Entitled: A Critical History of the British Aristocracy, by Chris Bryant, Doubleday, 448 pp, ISBN: 978-0857523167
Polemic: Origin mid 17th cent: via medieval Latin from Greek polemikos, from polemos, ‘War’.
Entitled is a well-sourced polemic – delivered with some style and much substance. Chris Bryant, Labour MP for Rhondda, the Welsh valley “mined, developed and exploited” by the marquess of Bute, acknowledges the debt his 440-page study owes to the scholarship of others. His own archival trawling of library and manuscript sources, however, persuades him to throw down the gauntlet and to bring the British aristocracy to a modern reckoning in this critical history of the longue durée. The authorial intent in Entitled is sounded early in the piece:
Show the people that our Old Nobility is not noble, that its lands are stolen lands – stolen either by force or fraud; show people that the title-deeds are rapine, murder, massacre, cheating, or court harlotry … do these things and you shatter the Romance that keeps the nation numb and spellbound while privilege picks its pocket.
Tom Johnston, Our Scots Noble families, 1909.
Tom Johnston, later the Scottish secretary of state, provoked public outrage in this challenge to the elites of his era. Such outrage was, however, most fleeting and failed to dent the “consciousness of superiority” bred of entitlement and vested in the power of the British aristocracy. A gallery of such rogues is displayed in the frontispiece, with reference to Henry de la Poer Beresford, heir to the substantial estates and title of the 3rd marquess of Waterford, c.1826. That the title is of Irish origin, acquired through the plunder of conquest, is indicative of an authorial tendency to elide historical contexts – the absorption of the 32,000 square miles of Ireland under British control is “presumed”, with no reference to the historical resistance to such conquest that emanated from “an old land … Its civilisations deeply rooted”. William Smyth, in Map-making, Landscapes and Memory, documents the lust for land as the catalyst for breaking the power of Ireland’s autonomous lordships, recording the title of ninety of these across the island c1530, perhaps equal in their sense of entitlement to that of the marauding Normans, English and “frontier Scottish settlers”.
An avalanche of historical detail shapes a landscape coupled to modern equivalences – entitlement and copious drinking by the aforementioned third marquess are aligned to contemporaneous “aristocratic disorderism of which the Bullingham Club would have been proud”. One of the questions arising from this book is the appetite of members of the British aristocracy for access to the machinery of political power, and the historical price paid by the common people in sustaining the exceptional sense of entitlement with which Britain struts the global stage. Bryant’s observation is curt but acute: “Narcissism and inbreeding led British aristocrats to believe themselves entitled to their wealth, status and power.”
A confluence of events were present at the dawn of this very British age of entitlement – an early aristocratic warrior class had emerged, imbued with a sense of “indelible nobility” following conflict between the warring kingdoms of seventh century Britain. Kings were slain and further virtue was cultivated in those who survived – martial prowess would stand against marauders from Rome, the Germanic Angles and Saxons, and Viking raiders from the Nordic lands. A fragment of poetry known as The Battle of Maldon records the death in 991 “of the nobleman Byrhtnoth of Essex” and his “hearth troop, who had all his trust”. Under the rule of King Æthelstan (924-39), “it was considered inconceivable that any freeman should live without a lord, and ‘lordlessness’ itself was outlawed”.
The warrior of Old England, having served as “military companion to the king”, was termed gesith to define a place in a hierarchy of rank. In Scotland, the ranks of thegns, or thanes, were required to surrender their weapons, at death, to their lord or liege, confirming their essential calling as warrior. Critically, both gesith and thegn, as recorded in Beowulf, were rewarded for loyalty to their liege by the gift of lands. In time, large estates conferred a further mark of “indelible nobility” ‑ the intrinsic link to “landed wealth” and title to land as the son of a thegn. Although the Domesday Book suggested that the property qualification was uncertain, the nobility was perceived as hereditary and the concept of landed historical nobility was born. Thus, title, land, function and related power were secured in a hierarchy, with a regal caveat – they were appointed at the king’s pleasure and could be disposed of should such favour lapse.
