What does it mean to be an Officer and a Gentleman?



"The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny... it is the light that guides your way."
Heraclitus (540-480 B.C.)

Education begins a gentleman, conversation completes him.

Dr. Thomas Fuller , Gnomologia, 1732
British physician (1654 - 1734)

Education begins the gentleman, but reading, good company and reflection must finish him.
John Locke


Hunting, Hawking and the Early Tudor Gentleman

  Williams, James
History Today, 00182753, Aug2003, Vol. 53, Issue 8


James Williams considers hunting as the ideal pastime for the nobility in the sixteenth century.

'By God's Body I would rather that my son should hang than study literature. It behoves the sons of gentlemen to blow horn calls correctly, to hunt skillfully, to train a hawk well and carry it elegantly. But the study of literature should be left to clodhoppers.'

WHEN, IN 1517, a NOW anonymous gentleman expressed this view to Richard Pace, the great humanist may have been exasperated, but certainly not surprised. It was a familiar sentiment in early Tudor England: despite the protests of a few humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, hunting was deemed by most to be not only a symbol of knighthood, but an activity that marked out the true gentleman. But what was it about hunting and hawking that made them appropriate pastimes for the early Tudor gentleman, and why did they retain this position?

For most commentators who referred to hunting and hawking in their written work, field sports were thoroughly moral occupations. In the immense body of chivalric literature produced during the early sixteenth century, hunting is always associated with ideal models of kingship and knighthood. Malory's tales of King Arthur, and popular chivalric tales about such heroes as Bevis of Hamptoun and Oliver of Castile, feature hunting as a worthy activity.


State Formation, Geography, and a Gentleman's Education

Jonathan M. Smith
Geographical Review , Vol. 86, No. 1 (Jan., 1996), pp. 91-100

In seventeenth-century England, education was the prerogative of a nascent gentleman, so that he might, in Henry Peacham's words, make himself "beneficiall and usefull to his Country." In such an education, according to John Locke, "the reading of history, chronology and geography are absolutely necessary." I describe the content and place of geographical education as they were understood by seventeenth-century writers such as Peacham, Locke, and John Milton and relate them to the political economy of seventeenth-century England. I argue, in Thomas Hobbes's words, that "knowledge of the face of the earth" assumed its modern importance because the size and geographical complexity of states increased and that attainment of this knowledge was, as it remains, a prerequisite for access to political power.

An officer and a gentleman is knowledgeable about the ability to communicate at least in his native tongue. A facility with an addtitional language, or more, imparts a larger undersanding of the world and will imply more control over one's personal environment. For many Western cultures, an introduction to Latin will provide a tremendous resource to understanding the vocabularies of many of their languages. It is said by Latin scholars that even English is comprised of 60% Latin-derived words.

Dante wrote, “Lo volgare seguitta uso, e lo latino arte” (“The vulgar tongue follows use; Latin follows art”).

The trivium presents a clarification and provides a rigorous account of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. A thorough study of general grammar, propositions, syllogisms, enthymemes, fallacies, poetics, figurative language, and metrical discourse-accompanied by lucid graphics is necessaary for teachers, writers, lawyers, and all serious users of language.

The first two of the arts known as the trivium, grammar and logic, constituted less a pair of distinct topics and more a continuum, a curriculum or sequence of skills with well-defined and lofty goals. Certainly the Middle Ages differentiated between grammar and logic—much as we do today— but strict definitions do not disguise the fundamental contiguity of these two arts in the age of Chaucer. The Oxford logician Robert Kilwardby described their relationship as just such a continuum, explaining that logic is both a rational and verbal art.

The word "gentle" is derived from the Latin word gentilis, an adjective meaning 'of or belonging to the same clan, stock, or race'. Throughout the early modern era noble birth would largely define the gentleman, but the ideal of gentlemanly behavior changed dramatically from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.

From the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century, a gentleman was expected to be a warrior. Military service was the main source of ennoblement. The gentleman was to receive training in arms, and to engage in activities reflecting a martial quality. In the absence of combat, the gentleman engaged in hunting or tournaments. Private violence was acceptable within the community of nobles, who used it often to defend their honor. Recognition by peers was in many ways the foundation of noble identity.

