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Landed gentry is a traditional Britishmarker social class consisting of "gentlemen" in the original sense; that is, those who owned land in the form of country estates to such an extent that they were not required to actively work, except in an administrative capacity on their own lands. The estates were often (but not always) made up of tenanted farms, in which case the gentleman could live entirely off rent income.

The designation originally referred exclusively to commoners in such a position, but usage became more fluid over time; by the late 19th century, it was commonly applied to noble such as the Duke of Westminster who lived in such a manner. The famous book series Burke's Landed Gentry recorded the members of this class. The landed gentry ranked approximately between the bourgeois middle class and the aristocracy in terms of social prestige and wealth. Successful members of the bourgeois frequently aspired to (and often did) use their accumulated wealth to establish themselves as landed gentry.

Origin of the term

In Great Britainmarker and Irelandmarker, and especially in Englandmarker, gentry was a term used from the late 16th century onwards. The phrase landed gentry referred in particular to the untitled members of the landowning upper class.

During this period, the most stable and respected form of wealth was land, and great prestige and political qualifications were attached to landownership. Owning land was for a long time a prerequisite for suffrage; thus, the Parliament was largely in the hands of the landowners.


The primary meaning of "landed gentry" encompassed those members of the landowning classes who were not members of the peerage. It was an informal designation: one belonged to the landed gentry if other members of the class accepted that one did so. Up until at least the early 19th century, a newly rich man who wished his family to join the gentry (and they nearly all did so wish), was expected not only to buy a country house and estate, but also to sever all financial ties with the business which had made him wealthy in order to cleanse his family of the "taint of trade". However, during the 19th century, as the new rich of the Industrial Revolution became more and more numerous and politically powerful, this expectation was gradually relaxed.

Members of the landed gentry were upper class (not middle class), and, at the time, this was a highly desirable status. Particular prestige was attached to those who had inherited landed estates over a number of generations. These were often described as being from "old" families.

The agricultural sector's middle class, on the other hand, comprised the larger tenant farmers, who rented land from the landowners and employed agricultural labourers to do the manual work, and yeoman farmers. A "yeoman" was at one time defined as "a person qualified by possessing free land of 40/- annual [feudal] value, and who can serve on juries and vote for a Knight of the Shire. He is sometimes described as a small landowner, a farmer of the middle classes." Anthony Richard Wagner, Richmond Herald, wrote that "a Yeoman would not normally have less than 100 acres" and in social status is one step down from the gentry, but above, say, a husbandman. So while yeoman farmers owned enough land to support a comfortable lifestyle, they nevertheless farmed it themselves, and were excluded from the "landed gentry" because working for a living, or being "in trade" as it was termed, other than following a few "honourable" professions connected with the upper class men's capacity as the governing elite of the country (the clergy of the established church, the armed forces, the diplomatic and civil services, the bar, and the judiciary), was considered demeaning by the upper classes, particularly by the 19th century, when the earlier mercantile endeavours of younger sons were increasingly discontinued.

Burke's Landed Gentry

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the names and families of those with titles (specifically peers and baronets, less often including those with the non-hereditary title of knight) were often listed in books or manuals known as "Peerages", "Baronetages", or combinations of these categories, such as the "Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage, and Companionage". As well as listing genealogical information, these books often also included details of a given family right to a coat of arms. Jane Austen, who was herself a member of the gentry, shrewdly summarised the appeal of these works, which was particularly strong for those included in them, in the opening words of her novel Persuasion (1818):

"Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed."

In the 1830s, one peerage publisher, John Burke, hit on the idea of expanding his market and his readership by publishing a similar volume for people without titles, which was called A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland, enjoying territorial possessions or high official rank, abbreviated as Burke's Commoners. This was published in four volumes 1833–1838.

Typical entry in Burke's Landed Gentry (from Volume 2 of the 1898 edition).
The expression Commoners was quickly replaced by the more flattering description Landed Gentry in a new edition of 1837–1838 which was entitled A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry; or, Commons of Great Britain and Ireland or Burke's Landed Gentry for short.

Burke's Landed Gentry continued to appear at regular intervals throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, driven, in the 19th century, principally by the energy and readable style of the founder's son and successor as editor, Sir John Bernard Burke (who generally favoured the romantic and picturesque in genealogy over the mundane, and of strictly correct).

