What Exactly Did It Mean for A Clergyman to Have a “Living” Bestowed Upon Him During the Regency Period?

Henry Singleton: “The Curate of the Parish Returned From Duty.” London, circa 1800. Engraved by T. Burke.

We often read in a Regency era book something to the effect of the master of the estate bestowing a “living” upon a clergyman. Exactly, what did that entail? Once the living was bestowed, could the owner of the estate take it away if he thought someone else would serve him better? Was the living considered a for-life appointment? 

First, let’s have a look at the differences between those stations available for a living. 

The way someone quite some time ago explained it to me, a rector did not necessarily have to be ordained. He did receive the greater tithes, meaning 10% of the cereal crops grown in the parish in compensation for the freehold land set aside for church use. He served not only the church but also some administrative duties for the parish: registration of births, marriages, deaths and serving on the magistrate bench.

Vicar is the title given to certain parish priests in the Church of England. It has played a significant role in Anglican Church organisation in ways that are different from other Christian denominations. The title is very old and arises from the medieval situation where priests were appointed either by a secular lord, by a bishop or by a religious foundation. Wherever there is a vicar he shares the benefice with a rector (usually non-resident) to whom the great tithes were paid. Vicar derives from the Latin “vicarius” meaning a substitute. Historically, Anglican parish priests were divided into rectors, vicars and (rarely) perpetual curates. These were distinguished according to the way in which they were appointed and remunerated. The church was supported by tithes: taxes (traditionally of ten percent) levied on the personal and agricultural output of the parish.

A vicar was the most common title used for those overseeing a parish. Unfortunately, not all vicars were men of faith. We customarily think of the third son of an aristocratic family joining the clergy. All it took to be ordained was the right connections and enough money.

During the Regency, a living was established for the leader of the parish church. This was customarily a rector or vicar. Once installed into a living, those chosen were there for life. Only a bishop could remove the fellow and the cause had to be of public notice. If a holder of a living thought himself too old or too feeble to continue, he could hire a curate to take over his parish duties, that is, assuming he could afford to do so. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Charles Hayter serves as a curate. 

“And, pray, who is Charles Hayter? Nothing but a country curate. A most improper match for Miss Musgrove of Uppercross.”—Mary Musgrove, Persuasion

Random Bits of Fascination tells us: “Whether or not a vicar had the resources for hiring a curate depended on the parish itself. His portion would be the lesser tithes, 10% of the parish’s produce and livestock. In some vicarages this might be as little as £50 a year. (For reference, this is roughly the equivalent of a minimum wage job.) In other parishes, the lesser tithes could amount to a considerable sum. Some hints in Pride and Prejudice suggest the Kympton living might have amounted to £500 -£600 a year. A vicar could resign his duties to a curate once he obtained the permission of his bishop. Many hired a curate, who would be paid out of the vicar’s own pocket, from the beginning of their incumbency. Others only did so when they had to retire. A vicar did not have to give up the parsonage house to the curate. He might continue to live in it himself and leave the curate to find his own living quarters somewhere within an easy distance of the church.”  

Meanwhile, author Brenda S. Cox reveals: “A rector, like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, received all the tithes. This included the ‘great tithes,’ about three-fourths of the total: usually the tithes of grain, hay, etc. The rector also got the ‘small tithes’: tithes of animals, eggs, poultry, etc. Austen’s rector characters received between 200 and 1000 pounds from their parishes (200 for Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, close to 1000 for the Grants in Mansfield Park).

“A vicar only got the ‘small tithes.’ In a parish with a vicar rather than a rector, the local squire or someone else got the great tithes. Mr. Elton of Emma was a vicar, so he needed a wealthy wife. We know his living was not a large one, since Mrs. Bates, the widow of the former vicar, lived in poverty. (Emma, of course, was clueless about Mr. Elton’s financial needs.) Mr. Elton’s income was probably about a quarter of what a rector’s income would have been for the parish.”

