Decline through survival: the lives of the younger sons of the English landed gentry 1700-1900

Mark Rothery, Henry French

Research output: Contribution to ConferencePaper


In many respects, the English ‘Gentry’ are an anomaly among European noble elites. Although they shared a similar life-style with the titled aristocracy, based on landed property, leisure, political and cultural patronage, they were ‘commoners’ rather than ‘nobles’. The system of strict ‘primogeniture’ helped to ensure that as a group the British nobility and gentry remained remarkably prosperous and powerful until the 1870s. However, In order for primogeniture to operate, and the integrity of the family estate to be preserved, younger children (particularly sons) were excluded from significant inheritance, and required to earn their own livings. While undertaking such occupations did not challenge their legal status, it forced younger sons into more regular and sustained contact with other social and ethnic groups. Such experiences were often accompanied by a painful process of social recognition and adjustment.
The paper will explore the hidden personal costs that supported the long-term status and success of the ‘lesser nobility’ in Britain in this period in two ways. Firstly we examine the structure of younger sons’ lives through an examination of patterns of fertility, marriage, education and occupations and secondly we explore the experiences of younger sons as reflected in their family correspondence. We have found significant anxieties amongst younger sons ‘in the world’ and we argue this was due to contradictions in their identities. Younger sons had to confront two aspects of their social identity identified by British sociologist Richard Jenkins, their internal and external identities. By confronting other social identities, values and behavioural codes, they had to consider the values that contributed to their external classification – that is, the status indicators that were seen by others, which included elements such as accent, gesture, dress, manners, education, cultural capital and social connections. At the same time, exposure to behavioural ‘others’ also forced them to consider their own internal identification – that is, the values, behavioural codes and social groups with which they identified in relation to ‘others’. The contradictions between their inherited and their adult identities produced the deeply held and persistent anxieties in terms of social status and masculinities that we found in the correspondence.
These anxieties were remarkably persistent as long as the power of the gentry was maintained and they were expressed by our sample for much of our period. However, such contradictions seem to have been resolved more readily after the ‘demographic transition’ of the mid-nineteenth century, and as the power of the gentry declined. We have found evidence of a more positive outlook for many younger sons as the tension between the individual and the social group was reversed. Now the eldest son often envied the opportunities available to his younger siblings and their ability to avoid the dynastic, territorial and managerial responsibilities of a landed estate.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 19 Sep 2014
EventProcesses of Social Decline Among the European Nobility - Tuebingen, Germany
Duration: 19 Sep 2014 → …


ConferenceProcesses of Social Decline Among the European Nobility
Period19/09/14 → …


Dive into the research topics of 'Decline through survival: the lives of the younger sons of the English landed gentry 1700-1900'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this