Vicars and Rectors and Livings . . . Oh My! by Elaine Owen

Vicars and Rectors and Livings . . . Oh My! by Elaine Owen

Last month I discussed the aristocracy of England, a system that was so pervasive in Jane Austen’s time that she had no need to explain it to her readers. Today I’d like to talk about another system that she could assume her readers understood: the clergy of the Church of England.

The Church of England, of course, was the official church in Austen’s day. Though there were Catholics, Evangelicals, Quakers, and other groups in the country, the majority of people belonged to the state church, which we now call the Anglican church.

The most basic unit in the Anglican church was the parish, which usually consisted of a church and the community that built up around it. The clergyman in charge of a parish church was usually a vicar, and along with the responsibilities of a vicar he received a salary or stipend.  But sometimes the parish church was filled by a rector, who was.supported by the tithes from the parish. Confusingly, sometimes a church was overseen by both a rector and a vicar, but in that case the usual work of the parish would still be carried out by the vicar. It’s safe to say that being a vicar was the most common career in the Anglican church.

Vicars were not necessarily financially well off, as Jane Austen’s life shows. If the parish was large and the parishioners were generous, then they might make a decent living. But there were many poor parishes, and some parishes offered such a small salary that they had a difficult time attracting any clergyman at all. Jane Austen’s father was a vicar in a parish with a respectable income, but he also had a large family to support. He therefore found it necessary to tutor students and farm some of his own land in order to make ends meet.

Below the level of rector or vicar was a curate. A curate was the pastor of a church that was not associated with a parish. These churches were smaller than parish churches and usually could not afford to pay their pastor a living wage. So the poor man who got stuck in a curacy would have to find some other source of income and work at that even as he called on parishioners, prepared sermons, and did all the work that his more prosperous brothers in parish churches carried out.

It was possible for a curate to be promoted to a parish church and become a vicar, and for a vicar to be promoted to a rector. Above these levels a man could also be promoted to archdeacon, deacon, bishop, or even archbishop. But the vast majority of the ordained clergy occupied one of these three lowest ranks.

A living was therefore a valuable commodity. A man with an appointment to a parish church could count on the income from that parish for as long as they kept their position, which was presumed to be for life. It was possible to buy and sell livings based on the projected income to be made from that parish, just as we invest in annuities or bonds today. This flies in the face of how we think about pastors, but in Austen’s time, a clergyman did not necessarily  need a spiritual calling from God. For many people it was simply a job, something that would provide security and an income once a man was lucky enough to get into it.

How did a man become a rector, vicar or curate? In most cases the right to appoint the pastor of a church belonged to the family who owned the nearby estate. If they had more than one son then they might very well give the living to one of the younger sons. Other times they might sell it to another family who was trying to provide for their own son’s future. And in some cases, such as that of George Wickham or Mr. Collins, the living was given outright by the family who owned it.  It is no wonder that Collins was so careful to keep on Lady Catherine’s good side, since his own income depended on her good will. (And Elizabeth thought that Lady Catherine might have other livings to give away, too. Perhaps Sir William didn’t visit Rosings just to check on Charlotte!)

There were far more ordained clergymen than there were livings of any sort, even just a curacy. Some unlucky clergy had to wait ten years or more for a living to open up for them!

With all of this as a background, we can understand the story Wickham and the Darcy family living much better. Wickham was the son of an estate steward, a nobody in the regency world. He grew up on the estate and was intimate with the Darcy family, but as an adult he had no way to make a living. He could only go into the military or perhaps learn a trade, which would have been a step down the social ladder. So the old Mr. Darcy left him a “valuable family living.” This would have supported him for life, or at least given him a huge head start. Instead Wickham sold the living to someone else for three thousand pounds, squandered all of that money, and afterwards had the audacity to come back to Darcy and ask for the living again. No wonder Darcy sends him packing.

I hope this helps you understand a little about how the system of livings and patronages worked. For more details or further reading you can follow these links:

Clergy in the Regency

Vicar vs Rector – What’s the Difference?

Jane Austen and the Clergy – How the System Worked

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September 9, 2021 6:52 AM

May I chime in at this extremely late date? The difference between a rector and a vicar wasn’t that one received tithes and the other didn’t; it was in specifically which tithes each was entitled to receive. This knowledge is so arcane and so ridiculous, but I feel the need at 5:20 AM to expound; forgive me.

