Clergy in the Regency

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Clergy and the Church of England were of paramount importance to characters in our time period. They appear in many period novels, including Jane Austen's Emma with Mr. Elton, Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, and even the hero of Northanger Abbey, Mr. Tilney. But what exactly did the various ranks of Anglican clergymen do in this period? How should characters address them? Who would invite them to their parties? This article seeks to answer those questions and more.

Key Terms

The following are several key terms that come up through this article.

  • Benefice: A tenured ecclesiastical appointment as rector or vicar, providing a livelihood from tithes. In most country churches, the principal landowner had the right to offer or sell these livings.[1]

Addressing the Clergy

Archbishops are addressed in speech as Your Grace and in writing as Your Grace. On an envelope, the letter would be addressed to The Most Reverend Archbishop Surname, Archbishop of Place. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury during our period, Charles Manners-Sutton, would receive letters as The Most Reverend Archbishop Manners-Sutton, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Bishops are addressed in speech as Bishop Surname and in writing as Bishop Surname. On an envelope, the letter would be addressed to The Right Reverend Surname, Bishop of Place. For example, the Bishop of London during our period, John Randolph, would receive letters as The Right Reverend Randolph, Bishop of London.

Deans are addressed in speech as either Mr. Dean or Dean Surname. In writing, he is referred to as Mr. Dean or Very Reverend and Dear Sir (in a salutation). On an envelope, the letter would be addressed to The Very Reverend I.N. Surname, Dean of Place. For example, the Dean of Westminster during our period, William Vincent, would receive letters as The Very Reverend W. Vincent, Dean of Westminster and would be addressed in speech as Mr. Dean or Dean Vincent.

In some instances, a dean is also a rector of a cathedral. In that case, he would receive letters as The Very Reverend I.N. Surname, Dean and Rector, Cathedral. For example, the Dean of St. Paul's during our period, George Pretyman Tomline, would receive letters addressed to The Very Reverend G. Pretyman Tomline, Dean and Rector, St. Paul's Cathedral.

Archdeacons are addressed in speech as Mr. Archdeacon and in writing as Archdeacon Surname or Mr. Archdeacon. On an envelope, the letter would be addressed to The Venerable I.N. Surname, Archdeacon of Place. For example, the Archdeacon of London during our period, William Bingham, would receive letters as The Venerable W. Bingham, Archdeacon of London and would be addressed in speech as Mr. Archdeacon. When writing about him, he would be called Archdeacon Bingham or Mr. Bingham.

Priests, including curates, vicars, and rectors, which will make up the majority of ecclesiastical characters you will encounter in the game, are addressed in speech as Mr. Surname. In a letter, he is addressed as Mr. Surname and saluted as Dear Sir or Dear Mr. Surname. On an envelope, he would receive letters as The Reverend I.N. Surname. For example, Emily's character Robert Shaw would be addressed as Mr. Shaw and receive letters as The Reverend R. Shaw.

A priest is never referred to in speech or addressed as Reverend. It is an adjective, not a title. For example, Perdita Gardiner might say, "What a wonderful sermon, Mr. Shaw! but never "What a wonderful sermon, Reverend!" If she were to introduce him to her sister-in-law, she might say, "Caroline, I want to introduce to you our new vicar, Mr. Shaw." She would never say, "Caroline, I want to introduce to you our new vicar, Reverend Shaw."

Clergymen's wives, no matter his rank, are addressed as Mrs. Surname. If a clergyman's wife was born with a courtesy title, she keeps it, just as noble wives of unordained, untitled men do. For example, if Robert Shaw's wife had been born Lady Mary Jones, she would be Lady Mary Shaw.

Quote Landowners often had the legal right (the advowson) to give, to keep in the family or to sell vacant appointments (livings) to those churches attached to their estates.

Quote A curate is an unbeneficed cleric, usually a young man just recently ordained, who assisted or sometimes performed the duties of a clergyman

Quote The glebe was an area of land donated to the church for the benefit of the incumbent.