Under Anglo-Saxon law the eldest son would inherit the earth, even where legitimacy could be challenged. Battle might follow such contestation and pose a challenge to a warrior in the precise calculation of to whom allegiance might be due. By the early eleventh century Bryant suggests that “England was dominated by guileful, grasping and opportunistic Anglo-Saxon nobles” who were bold in battle but light in loyalty. Over time, fluid allegiance and the subsequent expansion of lands and property by aristocratic families threatened “to outstrip [those of[ the king”. Mistrust was transformed into enmity as the theatre of battle expanded to engulf the English crown, its earls and ennobled others. The warrior lords were capable of deception and violence, and most fleeting loyalty, but the reward for historically adept strategic play was, more often, land, “ … upon which to build a dynasty”.
The old English system of land tenure, or the right to use land, was gifted, won or purchased but land ownership entailed specific duties – food, rent and formal tribute would flow from the tenured lord to the king, “owner” of the landmass, England. Further duties extended to the maintaining of bridges, defensive fortifications and, critically, the supply of troops in time of war. Land tenure was a temporary lease, in effect curtailing the impulse of the aristocrats to nurture a landed dynasty. The land question, however, prompted an unholy alliance to render service at the altar of avarice. Churches and monasteries were beneficiaries of the granting of charters for royal land – known as book-land ‑ free of the tributes that threatened to impoverish “acquisitive laymen”. The Venerable Bede protested that the promise from Northumbrian nobles to secure such book-land grants in return for the building of new monasteries on their tenured land failed at the point of delivery –and he denounced the practice since “these plush family establishments were monasteries in name alone”.
The Norman conquest exposed England as a land defined by such “ … tendrils of royal patronage and the enhancing (of) aristocrats’ opportunity for self-enrichment”, with the land controlled by “violent and opportunistic noble families”, as in Scotland, where “lords, thanes and marauders” held sway. With an abundance of detail, Entitled notes some exceptions, some women holding land, power and prestige through widowhood or a secure lineage. But all such exceptions were minor elements of a landscape dominated by those who “bowed the knee to Christian piety … yet in many instances their religiosity was yet another aspect of … their desire for wealth and power”. Faced with the Norman conquest, the English and Scottish warrior lords laid the foundations for their own faltering advance. Those who were prescient joined the Norman aristocrats from Brittany, Bayeux and beyond and by 1076 the English were vanquished and the Norman, William, was indisputably the Conqueror. Bryant details “ … a massive redistribution of landed wealth and the complete restructuring of the aristocracy, as thegns and earls were deprived of their lands and the spoils parceled out to loyal Normans”.
To establish the virtual extinction of the old order, he documents the death or dispossession of “resident Englishmen” with “their land passed to a single, absentee tenant-in-chief”, as control of over half the kingdom was concentrated in “a few foreign hands”. The landscape was dominated by vast estates, with the customs of the French implanted, in “a language that was incomprehensible to the conquered populace”. Comptes and vicomptes re-emerged as earls, and all legal authority passed to the new order as earldoms became “unambiguously hereditary”. The Domesday Book, however, records the tensions arising from the passage of heredity lordships – England had been conquered, but the victors and the crown could, in time, be disposed of at will, rather than by right to an eldest son. When William the Conqueror died, “royal turbulence and disputes of historic patrimony raged”. The crown was passed, by the will of the Conqueror rather than by inheritance, to a nephew, William Rufus, throwing the aristocrats into turmoil.
From authoritative sources, Bryant gallops across the centuries – his pannier bulging with unedifying detail – in pursuit of the ongoing “ambiguity of inheritance”. The Anglo-Norman aristocracy established primogeniture as the ruling assumption although “the law gave to the king … rights over his nobles”. Entitled maps a landed aristocracy enjoying almost unfettered immunity: holding court, defining justice, collecting rents and pocketing fines. Assured in their authority, honed with “the patina of established use”, the Anglo-Norman aristocrats advanced, plotting as they plundered. Wealth, fuelled by avarice, became their hallmark, “whence it was got no one asked, but get it they must”.