A review of the 1952 edition in Time magazine (10 December 1951) noted:

"Landed Gentry used to limit itself to owners of domains that could properly be called "stately" (i.e., more than 500 acres). Now it has lowered the property qualification to for all British families whose pedigrees have been "notable" for three generations.

Even so, almost half of the 5,000 families listed in the new volume are in there because their forefathers were: they themselves have no land left. Their estates are mere street addresses, like that of the Molineux-Montgomeries, formerly of Garboldisham Old Hall, now of No. 14 Malton Avenue, Haworth."

The last three-volume edition of Burke's Landed Gentry was published between 1965–1972. A new series, under new owners, was begun in 2001 on a regional plan, starting with Burke's Landed Gentry; The Kingdom in Scotland. However, these volumes no longer limit themselves to people with any connection, ancestral or otherwise, with land at all, and they contain much less information, particularly on family history, than the 19th and 20th century editions.

The popularity of Burke's Landed Gentry gave currency to the expression Landed Gentry as a description of the untitled upper classes in England (although the book included families, also, in Wales and Scotland and Ireland, where, however, social structures were rather different). An alternate name was employed by the publishers of a similar, though less genealogical, series, known as Walford's County Families, wherein the term county family referred more or less to the same people Burke covered by the term, landed gentry. They were also known as the upper ten thousand.

Families were arranged in alphabetical order by surname, and each family article was headed with the surname and the name of their landed property, e.g. "Capron of Southwickmarker Hall". There was then a paragraph on the owner of the property, with his coat of arms illustrated, and all his children and remoter male-line descendants also listed, each with full names and details of birth, marriage, death, and any matters tending to enhance their social prestige, such as public school and university education, military rank and regiment, Church of England cures held, and other honours and socially approved involvements. Cross references were included to other families in Burke's Landed Gentry or in Burke's Peerage and Baronetage: thus encouraging a form of browsing through connexions. Professional details were not usually mentioned unless they conferred some social status, such as those of clergymen, UK and colonial officials, judges and barristers.

After the section dealing with the current owner of the property, there usually appeared a section entitled Lineage which listed, not only ancestors of the owner, but (so far as known) every male line descendant of those ancestors, thus including many people in the ranks of the "Landed Gentry" families who had never owned an acre in their lives but who might share in the status of their eponymous kin as connected, however remotely to the landed gentry or to a county family.

Contemporary status

A prolonged agricultural depression in Britain at the end of the 19th century, together with the introduction in the early 20th century of increasingly heavy levels of taxation on inherited wealth, put an end to agricultural land as the primary source of wealth for the English upper classes. Many estates were sold or broken up, and this trend was accelerated by the introduction of protection for agricultural tenancies, encouraging outright sales, from the mid-20th century.

So devastating was the effect of this on the ranks formerly identified as being of the landed gentry that Burke's Landed Gentry began, in the 20th century, to include families historically in this category who had ceased to own their ancestral lands. The focus of those who remained in this beleaguered class shifted from the lands or estates themselves, to the stately home or "seat" which was in many cases retained without the surrounding lands. Many of these buildings were purchased for the nation and preserved as monuments to the lifestyles of their former owners (who sometimes remained in part of the house as lessees or tenants) by the National Trust, which accelerated its country house acquisition programme during and after the Second World War (it had originally concentrated on open landscapes rather than buildings). Those who retained their property usually had to supplement their incomes from elsewhere than the land, sometimes by opening their properties to the public.

In the 21st century, the term "landed gentry" is still used to some degree, as the landowning class still exists in a diminished form, but it increasingly refers more to historic than to current landed wealth or property in a family. Moreover, the respect which was once automatically given to members of this class by most British people has almost completely dissipated as its wealth, political power and social influence has declined, and other social figures such as celebrities have grown to take their place in the public's interest.


  1. See The Concise Oxford Dictionary, edited by H.W. & F.G.Fowler, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1972 reprint, p. 1516; note the definition does not apply to 1972, but to an earlier time.
  2. English Genealogy, Oxford, 1960, pps: 125-130.
  3. [1]

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