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In General - Duties

Quote Apart from carrying out the necessary church services, the duties of parish clergy included dispensing charity in the form of money, food and clothes, finding employment for their parishioners and supervising the care of the poor.

Quote Clergy took collections of money for the poor at the church doors after Communion services and distributed little sums to queues of people waiting outside.

Quote Visiting the sick was expected and attendance at the formal parish meeting held at Eastertime and irregular intervals during the rest of the year.

Quote A visitation was a meeting or gathering connected to a regular visit by a bishop or archbishop to examine the affairs of the parish.

Quote Beyond his church responsibilities, the rector played an active part in the social life of the neighborhood and in its civil administration, carrying out such duties as the registration of births, deaths and marriages, the conduct of the Poor Law, reporting on the manpower available for wartime service in the volunteers, sitting on the bench of magistrates and so on.

Personal Background

Quote Ordination was not possible before the age of 23.

Quote Twenty four years was the age required in order to be ordained into the Anglican priesthood.

Quote Under the Clergy Ordination Act of 1801, a man must be 24 years old before he could be ordained to the Anglican priesthood or hold a living in the Church of England.

Quote At the university, prospective clergy followed the same syllabus as all other undergraduates.

Quote Graduates of Oxford monopolized the parishes of the southern counties.

Quote In the first half of the century, the university population more than doubled and though the proportion taking orders may have declined, it still accounted for the great bulk of Oxford and still more of Cambridge graduates.

Quote The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were the training ground for clergy of the Church of England.

Quote Some livings were endowed by public schools and Oxford or Cambridge universities. The only qualification required of a minister was a degree from one of these two universities.

Quote After attending one of the universities, a man was ordained as a deacon at age 23, assisting an ordined priest, then fully ordained at 24, allowing him to administer sacraments.

Quote Technically, a clergyman could not be in charge of a parish until he had served a suitable length of time as an assistant. In practice, this rule was circumvented if the person was lucky to get a benefice straightaway.

Quote Clergy, it was argued, should be married men with a healthy respect for & knowledge of domestic life. The practice of celibate priests taking confessions from married women was seen as particularly shocking.

Quote Clergymen might have to wait ten to twenty years for a good living to become vacant, so marriage for them was postponed until their thirties and forties.

Quote The Anglican clergy increasingly came from the landed gentry and pursued that class's way of life.

Quote The surest way of obtaining a benefice was to be related to the bestower.

Quote The living of a parish was given by the owner of an estate, so it was not surprising for second sons to choose the church as a profession and take up the living on their father's estate.

Quote As with many of the professions, patronage was the key to obtaining a 'living'. There were a number of routes to securing a benefice, and all depended on who you knew. If you were related to a bishop or dean, you might walk straight into one after being ordained. Others might have to wait ten or twenty years - it was commonly referred to as 'the gamble'.

Personality & Disposition

Quote [T]he study of astronomy was recommended by archdeacons to the clergy as a suitable occupation for their leisure hours.

Quote Many on the Evangelical wing of the church would have considered that clergymen had no business indulging in activities such as dancing. The stricter among this group disapproved of dancing even for the laity.

Quote The more puritanical figures argued that music was not compatible with the profession of a clergyman, though their opinion was far from the dominant one at the time.

Quote Though many parsons in Jane Austen's environment might have been devoted to their flock, the church did have something of a reputation for idleness. Even vicars who started out with every intention of carrying out their duties conscientiously might be found guilty of self-indulgence.

Quote Though conscientious parish priests undoubtedly existed, it was possible for a clergyman to do very little work or even none if he employed a curate.

Quote No particular sense of vocation was required of candidates seeking ordination, nor were they encouraged when priested to regard themselves as having been endowed with personal qualities of an exceptional nature. They were simply qualified to administer the sacraments of the Church, which in themselves a sufficient means of salvation.

Quote The clergy did not require a special spiritual calling though there were exceptions, especially among Methodists and Evangelicals.

In General - Income

Quote Vicars chose their own curates and paid for them out of their own funds.

Quote A vicar could retire only if he could afford to employ a curate to take charge of a parish.

Quote The vicar pocketed the bulk of the living which could equal £100 or more.