The proliferation of titles – specifically earldoms ‑ was later challenged by Henry II, who reserved that title for members of the royal family, whose succeeding generations devised rituals of investiture designed to flatter, to establish a sense of continuity and to tame the ambitions of nobles who had assumed that the passage of their titles, and associated lands, was secured as of right. The concept and legal weight of the royal gift was re-established, fewer estates passed to eldest sons, and fines, fees and the purchase, via an accommodating church, of book-land, proved a lucrative and often lavish baronial contribution to the royal coffers.
Those coffers came under the control of King John, whose appetite for war demanded revenue streams and whose ineptitude in addressing French crown possessions and baronial grievance were further provoked by tussles with the pope over church appointments. This king ruled through “fear and favour … within a vortex of arbitrary rule”. He placated the church by the granting of charters, ensuring no royal interference in the election of bishops, and gifted extensive lands. The appetite for such bounty proved contagious. In 1215, the barons met the king, who promptly swore the crusader’s oath, a delaying tactic on his part that inadvertently fuelled baronial ambition, prompting a countermove to consolidate their own power by formulating a draft charter. Bryant gives full detail of the royal acceptance of “quintessentially baronial concerns” entailing tax reliefs and the agreed oversight of the king by a council of twenty-five men of the British aristocracy. This Great Charter was sealed and the barons – briefly – renewed the oath of loyalty to the king. Loyalty was, however, central to the very concept of nobility, and the military code it entailed was based upon fealty to a ruler. In response to a perceived wavering of noble loyalty, king and church joined forces with a mercenary army and laid waste to baronial land. A “first barons war” followed, and upon the timely death of King John, courtesy of a bout of dysentery, the barons sought a new king from France. Their clear reluctance to concede to “capricious demands” from a king did not suggest depleted appetites for land, wealth and power on their part. Years of legal dispute on curtailing the powers of a king and advancing or impeding the claim of autonomous rights for the barons record counter-strategies. These included a taste for royal nepotism and the indulging of an imperial lust for foreign wars, in unholy alliance with Pope Innocent IV, both parties seeking preferment in the disposal of lands and of thrones far beyond the borders of the realm. Aristocratic tempers ran high.
Bryant disentangles the constitutional innovations that followed in the wake of this toxic mix of historic potency and hubris. To constrain the appetite for royal power, a council of twenty-four, initially accepted under duress by King Henry, “ …would meet with a parliament … three times a year to review the state of the realm”. A Justician, “with sway over the courts and the exchequer”, would be independent of the king and would address baronial and other complaints. The deed was done:”Henry was king in name only; the land was ruled by his barons.”
Entitled is a polemic, and is published as “a critical history of the British aristocracy”. Bryant raises the spectre of missing documentation, partial information and the historical perspectives that seek to interpret this aristocratic challenge to the power of a king “in grand constitutional terms”. He interprets the historical sources on the land-claiming, self-assured aristocratic class that had emerged from two thirteenth century baronial wars as driven less by the thirst for parliamentary ideals, and more by “a heartfelt sense of entitlement”. Such a cultivated sense of personal entitlement was, he argues, novel, and perhaps demands further scrutiny, with a considered unpacking of the rise of individual, rather than any collective or tribal “exceptionalism”.
Each English lord held lands as a tenant of the crown, “in return for rent or service they paid … their vassals (who) held their narrower farms from the great lords … in return for rent or service, and so on down to the villeins who often had no land at all but exchanged goods, service or rent for the right to work it”. By the thirteenth century, these great lords had emerged as subversives. The Norman imposition of the inheritance of rights had quelled any residual English taste for “gifts” from the crown. It is central to Bryant’s claim that the historical record suggests that the barons’ wars did not advance an impulse towards “righteous constitutionalism”, nor were they imbued with the democratic aspiration of a Magna Carta. Rather, Bryant offers four hundred plus pages to support a less flattering perspective. Such wars and impulses were born of baser motivation, “the proliferation of earldoms and the bevy of barons” fuelled the appetite for power vested in “title”, in land and in ownership through inheritance. A potent mix for an aspiring class: to court a life embellished by rank, ritual and the paraphernalia of prestige, cast in ermine and silk stockings and all the public trappings of wealth and nobility, and to be laid at rest, finally, surmounted by a marble effigy within a dynastic family mausoleum.
