Aw­ful aris­toc­racy

PAUL READ­MAN en­joys a scathing sur­vey of cen­turies of bad be­hav­iour from Bri­tain’s priv­i­leged elite

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews - Paul Read­man is pro­fes­sor in mod­ern Bri­tish his­tory at King’s Col­lege Lon­don

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

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