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....

Recruits to the Gentry

By analyzing those English families which had three or more members elected to the House of Commons, or which were given a peerage, and by looking at the source of their wealth, the American historian EA Wasson has drawn a portrait of the backgrounds from which, in different periods, new recruits to the gentry emerged.

Percentage of new entrants to the English elite by source of wealth 1386-1879 [1]

Origin of wealth

1386-1579

1580-1639

1640-1699

1700-1759

1760-1819

1820-1879

Land

 47

  51

32

32

19

 13

Office

   7

    7

 4

 2

 8

   0

Law

11

 15

22

17

26

 19

Business

27

 25

42

49

46

 68

 

[1] E.A. Wasson, ‘The penetration of new wealth into the English governing class from the middle ages to the First World War,’ Economic History Review, LI, 1 (1998), 36

The overall pattern, and the shifting centre of gravity, is quite clear: in the Middle Ages, the weight of new recruits came from the land. As time went by, land as the origin of new gentry wealth diminished. (Needless to say, land usually remained the destination of new gentry wealth.) Recruits who got rich from government office remained at a low but steady level throughout these centuries, as did the law at a higher level. Merchants and businessmen, although already providing a quarter of all recruits in the Middle Ages, steadily rose to over two-thirds by the 19th century.