The king was also a gentleman who adhered to the code of gentlemanly conduct. As a member of the society of nobles, he was considered the first among equals, or simply the most powerful of lords. Throughout the sixteenth century, kings were expected to lead troops into battle and engage in other pursuits related to combat such as hunting and tournaments.

By the seventeenth century, the martial aspect of gentlemanly behavior began to decline. The ideal gentleman was no longer a warrior but a courtier, although these roles often overlapped. The two ideals are represented in Baldassare Castiglione's Il Cortegiano (The courtier; 1528). Written in 1518, but enjoying enormous popularity throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Castiglione's book outlines the qualities of an ideal courtier: trained in arms and loyal to his prince, but also exhibiting noble birth, grace, and talent. Good manners, wit, and education became important attributes for a gentleman who increasingly resided at court rather than in his own domains.

A major factor in the transformation of the ideal of the gentleman was the rise of the state. This in turn was precipitated by changes in the technology of warfare. The "gunpowder revolution" ensured the obsolescence of the knight on horseback and the increased importance of the mass infantry. Whereas in the Middle Ages nobles could often afford to field armies against the king, by the sixteenth century, no noble could compete with the king's army, which was equipped and trained by means of taxation. In the newly created state, the king did not need as many nobles to fight for him; rather he needed bureaucrats and administrators to ensure the efficient mobilization of resources. That, more than noble valor, increasingly determined the outcome of war. Nobles filled lucrative offices in the state administration, spending less time in their feudal domains and more time at court. Here they retained their social prominence, but they declined in their political power in relation to the king. The king increasingly distanced himself from his fellow nobles through propaganda aimed at his glorification. By the late seventeenth century, most kings no longer led their troops into battle. The king hired non-nobles to government offices, sometimes rewarding them with titles of nobility. In order to distance themselves from these newly ennobled officials, the old nobility focused on their genealogies. Pedigree became more important than valor in the definition of a gentleman. However, the conflict between the new nobility and the old, as well as the conflict between the nobility and the king, has been downplayed by recent historians who stress that nobles had much to gain from the state. Life at court offered intellectual stimulation, the society of women, and a certain kind of political power that operated through networks of patronage.

Attendance at court required "civility," and the code of gentlemanly conduct placed a new emphasis on self-discipline. A proliferation of etiquette manuals occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, regulating behavior in a courtly environment. Claiming a monopoly on violence, the state no longer tolerated private violence between nobles. The gentleman distinguished himself through culture and refinement rather than through military prowess or political domination.

The nature of the gentleman changed again in the eighteenth century in response to a new economic reality: the capitalist economy. Whereas in the past the gentleman derived his income from land or government offices, by the eighteenth century the gentleman was permitted to engage in certain forms of trade. Thus nobles adapted to the new capitalist economy, while simultaneously maintaining their position at the top of the social and economic hierarchy.

In terms of culture, the seventeenth-century concern with "civility" gave way to the eighteenth-century emphasis on " sociability." Whereas civility dictated relations among people of unequal status in the hierarchical world of the court, sociability was a bond of friendship between equals. Sociability governed relationships outside the court, especially in the setting of the salon, a social environment often dominated by women. Increasingly, the ideal gentleman inhabited private spaces untouched by the state. There was a new emphasis on intimacy that appeared in the architecture of country houses. These reflected the individuality of their owners. Private rooms testified to an increased desire for private space. The courtier's proper appearance and conduct, so important in the seventeenth century, became less important than introspection and consciousness of self. This interiority is reflected in the rise of the novel, a genre made possible by the new emphasis on individuality.

A debate going back to the Italian Renaissance posed the question whether birth or virtue defined the true gentleman. The debate continued throughout the early modern era, despite major changes in the meaning of the word "virtue." Whether he exhibited superior valor, refinement, or sensitivity, the gentleman retained his position at the top of the cultural hierarchy throughout the early modern era.


Ariès, Philippe, and Georges Duby, eds. A History of Private

Life. Vol. 3, Passions of the Renaissance. Edited by Roger Chartier. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Clark, Samuel. State and Status: The Rise of the State and

Aristocratic Power in Western Europe. Montreal, 1995.

Dewald, Jonathan. The European Nobility 1400–1800. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Duindam, Jeroen. Myths of Power: Norbert Elias and the

Early Modern European Court. Translated by Lorri Granger and Gerard T. Moran. Amsterdam, 1994.