First of all, every parish in England in Regency times had both a rector and a vicar. In some parishes (e.g. Hunsford and Longbourn, in P&P) these positions were combined into a single position of “rector”, which was held by the clergyman who had been presented to the living; in others, however, (e.g. Highbury, in Emma) the positions were separate, and the local clergyman was simply the vicar. (If a parish was a vicariate, the rector could be nearly anyone or anything – the diocese, a local landowner, the patron of the living, a university college, even a guild. The rector didn’t have to be a person, didn’t have to be ordained, didn’t even have to be male. I…could go on for paragraphs here, but I won’t.)

Getting back to the topic: a rector – whoever he, she or it was – received the ‘great tithes’ paid by the inhabitants of the parish, which were composed of 10% of the increase of the major agricultural products in that area of the country. In Kent that would have been crops like grain, wood, and hay, with wool being a major ‘crop’ further north. A vicar, on the other hand, received the ‘small tithes’, composed of 10% of the increase of lesser agricultural products such as dairy, eggs, and food animals. A rector who also held the living (like Mr. Collins or the unnamed rector of Longbourn) would receive both the great tithes and small tithes, which would make his living much more remunerative than that of someone like Mr. Elton, who was entitled to only the small tithes.

Unfortunately the small tithes of a parish were often so small that a lot of livings that were merely vicariates didn’t pay enough to keep a family. To fill these positions patrons were sometimes forced to offer a small salary on top of the tithes. Not all vicars received a salary, but some did – but that’s not what made them vicars.

Curates were, as you point out, always salaried – and unlike rectors and vicars, could be dismissed for any reason. A living was for life; a curacy was not.

BTW this explains a few things in Austen that have puzzled a few. Why is Mr. Elton such a determined fortune hunter? Because his position as vicar doesn’t pay enough to support his lifestyle; he needs to marry a wealthy woman. Why does Mr. Collins go after Charlotte instead of a lady with a larger dowry? Possibly because he knows he’s going to inherit Longbourn, but he’s also a rector: he doesn’t need to marry an heiress. He probably earns something like £500 to £700 a year as rector and possibly more, where Mr. Elton’s tithes aren’t likely more than £100. Mr. Elton literally could not afford to marry Harriet Smith; he must look higher.

December 15, 2020 1:40 PM

Thanks for the informative post!

Corrie Garrett
December 4, 2020 2:22 AM

Ahhh, where was this when I was making ALL the mistakes?? Just kidding!! This is great and so helpful! I looked into the system several times but never really got it nailed down in my head as solidly as you’ve just explained it. Great research.

Riana Everly
December 3, 2020 7:24 PM

It’s quite the feudal hierarchy, isn’t it? I always have to double check things when I start writing, and then I probably get it wrong.
Thanks for a clear and informative article.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
December 3, 2020 4:14 PM

In Austen’s ‘Persuasion,’ we have the young cousin to the Musgrove girls waiting for a curate position before he could marry Henrietta Musgrove. In Sense & Sensibility, Colonel Brandon told Edward that the living in his gift was a poor one. Faced with being destitute, Edward indicated that it was the saving of him. In ‘Northanger Abbey’, Catherine Morland’s family was a strong base for her personality, sense, morality and sensibility. In ‘Mansfield Part’, Edmond Bertram suffered from his brother’s waste and profligacy forcing his father to bestow the living in his gift to Dr. Grant. Then we have Pride & Prejudice with Wickham and Collins [a study in both characters].

The position of rector or vicar was close to Austen’s heart as she mentions and highlights them [for good or bad] in her books. That is another position that England at the time understood. Second and subsequent sons knew they had few choices. First sons got the estate/money/etc. while subsequent sons went into the Navy, military [again featured in her books], or they went into the work of the church. There were few options for them.

This was fun. I love your posts. Blessings, stay safe, and healthy.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
December 3, 2020 4:32 PM
Reply to  J. W. Garrett

That was Mansfield Park… fat fingers today.

Mirta Ines Trupp
December 3, 2020 8:47 AM

Thanks for an enlightening post. Very helpful!

Regina Jeffers
December 3, 2020 7:52 AM

I have a similar post scheduled on my blog for January 1, right before the release of “The Mistress of Rosings Park.” A beta reader of the story asked how Mr. Collins could be removed from a living once Darcy displaces Lady Catherine. That was my explanation. If you do not mind, I will link this post for “further reading.”

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
December 3, 2020 6:58 AM

Very interesting. I never really knew the difference in Vicars and Rectors !

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