In Great Britain and Ireland, and especially in England, gentry was a term used from the late 16th century onwards to refer to people of good social standing. The phrase landed gentry, referred in particular to the less wealthy members of the landowning upper class.
During this period, the most stable and respected form of wealth was landownership. The government of the country was largely in the hands of the "landowners". This term referred to those who owned sufficient land to be able to live on the proceeds of letting their property to tenants, rather than farming it personally. Landowners varied enormously in wealth and several overlapping terms were used to refer to them.
Unlike in many countries on Continental Europe, where the term "nobility" encompassed all members of the landowning classes, including the whole of each landowner's family, and even members of noble families which had long lost their land (in some cases as much as ten percent of the population had noble status, and enjoyed the many political, fiscal and legal privileges it often conferred), in Britain it was restricted to those with peerage titles – just a few hundred men and a handful of women, as peerages were more sparingly distributed by British monarchs than by many others, and they could usually only be inherited by an eldest son.
The word "aristocracy" had a slightly wider meaning in Britain, generally encompassing peers and their families, and also the richest and longest established untitled landowning families. Often the aristocracy was seen as distinct from the gentry: aristocrats often lived for part of the year in London, played a role in national politics, or served as courtiers. By contrast the vast majority of the gentry lived in the country all year round. However sometimes "aristocracy" was used to refer to the landowning class as a whole.
Thus the primary meaning of "landed gentry" encompassed those members the landowning classes who were not nobles or aristocrats. It was an informal designation: one belonged to the landed gentry if other members of it accepted that one did so. Up until at least the early 19th century a newly rich man who wished his family to join the gentry (and they nearly all did so wish), was required not only to buy a country estate, but also to sever all financial ties with the business which had made him wealthy in order to cleanse his family of the "taint of trade". However during the 19th century, as the new rich of the Industrial Revolution became more and more numerous and politically powerful, this requirement was gradually relaxed.
Members of the landed gentry were upper class, not middle class, and at the time this was a highly desirable status. Particular prestige attached to those who had inherited landed estates over a number of generations. These were often described as being from "old" families – although, of course, no family is older than any other. The agricultural sector's middle class was comprised of the larger tenant farmers, who rented land from the landowners and employed agricultural labourers to do the manual work, and yeoman farmers. Yeoman farmers owned enough land to support a comfortable lifestyle, but they farmed it themselves, and were excluded from the "landowning class" because working for a living, other than in a few traditionally upper class professions (the established clergy, the armed forces, the civil service and the bar) was considered demeaning by the upper classes. It should also be mentioned that on occasion the whole landowning class, including the aristocracy, was referred to as the "landed gentry". This usage would probably not have been appreciated by the latter.
Before the 20th century people in Britain generally aspired to imitate the lifestyle and attitudes of those of a higher class as closely as possible, so it is unsurprising that the word gentry and related concepts migrated down into the middle class to some extent. The word gentry itself, shorn of the prefix "landed" was applied to all those with reasonably close connections to landowning families, for example to clergymen or army officers with upper class family connections, and to their families in turn. By the 19th century the word "gentleman" (and its female equivalent "lady") encompassed the whole of the upper and upper middle classes. This term was just as vague as the others already discussed, but the same basic rule applied: one was a "lady" or a "gentleman" if other ladies and gentlemen accepted one as such. By the second half of the 19th century this status has lost all connection with landownership and was generally conferred on all men who had attended a public school, and on women of a similar background. The word gentility was one further remove from the elite: any middle class person could aspire to be "genteel" by imitating the manners of his or her "betters".
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the names and families of those with titles (specifically peers and baronets, less often including those with the non hereditary title of knight) were often listed in books or manuals known as "Peerages", "Baronetages", or combinations of these categories, such as the "Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage". As well as listing genealogical information, these books often also included details of family coats of arms. Jane Austen, who was herself a member of the gentry, although neither she nor her father (an upper class Church of England clergyman) ever owned an acre of land, shrewdly summarised the appeal of these works, which was particularly strong for those included in them, in the opening words of her novel Persuasion (1818):-
"Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed."
In the 1830's, one peerage publisher, John Burke, hit on the brilliant idea of expanding his market and his readership by publishing a similar volume for people without titles, which was called "A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland, enjoying territorial possessions or high official rank" or Burke's Commoners for short. This was published in four volumes 1833–38.
The expression "Commoners" was quickly replaced by the more flattering description "Landed Gentry" in a new edition of 1837–1838 which was entitled "A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry; or, Commons of Great Britain and Ireland" or Burke's Landed Gentry for short.
Burke's Landed Gentry continued to appear at regular intervals throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, driven, in the nineteenth century, principally by the energy and readable style of the founder's son and successor as editor, Sir John Bernard Burke (who generally favoured the romantic and picturesque in genealogy over the mundane or even correct). The last three volume edition of Burke's Landed Gentry was published between 1965–1972. A new series, under new owners, was begun in 2001 on a regional plan, starting with Burke's Landed Gentry; The Kingdom in Scotland.
The popularity of Burke's Landed Gentry gave currency to the expression "Landed Gentry" as a description of the untitled upper classes in England (although the book included families, also, in Wales and Scotland and Ireland, where, however, social structures were rather different).
Families were arranged in alphabetical order by surname, and each family article was headed with the surname and the name of their landed property, e.g. "Capron of Southwick Hall". There was then a paragraph on the owner of the property, with his coat of arms illustrated and all his children and remoter male-line descendants also listed, each with full names and details of birth, marriage, death, and any matters tending to enhance their social prestige, such as public school (UK) education, university attendance, military rank, and other honours. Cross references were included to other families in Burke's Landed Gentry or in Burke's Peerage and Baronetage: this encouraged a form of browsing through connections analagous to the way in which we now browse through the internet via hyperlinks. Professional details were not usually mentioned unless they conferred some social status, such as those of clergymen and barristers.
After the section dealing with the current owner of the property was a section entitled "Lineage" which listed, not only ancestors of the owner, but (so far as known) every male line descendant of those ancestors, thus including many people in the ranks of the "Landed Gentry" families who had never owned an acre in their lives but who might share in the status of their eponymous kin as part of a Landed Gentry family.
In the 21st century, the terms "gentry" or "landed gentry" are still used to some degree, as the landowning class still exists in a battered and fragmentary form, but the respect which was once automatically given to members of this class by most British people has almost completely dissipated.