Aristocrats: Power, Grace, and Decadence: Britain's Great Ruling Classes from 1066 to the Present

Aristocrats: Power, Grace, and Decadence: Britain's Great Ruling Classes from 1066 to the Present

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by Lawrence James

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Aristocracy means "rule by the best." For nine hundred years, the British aristocracy considered itself ideally qualified to rule others, make laws, and guide the nation. Its virtues lay in its collective wisdom, its attachment to chivalric codes, and its sense of public duty. It evolved from a medieval warrior caste into a self-assured and sophisticated elite,


Aristocracy means "rule by the best." For nine hundred years, the British aristocracy considered itself ideally qualified to rule others, make laws, and guide the nation. Its virtues lay in its collective wisdom, its attachment to chivalric codes, and its sense of public duty. It evolved from a medieval warrior caste into a self-assured and sophisticated elite, which made itself the champion of popular liberty: It forced King John to sign the Magna Carta and later used its power and wealth to depose a succession of tyrannical kings from Richard II to James II. Britain's liberties and constitution were the result of aristocratic bloody-mindedness and courage.

Aristocrats traces the history of this remarkable supremacy. It is a story of civil wars, conquests, intrigue, chicanery, and extremes of selflessness and greed. The aristocracy survived and, in the age of the great house and the Grand Tour, governed the first industrial nation while a knot of noblemen ruled its growing empire. Under pressure from below, this political power was slowly relinquished and then shared. Yet democratic Britain retained its aristocracy: Churchill, himself the grandson of a duke, presided over a wartime cabinet that contained six hereditary peers.

Lawrence James illuminates the culture of this singular caste, shows how its infatuation with classical art has forged England's heritage, how its love of sport has shaped the nation's pastimes and values, and how its scandals have entertained its public.

Impeccably researched, balanced, and brilliantly told, Aristocrats is an enthralling story of survival, a stunning history of wealth, power, and influence.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[A] great, sweeping survey of the ups and downs of the British aristocracy.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Anyone who indulges in modern interpretations of Tudor courts or relishes details of British historical undercurrents should enjoy James's take on the power behind the British throne.” —Publishers Weekly

“This is a stylish, intelligent, and readable book.” —The New York Times Book Review on The Rise and Fall of the British Empire

Kirkus Reviews
A broad narrative history of British wealth and opulence since the Norman Conquest. James (The Middle Class: A History) effectively digests an entire millennium of British aristocracy, from the cult of chivalry to the creaking irrelevance of peers hanging on by their gilded toenails in today's House of Lords. The word "Great" in the title gives a notion of where the author stands: "Who or what will replace these men and women?" he writes. "The extinction of the Lords would create a vacuum in public life and a dangerous one." They have served, above all, as a check on the sovereign's power, strictures clearly set out in 1215 in the Magna Carta, which safeguarded inalienable rights and protected "freemen" from excessive, arbitrary taxation. The contract held the king to account, and a bicameral parliament ensued, containing an inherited House of Lords and elected members in the House of Commons. With myriad examples, James traces how the "great men of the realm," namely aristocrats, would invoke that right to check the king, especially during the civil and religious wars. The creation of the Whigs, rebellious hotheads, and Tories, submissive to authority, occurred at this 17th-century juncture. But the power of the aristocrats, resting on landownership before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, was undergirded by the approval of the masses, who might also rise up (as in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381), or ape their masters, as demonstrated by the mores of the growing middle class. Most important, the aristocrats created a cultural legacy of grand homes, taste, fashion, art and sports. James attends to all the necessary historical strands, some of which American readers may find difficult to swallow. Still, the author provides a helpful chronicle of the traditions we hailed from and happily rebelled against.

