Jane Austen’s hero, Mr Knightley, though he may have been a very indifferent lover– was no slouch when it came to his social responsibilities. I confess he is my favourite of all her heroes. And his qualities are well known and admired.

He is almost the headmaster of Highbury, the  long standing major landowner in the area ,to whom the Woodehouses are only second in consequence. He chivvies and chides the locals into good behaviour unlike Lady Catherine de Bough who uses bullying tactics. He sees to his friends needs and wants- he is acutely aware of poor Miss Bates dreadful situation in life. He even sacrifices his last store of apples to try tempt Jane Fairfax’s poor appetite. He cares about his tenants, and  is proud of their achievements.

We can learn all that easily enough from the text.

But what can we discern about him being a magistrate? Wasn’t it the done thing for the local squire to be a magistrate ? Why is being a magistrate a feather in Mr Knightley’s cap?

The brothers talked of their own concerns and pursuits, but principally of those of the elder, whose temper was by much the most communicative, and who was always the greater talker.  As a magistrate, he had generally some point of law to consult John about, or, at least, some curious anecdote to give…

Emma , Chapter 12

First, let’s  examine magistrates and their roles in  county society.

Magistrates in Jane Austen’s era had both criminal and civil legal responsibilities ,and also were the first tier of local government administration , with their association with the Vestries of each parish.

As a county Justice of the Peace  Mr Knightley would have been appointed( not elected, note) to that position by the Sherriff, who was in turn appointed by the Crown and was its representative. The Sherriffs were usually appointed from the ranks of the aristocracy.

The first known record of magistrates was in 1195 when Richard I commissioned knights to uphold order in unruly areas of England. They were responsible to the King for ensuring that local order and peace was maintained; as such they became known as Keepers of the Peace, a term which was altered to Justices of the Peace in 1361. They administered the criminal law at first instance and also administered many social aspects of the civil law with respect to the poor in a parish.

In Jane Austen’s day there were three ways in which one could become a magistrate:

1) By Act of parliament ( Examples are the Bishop of Ely and his successors; the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Durham)

2)By commission-which was the most common way of appointing magistrates

and ,lastly ,

3) “By charter or grant made by the King under his Great Seal: as Mayors and the chief officers in diverse corporate towns”

(See The Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer by Richard Burn (1800) Volume III p. 5.)

To qualify as a Magistrate by commission during Jane Austen’s period, one had to be:

i)  a member of the Church of England and,

ii) own freehold land to the annual value of at least £100 per year. ( This qualification was finally abolished in 1906 to open up membership of the Bench to a wider strata of society.)

Obviously, Mr Knightly qualified on both counts.

There was another qualification- one had to be male. Women were not allowed to become magistrates. Poor Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, who though she acted as if she were a Justice of the Peace in respect to the operation of the Poor Laws in her parish would never able to be officially appointed to the post. She could not sit in court in judgement on cases. (Women were only finally allowed to become Magistrates in 1919.)

Magistrates had civil and criminal responsibilities.  They usually dealt with minor crimes in the area.  They heard these cases in Petty ( from the French “Petit“) Sessions, and then on a grander and less frequent scale at the Quarter Sessions( held 4 times per year) at the local county town.

The Parish was not only a religious entity, containing usually one parish church with its incumbent,  but also an administrative authority, and had responsibilities under the Poor Law Act of 1601 for paupers in the parish. Magistrates also shared some of these responsibilities, since the enactment of the Poor Law Act of 1601 gave them powers to deal with  the control and care of paupers in the Parish: they were also involved in the  administration of Poor Relief( financial assistance ) and the administration of the local Workhouse. This aspect of local government  was administered jointly in a parish party by the Vestry of the parish church and partly by local magistrates.

(An idealised view of a Georgian workhouse ,circa 1815)

The Vestry  was usually  administered by a Parish Clerk, who was responsible for the day-to-day administration of the parish.

The local incumbent- the vicar or rector-had his duties too: the upkeep of the parish church and the administration of the Church rate would be undertaken by him and the Churchwardens. Who were also members  of the Vestry.

So in Chapter 53 of Emma, ,when Mr Elton is so cross and confused about a meeting with Mr Weston, Mr Cole and Mr Knightley, he is obviously talking about a Vestry meeting, in order to discuss parish administration. Mr Cole and Mr Weston are, clearly  members of the Highbury Parish Vestry- they were the local administrators if you like.

But, if Mr Knightley and his estate are in another parish, what right did he have to attend such meetings?

The landed property of Hartfield certainly was inconsiderable, being but a sort of notch in the Donwell Abbey estate, to which all the rest of Highbury belonged


Fortunately for him, Highbury, including Randalls in the same parish, and Donwell Abbey in the parish adjoining, the seat of Mr. Knightley, comprehended many such. Not unfrequently, through Emma’s persuasion, he had some of the chosen and the best to dine with him, but evening-parties were what he preferred, and, unless he fancied himself at any time unequal to company, there was scarcely an evening in the week in which Emma could not make up a card-table for him.