The fourteenth century aspiration towards “aristocratic self- assertion” was, however, felled by the undiscriminating Black Death plague, stalking a land now stripped of paupers, peasants and priests, leaving in its wake an acute shortage of labour and the debris of “a degraded English aristocracy”. A royal strategy now moved deftly to further downgrade the power accruing to noble titles and to usurp any fleeting claim for rights by unfettered inheritance. Noble families might hold manors, castles and inflated lordships, but war, rebellion and infant mortality had depleted the stock of eldest sons, and exacted their toll as title and land reverted to the crown in the absence of an heir. Survivors might be inducted into a parliament, but no tenant-in-chief would henceforth, as of right, claim a seat as companion at the king’s table. The aristocracy rose again by stealth, by strategy and by the use of the concept of the divine right of kings.
The role of a hierarchy, of a land and an asset-rich aristocracy emerging from ruins reeking of avarice, demanded a banner under which it might righteously advance. Bryant argues that this demand added impulse to the rumble of religiosity and the “ritualistic flummery” of a code of honour that, in effect, “gave a veneer of respectability to constant warmongering”. Then, as now, war was a “remarkably lucrative business”. Bryant cites many instances of the booty of wars, where nobles must bear arms as a core requirement of the holding of their gifted title, fuelling a building boom for castles, an appetite for “jewels, clothing and precious stones”, for tapestries, tall tales and throne-lite seating for those excluded from the royal table. Such signs of grandeur became indicative of the impulse to match the power with the pearls. That impulse extended to the revival of the imperative of the aristocracy to check the power of others – first a king ‑ but then to seek for themselves “full local power such as the church enjoyed” through its bishops of “total control of taxation, justice and administration”. The power of bishops, priors, hereditary sheriffs and other “franchise holders” rather than the crown, would endow these warrior nobles with jurisdiction and power over the people. Semi-regal administrations moved with dispatch and, in time, “they enforced their own peace, they held their own courts and they issued their own writs”. One such real locus of power was the palatinate of Lancaster, first created in 1351. The duchy of Lancaster continues to thrive, more than seven hundred years on: “the present duke of Lancaster is the monarch, and the chancellor of the duchy is a Cabinet member”. The advance of British aristocrats towards a place at the cabinet table would take centuries, but the centre would continue to hold.
From the fourteenth century on, this urge of the lords to secure “power across the land” embraced the securing of “the body that really mattered, the parliament”. The aristocratic lexicon expanded to embrace the title and associated status of peer, the gilded banner under which “peers of the realm” might henceforth profitably gather. The peers numbered several hundred, with their lordships defined by land ownership. No necessary summons of the lord or his heirs into the realm of royal imperative was guaranteed, leaving “fluidity” in play and considerable power in the hands of kings. By increment, the peers extended their own rights, diminishing those of the king by statute, guaranteeing “that no peer of the land … shall be brought to judgment, nor be arrested, imprisoned … nor be judged, but by award of the said peers in Parliament”. As Bryant notes, “the privilege was to remain law until 1949”.
The king moved to link the question of inheritance of the title of baron with that of the passing of the land inherent in that title, defying convention as titles changed from land in fee simple to fee tail male, passing only to male heirs or, in the absence of such, reverting to the crown. With only one exception, the link between land and a parliamentary summons was broken, and the capacity of peers of the realm to foster a line of power with dynastic authority was tempered. As a contemporary parliamentarian, Bryant gives an informed and authoritative account of the tension between the parliament – dominated by peers – and the Commons where the aristocracy, holders of power through extensive ownership of lands, sought to place sons, brothers or their tenants, retaining power – “in consideration of a fee” with family or tenants required to carry their lord’s livery within the lower house. The Commons, in turn, sought to impose statutes to limit this practice but all were ignored until the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V introduced and enforced legal prosecutions “for pernicious livery and maintenance”.