A curate is a person who is invested with the care or cure (cura) of souls of a parish.  In this sense, “curate” correctly means a parish priest; but in English-speaking countries the term curate is commonly used to describe clergy who are assistants to the parish priest. The duties or office of a curate are called a curacy. Again, from Random Bits of Fascination, we learn, “A curate was usually a young man just recently ordained, who assisted or sometimes performed the duties of a clergyman. Though they might do all the work of the parish, their salaries were often meager, perhaps as little as £50 per year, not enough to afford a maid. Even at trifling wages, a curacy was not easy to obtain. In the early 1800’s curates made up close to half of the clergymen. Even with a position, their future was not secure. The death of the incumbent did not imply the curate would ascend to the living. Moreover, there was no guarantee that the successor would even continue to employ the curate.  A curate did not retire unless he had private means of support because the church offered no pensions. As members of the clergy, curates were regarded as gentlemen. Despite their official standing, the subservient nature of their position and their paltry incomes caused some of the gentry and peers to hold them in disregard.”

“The curate was far down the financial and social scale from both the rector and the vicar.  He got a salary, which was generally half (or less) of what a vicar might receive. In 1813, the median income of a curate was only £55 per year. Some received as little as £4 a year!  A few received over £200, though.  £55 was Henry Austen’s income (Jane Austen’s brother) when he took his first curacy, at Chawton, in 1816.” (Brenda S. Cox)

“Most parishes in England and Wales retain the historical title for their parish priest—rector or vicar—with vicar being more common in the urban areas, because of an expansion of new Parishes being created in the Victorian years, and the incumbents being styled ‘vicar’ after 1868. The distinction between the titles is now only historical. In the late 20th century, a shortage of clergy and the disparity of workload between parish clergy led to the development of a number of new forms of parish ministry. In Wales prior to Disestablishment most parishes in the southern dioceses (St. Davids and Llandaff) were vicarages subject to lay patronage, whereas in the north rectors predominated largely nominated by the bishops of Bangor and St. Asaph.” (Vicar)

Okay, back to my original question. 

If the man was read in as a vicar or rector, as mentioned above, he could only be removed by death or by the bishop for crimes or when he was translated to another position. However, if the man who had the advowson wanted it for his son or nephew or cousin or anyone else, he could hire a man as a curate to hold the position for how many years it was until his relation could assume the position.

However, a curate who was given a living to hold it until a man’s relation turns 24 and was  ordained could be dismissed. Also, if a rector had several churches and so appointed one to be curate at  of them, he could be dismissed by the one who appointed him.

So the one who hired a curate to cover a second or third parish  or one hired to hold the position until a child was old enough to take the living could be dismissed by the man who gave him the job. Otherwise, the man was in there for life. 

Now, taking all that is listed above, please note that when I first learned about the difference between rectors and vicars, I accepted the definition as rectors received the great tithes, vicars received the small tithes and curates received wages.
However, I recently read an essay in Persuasion 16 of Jane Austen Society of North America that says often the documents setting up each living set out who received what.

“The tenth part of all profits or fruits, both praedial, personal, and mixed, allotted to the clergy for their maintenance. Of tithes there are three kinds, viz., personal, predial, and mixed. Personal tithes are those duo or accruing from the profits of labour, art, trade, navigation, and industry of man. Pradial tithes, those which arise either from the fruits of the ground, as corn, hay, underwood, flax, hemp, &c.; or from the fruits of trees, as apples, pears, plums, cherries ; or from the produce of the garden. Mixed tithes arc such as arise from beasts, and other animals fed with the fruits of the earth, as cheese, milk, wool, lambs, calves, fowls, &c . Preadial tithes, again, are either great or small. Great tithes are those of corn, hay, and wood. Small tithes are those of flax, &c., which are prsedial; and those of wool, milk, cheese, lambs, ferrets, &c., which are mixed . The tithes of grounds newly broken up and cultivated are called decimce novates, and always belong to the vicar, as well as the small tithes. ”  Dictionary of the English Church Ancient and Modern.

