Winchester, Simon. Their Noble Lordships: Class and Power in Modern Britain.

London: Faber & Faber, 1981.

It’s sometimes difficult for Americans to understand how the titled class in Great Britain manages to hang on and on, in what is supposed to be a democracy. In fact, under various Labour governments, Britain has been far more radically socialist than the United States — but the dukes and earls and barons have always survived. Is it just the British love of tradition? Probably not.

In fact, Winchester makes a very good argument, well supported by charts and tables, that class is still alive and well in the U.K. and that the upper class still controls the nation’s land to a startling degree (or did, a quarter-century ago, when this book was written). A number of inquiries, even by the government, over the past century have been unable to nail down just how much land each peer controls, but the author estimates the total at something like four million acres — not much to a millionaire Texas rancher, perhaps, but that constitutes about one-third of all the land area of Britain. And it’s in the hands of fewer than 1,500 families.

This is not something British aristocrats really want publicized and, in fact, they go to some lengths to at least obfuscate it. Winchester actually had finished this book in 1978, but his publishers came under assault by a number of titled persons who figured in it. The legal system in Britain pretty much allows individuals who are the subjects of books, no matter how much in the public eye they may be, to suppress such works before publication. It was only with the assistance of a few sympathetic specialist lawyers, especially Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, the foremost authority on peerage lore in Britain, that his work finally saw the light of day.

But this lively volume is far from being a dry socioeconomic study. Winchester went and visited as many dukes and earls as would talk to him (some did), as well as chatting up a broad sampling of the barons who constitute the lower rungs of the aristocracy. Some of these, such as the Duke of Devonshire and Baron Mowbray, he seems to approve of, more or less. In other cases, he lets the man’s personality and opinions speak for themselves. And it’s not a cliché that hunting, fishing, dining, and collecting account for the majority of interests of a great many of the titled. Winchester also describes at length the qualitative differences among the five ranks of the peerage: The special place of the dukes, who are far, far higher on the ladder than even the marquesses next below them; the fact that retiring prime ministers have traditionally been created viscounts; the peculiar inferiority complex of many among the ranks of the barons.

There are also some curious effects that follow enoblement.“Those who carry a title as a consequence of their birth are not in one single case as distinguished in any field as was the first holder of the title; in every single case they are either as comfortably settled as was the first holder or are considerably more settled than was that first holder. . . . In short, the elevation to the peerage has brought the group firmly within the Palace gates of the Establishment, yet appears to have done little to increase their usefulness, as a group, to the society that honoured their forebears. Small wonder that most peers, of recent and of ancient creation, are reluctant to give up what privileges they have.” So while the author has nothing personal against most of the peers he has observed, he does not think stripping the upper class of most of its acreage and the House of Lords of its remaining legislative powers would be a bad thing.

There’s also a great deal of anecdotal history in this book (or it might have been considerably thinner), most of it fascinating and some of it hilarious. The heralds and pursuivants who make up the staff of the College of Heralds often do not approve of those to whom titles and arms are granted, for instance — and you don’t want to annoy someone with a title like Portcullis or Rouge Dragon!

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Published in: on 10 June 2012 at 4:56 am  Leave a Comment  
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