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Power, Grace, and Decadence: Britain's Great Ruling Classes from 1066 to the Present

By Lawrence James

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2010 Lawrence James
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8278-8

A Game of Dice: The Growth of Aristocratic Power
The history of medieval England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland is of four embryonic polities engaged in a prolonged struggle to achieve order, stability and prosperity. It was a difficult, slow and frustrating task because political power was inseparable from military, and those who possessed it used it promiscuously. A king was the first warrior in the realm: he defended it from its external and internal enemies and was ready to uphold the laws he made by force. Immediately below him were a body of men who enjoyed his favour and owed their elevation to their skill in war. Before the Norman Conquest of 1066 they were called ‘thegns’ and afterwards, ‘knights’, but their function and status were the same. The Crown granted them land that was cultivated by a peasantry which was largely unfree. Their labour supported the knight; it gave him the leisure to train for battle and it paid for his warhorse, armour, sword and lance.
From childhood, the knight mastered their use, inured himself to the weight and discomfort of armour, and learned how to control an often temperamental charger which had been bred for weight, strength and ferocity. Stamina and training made knights the masters of the battlefield; one can see them in their element on the Bayeaux Tapestry. They also appear mounted alongside a nobleman on an eleventh-century stone cross now in Meigle Museum in Angus.
The Norman, Breton and Flemish knights who won at Hastings were more than fighting machines. They upheld the authority of the Crown and defended the kingdom they had helped to conquer. Kings were always paramount, but they were bound by obligations imposed by God. In one thirteenth-century romance an archbishop tells the newly crowned King Arthur that ‘Our Lord has shown your are His elect’ and, to confirm this, the King had to swear ‘to protect the rights of the Church, keep order and peace, assist the defenceless and uphold all rights, obligations and lawful rule’. William the Conqueror (1066–87) would have understood this and so would his knights. They too were the servants of God. Speaking for them in 1100, Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester and Count (Earl) of Meulan in Normandy, reminded Henry I (1100–35) that ‘we … have been entrusted by God to provide for the common good and the safety of the realm’.
De Meulan was a distinctive kind of knight, he had the title ‘Earl’. It was a gift of the Crown, and at that time was not necessarily hereditary, but it marked him out as an owner of larger than average estates. He was, therefore, richer than a knight and could devote some of his wealth to the creation of a following of knights. They were given land and, in return, pledged loyalty to their overlord and promised to serve him in war or in his household for the customary forty days. An earl’s retinue of knights was vital if he were to perform his function as a servant of the Crown. He was a local strongman whose military resources enforced the king’s authority, particularly in lawless or frontier areas. Earls and their castles guarded the southern coastline of England and its borders with Scotland and Wales until the fourteenth century.
However powerful they were in their locations, earls were subjects of the King. Allegiance to the Crown overrode all private obligations. In 1124 Henry I ordered the blinding and castration of two knights who had joined their immediate overlord in a rebellion. The king was both the ruler of his kingdom and its landlord. His legal powers were extensive: an earl or a knight needed royal permission to inherit their lands and the king charged a fee for granting it. On taking possession of his estate, the heir paid public homage to the king. If a knight died leaving an underage heir, the boy was made a royal ward. Orphaned heiresses likewise were placed under royal protection and the king had the right to select their husbands. The power of the king as a landlord and a ruler often overlapped; if an earl or a knight wished to build a castle, he needed a royal licence.
Tension was inevitable whenever kings strapped for cash pressed their legal rights to the limit, and, if they were desperate, beyond. Early-medieval domestic politics revolved around the creation of a balance between the legal prerogative of the Crown and the rights of all landowners. This was vital since the Crown needed their cooperation in government: they enforced his laws and collected his taxes. Those whom the Crown had honoured as ‘earls’ or ‘barons’ were royal advisers. It was axiomatic that good government was the result of reasoned debate among wise men. They included bishops, who were often civil servants, and the greater landowners, who were experienced in war and, in many cases, administration.
Kings chose their councillors, but custom and common sense dictated the selection of men whose goodwill was vital for government. Many were called ‘Earl’ or ‘Baron’ in the writs which commanded them to attend the royal council, but these titles were not yet all automatically hereditary. In 1295 Edward I (1272–1307) ordered eleven earls and fifty-three barons to attend his Parliament, and in 1307 writs were delivered to seven earls and seventy-one barons.