By the late fifteenth century, power through parliament ‑ lthough desirable and achievable ‑ was secondary to the passage of title and wealth in the form of land and assets. By law these now descended by primogeniture, “through men to men and for men alone”. The effect of this passage across generations was to concentrate land, wealth and prestige in the hands of a very small elite. Bryant’s fully documented claim is that “the peerage made England a land of closely guarded wealth and gross inequality”. He clarifies and reinterprets the accumulation of wealth, and power vested in land.
This is not novel, but his narrative of accumulation is recast and familiar historical labels are abandoned. The most significant exchange of the land of England, for example, reaping enormous dividends for King Henry VIII, travelled under the ideological banner of religious defiance – a king defying the power of a pope ‑ recorded under the historical classification of “The Dissolution of the Monasteries”. This dissolution, here and elsewhere, is reframed as a land grab that transferred one fifth of the total land of England from church control, courtesy of a king, and was in turn transformed into a commodity for sale in the market. The notion of boundaries, marked by a river or a woodland, was superseded by the need to “package” land, not simply to use it but to exchange it – to devise a formula to recast the existing strips of land in “enclosed” bundles through the use of agreed measurements. The primary tool of the trade of the surveyor by the sixteenth century was a measuring device held together by links, to connect a chain, to facilitate the delivery of a measured package of land – for sale.
In 1538, the land acquired by four hundred monasteries was mapped, the boundaries surveyed, and the chains laid down. The clerical mix was churned with dashes of salacious rumour, of scandal and of authentic, often nefarious, tales of monastic practice. Nodding through the dissolution of the lesser and greater monasteries in 1536 and 1539, “every peer in the land had his eye on a well-endowed local priory, convent, college or friary”. The process undermined the enormous power of the church. Thus dissolved, the monastic land – under feudal right ‑ reverted to the crown. Almost half a million prime acres were, by royal fiat, sold to the highest bidder, from peers to knights to merchants. While some protested at such “holy disorder”, Bryant notes that “the nobility quashed any religious scruples … and … nearly one in four noble estates was substantially better endowed”.
Algernon Sidney, a republican political theorist of the seventeenth century, claimed that Henry, having checked the church, retained his distrust of the nobility and, “thinking it be as easy for them to take the crown from him, as give it to him … industriously applied by all means to crush those who were most able to oppose him”. Through crown command, peers were now required to sign bonds of good behaviour, thus defining rebellion against the king as treason and ensuring that in such circumstances aristocratic lands would revert to the crown. Of sixty-two aristocratic families, forty-six signed and “bound over for good behaviour”. Their power thus constrained, it was further undermined when Henry VIII, following his father’s introduction of the Great Council –parliament without the Commons – took his own counsel from a more select group, a “privy council”, “the driving force of Tudor government … with a fixed, invited membership that acted collectively in the name of the monarch”. The peers sensed a further usurpation of their power as the structure of the council ensured that no peer, by simple virtue of being a peer, had a right to be appointed. The size of the privy council varied over the reigns of Henry and three subsequent monarchs, with preferment to such rank by virtue of scholarly learning, administrative prowess and financial acuity. Ancient lineage ‑ of itself ‑ no longer served as the currency of power, and expertise and a more practical utility to the king, or queen, became the distinguishing feature of elevation to the privy council. The peers failed in any further attempt to reassert their power in parliament, where Cardinal Wolsey dominated the upper house and Thomas Cromwell managed parliamentary affairs from the Commons.
