F.M.L. Thompson looks at the long run of the English aristocracy

F.M.L. Thompson

  • The Aristocracy in England, 1660-1914 by J.V. Beckett
    Blackwell, 512 pp, £22.50, September 1986, ISBN 0 631 13391 7

As Britain chips away at her manufacturing base and slides towards becoming one vast open-air museum and tourist attraction, her aristocracy has emerged as the most dignified and venerable of museum pieces. Country houses are prized and revered as architectural gems, as art galleries and as period museums, and the frequently bizarre mixture of the excellent and the ordinary in their collections, or their downright second-rate quality, is successfully concealed by the adroit salesmanship which portrays all this in the full glory of its variety and eclecticism as a central part of the national heritage. ‘Heritage’ is, indeed, one of the vogue words of the Eighties, and in casting themselves for the role of its guardians the aristocrats have found a function which looks like being proof against unpopularity or redundancy. That many of them are today, in effect, beef barons, barley barons, property developers, art dealers, company directors and merchant bankers is beside the point: the prevailing image is of cultivated country gentlemen caring for priceless art treasures on behalf of the nation, keeping at bay the forces of vulgar and grasping materialism by the authority of impeccable manners and inherited good taste. Never mind that a display of cultural arrogance has always been the last refuge of groups and nations in decline, from ancient Greece to post-Napoleonic France and on to post-imperial Britain, a figleaf of civilisation trying to hide a loss of power. It remains true that for those able to play it the heritage card is a winner: the aristocracy is fortunate in finding itself on the receiving end of the national nostalgia trip and its idealisation of the country life.

There is, nevertheless, something rather pathetic in the spectacle of aristocrats, never distinguished as a scholarly or aesthetic breed, posing as the curators of the nation’s treasures: proud bears obliged to perform undignified and unnatural circus tricks. At the end of this formidable survey of the aristocracy John Beckett notes that they have survived into the late 20th century ‘as protectors of the nation’s heritage’ and that some ‘even argue that as collectors of beautiful objects over time their families were thinking not merely of self-interest but of the national herutage.’ But as a historian who likes to keep his cards close to his chest, he does not disclose whether he finds this to be pathos, bathos or humbug. The evidence, and especially the lack of evidence, about the process of accumulation of beautiful objects strongly suggests that the claim of patriotic altruism is largely moonshine, an invention of 20th-century admen which has precious little relation to the realities of ancestral motives. Beckett does not discuss the building of stately homes in the language of architectural history – that has been done by other hands – but in the context of conspicuous investment and the desire to express power, wealth and grandeur in suitably imposing physical forms. This is obviously correct. Hardwick Hall or Chatsworth, Alnwick Castle or Hatfield House, Knowle or Knowsley, Blenheim or Burleigh, these and all the rest of the grand roll-call were not created so that in a suitable number of centuries they could be shown to an admiring public, be featured in TV programmes, or be presented to the National Trust. They were built to serve their owners’ purposes, the purposes of displaying their owners’ importance and asserting their families’ position at the top of the social hierarchy. The houses were carefully designed as stage-sets for the theatre of aristocratic public life, exercising leadership or domination over the surrounding countryside: hence many, although very opulent, were not notably convenient for comfortable domestic life. Only after their functions had collapsed were the public allowed in more or less indiscriminately.

What is more telling is that the filling of these houses with works of art is not discussed at all. That is, no doubt, because the process was generally unimportant and undeserving of comment at the time at which it occurred: a sort of incidental and accidental by-product of the business of country-house living which left behind layer upon layer of deposits of furniture, tapestries, pictures, china, books and busts – loot from the Grand Tour, trophies of travel, gifts and tributes from friends and supplicants – acquired out of mixed motives of family patriotism, individual-eccentricity, group conformity to changing fashions, and the country-house inertia which stops things being thrown away. Time has ripened many aristocratic collections so that they have become incomparable, but in general this has not been a deliberate and controlled process like the laying-down of port and claret. The old landed aristocracy has produced no great collectors with the single-mindedness, determination and coherence of industrialists like Henry Tate, Samuel Courtauld or Burrell. Aristocrats have never cared greatly for living artists, except for those who could paint portraits of themselves, their families, their horses and their dogs – although the ways in which the likes of Stubbs, Reynolds or Landseer helped to shape the aristocratic image would be worth exploring. Until the art market obligingly presented them with gigantic windfall gains most aristocrats were rather indifferent towards their family collections, and tended to appreciate living horses and dead stags’ heads more highly than old pictures. True to long traditions of respecting practical financial considerations, they have been convinced by soaring art prices that art is good business, and that the best business of all can be done from the position of guardians of the nation’s treasures reluctantly compelled by the extortions of the tax-gatherers to contemplate exporting works of art.