These magnates were a fledgling aristocracy. All had substantial estates, many held offices under the Crown and some were the king’s councillors, intimate companions who ate, diced, jousted and hunted with him. They were also gradually coming to think of themselves as representatives of all the landowners within the kingdom with a responsibility not just to counsel the king, but to remind him of where his duty lay and, if necessary, compel him to undertake it properly.
Hereditary monarchy has always been hostage to genetic accidents which produced kings who were temperamentally unfit or intellectually deficient and, therefore, a danger to their high office and welfare of their subjects. The character of a king mattered, for the warrior class admired kings who were made in their image and showed leadership, courage and open-handedness. Richard I (1189–99) had all these qualities, which excused but did not alter the fact of his neglect of his domestic duties. The Lionheart spent a greater part of his reign as a Crusader fighting to recapture Jerusalem, which immeasurably enhanced his reputation as a knight.
Richard’s younger brother John (1199–1216) had no martial charisma and was a spasmodically idle and supremely unlucky monarch. His endeavours to stay solvent and twist feudal law to fill his coffers, and the favours he showered on mercenaries and adventurers of low birth, alienated his barons. A substantial number of them formed a coalition (backed at various times by the papacy and Philip II of France) to save John from himself. In 1215 they forced him to concede Magna Carta, a lengthy document contrived to rectify the pent-up grievances of the preceding fifty years. The charter drew the boundaries between royal power and established the inalienable legal rights of all freemen – everyone, that is, who was not a serf. Excessive feudal fines, burdensome tax demands and unlawful imprisonment were outlawed. Magna Carta was a landmark: it clarified relations between Crown and subjects and gave an additional legal weight to the concept that kings ruled by consent and were bound to pursue what was to the common good of their subjects.
Another principle was implicit in Magna Carta. The great men of the realm had a duty to represent the nation as a whole and call fickle or overbearing kings to account. There was a contract between the Crown and the kingdom, and the magnates had the power and the men to enforce it. They did so again in 1264 after Henry III (1216–72) extended lavish favours to imported French favourites, cold-shouldered English barons and misspent his revenues. Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, led an armed protest and looked beyond the usual allies of the magnates to enlist support from the commercial community of London.
After defeating a royal army at Lewes, de Montfort summoned a parliament in which the barons and earls were joined by representatives of the counties, cities and boroughs. The voice of the kingdom thus extended beyond the barons to knights and merchants. This experiment provided the model for all future bicameral Parliaments in which earls, barons, bishops and the richer abbots sat in what became the House of Lords and elected Members of Parliament sat in the Commons. The theoretic consent by which kings ruled now became actual; although elected by men of property (a tiny proportion of the population), parliament could claim to be the authentic voice of the kingdom. Its powers soon ceased to be advisory and by 1340 it had secured control over direct taxation.
The House of Lords was now a permanent feature of the legislature. Past custom was regularised so that territorial magnates who had hitherto been summoned as ‘barons’ and ‘earls’ were now, if the king wished, allowed to pass on their titles to their eldest sons, who were henceforward guaranteed seats in the House of Lords. Land was the principal qualification for this honour, coupled with proven loyalty to the Crown. This could be expected from members of the royal family: King John’s younger son Richard became Earl of Cornwall and was succeeded by his son, Edmund Crouchback. Yet the policy did not always work as intended, for kinship was never a guarantee of allegiance. Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, a grandson of Henry III, was the mainstay of baronial opposition to his cousin Edward II (1307–27). Undeterred by this example, Edward III (1327–77) substantially reinforced the royal power base in the Lords by giving dukedoms to four of his sons and arranging their marriages to the richest heiresses on the market. Edward’s fourth son, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, was Richard II’s (1377–99) most intransigent and vindictive adversary. Kinship was never a guarantee of loyalty.
The fourteenth century saw the emergence of an aristocracy in an Aristotelian sense. The House of Lords contained bishops, respected for their learning, and noblemen whose virtue lay in their distinguished ancestry, courage and wisdom. ‘The more we bestow honours on wise and honourable men, the more our crown is advanced with gems and precious stones,’ declared Richard II in 1397 after he had ennobled his Beaufort cousins. This fitted the ideal of rule by the best, although cynics wondered whether handing out titles to the King’s more distant and, in some cases, poorer kinsfolk was a device to create a more tractable House of Lords. Well-established peers felt that their status had been devalued and dismissed the new creations as ‘duketti’, petty and inferior dukes.
