ARISTOCRATS: POWER, GRACE AND DECADENCE: BRITAIN’S RULING CLASSES FROM 1066 TO THE PRESENT
By Lawrence James
St. Martin’s, $32.50, 448 pages
For Americans who tend to think of political “dynasties” in terms of mere decades - father-and-son combos like John and John Quincy Adams and the two George Bushes, or the now rather anemic remnant of Kennedy office- holders - the idea of a hereditary ruling class that could last nearly 2,000 years seems inconceivable. Yet our closest cousins on the other side of the Atlantic were the victims and/or beneficiaries of just such a political aristocracy from 1066, the year of the Norman Conquest, until 1998, when all but a handful of hereditary peers were ejected from Britain’s House of Lords by an unstoppable Labor Party majority in the House of Commons.
Of course, this was only the coup de grace; the powers of the House of Lords had been gradually eroded by successive Liberal and Labor governments for nearly a century and now consist mainly of delaying rather than veto power over parliamentary legislation. But for all of the years between 1066 and 1998, members of a numerically small British nobility played a disproportionately powerful role in British politics, diplomacy and military affairs.
Inherited privilege accounted for much of this, but so too did a tradition of selfless service. As “Aristocrats” author Lawrence James points out, in the heyday of empire, “In every … garrison and on every quarterdeck there were young men of birth with absolute self-assurance, a sincere faith in their country’s imperial mission and a willingness to risk their lives to fulfill it.”
Official positions aside, it was this hereditary aristocracy that shaped the national character, most notably its love of sport and rugged, sometimes, eccentric individualism, and its deep-seated - critics would say jingoistic - sense of patriotism and superiority to the religious, political and revolutionary excesses of continental Europe.
A talented, fluent historian, Mr. James leads us on an appropriately grand tour of the lives and impact of this truly remarkable breed. His detailed command of such a broad subject is impressive, although he occasionally slips into minor errors. For example, the first earl of Clarendon was appointed lord chancellor by Charles II, not Charles I, whom he served as chancellor of the exchequer.
While their political influence lies at the center of his narrative, Mr. James also shows us how the same aristocratic class also popularized the refinements in art, architecture, literature, discourse, travel, drinking, dining and manners that would come to define the good life and social graces for an ever-expanding British middle class.
Try to imagine Benjamin Disraeli, Gilbert and Sullivan, Dickens, Thackeray and Trollope, P.G. Wodehouse, Noel Coward, Evelyn Waugh, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher or - on the fictitious debit side - Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “Bouquet”) evolving as they did in the absence of the sometimes adored, sometimes abhorred, but always present aristocratic example.
Churchill himself embodies the resilient adaptability that propped up the “Stately Homes of England” for so many generations. Born in Blenheim Palace, although he was a direct descendant of one of England’s greatest military commanders (the first duke of Marlborough), and the grandson and nephew of later dukes, Churchill was an untitled commoner. Yet his whole life was driven by a sense of “noble” ideals and the pursuit of ancestral, imperial destiny.
He was also a biological product of one of the British nobility’s most effective survival tactics. It thrived for as long as it did thanks to regular transfusions of fresh blood, often closely related to a pressing need for fresh funds. Thus even spendthrift noble wastrels helped re-energize their caste since new infusions of cash required marrying the daughters of the nouveau riche, often Americans. In Churchill’s case, his father married Jennie Jerome, a beautiful young American whose fortune proved illusory but whose wit, charm and indomitable spirit formed young Winston’s most valuable inheritance.
The need for other than financial forms of relief also helped to keep the peerage alive and well. I was personally convinced of this on a rainy 1980s afternoon in London’s Reform Club when friends introduced me to the now late duke of St. Albans. A tall, mustachioed cavalier with a twinkle in his eye, he could easily have passed for a reincarnation of King Charles II.
In a way, he was; his 17th-century forebear, the first duke, was the merry monarch’s illegitimate (but subsequently ennobled) son by “pretty, witty” Nell Gwyn, a clever and bewitching cockney actress. Sipping whiskey and soda with Nell’s titled 20th-century descendant - who conducted his nebulous business affairs from Monte Carlo - was a reminder of just how adaptable the British aristocracy has proven itself.
Fortunately, positive traditions can be passed on by example as well by blood. This seems to be the case with the present House of Lords, which consists overwhelmingly of “life peers” - individuals given nonhereditary titles for lifetime achievement, often with a strong element of political patronage.
As Mr. James concludes: “The last ten years … witnessed the strange rebirth of the House of Lords. … Today, the Lords are applying their traditional dispassion and watchfulness to restrain an executive whose inclinations are authoritarian and which tends to dismiss the ancient legal rights and liberties of the individual as hindrances to administrative efficiency. … The power of the hereditary aristocracy may have disappeared, but its sense of public duty remains strong among its modern successor.”
Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aid to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan. His writings on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts have been widely published in the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom.