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Gentleman

Some authorities would have us believe, that whoever studies the laws of the realm, receives a university education, professes the sciences, practises a liberal art, or, in short, can live without manual labor, is entitled to the epithet of gentleman; while others tell us that no means can manufacture a gentleman by blood, but that the king and the heralds can make a gentleman by creation whose descendants will be all gentlemen by blood; by the latter, gentlemen are classed into four divisions.

  1. Gentlemen by blood; those in fact whose gentility is derived from the honours of their ancestry; In this class must be included all who have barely failed in establishing their legal right to the title of esquire.
  2. Gentlemen of coat-armour, who are not gentlemen by blood; these are such as are created by grants of coats of arms from the heralds; and their issue in the third generation constitutes a gentleman by blood.
  3. Gentlemen created by conferring knighthood upon yeomen.
  4. Gentlemen created by conferring a spiritual dignity upon a yeoman.

But all these distinctions fail in giving any definite limits to the class, and by the mid-19th Century the acceptation of the word really appeared to designate those who did not live by manual labour, or follow a mean occupation ; but were unable to establish an indefeasible right to the title of esquire in the legal acceptation of that word; for it was hardly necessary to observe, that all who were considered gentlemen receive the addition of esquire to their names by the common courtesy of society.

The Country Gentlemen were a class which, in all essential characteristics, may be considered equal to the greater part of the nobility of Europe. Peers and Baronets, and Landed Gentlemen, entitled to hereditary Arms, form the nobility of the United Kingdom, some of old, and some of new blood. For it must be remembered that Nobility, a larger word than Peerage, is not exclusively confined to titled families; and that a well-born Gentleman without title has his own inherent nobility as truly as the Earl or Marquess, although he cannot pretend to the same rank or illustration. The constant and close alliances which take place between the titled and untitled aristocracy prove that this virtual equality is understood amongst ourselves. But it is necessary that to be prepared to maintain it in intercourse with foreigners, and not suffer the German Baron, the French Count, or the Italian Mrchese to consider as their only equals in this country the privileged few who bear similar titles to their own.

Burke's genealogical and heraldic history of the landed gentry of 1875 consisted of some four thousand pedigrees. When John Burke began publishing what later became known as Burke's Landed Gentry, it was entitled Genealogical And Heraldic History Of The Commoners Of Great Britain And Ireland, Enjoying Territorial Possessions Or High Official Rank; But Uninvested With Heritable Honours. A decade later "Gentry" replaced "Commoner" - indicating an important process of social redefinition and political consolidation. The boundary surrounding the nobility was being moved, and replaced by a larger aristocracy to which the Gentry belonged but the commoners did not.

It was asserted that among the families of the untitled gentry of Great Britain there were many more ancient than the majority of those which have been elevated to the peerage. But stronger language might, with equal truth, awert that the nobility of Great Britain was inadequately represented by the peerage; and that blood, not only most ancient, but most noble, flows in the veins of many who were not descended, either paternally or maternally, for many generations, from any ancestor that has borne a title. Within the last few centuries, the word nobility had been misapplied to signify exclusively those persons who had been raised to the peerage, and their immediate families. And the multitude of races of the ancient aristocracy which existed throughout England, without having ever been decorated with titles, together with the more remote cadets of the families of peers, had gradually lost the tradition of nobility, and, under the name of Commoners, had been confounded with those of recent origin, who, in later times, had risen to wealth.

This restriction of the epithet noble, according to an abuse of terms, to the members of the peerage mattered comparatively little to Englishmen, isolated, as they were for the most part been during later generations, from their continental neighbors. Because, in the various circles of English society, from the court down to the jnost provincial town, the claim to consideration of the ancient untitled gentry was acknowledged without question. And the constant marrying and giving in marriage between them and the peerage proved that, however erring the use of the terms Noble ind Commoner might have become, the truth was recognized, in fact, although it was not expressed in words, viz., that the well-born English gentleman was in fact a nobleman.

The law of England admits as evidence the declarations of members of a family, and here was that evidence most largely contributed. Compiled, as it avowedly is, from the communications of the chiefs and scions of families, from their private papers, traditions and genealogies, becomes of public value. With respect to the Arms attached to the memoirs of English and Scotch families, it is to be understood that those Arms are the heraldic bearings actually in use ; whether or not derived from proper authority. However, as to the general statements of pedigree and arms forwarded by members of the various families, their very publication is of importance, for those statements, being thus subjected to the public eye, challenge inquiry.

In former times, the untitled Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland were eligible to match with the daughters, sisters, and nieces of Kings ; they were admissible into the most illustrious Brotherhoods of Chivalry, gave Knights to the Roll of the Templars, were amongst the Founders of the most noble Order of the Garter, and have constantly represented their Sovereigns at Foreign Courts. It would, indeed, be difficult for either France or Germany to rival the claims to hereditary nobility of such untitled families.

