The Gentry is a history of England told through its families. This website contains family trees, a few maps and many images illustrating some of the background to the twelve families who carry the story of England in the book.

Read a sample chapter about Sir John Oglander, the 17th-century squire of Nunwell in the Isle of Wight, his life and family, his dreams and ambitions and the tragedies that struck him....

The Hymn of Gentry Contentment

The Second Epode, written by Horace in about 30 BC, became one of the central gentry texts, endlessly learned by gents at school, and quoted or referred to by them in the letters they wrote throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Harry Oxinden quotes it to his London friend Tom Peyton in August 1641 when trying to justify his staying down in Kent rather than coming up to Westminster and playing his part in the great and cataclysmic events then unfolding.

Horace’s poem is, apparently at least, drenched in a conservative vision of a purer time, one in which balance and continuity are set against the vapid and fervid life of city and court, where ‘real food’ is more sustaining than all the concoctions of urban confectioners and fishmongers, and where the squire can play his habitual and self-confirming, paternalist role looking after flock and family. The gents who quoted it self-congratulatorily almost never included the final lines, in which Horace provides the satirical bite: this is the fantasy of a money-lender, who having indulged it, then can’t resist the bright lights and goes back to the business he has always known.  

Here is the version translated by John Dryden in the 1680s, in which he substitutes the name of Morecraft, a Restoration money-lender, for Alfius, Horace’s Roman usurer.

‘How happy in his low degree,

How rich in humble poverty, is he,

Who leads a quiet country life;

Discharg'd of business, void of strife,

And from the griping scrivener free.

(Thus, ere the seeds of vice were sown,

Liv'd men in better ages born

Who plow'd with oxen of their own

Their small paternal field of corn.)

Nor trumpets summon him to war,

Nor drums disturb his morning sleep,

Nor knows he merchants gainful care,

Nor fears the dangers of the deep.

The clamours of contentious law,

And court and state, he wisely shuns,

Nor brib'd with hopes, nor dar'd with awe 

To servile salutations runs;

But either to the clasping vine

Does the supporting poplar wed,

Or with his pruning-hook disjoin

Unbearing branches from their head,

And grafts more happy in their stead:

Or, climbing to a hilly steep,

He views his herds in vales afar,

Or sheers his overburden'd sheep,

Or mead for cooling drink prepares,

Of virgin honey in the jars.

Or in the now declining year,

When bounteous Autumn rears his head,

He joys to pull the ripened pear,

And clustering grapes with purple spread.

The fairest of his fruit he serves,

Priapus, thy rewards: Sylvanus too his part deserves,

Whose care the fences guards.

Sometimes beneath an ancient oak

Or on the matted grass he lies:

No god of sleep he need invoke;

The stream that o’er the pebbles flies,

With gentle slumber crowns his eyes.

The wind that whistles through the sprays

Maintains the consord of the song;

And hidden birds, with native lays

The golden sleep prolong.

But when the blast of winter blows,

And hoary frost inverts the year,

Into the naked woods he goes

And seeks the tusky boar to rear,

With well-mouthed hounds and pointed spear;

Or spreads his subtle nets from sight

With twinkling glasses to betray

The larks that in the meshes light,

Or makes the fearful hare his prey.

Amidst his harmless easy joys

No anxious care invades his health,

Nor love his peace of mind destroys,

 Nor wicked avarice of wealth.

But if a chaste and pleasing wife,

To ease the business of his life,

Divides with him his household care,

Such as the Sabine Matrons were,

Such as the swift Apulian’s bride,

Sunburnt and swarthy though she be,

Will fire for winter nights provide,

And without noise will oversee

His children and his family,

And order all things till he come?

Sweaty and overlabored home;

If she in pens his flocks will fold,

And then produce her dairy store,

With wine to drive away the cold

And unbought dainties of the poor;

Not oysters of the Lucrine lake

My sober appetite would wish,

Nor turbot, or the foreign fish

That rolling tempests overtake,

And hither waft the costly dish.

Not heath-poult, or the rarer bird

Which Phasis or Ionia yields,

More pleasing morsels would afford

Than the fat olives of my fields;

Than chards or mallows for the pot,

That keep the loosened body sound,

Or than the lamb, that falls by lot

 To the just guardian of my ground.

Amidst these feasts of happy swains,

The jolly shepherd smiles to see

His flock returning from the plains;

The farmer is as pleased as he

To view his oxen, sweating smoke,

Bear on their necks the loosened yoke:

To look upon his menial crew

That sit around his cheerful hearth,

And bodies spent in toil renew

With wholesome food and country mirth.’

This Morecraft said within himself,

Resolved to leave the wicked town,

And live retired upon his own.

He called his money in;

But the prevailing love of pelf

Soon split him on the former shelf,

And put it out again.