A university education was one of the major advantages that set the regency gentleman apart from his social inferiors, and, like everything else in Britain in the early 1800s, the road to a degree was marked by sharp class distinctions. At Oxford, one of England’s two major universities during the regency,
This Nobleman Commoner wears a silk robe trimmed in gold, and the mortarboard he holds bears a golden tassel.
Independent members came from the country’s prosperous families, the nobility and gentry, and could be divided into four tiers. At the top were Noblemen Commoners, a group made up of peers and sons of peers. Noblemen Commoners were allowed to wear a gold tassel or “tuft” on their cap, giving rise to the term “tufthunter” to describe a social climber. The amateur poet and artist Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe (BA 1802, MA 1806) satirized one such Oxonian:
A gay golden tuft on his cap he displays,
Which dazzles all eyes with its ravishing rays—
True badge of nobility, awful and grand,
Confin’d to the essence and cream of the land.
The wealthy Gentleman Commoner could be distinguished by his silk gown trimmed lavishly in rows of black pompoms.
The majority of undergraduates were Commoners, like this young man, recognizable from his sleeveless gown of black stuff. ("Stuff" was essentially anything that wasn't silk, usually wool.)
The lowly servitor worked his way through university, performing servants' duties such as waiting at table. (And notice how the humbler the undergraduate is, the less likely he is to stare out of his portrait.)
Anyone at Oxford could tell at a glance exactly who was of high rank and who wasn’t, since caps and gowns were required (and still are, in many instances). In addition to the gold tuft on his cap, the Nobleman Commoner wore a gown of colored silk—the color was up to him—decorated on the sleeves, yoke and hem with gold lace. The Gentleman Commoner was not quite such a peacock but looked almost as grand, bearing a black tuft on his cap and a silk gown decorated with rows of black pompoms on the sleeves and hem. The Commoners wore a sleeveless gown made of black stuff, with streamers decorated in braid dangling from the yoke in back. Servitors wore a similar sleeveless gown, but without the braided streamers. Until 1770, instead of wearing the familiar mortarboard cap the Servitor had to wear a round hat, sometimes referred to as a cow-pat, but eventually this mark of shame was eliminated and he was allowed to wear a square cap without a tassel.
Over the first half of the 1800s, the term servitor fell out of favor, as did the requirement that such students act as servants for the Fellows. Instead they were first called clerks (sometimes bible-clerks, since they were paid a stipend for saying grace, keeping track of chapel attendance and reading the bible lessons aloud), and then absorbed into the Exhibitioners. The terms Nobleman Commoner and Gentleman Commoner likewise fell by the wayside. Acts like the Christ Church Ordinances Bill of 1867 eliminated such distinctions, ensuring that any undergraduates who were not on the foundation became known simply as Commoners.
Alyssa Everett's newest regency romance, Lord of Secrets,was released March 25 and is available now. If you like angst and "tortured" heroes, you should give it a look. It joins her debut regency, Ruined by Rumor, while her third, A Tryst With Trouble, will be released in September. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.