Jane Austen often wrote of clergymen with church livings and gentlemen with livings to bestow. What exactly was she talking about?
In short, a living meant a guaranteed income and home for the lifetime of the clergyman lucky enough to be appointed to one. Since the incumbent did not receive a wage or sully his hands with works per se, it was considered a gentlemanly profession and many younger sons of gentlemen pursued the church as their career.
How many livings existed?
Approximately 11,500 benefices or livings existed in England and Wales at the end of the 18th century. This sounds like a sufficient number; however, over half the ordained clergy never received a living.
Patrons owned livings. Oxford and Cambridge colleges controlled around 5%, giving them as gifts to fellows and masters who wished to marry and leave academic pursuits. Another 10% or so belonged to the Crown and were presented to government supporters. Bishops and cathedral chapters possessed about 20%. The gentry and aristocracy held the largest share, on the order of 60%. Most great families had at least one or two livings at their disposal.
How much income did a living provide?
The majority of England’s parishes were small. An 1802 figure suggests a third of the benefices brought in less than £150 a year and some 1,000 of those less than £100. (Remember, about £50 a year was more or less equivalent to our minimum wage.) A clergyman needed a living of £300-400 per annum to be on the level with the lesser gentry.
Incomes might be increased by serving more than one parish, but this seldom resulted in real wealth.
Only a third of all clergy acquired more than one living. Slightly more than one in twenty held more than two benefices and of these few had as many as four or five.
Additional income might also be found through teaching or cultivating gardens and the glebe (acreage provided by the parish.) The amount of land varied by parish, some only had a field in others, fifty acres or more. The incumbent either chose to farm it himself or rented it out to a tenant farmer.
A living also included a parsonage house. The patron, not the church took responsibility for providing hosing for the clergy. Landowners might improve the parsonage in the hope of attracting an incumbent of education and breeding, fit to dine at his patron’s table. Many vicarages, though, were in poor condition.
How did one get a living?
The surest way of obtaining a benefice was to be related to the patron. A well-placed relative might well mean walk into a living immediately after ordination. Less well-connected individuals could wait ten or twenty years.
The right to appoint a clergyman to a living was called an advowson and considered a form of property to be bought, sold and inherited. Instead of selling an entire advowson, a gentleman strapped for cash might sell just the ‘right of next presentation’ as did Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park.
Typically an advowson sold for five to seven times the annual value. Such a sale had to take place during the lifetime of the incumbent. Sales after the incumbent’s death were a crime called Simony and would result in the loss of the advowson. An extremely fortunate clergyman could own an advowson and appoint himself to a living.
I must admit, after researching all this, I am still left scratching my head as to why Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine would ever have chosen a man like William Collins to serve her parish for life.
For more information see:
Collins, Irene. (1998) Jane Austen, The Parson’s Daughter . Hambledon Press.
Collins, Irene. (2002) Jane Austen & the Clergy. Hambledon Press.
Day, Malcom. (2006) Voices from the World of Jane. Austen David & Charles .
MacDonagh, Oliver . (1991) Jane Austen, Real and Imagined Worlds. Yale University Press.
©Maria Grace, Good Principles Publishing. 2012