Clerical Livings

The owner of an advowson could sell it like a piece of property.

I shall quote from my copy of Ecclesiastical Law ,abstracted from Halsbury’s Laws of England ,edited by Viscount Simonds:

The initial right of a clerk to hold a church and benefice is acquired by presentation, or if the benefice is in the gift of the bishop of the diocese in which it is situate, by collation. The right to fill a church and benefice by presentation or collation is called an advowson or right of patronage and the owner is called the patron.

An advowson is an incorporeal hereditament and it will pass under a conveyance or demise of hereditaments or tenements or real estate…On the death of the owner it is an asset for payment of his debts.

So basically the right to give or sell the living of a church was seen as part of the patron’s estate, and it was an asset.

I have added below an explanation of the working of advowson, for clarity’s sake.

The following is written about patronage and attitudes towards it in the 18th century from The Church in an Age of Negligence by Peter Virgin. :

Patronage in the politics of the eighteenth century ,was power…Patronage in normal circumstances ,was expected to act as a kind of glue, whose function was to hold together the numerous interests and factions which shared, in so many instances ,the common characteristic of begin threatened with imminent fragmentation .The hope was that an appointment to a post here, or a post there, might be used to broaden an allegiance or to strengthen ties of family and friendship :but things needless to say did not always work out as planned .A patron’s fondly cherished hopes were often dashed to the ground, as some protégéé was encouraged by the bestowal of a little gift to seek another little gift from someone else. The important thing is that patronage was accepted as axiomatic: that the assumptions upon which it rested- that ties of financial interest should also be ties of party and that the forms taken by patronage were a wholly appropriate exercise of influence-were not questioned.

Patronage was sacrosanct among the political community, and it was equally sacrosanct within the ecclesiastical establishment . Erastianism was triumphant. The right of royal appointment to bishoprics was not challenged; nor ,equally, was there strong opposition to lay patronage. What was natural to the state ,ran the argument, was natural within the church. When churchmen grumbled ,they grumbled about abuses, and what was seen as betrayals of natural justice. Foremost among abuses was simony; and foremost among betrayal of natural justice was the failure of lay patrons to pay adequate stipends to those perpetual curates serving the very parishes from which they drew a large portion of their wealth….

Though the practice of buying and selling advowsons might seem at odds with our 21st century sensibilities, it was perfectly acceptable to the majority of the clergy and laity of the time.


The right of presentation, or, more correctly, the advowson of the property was an inherited right that couild be legally passed on to another party. The right consisted of being allowed to propose a candidate for a living, not the right to install one. The right to actually install was the perogative of the local bishop. This is important , because it does mean that a holder of the advowson couldn’t arbitrarily hire and fire a parson . It’s also important to reember that a parson was hired for life, or until he chose to retire. Therfore, the vacancy could only officially occur when the incumbent died. Officially, there was nothing to sell, and the selling of livings should not have happened. However, competition for livings was fierce, and some prospective parsons were willing to enter into a contract to be the next in line for an exchange of money. They literally bought the aprroval of the owner of the advowson…and we see that happing in MP. Although it wasn’t strictly illegal, it was considered rather disgraceful, and it’s obvious in MP that Sir Thomas would not have done it if he hadn’t needed the money in a hurry.

How was the right of next presentation valued?

When a parson died or retired, the church auhtorities made an official inventory of the living and assessed its value- a rather arbitrary and inexact science, but simple to operate. I presume Robert is talking about standard selling practices in teh book; I have nothing to add to that.

Was there a regular market in next presentations, as there was in Parliamentary rotten boroughs?

Neither were officially approved,so I don’t know how “regular” you can claim either to be. Both livings an prospective incumbents turn up in newspaper ads for the time, however- James Austen advertised himself in a spoof one in his Oxford magazine.

How was the sale and purchase of next presentations perceived by members of the upper classes less mercenary than RD? Was this a respectable way to acquire patronage on behalf of a younger son or a nephew?

It was done. However, doing it before the incumbent was out and done with always seems to have been a bit shady. I don’t think JA herself approved of it, and it certainly was one of the complaints about the church system that got addressed pretty rapidly after the wars with France ended- although there was not real change until the 1830’s, on this, and many other matters.

Recommended: Jane Austen and The Clergy by Irene Collins