PAUL READMAN enjoys a scathing survey of centuries of bad behaviour from Britain’s privileged elite
Entitled: A Critical History of the British Aristocracy by Chris Bryant, Doubleday, 448 pages, £25
Despotic dukes, mercenary marquesses and venal viscounts parade through the pages of Chris Bryant’s spirited history of the British aristocracy. For this is no soberb scholarlyhll account, but a trenchant critique, Bryant’s aim being to demonstrate the self-serving behaviour of lords and (occasionally) ladies down the centuries. Beginning in pre-Conquest times, he shows how the nobility amassed land, wealth and power: through martial prowess and loyalty to the crown, to be sure, but also through guile, dishonesty and brute force. They made laws in their own interest, rigged the political system, despoiled the church, enclosed the commons, and – by primogeniture and entail – sought to ensure that their ill-gotten gains remained concentrated in the hands of a few. In this, they were remarkably successful. As late as the 1870s, three-quarters of Britain was in the hands of 5,000 people, and even today, the aristocracy owns one-third of the land.
What explains this long history of aristocratic self-enrichment? For Bryant, the answer is a persisting “sense of entitlement”, which also sanctioned gross moral turpitude, as he is at pains to delineate. His account is packed with details of adultery, hypocrisy, debauchery, vice and wantonness. The system wasn’t just bad; the people were too, from the treacherous Godwine, brutal henchman of King Cnut, to Rhodri Philipps, 4th Viscount St Davids, recently jailed for offering £5,000 to anyone willing to ‘accidentally’ run over pro-EU campaigner Gina Miller.
Bryant’s charge-sheet is a long one. But his relentless fixation on the moral failings of noble individuals at times makes for wearing reading, and comes at the cost of more systematic analysis, particularly of the social effects of the maldistribution of wealth. Some large issues are unexplored. One such is the mutually supportive relationship between the aristocracy and the established church. Many priests were drawn from noble families, and were assiduous in defending aristocratic entitlement, not least in Bryant’s native Wales, where the landed elite’s Anglicanism made them especially obnoxious to the majority Nonconformist population.
Another is the relationship between aristocratic wealth and the modern capitalist economy. Many millionaire captains of industry and commerce have aped the aristocratic lifestyle, seeking the dignity of country mansions, coats of arms and seats in the House of Lords. What does this tell us? Perhaps that, while aristocratic wealth might stimulate and sustain a sense of entitlement, the same is true of wealth in general.
Aristocrats enjoying themselves in an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon calendar