Plowden, Alison. Lords of the Land.

London: Michael Joseph, 1984.

The late author was not an academic — in fact, she lived in a thatched cottage in the Vale of the White Horse and produced scripts for the BBC — but she also was one of the best English popular historians of the last few decades, being best known for her biographies of Bess of Hardwick and Lady Jane Grey.

This volume is a collection of seven straightforward narratives, each thirty-odd pages long, focusing on those titled families whose histories were and are especially tied to the land. Plowden’s style is smooth and erudite, including frequent quotations from early correspondents and biographers as well as poets. She obvious knows her subject extremely well but she doesn’t try to tell the reader everything she knows, which is the mark of a skilled nonfiction author.

The Percys, the “princes of the North,” were well established in Normandy before William became duke and can justify their claim as one of the oldest noble families in England. William de Perci als gernon (which one might translate as “Bill the Mustache”) arrived probably in the train of the Conqueror’s wife, Matilda, a year after Hastings. He acquired a great deal of land in the north of England following the failed rebellion of 1069 and his descendants, who became earls and then dukes of Northumberland, have never looked back.

The Sackvilles of Knole also were early arrivals, being descendants of the seneschal to William Giffard (Lord Chancellor to Henry I), who crossed the Channel a couple of years after Percy. They became earls and dukes of Dorset, a title which died out in 1843; the senior surviving branch are now “merely” Barons Sackville. But the family — now the Sackville-Wests — also has produced a considerable crop over the centuries of intellectuals, architects, poets, and novelists, and (not least) famous hostesses.

The Stanleys of Knowsley are almost certainly of native Saxon stock, the first notable member being a professional soldier who fought under the Black Prince at Poitiers and subsequently became an international superstar as a tournament champion. He married a Neville and his descendants, who were convinced Lancastrians, acquired connections to the Tudors. According to legend, it was a Stanley who plucked Richard III’s crown from the thorn bush at Bosworth. They became earls of Derby and prominent Whig politicians and diplomats in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as noted sportsmen.

The Howards (now Fitzalan-Howard), dukes of Norfolk, probably are one of the best known titled families outside their own territories because of their steadfast adherence to the Roman Catholic church, their status as premier dukes of England (also premier earls, as Earl of Arundel), and their hereditary title of Earl Marshal — the aristocrat directly responsible, among other things, for organizing the coronation of a new sovereign. And yet their origins are found among the sheep farmers and burgesses of King’s Lynn in the 13th century. Many of the dukes have been Knights of the Garter. Several of them also were attainted and lost their heads. But the family survived.

The Cavendish family began its history with a wealthy London draper who became Lord mayor in the 14th century and entered the public eye as associates of Cardinal Wolsey two centuries later. They did well under Henry VIII, Sir William Cavendish becoming the second husband of Bess of Hardwick and beginning the building of Chatsworth, perhaps the most famous (and certainly the largest) stately home in England. They later became dukes of Newcastle and earls and dukes of Devonshire and committed patrons of the arts.

The Russell family of Woburn Abbey, dukes of Bedford, also descend from successful entrepreneurs, in this case as wine-importers. Their growing wealth got them into Parliament and sent them into administrative posts for the Tudor government. Later generations turned their talents to international diplomacy and then politics; Lord John Russell, a younger son of the 6th duke and the first Earl Russell, was prime minister in the 1840s and a fervent champion of parliamentary reform — a role in which his descendants still are active.

The Spencers of Althorp became widely known outside Britain, of course, when Diana, daughter of the 8th Earl Spencer (when he was still Viscount Althorp), married the Prince of Wales, ensuring that the family will provide half the DNA of the nation’s next sovereign but one. But the Spencers already were known as one of the more eccentric of English titled families and were long a target of the day’s media. After all, the first earl got his start by having the good sense to be born the great-grandson of the 1st Duke of Marlborough.

The important thing to note about all the lineages Plowden discusses is that each of them failed of producing male heirs to the family estates at several points in their history, being saved only by canny or fortuitous marriages of daughters to men of perhaps less exalted breeding but possessing a well-developed sense of business. They all are proof of the English peerage’s habit of “marrying out” as necessary to survive. There is a highly selected bibliography but no footnotes, and one could wish for many more portraits and other illustrations.


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