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  • Writer's pictureHeather Moll

Rectors, vicars, and curates in regency England

There are plenty of clergymen in Austen's novels, but what was a "living" and how did one get one? What's the difference between a rector and a vicar? What would you even call the men in this positions?


Reverend was a title one would use in print, like in the portrait below or on Mr. Elton's luggage tag, never said aloud. Clergyman or parish priest were used in the regency to refer to them, not minister or pastor, and parson was beginning to become outdated. They were always addressed as 'mister' unless they held a doctorate, like Dr. Grant in Mansfield Park.

A Portrait of a Reverend c. 1815-1861

So how did one get to become one of these clergymen? During this time, landowners held advowsons, the right to recommend a member of the clergy for a vacant church appointment. Some were owned by the King, others by the universities, some by the bishops and cathedrals, and about half by individuals like Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice.


Lady Catherine has the advowson for her parish; so, she has the right to choose the clergyman. There were around 11,000 parishes then and it was a position held for life. Mr Collins has recently been appointed the rector of her parish.


"I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish..."

When Mr. Collins says in chapter 15 that he has 'rights as rector' it means he is the head clergy for the parish. He has rights to the parish land and al the tithes: 10% of the crops grown in the parish. Around this time, clergymen were paid tithes in cash as well, but many still paid in produce.


In return for a rectory, a job for life, all the tithes, and generally leading the parish in the right direction, the rector also had to lead worship services, publish banns, and conduct weddings, churchings, christenings, and funerals. Plus, they got surplice fees for doing conducting those extra activities. Not a bad gig if you can get a good one.


In Sense and Sensibility, Edward Ferrars is offered a "rectory, but a small one." Without money from his mother, he wouldn't have been able to afford to marry Elinor, unlike Mr. Collins, whose excellent income is as rector is one of the things that encourages him to marry. Still, as the rector, Edward would have gotten the greater and lesser tithes for Colonel Brandon's parish and a place to live.


But not all of Austen's clergymen are rectors. Some are vicars. It means to literally stand in place for. A vicar got the lesser tithes of the parish—usually only 1/4 of that 10% income. The rector got the greater tithes, the other 3/4. Getting a vicarage as a living was still a position for life, but it was a non-resident rector who got most of the income.

Emma. George Allen, 1898, pg 138 by Hammond

So, a vicar isn't a bad job either, but you're not making the same kind of money a rector of a parish is. Depending on the value of that parish, you might not be making much at all.


It's a clue for us readers of Emma, though, that Mr. Elton has to marry for money. We know that the vicarage isn't worth a lot, since Mrs. Bates and Miss Bates, the former vicar's family, live in a "very small way." Emma should have known that Mr. Elton was never going to marry someone poor like Harriet Smith.


Some vicars still managed to do all right, and some even had the resources to hire a curate. Curate's incomes were less than half of a vicars. The word curate comes from care, as in caring for souls. The vicar continued to live in the vicarage while he handed off parish duties to his curate. Many clergymen held more than one living to increase their income. They might live at one and hire a curate to minister at their other parishes.


In 1813, the median income for a curate was only £55 a year, although in 1816, Henry Austen was earning £200 for being the curate at Chawton. You really need a hundred a year to be able to afford even a maid. These curates often needed multiple churches or tutored to supplement their income and many lived in poverty.


Curates were hired perpetually or temporarily. You either held the position for life with that low salary until you got something better, or you were hired temporary and were paid a stipend and could be let go at any time. When Henry Tilney goes to Bath to talk muslin, he hired a curate to take over his duties for him.


Mary Musgrove isn't impressed by Charles Hayter being only a curate—is she ever impressed? He and Henrietta are only allowed to marry after,

"he had been applied to by a friend to hold a living for a youth who could not possibly claim it under many years; and that on the strength of this present income, with almost a certainty of something more permanent long before the term in question, the two families had consented to the young people's wishes..."

Mary might be a snob, but she's not wrong that Charles Hayter couldn't afford to get married with only his curate pay.

The Vicar of the Parish Receiving His Tithes c 1793

In this time, a career in the church wasn't necessarily a calling as it tends to be today. It was a socially acceptable position and a means of earning an income. A church living was a permanent job as rector or vicar of a parish, and the income, house, and farmland that went along with that. But if you were a curate, you were likely on the lookout for something permanent and more secure.


Austen's father and brother were in the church and there are clergyman in every one of her novels. (In case you can't remember them all: Henry Tilney, Mr. Morland, Edward Ferrars, Mr. Collins, Edmund Bertram, Dr. Grant, Mr. Elton, and Charles Hayter.)


They all have different characteristics and don't fit into any one stereotype. Who is your favorite clergyman in Austen’s novels? Who is your least favorite?




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