Quote £100 was the income of the shabbily genteel, a lifestyle of turned cuffs, darned stockings and retiring to bed early to avoid burning a candle.

Quote The income of a rural clergyman was on average £120 a year.

Quote No fixed salaries for the clergy. Income had to be made up from several sources, mainly from tithes, farming glebe lands and surplice fees.

Quote Almost all the ordained were graduates of the ancient universities and the great majority of them comparatively or truly poor.

Quote Without a patron, many a clergyman was doomed to spend his life as a poorly paid curate or schoolmaster, or riding around from parish to parish taking occasional services for the incumbents.

Quote Clergymen who had multiple benefices on average had 4-5 livings.

Quote The rector of a parish was entitled to all the income deriving from tithes paid by his parishioners (levied on those occupying manorial land, according to their income), which made his financial position more favorable than that of other clergymen.

Quote Vicars, who served technically as the rector's substitute, relied chiefly on their basic stipend, which in many cases in this period was as little as £50 per annum. Hence the need for them to seek additional income through teaching or cultivating the glebe land.

Quote A rector received the 'greater' tithes (raised from parishioners working arable lands) directly as part of his remuneration for the freehold, whereas a vicar received only a set salary from the diocese in addition to 'lesser tithes (raised chiefly from day laborers).

Quote During a discussion in Parliament in 1802, it was ascertained that about 1,000 of the benefices in England and Wales were worth less than £100 annually, while another 3,000 or so ranged between £100-150.

Quote The usual business plan was to accumulate livings, and live off the proceeds from the land (the glebe) that came with the parsonage.

Quote In the prosperous south, ownership of the glebe together with the tithes, produced an income that rose in step with the rising value of both of the land and its produce, a boom that lasted until 1814.

Social Standing

Quote Some members of the gentry class continued to regard a career in the church as inferior to one in the armed forces or the law.

Quote The steadiest profession to choose was the church. As a rector in a rural parish you would be a respected member of society. You did not need to be especially devout to be ordained as a minister of the Church of England. If you had enough money and connections behind you, you would receive a large house and a job for life.

Quote Clergyman viewed merely as a suitable profession for an educated gentleman. Main problem was to find a parish rich enough for him to live like any other country landowner.

Quote During the second half of the 18th century, the traditional 'learned professions', the church, law and medicine, took on a new and distinctive character as the 'liberal professions' those befitting a gentleman. Together with the army and navy, known as professions of arms, they came to be regarded as suitable occupations, both socially and financially, for the sons of gentlemen, younger sons in particular.

Quote There were a body of clergymen, calculated in 1805 to number up to 45% of those ordained, who never found a church living and were forced into dead-end employment as penurious curates or who turned to teaching or some other occupation outside the church.

Quote As benefices increased in value, gentry began thinking it worthwhile to put their sons in them. Parents who didn't want their sons to become idle spendthrifts was assured of a position in landed society without incurring the expense of buying an estate.

Quote A rector was a well respected member of society and in rural communities, his station was second only to the wealthy landowners.


Quote Both clergy and gentry were predominantly Tory.

Quote 1801: Legislation known as the Horne Tooke Act disqualifies Anglican clergymen from sitting in the House of Commons.

Quote By Austen's day, clergymen of all sects engaged in party politics; the patronage systems in church and state were intertwined.


Quote Clerical discipline; improvement, moral and behaviorial; the priest as gospel preacher; the 'duties' of the parish and their failure in the city; the challenge of the Wesleyans and 'New Reformation' - these were the burning issues for the serious in 1812-13.

Quote Clerical absenteeism was so prevalent that many clergy would not perceive any need to explain or justify their absence.

Quote By 1814, residency of the clergy of the Established Church was now widely understood to be essential if the growing influence of Methodism, strongest in country villages and towns, were to be countered.

Quote Many Anglican ministers held two or more livings, but only visited them infrequently. With the influence of the Evangelical movement, such infrequent attendance to the needs of a parish was felt to be a dereliction of duty and residency in the parish came to be required.