By the close of the fourteenth century a hierarchy had emerged within the peerage. At the top were dukes, then followed marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons. It became common for the eldest sons of peers to have ‘courtesy’ titles, a notch or two lower in the scale than their fathers. Status was indicated by the fur trimmings of a peer’s robes and the design of coronets. There was a correlation between rank and wealth. A rough guide compiled early in the next century indicated that a duke should have annual revenues of at least £5000, an earl £2000, a viscount £1000 and a lord £500. There were exceptions: Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, had an income of over £10,000 a year, as did Edward III’s fourth son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.
At the bottom of the scale, Lord Ogle got by on £200 a year and often less, for his estates lay in the war zone between England and Scotland. If a nobleman’s revenues were insufficient to maintain his status, his title could be forfeit. In 1484 Parliament stripped the impoverished George Neville of the dukedom of Bedford on the intriguing assumption that ‘a lord of high estate’ without the wherewithal to maintain his dignity would resort to crime to raise money. Maybe this judgement said something about Neville’s character.
The aristocracy of the fourteenth century upheld the political traditions of their predecessors. They were vigilant and obstreperous whenever the Crown attempted to impinge on the legal rights of property. Whenever a king showed undue partiality towards one or more individuals, aristocratic hackles were raised. Favourites were an anathema simply because they soaked up the royal patronage which kings were expected to spread evenly. Edward II and Richard II did not and each faced coalitions of disgruntled peers.
Edward II’s infatuation with his favourites Piers Gaveston (his homosexual lover) and the rapacious Hugh, Lord Despenser provoked three baronial rebellions, all designed to bring the King to heel and restore good and disinterested government. The lords complained that Gaveston’s promotion to the earldom of Cornwall was inappropriate for so ‘slight’ a man. This insult was compounded by Gaveston’s rudeness: he called Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, ‘an old Jew’ and Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, ‘the black dog of Arden’. Worse still for peers proud of their blood, Gaveston was a good jouster. They and their allies were revenged in 1312 when Gaveston was kidnapped and murdered. Edward II found other favourites, the Despensers, and in 1327 he was deposed by a cabal of lords led by his wife Isabella of France and her lover, Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. Both houses of Parliament endorsed the coup and the succession of Edward’s son, Edward III. His father was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, where he was murdered. Living kings, even if under lock and key, were always a focus for a counter coup.
Resisting royal tyranny was an aristocratic duty and, some believed, a hallowed one. This made Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, the implacable leader of opposition to Edward II into a martyr in the eyes of his adherents. He had been beheaded in 1322 and five years later they had begun a campaign for his canonisation on the grounds that he served God by resisting tyranny. Miracles were claimed at his tomb in Pontefract and Lancaster’s ‘martyrdom’ was painted on the south wall of South Stoke church in Oxfordshire.1 Rome, however, withheld the Earl’s sainthood.
Ultra-royalists, including Richard II, responded many years later by seeking the canonisation of Edward II as a martyr slain for his defence of the God-given authority of kings. It was a cause close to Richard’s heart and his interpretation of his divine powers provoked a series of clashes with the nobility which ended in 1399 when he was deposed. Charges against Richard included deviation from the laws and customs of the kingdom, intimidating those councillors who ‘dared to speak the truth’, and announcing that the laws ‘were in his mouth’. In short, Richard wanted his own way, just as John and Edward II had done.
Excerpted from Aristocrats by Lawrence James.
Copyright © 2009 by Lawrence James.
Published in 2009 by St. Martin’s Press New York.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.


Excerpted from Aristocrats by Lawrence James. Copyright © 2010 Lawrence James. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Lawrence James was born in Bath in 1943 and took degrees at York University and Merton College, Oxford. After a career as a schoolmaster at Merchant Taylors' and Sedbergh schools, he became a full-time writer in 1985 and is the author of several books, including Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India, the highly acclaimed The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, and Warrior Race. He writes occasional pieces and reviews for various newspapers and is a contributor to the Dictionary of National Biography.

Lawrence James studied History and English at York University and subsequently undertook a research degree at Merton College, Oxford. Following a career as a teacher, he became a full-time writer in 1985, and is the author of The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, Imperial Warrior: The Life and Times of Field Marshal Viscount Allenby, and the acclaimed Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. He now lives in St. Andrews.

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