Elias, Norbert. The Court Society. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. New York, 1983.

Schalk, Ellery. From Valor to Pedigree: Ideas of Nobility in

France in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Princeton, 1986.

An Article derived from

Encyclopædia Britannica

Eleventh Edition
public domain

The term gentleman (from Latin gentilis , belonging to a race or "gens", and "man", cognate with the French word gentilhomme , the Spanish gentilhombre and the Italian gentil uomo or gentiluomo ), in its original and strict signification, denoted a man of good family , the Latin generosus (its invariable translation in English-Latin documents). In this sense the word equates with the French gentilhomme (nobleman), which latter term was in Great Britain long confined to the peerage . The term " gentry " (from the Old French genterise for gentelise ) has much of the social class significance of the French noblesse or of the German Adel , but without the strict technical requirements of those traditions (such as quarters of nobility). This was what the rebels under John Ball in the 14th century meant when they repeated:

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the Gentleman? [1]

John Selden in Titles of Honour , ( 1614 ), discussing the title "gentleman", speaks of "our English use of it" as "convertible with nobilis " (an ambiguous word, like 'noble' meaning elevated either by rank or by personal qualities) and describes in connection with it the forms of ennobling in various European countries.

To a degree, "gentleman" signified a man who did not need to work, and the term was particularly used of those of them who could not claim nobility or even the rank of esquire . Widening further, it became a politeness for all men, as in the phrase "Ladies and Gentlemen,..." and this was then used (often with the abbreviation Gents ) to indicate where men could find a lavatory , without the need to indicate precisely what was being described.

In modern speech, the term is usually democratised so as to include any man of good, courteous conduct, or even to all men (as in indications of gender-separated facilities).

Gentleman by conduct

Chaucer in the Meliboeus ( circa 1386) says: "Certes he sholde not be called a gentil man, that ... ne dooth his diligence and bisynesse, to kepen his good name"; and in The Wife of Bath's Tale :

Loke who that is most vertuous alway Prive and apert, and most entendeth ay To do the gentil dedes that he can And take him for the gretest gentilman

And in the Romance of the Rose ( circa 1400) we find: "he is gentil bycause he doth as longeth to a gentilman".

This use develops through the centuries, until in 1714 we have Steele , in Tatler (No. 207), laying down that "the appellation of Gentleman is never to be affixed to a man's circumstances, but to his Behaviour in them", a limitation over-narrow even for the present day. In this connection, too, one may quote the old story, told by some—very improbably—of James II , of the monarch who replied to a lady petitioning him to make her son a gentleman, "I could make him a nobleman, but God Almighty could not make him a gentleman".

Selden, however, in referring to similar stories "that no Charter can make a Gentleman, which is cited as out of the mouth of some great Princes that have said it", adds that "they without question understood Gentleman for Generosus in the antient sense, or as if it came from Genii/is in that sense, as Gentilis denotes one of a noble Family, or indeed for a Gentleman by birth". For "no creation could make a man of another blood than he is".

The word "gentleman", used in the wide sense with which birth and circumstances have nothing to do, is necessarily incapable of strict definition. For "to behave like a gentleman" may mean little or much, according to the person by whom the phrase is used; "to spend money like a gentleman" may even be no great praise; but "to conduct a business like a gentleman" implies a high standard.


William Harrison

William Harrison , writing a century earlier, says "gentlemen be those whom their race and blood, or at the least their virtues , do make noble and known". A gentleman was in his time usually expected to have a coat of arms , it being accepted that only a gentleman could have a coat of arms; and Harrison gives the following account of how gentlemen were made in Shakespeare 's day:

Gentlemen whose ancestors are not known to come in with William duke of Normandy (for of the Saxon races yet remaining we now make none accompt, much less of the British issue) do take their beginning in England after this manner in our times. Who soever studieth the laws of the realm, who so abideth in the university , giving his mind to his book, or professeth physic and the liberal sciences, or beside his service in the room of a captain in the wars, or good counsel given at home, whereby his commonwealth is benefited, can live without manual labour, and thereto is able and will bear the port, charge and countenance of a gentleman, he shall for money have a coat and arms bestowed upon him by heralds (who in the charter of the same do of custom pretend antiquity and service, and many gay things) and thereunto being made so good cheap be called master, which is the title that men give to esquires and gentlemen, and reputed for a gentleman ever after. Which is so much the less to be disallowed of, for that the prince doth lose nothing by it, the gentleman being so much subject to taxes and public payments as is the yeoman or husbandman , which he likewise doth bear the gladlier for the saving of his reputation. Being called also to the wars (for with the government of the commonwealth he medleth little) what soever it cost him, he will both array and arm himself accordingly, and show the more manly courage, and all the tokens of the person which he representeth. No man hath hurt by it but himself, who peradventure will go in wider buskins than his legs will bear, or as our proverb saith, now and then bear a bigger sail than his boat is able to sustain.



In this way Shakespeare himself was demonstrated, by the grant of his coat of arms, to be no "vagabond" but a gentleman. The inseparability of arms and gentility is shown by two of his characters:

Petruchio: I swear I'll cuff you if you strike again. Katharine: So may you lose your arms: If you strike me, you are no gentleman; And if no gentleman, why then no arms. ( The Taming of the Shrew , Act II Scene i.)

However, although only a gentleman could have a coat of arms (so that possession of a coat of arms was proof of gentility), the coat of arms recognised rather than created the status (see G D Squibb The High Court of Chivalry at pp 170-177). Hence, all armigers were gentlemen, but not all gentlemen were armigers.


Superiority of the fighting man

The fundamental idea of "gentry", symbolised in this grant of coat-armour, had come to be that of the essential superiority of the fighting man; and, as Selden points out (page 707), the fiction was usually maintained in the granting of arms "to an ennobled person though of the long Robe wherein he hath little use of them as they mean a shield".

At the last the wearing of a sword on all occasions was the outward and visible sign of a "gentleman"; and the custom survives in the sword worn with " court dress ".

A suggestion that a gentleman must have a coat of arms (and that no-one is a "gentleman" without one) was vigorously advanced by certain 19th and 20th century heraldists, notably A C Fox-Davies in England and Innes of Learny in Scotland. But the suggestion is discredited by an examination, in England, of the records of the High Court of Chivalry and, in Scotland, by a judgment of the Court of Session (per Lord Mackay in Maclean of Ardgour v. Maclean [1941] SC 613 at 650). The significance of a right to a coat of arms was that it was definitive proof of the status of gentleman, but it recognised rather than conferred such a status and the status could be and frequently was accepted without a right to a coat of arms.



The Far East also held similar ideas to the West of what a "gentleman" is, which are based off Confucian principles. The term "Junzi" is a term crucial to classical Confucianism. Literally meaning "son of a ruler", "prince" or "noble", the ideal of a "gentleman", "proper man", "exemplary person" or "perfect man" is that for which Confucianism exhorts all people to strive. A succinct description of the "perfect man" is one who "combine[s] the qualities of saint, scholar, and gentleman". (In modern times, the masculine bias in Confucianism may have weakened, but the same term is still used; the masculine translation in English is also traditional and still frequently used.) A hereditary elitism was bound up with the concept, and gentlemen were expected to act as moral guides to the rest of society. They were to:

The great exemplar of the perfect gentleman is Confucius himself. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of his life was that he was never awarded the high official position which he desired, from which he wished to demonstrate the general well-being that would ensue if humane persons ruled and administered the state.

The opposite of the Junzi was the Xiaorén, literally "small person" or "petty person." Like English "small", the word in this context in Chinese can mean petty in mind and heart, narrowly self-interested, greedy, superficial, and materialistic.



That a distinct order of " gentry " existed in England very early has, indeed, been often assumed, and is supported by weighty authorities. Thus the late Professor Freeman (in Encyclopedia Britannica xvii. page 540 b, 9th edition) said: "Early in the 11th century the order of 'gentlemen' as a separate class seems to be forming as something new. By the time of the conquest of England the distinction seems to have been fully established". Stubbs (Const. Hist., ed. 1878, iii. 544, 548) takes the same view. Sir George Sitwell , however, has conclusively proved that this opinion is based on a wrong conception of the conditions of medieval society , and that it is wholly opposed to the documentary evidence.