The Families in the Landed Gentry are of varied origin, as would be expected. The Landed Gentry are that Class in Society which holds the next place to the privileged Order - the untitled Country Gentlemen - a class, though, be it remembered, not one degree below the other, in antiquity of descent, personal accomplishment, and national usefulness ; nay, the Chiefs of the Houses from which the Nobility spring, are generally to be found in this division of the Aristocracy, and for the simple reason, that the eldest son and heir being already provided for, the field of adventure belongs, almost exclusively, to the junior members of the family, who, thus forced upon the arena, achieve, by their prowess or their talents - the sword or the pen - fame, wealth, and eminence.

With a full purse and broad acres, the home-bred English squire was disposed to undervalue the high-sounding titles of the German Count, the French Vicomte, or the Italian Marchese. He was, at the same time, in ignorance of his own proper station, too ready to admit that, in point of birth and rank, they stood above him. Thus with "insular pride" and "insular blindness," he, at once, undervalued and overvalued those with whom he was brought into contact in continental circles.

The law of primogeniture has kept titles and great estates in the hands of a few ; and has established a barrier of separation between the eldest brauch of noble families and their cadets. While the Duke, Earl, or Baron had handed down his coronet, his rank and his political privileges, along with his wealth, from generation to generation in one favored line, the younger branches had gradually descended to the common level; and excepting the preservation of a tradition that they are of an ancient and good family, they differ in nothing from the multitudes around them.

In the United Kingdom, high-sounding titles and great political privileges, being in the hands of a few, the fortunate holders of these advantages have become surrounded with a peculiar halo, and have gradually appropriated to themselves, and have received from others, the exclusive distinction of nobility. So that it would probably greatly astonish the lord paramount of an English county to be told by one of his neighbouring squires, or even by a remote cadet of his own family, that they were quite as noble as himself; that he might, indeed, be their superior in rank and in illustration, but that his nobility was not more real or ancient than their own. High-sounding titles were multiplied ad infinitwn among the junior branches of the continental nobility, and in England were restricted to one in each family. It followed that very many of the plain untitled English gentry were, in blood, to say the least, upon an equality with German Counts and Italian Marquises.

A tendency existed in England, from time immemorial, on the part of men who have risen from humble rank to wealth, to consolidate that wealth on landed possessions, and to establish themselves among the territorial aristocracy of the country. This desire of acquiring an estate and founding a family did not exist in the same degree among those who had risen to wealth in the countries of the continent. There was scarcely a peer, however exulted his station, who had not some degree of family connection with very new men ; and not a few of the most influential statesnen who had done honour to England were but one remove from the manufactory or the counting-house, and that oftentimes through the intermediate step of a trader turned country squire.

In England, industry, good character, and ability may raise a poor man to a place among the gentry of the country, and in another generation, his family may become influential, not only from wealth, but from high alliances. It was the safeguard of English institutions that admission to the aristocracy was not exclusively barred against the ambition of a man of humble birth, and that a place there, when once gained, was jealously guarded by the right of primogeniture.

In the year 1500, the ancestors of many peers were very obscure country gentlemen, and only a few peers had ancestors in the direct male line who were landowners at the beginning of the 16th century:

  • Dukes - Norfolk, Somerset, Marlborough, Devonshire, Buckingham, Bedford, Rutland, Sutherland, Newcastle.
  • Marquises - Winchester, Cholmeley, Westminster, Townshend, Bach, Bristol, Northampton, Hastings.
  • Earl - Shrewsbury, Harewood, Fitzwilliam, Mexborough, Warwick, Lonsdale, Ferrers, Denbigh, Egmont, Stradbrook, Ashburnham, Chichester, Delawar, Portsmouth, Powis, Jersey, Grey, Chesterfield, Westmoreland, Orford, Derby, Stamford, Harborough, Abergaveny, Winchelsea, Waldegrave, Berkeley, Sefton, Powlett, Devon, Clarendon.
  • Viscounts - Hereford, Combermere, Falmouth, Hill, Gage.
  • Lords - Camoys, Hastings, Ribblesdale, Stourton, Wrottesley, Bagot, Forester, Wenlock, Byron, Middleton, Walsingham, Stafford, Monson, Wodehouse, Teynham, Leigh, Poltimore, Digby, Clifford, Vernon, Scarsdale, St. John.

The ancestors of these seventy-five peers were proprietors of land in the year 1500. This number, although considerable, forms out a small proportion of the peerage of the early 19th Century; and it also formed a small proportion of the existing landowners holding the rank of country gentlemen, whose ancestors were landed proprietors in the year 1500. Thus, an immense majority of the 19th Century peers were mere mushrooms when compared with a large proportion of our country gentry, who were much better entitled to be considered noble, because their families were established as a county aristocracy it a date when their lordships' ancestors did not possess one acre of land.



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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:07:37 ZULU