Over time, political aggrandisement and the consolidation of wealth in land aided the survival of the British aristocracy. The absence of an heir – through war or by untimely death – had reduced the numbers of peers to fifty-seven as the realm moved into the seventeenth century. A reluctance on the part of the Tudors to create new titles – an exercise in power by the crown – reduced that number further to fifty-five. Then, as now, not all noble asset acquisition was crass – the third duke of Buckingham collected a library of three thousand books, as did John Lumley, a restored baron whose own library served as foundation for the British Library. Henry VIII made earls into dukes, in recognition of valour and by the end of the century Elizabeth looked to the aristocrats to lead her military campaigns and to map a route towards maritime expansion, trade and plunder, and into markets mundane and exotic. The Elizabethan age of empire was launched.
Fluctuating fortunes – for kings, queens and aristocrats – were punctuated by times of peace and considerable prosperity for peers of the realm. House- and castle-building, fortified by battlements, was, as documented by Byrant, spectacular, requiring an outlay of millions of pounds in current terms. The function of such display was twofold. It provided home and hearth for the nobility but also served to “maintain the myth of exclusivity … to fashion an ideal of a tiny elite set apart …” Marriage secured many fortunes as 95 per cent of aristocratic women married and, if widowed, over half married again. Wealth, like land, was there to be accumulated. In exhaustive detail, Bryant documents years of peace and accumulation, but in the wake of unrest peers sought to consolidate their holdings by encroaching upon the use of common land. A shortage of labour – arising from plague, war and want ‑ prompted the landowning class to embark upon mass expropriation of common lands, leaving twenty to thirty thousand tenants uprooted, and hedges planted to enclose the land. Rioters attacked the enclosures, and “the revolutionary nature of the protest was clear”. The royal army advanced to defend the right of the king and his nobility to expropriate the land of England. The common people fought to preserve common land, and a second army led by the earl of Warwick, comprising “mercenaries from Spain, Italy, Germany and Wales” advanced under command of the English king. Insurgents were slaughtered, or executed, as the royalist triumph secured the right of the aristocracy to exploit previously common land.
In tandem with what Bryant refers to as “conspicuous consumption” the peers of the realm now elaborated a credo of living, a sense and a display of entitlement to make clear the distinction between the noble and the ignored. In exhaustive detail, he documents the years of tumult across “the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Wales” with the “disputatious aristocratic class” presented as critical in the forty-year collapse into civil war. Bryant’s challenge to dominant narratives – the dissolution of the monasteries and the tension between Commons and king as the impetus for civil war –takes account of the documented record of avarice, the accumulation of power and the subsequent advance of the British aristocracy.
The aristocrats were not alone in their taste for expanding power ‑ James I sold the new hereditary title of baronet to aid the enforced Protestant plantation of Ireland. The king’s favourite George Villiers began his ascent as royal cup-bearer before on acquiring a quasi-royal position as duke of Buckingham, he placed peerages on the open market. In politically laden testament to the broad sweep of that emerging market, Bryant records an earl selling “the Irish [and therefore cheaper] title of Viscount Powerscourt”. Such commodifying of title bruised the cultivated sensibilities of the more ancient aristocratic lines, provoking amour propre within the much elaborated ritual of precedence within the court. The claim that the inflation of honours served primarily to replenish the royal coffers provoked disquiet in the Commons and the sale of peerages, in the wake of a royal overplaying of the hand, lapses into “authoritarianism” and was ended by Charles I, under great duress.
By 1625, Charles had been crowned king of England, and in 1633, king of Scotland. His reign was tagged as tyrannical, and in the wake of two civil wars, the first in England and the second in Scotland, he, and his crown, were under threat. Parliamentary hostility towards the peerage grew and amid calls for the abolition of the Lords the peers were cast as “sons of conquest … and usurpation … not made by the people, from whom all power, place and office … ought only to arise”. In 1649, King Charles was executed. Fuelled by religion, riots and the demand for rights, this act served as catalyst for the institutions of the English monarchy – as with the monasteries – to be dissolved. A republic was declared and the Reformed armies of the “English Commonwealth”, under the command of Oliver Cromwell ‑ in expansive and Puritanical mode ‑ embarked upon a journey across the sea to complete the conquest of Ireland.