When public sympathy flows out towards a nobleman who feels obliged to flog a few Leonardo drawings or sell the family archives to an American university, it is clear that the heritage card trick is working. It is, all the same, a trick and not the culmination of deep-laid and long-matured plans. It occupies no more than a small place in the post-1914 epilogue to this book, which is substantially concerned with the centuries of aristocratic power, wealth and leadership which are seen here as ending with the First World War. The postscript’s connection with the main text, however, is left tantalisingly vague, with the impression that loss of supremacy has not affected the aristocracy too seriously, that they have continued to adapt successfully to changing circumstances just as they always have done. This seems inherently improbable, as the contrast between being, at least superficially, in control of events and being at their mercy is extreme and is likely to have upset the aristocracy considerably. It is to be regretted that John Beckett decided not to write about the last fifty or sixty years on the scale with which he treats the previous centuries, since little solid work has been done on the period that followed the great land sales of the early 1920s, and there is an excellent opportunity here for examining the great themes of the decline, eclipse and partial revival of the aristocracy. It might then well emerge that the chronology of decline should not be left to rest at 1914, its now conventional terminus, but should be extended to 1939 or 1940, when total war put an end to the twilight period in which aristocratic style, manners and influence had remained extremely powerful despite the evident blows inflicted by the long erosion of political position and the more recent inroads of taxation and land sales. It could also emerge that the heritage business, admittedly a matter of rescuing something valuable from the ruins of grandeur, is at most a side-issue serving to camouflage the most important development in 20th-century society: the consolidation of a reconstituted upper class in which landed families began to stake their claim through useful marriages and business connections in the later 19th century.

It is nowadays taken for granted that at least until 1914 the English landed aristocracy was the dominant group in society and politics. Twenty or thirty years ago, however, this was a startling and controversial proposition that flew in the face both of the Marxist orthodoxy of the triumph of industrial capitalism and of the liberal orthodoxy of the triumph of individualism and parliamentary democracy. Neither Marxist nor liberal historiography has been able to cope with the present situation in any convincing way, and the main concern of this book is not to follow their attempts but rather to marshal, in magisterial fashion, the evidence for the prolonged dominance of the aristocracy, and to provide explanations for the apparently perverse phenomenon of a landed, rurally-grounded élite maintaining the dominant position in an industrial urban nation. Notwithstanding the pardonable exaggeration of the dust-cover, which implies that up to now very little ‘is actually known about the aristocracy and its history’, these questions and the suggested answers are not exactly unfamiliar, and Beckett quite properly makes extensive use of the works of Cannadine, Cannon, Rubinstein, Stone and others who have written on the subject. The attraction of this volume lies not in the freshness of its subject-matter or the originality of its arguments, but in the commanding sweep, meticulous detail and superb organisation of its survey of the existing state of knowledge.

This appraisal is arranged in three parts. The first defines and counts the aristocracy, analyses its essential features as a social group, and examines the channels of recruitment into the group. The second, and longest, part, and the one in which the author is most at home, deals with the aristocracy and the economy, with separate chapters on estate management, agriculture, industry, transport and towns, and with an overall assessment of the aristocratic contribution to long-term economic development. The social and political superstructure is reserved for the final part, which deals with aristocratic social leadership and the role of the aristocracy in local and central government, the most telling spheres for gauging aristocratic dominance. In each of these parts John Beckett gives an outstanding display of skill, patience and endurance in summarising and slotting into place material from hundreds of articles, essays and monographs, for good measure adding in new information from his own archival research, especially in discussing the economy of 18th-century landed estates. The bibliographical range is extremely impressive, indicative of exhaustive searching of the journals; the fruits of this labour, setting out detailed information on particular estates and individuals from sources which are often not at all easily accessible, will be a great boon to future students. It is difficult not to think, however, that the utility of these labours would have been much increased by the provision of a bibliography.

To be sure, it cannot be taken for granted that the book is intended primarily for use in undergraduate teaching. The publishers, at least, seem to have lingering hopes that it will appeal to a much wider public which is fascinated by the English aristocracy and its private lives. It would be unwise to assume that the public which likes visiting country houses and enjoys viewing Brideshead Revisited has an infinite capacity for absorbing information about the level of Lord Lonsdale’s rents in 1802 and 1820 or the number of Lord Nottingham’s daughters; while calculations of the size of the Duke of Kingston’s debts in the 1730s or of the burden of taxation on Lord Cowper’s estates in the 1740s might easily induce people to switch channels. But there is drama and excitement lurking in such facts, released when they are formed into patterns and perform as planks in an argument. John Beckett is an expert guide to the ways in which professional historians have done this, giving neat and clear expositions of such themes as the movement of rents, the problems of establishing and interpreting the scale of aristocratic indebtedness, the assessment of the difference between gross and net income, or the strategies, rewards and costs of the marriage market. These are all somewhat technical issues, with an appeal strictly for students and specialists. Even so, what scope they have for more general interest has been carefully repressed. Many of these technical issues – on debts, on marriage portions, on enclosure costs, on land purchases – have been the subject of controversies, often conducted with some vigour. Beckett’s technique when meeting such situations is to note that a topic has occasioned some debate, give a brief summary of the two positions, and then pass on. The self-restraint is exemplary and the impartiality ought to be hailed as admirable: but many readers will wish that they had been given firm guidance and an authoritative statement of the lie of the land as the author sees it.