Emma, Chapter 3

Mr Knightley was not part of the Highbury parish oligarchy, (for he lived in Donwell Parish) but he was, of course, a magistrate. Magistrates were organised not on a parish-by-parish basis but on a countywide basis. Therefore as  he was in the commission for the county of Surrey he had the jurisdiction to direct and, in some circumstances, order the Vestries in his county/locality to undertake certain legal obligations.  So he was doing his quite proper and correct local duty in attending meetings with the Highbury Parish Officers (Mr Weston and Mr Cole) and the Incumbent, (Mr Elton) even though his estate was in another parish.

We get a glimpse of the practical  workings of  the Vestry in Emma: good old Miss Bates lets us know about poor John Abdy and his son’s efforts to get him some parish relief:

I was so astonished when she first told me what she had been saying to Mrs. Elton, and when Mrs. Elton at the same moment came congratulating me upon it! It was before tea — stay — no, it could not be before tea, because we were just going to cards — and yet it was before tea, because I remember thinking — Oh! no now I recollect, now I have it; something happened before tea, but not that Mr. Elton was called out of the room before tea, old John Abdy’s son wanted to speak with him. Poor old John, I have a great regard for him; he was clerk to my poor father twenty-seven years; and now, poor old man, he is bed-ridden, and very poorly with the rheumatic gout in his joints — I must go and see him to-day; and so will Jane, I am sure, if she gets out at all. And poor John’s son came to talk to Mr. Elton about relief from the parish: he is very well to do himself, you know, being head man at the Crown, ostler, and every thing of that sort, but still he cannot keep his father without some help; so, when Mr. Elton came back, he told us what John ostler had been telling him, and then it came out about the chaise having been sent to Randalls to take Mr. Frank Churchill to Richmond. That was what happened before tea. It was after tea that Jane spoke to Mrs. Elton.”

Emma,Chapter 44

This is all very well you say: but lets get to the point. Exactly what point was Jane Austen making by telling us that MrKnighltey was a magistrate?

Well, ..I think the point is  that he was being rather honourable accepting the post, given his station in life.  At the time Jane Austen was writing  few members of the gentry or higher social classes were willing to be active magistrates.

Irene Collins in her book Jane Austen and the Clergy gives this succinct summary of the work involved advantages to be had socially as a magistrate;

“The duties of a magistrate demanded a great deal of time and effort for no material reward [the post was ,and is still, unpaid,jfw ]…On the other hand , because the duties were so multifarious and important ,the office bestowed great distinction upon the holder, and for this reason was in great demand in the rural areas of England…In county districts the nouveaux riches were particularly anxious to gain admittance. No vast amount of land was needed to produce an income of £100 a year..”

This view has been confirmed  by recent research which has demonstrated that men like Mr Knightley were the exception, not the rule. It has been a long held belief that the Bench in the 18th century was made up of land-owning squires and gentry who were keen to protect their own intents in the way they administered the law. However, detailed analysis of country Commissions for the Peace indicate that this view is entirely erroneous, especially by the time Jane Austen was writing Emma.

Professor Peter King in his detailed and fascinating book Crime Justice and Discretion in England 1740-1820 explains how modern research has made historians re- assess the “traditionally “ held view that all magistrates were wealthy squires:

“Since the minimum legal qualification required to become a JP- an annual income from land of £100- fell far short of the level needed to become a substantial gentleman by the later 18th century, the magistracy could be recruited from a fairly broad spectrum of the land owning classes. The flexibilities this introduced became increasingly useful in the second half of the eighteenth century because growing proportion of the substantial, long established gentry refused to act as justices.

Landaus’s detailed work on Kent(” The Justices”) suggests that it therefore became necessary to lower standards and elevate an increasing number of minor gentry, clergy and professional men to the bench, despite the fact that the political persuasion of potential magistrates was no longer an issue. Jenkins(“In The Making” p87) found a similar change occurring in Glamorgan where the section of society from which JPs were drawn was widened in the later eighteenth century to include not only lawyers and stewards, but also some new industrialists group that were stile excluded from many other county benches half a century later.

In both areas, as in early nineteenth century Northamptonshire, it appears that JPs from lesser gentry families, from clerical backgrounds or from groups striving to establish their gentry status tended to be more active, partly because they were relatively free from the counter attractions of the London season or of parliament. Indeed Lawrence Stone has recently argued that in all counties in the eighteenth century the elite increasingly tended to leave the office of JA to the parish gentry and the clergy in order to allow themselves leisure to hunt, travel a nd to make lengthy visits to London.

The eighteenth century Essex evidence offers considerable support for this view. Clerical justices increased rapidly to from 28 per cent of active magistrates in Essex by 1785.-a figure similar to that found in Hertfordshire ,Surrey and Oxfordshire. Meanwhile the proportion drawn from those above the rank of esquire was halved between 1747 and 1785,by which time the impact of the aristocracy on the Essex quarter sessions and on judicial work in the county was minimal.

Mr Knightley is from a very old established family. He is not nouveaux riche in any sense of the phrase-unlike Mr Elton, Mr Cole or indeed, Mr Weston.

His being a magistrate would give him very little extra social cachet but a great deal more responsibility and less free time.

His actively being a magistrate is therefore significant and reinforces his admirable qualities. While other men of his status were more concerned with pleasure, Mr Knightley is devoted to the well being not only of his estate and tenants but of the whole area.