Throughout the history of social evolution, there are many references to a class known as the Landed Gentry. They appear in folk songs and fairy tales. They provide the plotlines and imposing mansions of Victorian novels. And in modern times, they grace our sumptuous costume dramas in films and on TV.
But who was the Landed Gentry? Why were they so prominent in the history books? And are they still around today?
Here are the answers to these and a few more common questions about this intriguing social group.
Who was the original Landed Gentry?
Landed in this sense refers to the ownership of land, usually in the form of hamlets or country estates. These very often provided a substantial income to the landowners, usually through tenant farms or lucrative rights to fishing, shooting or hunting.
The income from their land supported their gentrification, in that they didn't need to toil in manual labour, enjoying passive wealth from their assets and estates.
Thomas Gainsborough, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Why were they notable in history?
The Landed Gentry of the past may well have played a similar role to our modern celebrities. Unlike the royalty or nobility of their day, they had no official roles in government. However, they often enjoyed great wealth and lavish lifestyles that would have captured the imagination of the ordinary folk within the surrounding towns and villages.
With limited communication between regions, the local Landed Gentry would have been regarded as the medieval equivalent of the 'rich and famous', though they were often revered by the peasants with more respect and admiration than many modern celebrities enjoy, especially if they were known for their charitable acts and altruism.
In this way, the lives, homes, dramas and personalities of the Landed Gentry would have been the stuff of local gossip and fascination, their stories notable and interesting enough to inspire the writers and historians of their day.
Is the Landed Gentry the same as the aristocracy?
In the earliest times of social systems, gentry may have been used interchangeably with terms such as nobility and aristocracy. The word gentry stems from the words gentrice or gentil, both of which denoted a feature of being high-born, noble, of good family.
So originally, gentry inferred similar characteristics as aristocracy which stems from the Latin word aristos, meaning best, noble, brave, and most virtuous.
However, as the systems of nobility developed more strict classifications during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Landed Gentry were more often those families who possessed substantial estates (land), but who had no official power to rule, unlike the titled nobility and the aristocrats, eg Dukes, Earls, Viscounts etc...
Although gentry may sound similar to the rank of gentlemen, the members of the Landed Gentry were regarded as more socially elevated than the average educated gents. To compare their standing with today's social hierarchy, the Landed Gentry may be viewed as the wealthy upper class, but ranking below those with noble heritage or governmental power, such as royals, hereditary aristocrats or the Peers of the Realm.
Beyond the Middle Ages, the Landed Gentry may no longer have been the social equivalent of the nobility or the aristocracy, but their country estates may well have rivalled those of their superior social groups. Quite often they possessed lands, assets and homes far greater than their blue-blooded associates and titled fellows.
Maxwell Hamilton from Greater London, England United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
As the Nouveau Riche began to emerge in the later centuries - ie those with vast fortunes gleaned from industry and trade, as opposed to hereditary wealth or generational - the Landed Gentry often became much richer than many noble families, particularly as the fortunes of some aristocrats began to wane over time.
Given the social intermingling of classes in the higher social order, many families classed as the Landed Gentry moved in the same circles as the nobility and aristocracy. Not surprisingly, marriages between the classes were not uncommon, and while these may have blurred the boundaries and provenance of future generations, they also tended to be advantageous to both parties in terms of wealth, influence and social standing.
How do you join the Landed Gentry?
Historically, membership of the Landed Gentry was primarily an accident of birth - you had to be born into a family that was classed at this level. It was also possible to marry into the ranks of the Landed Gentry, but much like all of the higher social orders, 'marrying beneath one's station' was often frowned upon, and unions were often strategic rather than driven by the more romantic notion of the love match.
Any lover of historical fiction will also know that on occasion, a child from the lower classes would be adopted into the higher rank family, sometimes purely for altruistic reasons, and other times to raise illegitimate offspring in order to provide an heir.
In modern times, the simplest way to join the ranks of the Landed Gentry is to purchase country estates of historic significance. Though this route may not provide the heritage and history of the Landed Gentry of old, it may still offer great advantages in terms of influence and powerful connections.
Does the Landed Gentry still exist?
The modern Landed Gentry does still exist in its literal sense, in that there are still wealthy landowners who run country estates while possessing no noble or aristocratic claim or provenance.
The role of these families within society, however, is much less significant than in previous times. While any family claims to the Landed Gentry of old may provide a passing interest in some circles, their social standing is not the position of power and rank that it once was.
Though their status may not have endured to modern times, the Landed Gentry has held a unique place in the history of social classes, bridging the worlds of the country peasants and the aristocratic elite. It's little wonder that this rarified group has intrigued and inspired the keepers of history over the centuries.
If learning about the landed gentry has made you curious about acquiring a prestigious Noble Title of your own get in touch using the enquiry form in the sidebar or you can contact our Geneva office directly between 10.00-19.00, Monday to Friday on +41 225 181 360.