The fundamental social cleavage in the Middle Ages was between the nobiles , i.e. the tenants in chivalry , whether earls , barons , knights , esquires or franklins , and the ignobiles , i.e. the villeins , citizens and burgesses ; and between the most powerful noble and the humblest franklin there was, until the 15th century, no "separate class of gentlemen". Even so late as 1400 the word "gentleman" still only had the sense of generosus , and could not be used as a personal description denoting rank or quality, or as the title of a class. Yet after 1413 we find it increasingly so used; and the list of landowners in 1431, printed in Feudal Aids , contains, besides knights, esquires, yeomen and husbandmen (i.e. householders), a fair number who are classed as "gentilman".


Sir George Sitwell

Sir George Sitwell gives a lucid, instructive and occasionally amusing explanation of this development. The immediate cause was the statute I Henry V. cap. v. of 1413 , which laid down that in all original writs of action, personal appeals and indictments, in which process of outlawry lies, the "estate degree or mystery" of the defendant must be stated, as well as his present or former domicile. Now the Black Death ( 1349 ) had put the traditional social organisation out of gear. Before that the younger sons of the nobiles had received their share of the farm stock, bought or hired land, and settled down as agriculturists in their native villages. Under the new conditions this became increasingly impossible, and they were forced to seek their fortunes abroad in the French wars , or at home as hangers-on of the great nobles. These men, under the old system, had no definite status; but they were generosi , men of birth, and, being now forced to describe themselves, they disdained to be classed with franklins (now sinking in the social scale), still more with yeomen or husbandmen; they chose, therefore, to be described as "gentlemen".

On the character of these earliest "gentlemen" the records throw a lurid light. Sir George Sitwell (p. 76), describes a man typical of his class, one who had served among the men-at-arms of Lord Talbot at the Battle of Agincourt :

the premier gentleman of England, as the matter now stands, is ' Robert Ercleswyke of Stafford , gentilman' ... Fortunately—for the gentle reader will no doubt be anxious to follow in his footsteps—some particulars of his life may be gleaned from the public records. He was charged at the Staffordshire Assizes with housebreaking, wounding with intent to kill, and procuring the murder of one Thomas Page , who was cut to pieces while on his knees begging for his life.

If any earlier claimant to the title of "gentleman" be discovered, Sir George Sitwell predicts that it will be within the same year ( 1414 ) and in connection with some similar disreputable proceedings.

From these unpromising beginnings the separate order of "gentlemen" evolved very slowly. The first "gentleman" commemorated on an existing monument was John Daundelyon of Margate (died circa 1445 ); the first gentleman to enter the House of Commons , hitherto composed mainly of "valets", was William Weston , "gentylman"; but even in the latter half of the 15th century the order was not clearly established. As to the connection of gentilesse with the official grant or recognition of coat-armour, that is a profitable fiction invented and upheld by the heralds ; for coat-armour was but the badge assumed by gentlemen to distinguish them in battle, and many gentlemen of long descent never had occasion to assume it, and never did.


Further decline of standards

This fiction, however, had its effect; and by the 16th century , as has been already pointed out, the official view had become clearly established that "gentlemen" constituted a distinct social order, and that the badge of this distinction was the heralds ' recognition of the right to bear arms. However, some undoubtedly "gentle" families of long descent never obtained official rights to bear a coat of arms, the family of Strickland being an example, which caused some consternation when Lord Strickland applied to join the Order of Malta in 1926 and could prove no right to a coat of arms, although his direct male ancestor had carried the English royal banner of St George at the Battle of Agincourt .

In this narrow sense, however, the word "gentleman" has long since become obsolete. The idea of "gentry" in the continental sense of noblesse is extinct in England, and is likely to remain so, in spite of the efforts of certain enthusiasts to revive it (see A. C. Fox-Davies, Armorial Families , Edinburgh, 1895 ). That it once existed has been sufficiently shown; but the whole spirit and tendency of English constitutional and social development tended to its early destruction. The comparative good order of England was not favourable to the continuance of a class developed during the foreign and civil wars of the 14th and 15th centuries, for whom fighting was the sole honourable occupation. The younger sons of noble families became apprentices in the cities, and there grew up a new aristocracy of trade . Merchants are still "citizens" to William Harrison; but he adds "they often change estate with gentlemen, as gentlemen do with them, by a mutual conversion of the one into the other".