There is no great harm in being noncommittal over particular points in the story so long as the grand design stands out bold and clear. Here, however, there are immense problems in the organisation and presentation of such a vast body of material which have not been altogether solved. The blueprint of the grand design is clearly stated in the introduction, and even more crisply on the dust-jacket: that the dominant position of the landed aristocracy and its long persistence is to be explained by ‘the willingness of aristocrats to lead in economic and social affairs, a belief in their inherited role as governors of the state, and the lack of an effective challenge from any other group’. But this becomes less and less easy to discern as the rich and tightly-packed history of aristocratic families and estates is revealed in all its detail of farms and tenants, investments and improvements, collieries and ironworks, canals and railways, town houses and country houses, hunting and shooting, racing and cricket, balls and banquets, births and marriages, elections and governments, and many, many more activities. The account could hardly be bettered in any of its particulars: but the flow is so even it is hard to pick out the points of emphasis or decide which were the critically important developments.

The structural problem is inherently difficult: analytical history, or the mode of writing history thematically, cannot easily accommodate a narrative element, yet the identification and explanation of changes over time require some form of narrative expression. The solution most often adopted, as here, is to present each discrete section in its own chronological framework. This works tolerably well when the time-span involved is not too great, but when each section has to deal with two and a half centuries – for example, of agriculture, industry or transport – there is inevitably a tendency to foreshorten and telescope time and give the impression that nothing very much ever changed. True to form, the analysis of aristocratic social leadership, having examined country-house living, the patronage of local schools and churches, the social functions of cricket and racing, and the development of the London Season, concludes by stating that ‘what is perhaps most remarkable is that so little had changed over the previous two and a half centuries.’ Probably this means that the social relationships between aristocrats and servants, tenants, labourers and the local community had not altered much, for the form and content of country houses, cricket matches, village schools, race meetings and so on had certainly changed a great deal. The steady-state effect is much less apparent in the political chapters, which are necessarily devoted as much to narrative as to structural analysis of the parts played by the landed aristocracy in Cabinets and Parliaments, political patronage and electioneering, the Armed Services and the local bench. It is clear that aristocratic influence, consolidated in the century following 1688, rode out the 19th-century Parliamentary reforms, if not unaffected, then still on a scale that continued to be out of all proportion to the size of the group. The House of Lords, its powers reduced only after 1911, remained the institutional expression of the landed aristocracy notwithstanding the mounting numbers of new peerage creations from the 1880s: it was only in the interwar period that possession of some landed property ceased to be a normal part of the equipment of the new nobility. In the Commons, while members of landed families ceased to form the majority after 1880, the landed element remained the essential core of the pre-1914 Conservative Party, and it is only in the party of Mrs Thatcher that its influence seems to have vanished.

To understand whether this survival was due to the overwhelming power, wealth, influence and experience of the landed aristocracy – so great that it was barely dented or scratched by franchise extensions, constituency reforms, open examinations and the like – or whether it was the result of sensible and timely concessions to pressures from outside and below, it is necessary to bring together the economic, social and political elements from their separate compartments. John Beckett favours the view that the 1832 Reform Act was a statesmanlike concession to demands for reform, and that a substantial increase in middle-class influence was intended to restore confidence in discredited institutions of government and thus protect legitimate aristocratic influence in other parts of the electoral and Parliamentary system. This is a tenable position, but it needs to be considered alongside the general proposition that an effective challenge to the aristocracy from any other group in society failed to materialise. This is because the richest, most intelligent and most ambitious sections of the middle classes found much to admire in aristocratic values, manners and style, and sought to join the aristocracy, or emulate them, not oppose them. In turn, the success of the landed classes was largely due to the wealth which they creamed off from the industrialising and urbanising economy, enabling them to maintain an enviable life-style and to retain control of the sources of patronage and honours. In this context it is immaterial whether the aristocracy were parasites on the economy, or in some sense justified their existence by making important entepreneurial and investment contributions. It is enough that the leading landed families (among whom the pecking order of wealth was changed by the process itself) managed their property rights and exploited the opportunities presented by the favourable locations of their estates so as to get large incomes from the growing economy and remain the wealthiest in the land, while the lesser member of the order, whose properties were not so fortunately placed for mineral rights or urban rents, lived comfortably in their shade and did not begin to feel relatively impoverished until the early 20th century.

It begins to look as if the middle classes were willing slaves to wealth, power and established position, and that the notion of concessions to their independent demands may need rethinking. The concept of the aristocratic bourgeoisie, a bourgeoisie apeing aristocratic airs and graces, is currently attracting attention in discussions of the formation of the middle class. It is a concept with problems about the evidence and about interpretation. One would, for example, have to know whether the wealthy bourgeoisie pursued social status by purchasing landed estates, or simply imitated aristocratic styles without seeking the property to go with them; whether the cultural gentrification of the businessmen sapped industrial vigour, or, given that the landed gentry and aristocracy who provided the model had a long record of behaving as very astute risk-takers, simply steered business efforts into different channels. When these issues are pursued, and the history of the landed aristocracy is set more securely in relation to other social groups, the full value of this book will be realised.