This is a cautionary tale of how the landed wealth of the British aristocracy, accrued by means fair and foul, became a primary focus of their concerns in the midst of civil war. In 1642 the parliament resolved to sequester the estates of belligerents who had taken up arms against the parliament. Peers, including many with Irish titles, had to sell estates and mansions, with all assets sequestered “for the use and service of the commonwealth”. On the death of Cromwell, aggrieved royalists returned from exile to support the restoration of the monarchy and with it their own fortunes.
Bryant notes that the “abundant financial fruits of the Restoration were easily harvested”, but the peers of the newly restored realm sought greater powers “to ensure that the populace would not … seek to overthrow their authority again”. The restoration of the monarchy was co-joined with their ascendancy. Despite a legacy of civil war and the formation of the Commonwealth, they “achieved an adamantine ascendancy that survived for nearly three centuries”. The hallmark of that ascendancy, in common with the monarchies of Spain, Portugal and France, and of the Dutch republic, was sectarian. The restored British monarchy, Bryant records, was founded upon religious conformity. Charles II took Church of England communion and “well-blooded” peers, alongside bishops and office-holders, including members of the parliament, were required to “swear an oath against transubstantiation”, setting the tone for generations to resist “popish conspiracies”. James II, brother and successor to Charles II, attempted to reintroduce Catholicism through the royal prerogative, where it “was met with fury”. What was common across all persuasions, from peers to bishops, was a rejection of “arbitrary and absolute royal power”. The Protestant succession would trump all hereditary claims. Dissent would be tolerated, but with the monarch and the people held in balance by the nobility. The perception of the British aristocracy as the final arbiter of dispute was indicative of their securing of power, vested, as Bryant argues, in their possession and hereditary right to pass on all wealth accrued, and expressed in the ownership of land. By the early eighteenth century, each pillar of this aristocratic ascendancy held fast to the moral high ground:”religious conformity, government by consent, aristocratic pre-eminence in royal counsels, and the right to property”.
This dominance of patrician elitism fostered a resistance to any infiltration by “impecunious foreigners, Scots, Irish, Dutch and German”, an aspiration resisted by parliamentarians seeking to maintain access to the peerage for those who had rendered service to their liege. As Bryant notes, in slightly disenchanted tones, “M.P.s’ envy trumped peers’ jealousy”. Walpole, while reluctant to cap the number of noble families, claimed in 1756 that the new Irish peers were no more than “brewers and poulterers”, and by 1776 the list of the ennobled was so long that “their very number makes them a mob”. Bryant distils the essence of his judgment on the British aristocracy as “[t]he humble herd should know that the peerage was entitled to rule”.
Since the late seventeenth century, many of these peers of the realm were, with the consent of Charles II, members of the Royal Adventurers into Africa, “a thousand year monopoly for orderly traffic and trade”, under the hand of the fifth duke of Pembroke. Of any gold acquired in the venture, the king and all of his heirs would “have, take and receive two third parts of all the gold mined … seized, possessed and wrought’. Royal Adventurers, under a range of titles, were granted “whole and entire … trade” for buying, selling and exchanging “any negroes, slaves, goods, wares and merchandise”. The crown sanctioning of the slave trade was not unique to the British empire, but in this reckoning it is the British crown and its peers that Bryant calls to account. The slave colony estates, thought Pitt the Elder, would be “construed as part of the landed wealth of England”. From the ranks of another aristocracy, the political philosopher Montesquieu commented: “It is impossible to suppose these creatures to be men … because allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.” Across communities both Christian and Muslim, the trade in slaves is a sordid tale, detailed by Bryant and others, but only in the twenty-first century has it become the terrain of scholars mapping the archives and official authorisation emanating from the British crown. In his often pithy style, Bryant places “profiteering peers” at both ends of the trade, many serving as governors, proprietors and investors, imposing rules and codes to ensure that Africans and their children, and their children’s children would serve for the term of their natural life and beyond, as slavery was as hereditary as a noble title. Wealth, accrued across centuries of trade, rapacity and plunder, launched the industrial revolution. Britain became the workshop of the world, deftly turning her hand to the exploitation of child labour when the trade in slaves was abolished.
