was used to suggest an aristocratic heritage, or the qualities generally associated with the nobility. 

This explains the similarity between the words gentry and gentle – both represent a degree of sophistication, refinement and a reserved manner. For many centuries the noble classes, also called the aristocracy, were renowned for their disciplined and distinguished demeanour. 

While not every aristocrat might be described as gentle, the convention among the upper classes was to behave with an elevated sense of decorum, dignity and honour. In this light, the word gentry calls to mind the more noble aspects and attributes of the aristocrats of the ages.

Landed Gentry: Definition & Meaning

While the word gentry is still in common usage, it’s perhaps most often used as part of the term, Landed Gentry

Mr and Mrs Andrews (c. 1750) by Thomas Gainsborough, a couple from the landed gentry

A couple from the landed gentry – Thomas Gainsborough, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Historically, the Landed Gentry has referred to members of the aristocracy who owned considerable amounts of land or vast country estates. These were the noble landowners of history, those who lived in sumptuous stately homes and enjoyed acres of grounds or parkland in which to ride or hunt. 

These wealthy nobles would usually earn an income from their estates, often with farmlands and workers who cultivated the land and keep animals, both to feed the noble families and villagers, and also to provide an income stream to fund the lavish lifestyles that the aristocracy became known for. 

The Landed Gentry included a range of noble ranks. It was often used to refer to the grand aristocratic families – the dynasties of Dukes and Counts and Marquises who lived in palatial homes or ancient castles. Yet the term could also be used to describe families of nobles at the opposite end of the aristocratic spectrum – the more modest Lords and Ladies of the Manor.

These lower ranks of nobles may not have enjoyed the wealth and power of those higher up the aristocratic hierarchy, yet they often had charming manor houses and working farms, which would distinguish them from the ordinary peasant folk and working classes. 

Over time, the term Landed Gentry came to be used more often to describe the lower ranks of nobility, as well as country squires and gentlemen, i.e. those who enjoyed fortunes and lifestyles above that of the average worker, yet weren’t officially part of the aristocracy. 

In modern society, the class system and the distinct boundaries between the noble ranks are far less important than they were for the many centuries of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. So, the term Landed Gentry is used more loosely to describe those who own either substantial properties or tracts of land, or those with a noble family background. 

Gentry & Gentlemen

Although the word gentlemen is part of popular usage, its meaning has altered over the centuries. From its similarity to the word gentry, it’s easy to imagine that a gentleman may have some connection to the world of nobles and aristocrats, and historically this has been the case. The popular phrase ‘County Gent’ gives an indication of the typical affluence and property held by this class of individuals. 

Again, these esteemed landowners were regarded as a class above the peasant and workers, yet they tended to be more relatable to ordinary village folk. They were closer in rank to the working and middle class than they were to royalty and the highest echelons of the nobility. Nevertheless, these fortunate gentlemen still enjoyed the genteel and refined existence that the gentry and the nobility came to expect. 

Gentility & Refinement

Gentility is another variation on the theme of gentry, one that also suggests a noble family lineage or connection to aristocratic heritage. However, this term is often used in a broader sense to describe a person’s character, rather than their family history

Gentility means an air of refinement, a sense of being well-born, well-educated, or raised to behave with a certain degree of decorum. This type of personality is not restricted to those born into the noble classes – a sense of gentility can be found among people from all walks of life. 

Equally, being raised in a noble family is no guarantee of genteel sensibilities. While the aristocratic families of the ages have been largely regarded as a refined and sophisticated social group, these qualities are not the sole preserve of those with an official rank or title, nor are they a prerequisite for aristocratic status. 

What Is Gentrification? 

In its purest sense, gentrification means to ‘make something into the gentry’. It’s possible that this term has been used to describe the transformation of families or individuals into a more noble or aristocratic social standing – a practice that has been part of the nobility for hundreds of years. 

However, the most common definition of gentrification relates to housing and urban development. In the 1970s, town planners began using the term to describe a process of regeneration for inner-city housing. As the name suggests, the plan was to ‘gentrify’ the area, i.e. make it more upmarket and pleasant. The practice has been adopted by many urban zones that wish to improve living standards or elevate the properties to attract a more middle-class market. 

Throughout history, the use of the word gentry has been inextricably linked to the wealthy landowners and upper social classes. This connection has engendered the word with many of the qualities normally associated with the nobles and aristocrats of the ages. 

Over time this fascinating word has taken on a broader meaning that speaks more of the noble qualities that were the original differentiating factors between the aristocratic ranks and the rest of the population. As a result, gentrification and gentility are much more accessible in the modern era, serving as aspirational traits rather than details of land ownership.

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