Quote The value of the living was advertised in the newspapers along with the life expectancy of the existing incumbent.

Quote It was illegal to sell a living after the incumbent's death but legal to sell, as a promise, before that event. The value of a living was often advertised in the newspaper with remarks on age and health of the present incumbent.

Quote The cathedrals, universities and the Crown all had livings to dispose of, but the great majority were the gift of private landowners.

Quote Over 7,000 livings out of 11,342 in England and Wales were gifts to be distributed by aristocrats and gentry.

Quote [M]ost great families had at least one or two livings at their disposal.

Quote Many aristocratic ladies had a considerable amount of patronage at their disposal. Women, as well as men, could present clergymen to livings.

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Depending on what sort of character you had in mind...

Curates - Who They Were & What They Did

Quote One stage on the path to becoming a rector was securing a position as a curate, the lowliest clergyman, who carried out the day-to-day duties required in a church in the absence of the rector, who might not himself reside in the parish, or otherwise was unwilling to do the work.

Quote A curate is an unbeneficed cleric, usually a young man just recently ordained, who assisted or sometimes performed the duties of a clergyman

Quote A curate is a priest hired to administer sacraments in a parish in the absence of the rector or vicar.

Quote Most candidates found that even a curacy was not easy to obtain, for the clerical profession had become very overcrowded by the last decades of the 18th century.

Quote The task of a curate was to assist a rector or vicar in his duties - or indeed carry them out for him.

Quote With the permission of his bishop (not difficult to obtain), a parson could at any time resign his duties to a curate: many did so from the beginning of their incumbency whilst others remained at the helm into a frail old age.

Curates - What They Earned

Quote Curates were proverbially underpaid as priests without a living of their own, but hired to fulfill the duties of the absent rector or vicar, who, having multiple livings (and their incomes), was not in residence.

Quote Curates were notoriously poorly paid in comparison with the vicars and rectors who often possessed more than one living.

Quote A curate was paid only a salary, usually very small and was not entitled to any of the parish tithes.

Quote On the whole, curates in the 1790s were lucky to receive more than £35 a year.

Quote Poor curates, clerks in government offices and moderately prosperous tradesmen earned £100 a year.

Quote £100 a year would be the minimum on which a servant could be afforded.

Quote The incomes of the middling kind in London rose to between £80 to £100 in the (18th) century's last quarter.

Quote A curate's income was about £50 and this was not enough to afford a maid.

Quote In parishes where the nominal incumbent was non-resident, the curate who took his place was expected to live on £50 per year or even less.

Quote A curate could not retire unless he had private means for there were no pensions.

Quote Bishops could earn as much as £7,000 per annum but curates, who did all the work in the parish, earned barely more than £50 per annum.

Quote When the incumbent died, there was no guarantee that the successor would continue to employ the curate.

Curates - Where They Lived

Quote Having appointed a curate, a parson could either give up the parsonage house to the curate or continue to live in it himeself and leave the curate to find alternative accommodation anywhere within reach of the church.

Quote The church took no corporate responsibility for providing adequate accommodation for the clergy, this being generally assumed to be the responsibility of patrons.

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Vicar See http://en.wikipedia....8Anglicanism%29

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Rector/Parsons - Who They Were

Quote [I]n the Anglican tradition in which a parson is the incumbent of a parochial benefice: a parish priest or a rector; in this sense a parson can be contrasted with a vicar.

Parsons - Income A living of £300-400 a year with a decent parsonage house offering free accommodation, and placed a clergyman on a level with the lesser gentry.

Quote [M]ost historians agree that from £200 - £300 per annum secured a place within the middle class for an average family.

Parsons - Where They Lived

Quote A commodious and handsome (parsonage) house, it was thought, would be the more likely to attract an incumbent of education and breeding, fit to dine at his benefactor's table and assist him in his various duties as employer, counselor and often magistrate in the locality.

Quote The church took no corporate responsibility for providing adequate accommodation for the clergy, this being generally assumed to be the responsibility of patrons.

  1. Kelly, Pauline E. Jane Austen Dictionary. Ink Well, 2009.