Over the last 600 years, the gentry have been at the heart of English history. Gentry families were the bedrock of the country, owning most of it, governing much of it. This website is intended to work as an annexe to THE GENTRY: STORIES OF THE ENGLISH, a book Adam Nicolson has written about the history of the gentry, providing further links, details and many images of the families his book describes.
© 2011. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence
They were the middle zone of English society and defined many of its core values. Land was at the heart of their story but it was not everything; grace, enterprise and chivalry were crucial to their idea of themselves.
The gentry occupied a richly ambivalent position, as members of the governing class but with no visible boundary between them and the people immediately below them, socially and economically. They were continuous with both the yeomen – independent, freeholding farmers – and the merchants and traders of the late medieval cities.
This deep structure meant that the English gentry were open at both ends: sharing a culture of courtesy, chivalry and knightliness with the nobility above them; entirely accessible to the English world of the yeomen and the growing urban middle class below them. Both the upper and lower boundaries of the gentry were, as the modern historians Felicity Heal and Clive Holmes have said, ‘permeable membranes’. And it was that openness which defined English society.