A line between classes

A frontier line between classes so indefinite could not be maintained in some societies such as England where there was never a "nobiliary prefix" to stamp a person as a gentleman, as opposed to France or Germany . The process was hastened, moreover, by the corruption of the Heralds' College and by the ease with which coats of arms could be assumed without a shadow of claim; which tended to bring the science of armory into contempt.

The prefix "de" attached to some English names is in no sense "nobiliary". In Latin documents de was the equivalent of the English "of", as de la for "at" (so de la Pole for "Atte Poole"; compare such names as "Attwood" or "Attwater"). In English this "of" disappeared during the 15th century: for example the grandson of Johannes de Stoke (John of Stoke) in a 14th-century document becomes "John Stoke". In modern times, under the influence of romanticism , the prefix "de" has been in some cases "revived" under a misconception, e.g. "de Trafford", "de Hoghton". Very rarely it is correctly retained as derived from a foreign place-name, e.g. "de Grey".


Modern usage

The word "gentleman" as an index of rank had already become of doubtful value before the great political and social changes of the 19th century gave to it a wider and essentially higher significance. The change is well illustrated in the definitions given in the successive editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica . In the 5th edition (1815) "a gentleman is one, who without any title, bears a coat of arms , or whose ancestors have been freemen ". In the 7th edition (1845) it still implies a definite social status: "All above the rank of yeomen ". In the 8th edition (1856) this is still its "most extended sense"; "in a more limited sense" it is defined in the same words as those quoted above from the 5th edition; but the writer adds, "By courtesy this title is generally accorded to all persons above the rank of common tradesmen when their manners are indicative of a certain amount of refinement and intelligence".

The Reform Act 1832 did its work; the " middle classes " came into their own; and the word "gentleman" came in common use to signify not a distinction of blood, but a distinction of position, education and manners .

By this usage, the test is no longer good birth, or the right to bear arms, but the capacity to mingle on equal terms in good society.

In its best use, moreover, "gentleman" involves a certain superior standard of conduct, due, to quote the 8th edition once more, to "that self-respect and intellectual refinement which manifest themselves in unrestrained yet delicate manners". The word "gentle", originally implying a certain social status, had very early come to be associated with the standard of manners expected from that status. Thus by a sort of punning process the "gentleman" becomes a "gentle-man".

In another sense, being a gentleman means treating others, especially women , in a respectful manner, and not taking advantage or pushing others into doing things they choose not to do. The exception, of course, is to push one into something they need to do for their own good, as in a visit to the hospital, or pursuing a dream one has suppressed.

In some cases its meaning becomes twisted through misguided efforts to avoid offending anyone; a news report of a riot may refer to a "gentleman" trying to smash a window with a trashcan in order to loot a store. Similar use (notably between quotation marks or in an appropriate tone) may also be deliberate irony .

In Time Enough for Love , Robert A. Heinlein described being a gentleman as part of the (slowly) emerging realization in the human consciousness of motives higher than simple self-service.

A curiculum for a well-rounded officer and a gentleman

Riding & Hunting
Reading and Writing


Sources and references

Antonyms information about gentleman
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Gentlemen’s Clubs

Jill Rogers

Regency London
Of all the modern schemes of Man
That time has brought to bear,
A plague upon the wicked plan
That parts the wedded pair!
My female friends they all agree
They hardly know their hubs;
And heart and voice unite with me,
‘We hate the name of Clubs!’
One selfish course the Wretches keep;
They come at morning chimes;
To snatch a few short hours of sleep-
Rise – breakfast – read The Times -
Then take their hats, and post away,
Like Clerks or City scrubs,
And no one sees them all the day, -
They live, eat, drink, at Clubs!...

The words at right appeared in the Comic Annual, under the title ‘Clubs – Turned Up by a Female Hand’, a satirical comment on the widely held belief that a man of means during the Regency divided his time between his wife, his mistress and his club, and often spent most of it in the latter. The role of club-widow was an accepted fact of married life, however much the wives may have disliked it. Another point of view, however, was that clubs were an excellent institution inasmuch as they acted as buffers in marriage: if the couple were having a row it was better for the husband to take his bad temper out on his friends at the club than his wife and children at home. (Murray,157-158)

It seems little has changed in more than 200 years.