“A Companion to the English Parish Church says of tithes: There are three types of tithes : praedial tithes (calculated on income produce), mixed tithes (calculated on income from stock and labour), and personal tithes (based on income derived entirely from labour).
Where a rector wasn’t the incumbent, the tithes were divided between the rector and the vicar. They were the Great or Rectorial and small or Vicarial tithes. Vicarial tithes were generally those raised from labour and minor produce and as such were most difficult to raise.”

“Nothing about the tithe system, however, was simple. There were many exemptions, and customary usage could change the interpretation of the laws. Generally, products which were part of the ground itself were exempt from tithe: coal, minerals, limestone, etc. But in some areas it was customary to pay tithes on these materials, tin in Devon and Cornwall, for instance, and lead in Derbyshire. In the early years of the Industrial Revolution, new agricultural and industrial products changed the picture. Tithe owners stood to gain large amounts when new methods of husbandry resulted in improved yields or new crops if they could collect ten per cent of the produce. Vegetable gardens had been usually exempt from tithe, but with the tremendous growth of cities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, large market gardens were developed on their outskirts, and the parish clergy naturally wanted to collect tithes on them. Some crops considered particularly important to the trade and industry of the country were given special consideration: the cloth industry employed thousands of people-hemp and flax were accordingly tithed at a maximum of five shillings an acre in perpetuity; madder, an essential ingredient in dyeing and calico printing, was given similar protection (Thirske 403). Wild animals – feroe naturae – were traditionally exempt from tithes. The courts helped the rich by deciding that deer, even if kept in parks, were wild animals. Crown forests and waste lands were traditionally exempt. Jane Austen would have become acutely aware of the problems which could be caused by the Enclosure Acts, when the Austen ladies visited her cousin, Edward Cooper, at his rectory at Hamstall Ridware in Staffordshire in 1806. Edward was in the process of petitioning the Exchequer Court against the enclosure of Needwood Forest. The proposal was that the forest lands be enclosed and divided among the three adjacent parishes, Hamstall Ridware, Rolleston and Scropton. According to law, these new lands would be exempt from tithe for the first seven years of cultivation (to help defray the capital costs involved), and Edward Cooper and the other tithe owners were concerned that the farmers would sow them with wheat or cereal crops (usually subject to a high rate of tithe) and leave their original lands to grass (paying little or no tithe) (Salt Library).” (Sutherland)

Other sources: 

Collins, Irene. (1998)  Jane Austen, The Parson’s DaughterHambledon Press.

Collins,Irene. (2002)  Jane Austen & the Clergy.  Hambledon Press.

Cox, Brenda S. “Nothing But a Country Curate.” 

Day, Malcom. (2006) Voices from the World of Jane. Austen David & Charles.

Knight, Jude. “Serving God, the Parish, or possible Mammon in late Georgian England.”

Savage, William. “The Georgian Clergy.”

Sullivan, Margaret C. (2007) The Jane Austen Handbook. Quirk Books.

Sutherland, Eileen.“Tithes and the Rural Clergyman in Jane Austen’s England.” Persuasion 16, 1994. 

“Vicar vs Curate? What’s the Difference?” 


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, Church of England, Georgian England, Georgian Era, Jane Austen, Living in the Regency, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Regency era, religion, research and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to What Exactly Did It Mean for A Clergyman to Have a “Living” Bestowed Upon Him During the Regency Period?

  1. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    Great post. I’ve done some research on my own, but not this extensive. I like how you pulled it all together for readers. Thanks, Jen Red

  2. diana-lloyd says:

    Thank you for sharing this info! Research can sometimes make these distinctions confusing.

  3. nmayer2015 says:

    I have read of court cases where not even the judge knew exactly how to classify something. Though the various churches often did come with a distinction of what tithes the incumbent should receive and whether he was to be called rector or vicar, I still think the simpler , basic definition is sound for most cases. An article I have on enclosures said that the clergyman usually received glebe land or compensation for loss of income. I have just received a book The Contentious Tithe. The subject is one to make one’s head spin. You did a good job.

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