History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Aristocrats: Britain's Great Ruling Classes from 1066 to the Present

Jeremy Black looks at the adaptation of a class through a millennium of change 

Published: October 15, 2009 at 4:30 pm

Reviewed by: Jeremy Black
Author: Lawrence James
Publisher: Little Brown
Price (RRP): £25


An accessible history of the last 900 years through the perspective of the aristocracy, and of the aristocracy through that of this history, Lawrence James’s well-written book is divided into three sections: Ascendancy 1066–1603; Equilibrium, 1603–1815; and Decline, 1815–1914; followed by an Epilogue: ‘Always Keep Hold of Nurse: Aristocratic Twilight’.

While admiring the range, drive and verve of James’s study, there is room for contesting this chronology, and notably of the extent and timing of decline. In particular, although the 19th century saw a transfer of a portion of power to middle-class hands, this transfer did not amount to a wholesale abandonment of power nor a forcible seizure.

The middle-class quest for political power was also complicated by the degree to which wealthy financiers, commercial entrepreneurs and industrialists all bought into, rather than reject, the aristocracy. Instead of seeking to destroy landed privilege, successful Victorians sought estates and titles for themselves and their offspring. Salmon-fishing, hunting and other country pursuits gradually became as much a pastime of new money as of the old landed class. The openness of the aristocracy, once praised by the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville as a major cause of social cohesion, was no myth.

Moreover, the aristocracy benefited from the opportunities presented by industrialisation. Lord Londonderry, whose Durham estates were as coal-rich as any in the world in the 1840s, built his own port, Seaham harbour, while his statue still dominates Durham’s marketplace. The seventh Duke of Devonshire made a fortune by owning the land upon which the boom-town of Barrow was built, and, as a result, reinvigorated the creaky aristocratic empire bequeathed to him.

Into the early 20th century, the old families and those of landed wealth, or their sons, continued to make up a significant portion of the officeholders at Westminster.

Yet, attitudes changed. The fictional characters Lord Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion might provide instances of a heroic class of ability, manners and lineage, but already, in JM Barrie’s comedy The Admirable Crichton (1902), the first-rate butler takes charge when Lord Loam’s household is shipwrecked. Loam becomes a labourer. Rescued in the last act, Crichton returns to his role as butler, and, when Loam’s eldest daughter Lady Mary tells him “You are the best man among us”, he replies “On an island, my lady perhaps; but in England, no”. Lady Mary observes, “Then there is something wrong with England”.


Jeremy Black is author of War: A Short History (Continuum, 2009)


Sponsored content