The Gentlemen with whom we are acquainted through our favourite authoress, of course did not fit this description, they were more than content to reside in the country. Having endured such agonies in pursuit of connubial bliss, would they have jeopardised their happiness by taking a mistress? – I think not. However their membership of one or more Clubs would have been seen as normal and their attendance whenever they were in London an accepted part of life.

The role of the clubs was of course much more than that of a haven for gentlemen to escape to. As today they were places where men could meet and talk ‘off the record’, where it is said many a career was made, many a cabinet decided over a lengthy dinner. They were places where those with similar interests could meet, where ambitious young politicians could make the acquaintance of the party leaders, artists could meet patrons and poets publishers. On a less elevated level the aspiring dandy could feast his eyes on the accredited beau, sportsmen could gamble, gluttons indulge and gossips chatter. (Murray,158)

During the Regency, the three clubs that epitomised the grace and elegance of the period were White’s, Brooks’ and Boodle’s and the common denominator between them and all other clubs was gambling, the passion which had dominated high society in London from the reign of Queen Anne to that of Queen Victoria. These clubs had their origins in the chocolate and coffee houses of the 17th and early 18th century. White’s was the offspring of a chocolate house of the same name which flourished at the end of the 17th century. The Cocoa-Tree Club, of which Byron was a member, was originally a Tory chocolate house, famous for once having been the headquarters of the Jacobite Party. .(Murray,163)

Because these houses were open to the public it became evident to the Gentlemen of the day that the risk associated in gambling with strangers was becoming unacceptable and moreover could prove most embarrassing as the following report shows:

Even highwaymen of the more presentable type were constantly to be met at the Chocolate House; judges there were liable to meet the man whom they might afterwards have to sentence in the dock: it was no uncommon thing... to recognise a body swinging in chains on a heath outside London as a man with whom you had called a main at hazard a few weeks before at White’s or at the Cocoa-Tree (Murray,163).

From these concerns arose the concept of ‘private houses’ – or clubs.

The clubs were similar in style, although each tried to retain its own distinctive flavour and each was governed by their own rules of conduct and honour. The facilities they offered their members were predicated on comfort and privacy. The buildings were furnished like grand private houses, with thick carpets, marble fireplaces, rich upholstery, beautiful looking glassware and extremely comfortable chairs. (Murray,161)

These establishments were obviously the envy of not only the locals but of visitors from the continent as this quotation attributed to Prince Puckler-Muskau illustrates.

In the first place, the foreigner must admire the refinement of comfort which the Englishman brings to the art of sitting; I must confess that anyone who does not fully understand that work of genius, the English chair, designed for every grade of fatigue, illness and peculiarity of constitution, has truly missed a great part of earthly life. It is indeed a real pleasure just to see an Englishman sit, or rather lie, in one of those bedlike chairs by the fireplace, an arrangement like a writing desk placed on the chair arm and furnished with a light, so that with slightest pressure he can push it nearer or further away, right or left, as he wishes. Moreover a curious device, of which several stand around the great fireplace, holds up one or both of his feet, and the hat on his head completes the charming picture. (Murray,161)

White’s was seen as the smartest and most exclusive of the three great clubs of the Regency with Walpole having declared that when an heir was born to a great house, the butler was sent to White’s to put his name down in the candidates’ book before he went on to record the child’s birth at the registry office (Murray,162)

The other side of the coin however was that White’s was ‘the bane of the English nobility’ because of the fortunes lost at play, and Lord Lyttleton wrote of his dread that ‘the rattling of a dice box at White’s may one day or other (if my son should be a member of that noble academy) shake down all our fine oaks. It is dreadful to see, not only there, but almost in every house in town, what devastations are made by that destructive fury, the spirit of play’ (Murray,162)

