The Three Estates

Once upon a time in France the people were defined by their Estate – that is, what class they belonged to.

Let’s take a closer look at them – then we can muse about whether or not we think the system was fair.

The First Estate

The First Estate
Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Ordained members of the Roman Catholic Church. These were archbishops and bishops down to parish priests, monks and nuns.

The Church was a vital part of France in the 1800’s. The Church was the only place you could get married, register the birth of a child and, since religion was such a huge part of people’s lives, the only place you could access God. The Church was also responsible for educating children and providing charity to the poor. Because of this, many people left their property and money to the Church when they died.

Common people – anybody who didn’t belong to the church or didn’t have a title, had to pay tithes or ‘church taxes’ every year, but the Church itself paid almost nothing in state taxes. This meant that whatever money it earned it got to keep. What’s more, the wealth within the Church tended to stay at the top of the pecking order, meaning that archbishops and cardinals were vastly wealthy. Some of them were even rich enough to buy noble titles for themselves and they lived extravagant lives.

On the other hand, parish priests were often poorly paid by the church and lived among the poor of the Third Estate. 

The Second Estate

The Second Estate
Image sources from Wikimedia Commons

The Nobility including anyone of the royal family and the men and women with aristocratic titles like Duke and Duchess, Baron and Baroness or Count and Countess.

The members of the second estate were born into their title, mostly. Sometimes, wealthy members of the Third Estate became rich enough to buy themselves an aristocratic title. These Nobles owned most of the land in France and made their money from taxes paid to them by the Third Estate. They were also exempt from personal taxes which, like the members of the First Estate, meant that whatever wealth they made they got to keep. They lived in the Palace of Versailles with the king if they wished, or on their own vast estates.

There were, however, some members of the Second Estate who had either lost all their money or didn’t have much to begin with. They still had their titles, but lived either in city houses or on very modest estates. These nobles didn’t have the money to keep up with fashion or to support the King’s causes so had very little to do with the royal family.

The Third Estate

French peasants depicted in Fin du travail (1887) 
Image sources from Wikimedia Commons
French peasants depicted in Fin du travail (1887)
Image sources from Wikimedia Commons

Everybody else.

The Third Estate was huge; it made up 97% of the population! Because this group was so big they are usually broken up into three categories:

  • First Category- Bourgeoisie or middle class. This group was made up of wealthy bankers, factory owners, land owners, merchants, doctors and lawyers to name a few. Some became so rich that they could afford to buy themselves into the Second Estate.
  • Second Category – Urban workers. They ranged from skilled jobs like locksmiths, tailors, furniture makers and carpenters to unskilled workers doing jobs like domestic service, washing and labouring. Many in this category did not, in fact, work at all because they couldn’t find a job. These people survived only by stealing, scavenging and begging on the streets.
  • Third Category – Rural peasants. The life of a rural peasant was generally tough. Very few owned their own farms. Instead they would rent land from rich landlords. Their rent and taxes were so expensive that they had very little left over to live on, and there was nothing like government assistance or sick leave – if you were too sick to work you simply did not get paid.
Pie chart depicting the Three Estates in pre-revolution France.
Pie chart depicting the Three Estates in pre-revolution France.


Whether they were wealthy or rural peasants, all member of the Third Estate were taxed heavily by the state. That means that they had to pay a certain amount of what they earned from work or from selling farmed goods to the government, who in turn spent that money running the country.

If the peasants rented land from a landlord they would owe taxes to the landlord as well. If they went to Church, which most of the population did, they were supposed to pay a tithe, a Church tax, every year.

Members of the Third Estate bore the burden of the country’s taxes whereas the First and Second Estates – the wealthiest people in the country – had almost no taxes to pay at all.

Political Power

The political system was very unfair for the Third Estate. Under the Ancient Regime (the old political system before the Revolution), the Third Estate had one single vote in parliament as a group whereas every single nobleman had a vote of his own. What did that mean? That 97% of the population was represented by one single vote.

The laws being passed were voted on almost entirely by the wealthy and powerful – ordinary commoners didn’t have much of a say so most of the laws were made to suit only the rich people.

The Cost of Food

Have a think about this:at the end of the 18th century – right before the French Revolution – the average skilled worker in Paris earned between 30 and 60 sous per day. The average unskilled worker earned between 15 and 20 sous per day. After poor wheat harvests of 1788-1789 the price of bread was driven up to about 14 sous for one loaf. That meant that unskilled workers were spending almost their entire wage on just one loaf of bread – meat and vegetables were certainly out of the question!

In Conclusion

Even though the Third Estate comprised of 97% of the entire population they had very little power or money. Because of the unfair tax system and the low wages, the poor found it very difficult to get themselves out of poverty. With no help coming from the king or the government, it’s no wonder they sought a Revolution to make a fairer system.


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