Across generations, revolutions of the imagination and of the real shake assumptions. The American and the French revolutions shattered the belief that rampant injustice would persist, across time, without impediment. For the British aristocracy, the American revolution threatened their dominions while the French menaced their status. Their response, in defence of the realm in which they played so pivotal a part, Bryant suggests, was twofold: “unremitting warfare abroad and repression at home”. A gathering of more than fifty people was henceforth defined as seditious and banned. Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man was condemned for the advocacy of principles that reeked of subversion of “the established form of government”. Pitt the Younger, just prior to the Act of Union in 1801, appointed a cabinet of “four dukes, three marquesses, nine earls, one viscount, four barons and one commoner”, and took the number of peers from 195 to 273, while “many a British and Irish peer had his hand greased to secure the passage of the controversial union of the two kingdoms”. The enlarged House of Lords, “with twenty-eight Irish representative peers for life and four Irish bishops”, rose to number 347, substantially tightening the aristocratic grip on power. Bryant, with the deft familiarity of a parliamentary player, details the opening gambits of privileged lordship and the tactical strategies of an increasingly literate and politically agile intelligentsia drawn from “former wool-sorter turned polemicist” John Wade, in The Black Book, or Corruption unmasked! and embracing the radical philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who called for the abolition of the monarchy. Wade struck at the core of inequity: “What right had an assembly of half-civilised men, some five hundred years ago, to tie up the great estates of the country in perpetuity; to enact that, whatever changes of society might intervene, they should never be subdivided nor severed from their lineal heirs as long as they endured?” And endure they did, and endure they do.
A volume such as Bryant’s might be thought to be required to deliver a happy endnote. It does not. Pomp, circumstance and the promulgation of restored period romance dressed as British history are marketed across the globe, and in ritual Disney-fication on the British home front, the establishment prevails. “Leaking ancestral homes and claims of noble poverty” have become regular features of British, and Irish, broadcasting, yet “the lists of major landowners in 1872 and in 2001 remain remarkably similar”. The duke of Westminster continues to gather rents from large chunks of Mayfair … the Baroness Howard de Walden “holds most of Harley Street and Marylebone High Street”. The Sunday Times Rich List records “30 peers each worth £100m or more”. To a problematic degree, ancestral piles ceded to “the National Trust or charitable trusts … [with all the concomitant tax advantages] … permit the British aristocrats to “occupy their ancestral pads with the added benefit of modern plumbing and wiring”. Family trusts generate tax-free income for generations of the semi-literate, well-schooled in art and artifice to ensure continuity of line and of livery.
The early twenty-first century marked the removal of many hereditary peers from the lords, but also boasts a significant sprinkling of titled and bespoke peers of the British realm taking their place from the successive cabinets of Blair, Brown, Cameron and, in these disquieting times, the embattled May government. The contemporary note sounded from within a democracy struggling to reassert a sense of a post-imperial identity while yearning for the power and the trappings of empire is, perhaps, a fitting prelude to a most sobering topography of aristocratic lineage: “a third of Britain’s land still belongs to her aristocracy … nearly half of Scotland remains in the hands of 432 private individuals and companies, and more than a quarter of all Scottish estates larger than 5,000 acres are held by aristocratic families”. The line, and the presumption of entitlement, persists courtesy of the loosely and inappropriately named public schools, and the self-assured continue, as did their ancestors, to break bread at Brooks’s, Boodle’s, Pratt’s and White’s.
Bryant’s is a well-documented and timely polemic. What Entitled brings into the public domain is a progressive reading of the role of the British aristocracy. The extensive research upon which its claims rest, renders this a public service by the author. It is written, in effect, to serve as a progressive political act – of defiance, of a declaration of war against embedded privilege, with a challenge to a seduced British public to look again, and to rethink the economic order that persists in giving such profound succour to the avarice of aristocrats.
Mary Jones is a documentary maker, director of Arkhive productions and author of The Other Ireland: Changing Times 1870-1920.