Brooks’ was the most openly political of clubs and was founded in 1778 by one of the ex-managers of Almack’s, a man named William Brooks. The original 27 members of Brooks’ were all ‘macaronis’, young dandies who specialized in outrageous dressing and enormous wigs. The average age of the founder members was 25; they were all rich, smart and extravagant, so it is hardly surprising that the club acquired a reputation for wild behaviour and sensational gambling. At the same time, these young men were, for the most part, scions of the great Whig families, and as such had been indoctrinated with politics and the concept of liberalism from the earliest age. Thus, with its reputation as a gambling hell, Brooks’ soon became known as a breeding ground for Whig politicians and, within a few years, as the ex-officio headquarters of the party. It was the stamping ground of Charles James Fox, elected at the age of 16, and other like-minded advocates of reform. Membership of Brooks’, however was by no means confined to politicians: other celebrities included Edmund Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Horace Walpole, Edward Gibbon, Richard Sheridan, William Wilberforce and the Prince of Wales, who joined so that he could talk to Fox in comfort and privacy (and enlist Fox’s support in Parliament). Sheridan, incidentally, was proposed three times for membership of Brooks’ and blackballed on each occasion by George Selwyn, because his father had been on the stage. In the end Sheridan did get in.

Boodle’s was the domain of the country squires and the fox hunting set (Murray,162)

At the end of the 18th century the most popular games were hazard and faro, which were played against the bank. Hazard was a game of pure chance, in which the players threw dice against a particular number between five and nine, which was chosen by the ‘caster’. It could be played by any number of people, who took it in turn to ‘call the main’. Since the odds were well known, it was a game of pure chance, similar to the modern American game of craps. Faro was a variation on the theme of roulette, but eventually fell into disrepute because it was so easy for the bank to cheat, and was succeeded by a craze for macao, another game involving several players. At the same time too, there was always plenty of single combat going on in the clubs, members chancing huge sums of money on a hand of piquet or a round of backgammon. Whist was popular as well, but regarded, as comparatively harmless, even though it was possible to raise the stakes to dangerously high levels.(Murray,165)

There were innumerable instances of huge sums being lost and won at all of these clubs during the latter part of the 18th century. For those whose losses could not be covered by family or friends, complete ruin left but two alternatives – either to flee to the Continent in disgrace or take such action as described by Knyveton.

January 1st 1787:Summoned early this morning to the house of a lady of rank, whom I was to attend in her second pregnancy. Her pains had come on in the early hours, and the midwife was sent for. About an hour later the lady’s husband returned home in company with her brother; both were intoxicated, and the husband particularly had plunged very heavily at the Cocoa Tree, losing, it is said, upwards of £11,000 at the faro tables between eight and one o’clock; and so rose and came home, where making an excuse to his brother-in-law stepped aside into the library and blew out his brains.

The poor lady hearing the shot and feet running up and down, asked what had occurred. to which the midwife very sensibly replied that the butler had accidentally fired off a pistol. A little later however the lady’s brother burst into her bedroom, and foolishly acquainted her of the tragedy; whereupon she uttered a loud shriek and fell back insensible. It was in vain I was summoned. The lady was quite dead when I arrived. and there is no doubt the sudden shock of the terrible news thus rudely broken to her was responsible. Ladies at such times are always in a highly emotional state, but it is sad to reflect that this vice of heavy gambling has at a stroke claimed three victims.’ (Brander,184)

Although the 19th century brought a lessening of the high stakes previously played for, gambling continued to cause havoc amongst the leaders of the Regency. The betting book at White’s shows that Lord Alvanley bet a certain Mr Talbot a ‘hundred guineas to ten guineas that a certain person understood between them does not marry a certain lady understood between them in eighteen months from this day. January5, 1811.’ There is a postscript to the effect that Talbot paid. (Murray,158)

Probably the most significant club was ‘The Royal Society’ which had its foundation in 1662. During the Regency it became the meeting place for all the most distinguished scientists, engineers, astronomers, explorers and botanists of their day from Cook to Stephenson. The Royal Society, however, was not solely confined to scientific celebrities, soldiers, sailors, bishops, poets, musicians, writers and artists were all welcome. Gibbon, Reynolds, Benjamin Franklin, Boswell, Wedgwood, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Turner and Watt were all either regular guests or actual members in their time. (Murray,168)

In the context of Jane’s novels, it is interesting to consider to which clubs her characters would belong and what their main interests in attending would be. None of her male characters were completely ruined by excessive gambling, although several of them came very close to such an end. I leave it to members’ ingenuity to decide.

Murray Venetia, High Society – A Social History of the Regency Period, 1788 – 1830, Viking Books. London. 1998
Brander Michael, The Georgian Gentleman, Saxon House Ltd. Farnborough, Hants. England.1973