Aristocracy: A Very Short Introduction
By William Doyle
Born to tenants of a country squire in Yorkshire, I knew about what my grandmother called ‘toffs’ at an early age. The squire was a toff. He owned the village and broad acres for miles around. He lived in a grand and beautiful Jacobean mansion. He had served in the Guards, collected pictures, and bred racehorses which the queen made a special journey to see. But he only enjoyed all this because his elder brother had died young, and to help pay inheritance taxes he sold land and opened his house to the public. And without children of his own, he left the house and estate to distant relatives. He was the last of his line, and when he died, he was buried in the church where I was baptised, among his ancestors.
As a child I scarcely realised that the squire and his lifestyle were already relics of a fast-disappearing pattern of society. But when I grew up to be a historian, I found myself drawn to the eighteenth century, a time when the power and ostentation of such men was at its height throughout Europe. And in coming to specialise in the French Revolution, I had a ringside seat at the first occasion on which their claims to superiority came under open attack. The French revolutionaries saw their main enemies as aristocrats, by which they meant people claiming nobility, and anybody who accepted their pretensions. They attempted to abolish nobility, banned the use of titles, liveried servants, and the display of coats of arms, and revoked the special laws by which nobles had passed on their property down the generations. Many nobles reacted then to attacks on them by claiming that nobody could abolish a quality transmitted in their blood from ancestors who had earned it by deeds of valour. They were right that what they believed about themselves could not be abolished, and aristocracies survived the revolutionary onslaught. But in reality the vast majority of their members had never been descendants of long lines of noble ancestors, and most of the ancestors they did have had bought their nobility from the king. Fraudulent lineages were big business. Nobility, in fact, not simply in France but throughout Europe, was largely a set of myths designed to bolster and perpetuate the power structures of pre-industrial society.
It is important that we work to deconstruct these myths. The myths begin with the very word aristocracy, which strictly means government by the best people. This of course begs the question of who the best are. It is clear that throughout history they have mostly defined themselves, and that this definition has been determined by the rich, the powerful, and their clients. Until less than two centuries ago, that meant big landowners. The economic importance of agriculture was overwhelming, but those who dominated it always sought to decorate their power with display and distinctive lifestyles which emphasised cultural as well as economic superiority. They dressed differently, lived lavishly, rode rather than walked, scorned trade, and claimed special privileges as governors and defenders of the whole community. Men who made money other than in agriculture flocked as soon as they could afford it to join this power elite and hide their low origins. Aristocracies were seldom as exclusive as they hoped to appear. They needed new blood and new money to keep themselves going. Nobility was normally transmitted in the male line, but very few families can produce male heirs for more than a few successive generations. Broken lines of inheritance were much more normal. Marrying new money, however disdainfully, also regularly sustained the wealth essential to behaving like aristocrats.
Before the eighteenth century, nobody dreamed that things could be any other way. Aristocrats gave the tone to the rest of society, and many remnants of their cultural dominance remain with us, as any visitor to a stately home, or events such as horse trials, can see. But once the French Revolution had shown aristocratic power to be vulnerable, it could no longer be taken for granted. Nineteenth century industrialisation and globalisation then sapped the wealth of European agrarian elites and produced richer rivals, while the advent of democracy undermined their political power, in the very parliaments which were one of their most enduring legacies to later times. Twentieth century wars and social upheavals completed the shipwreck. Our collective memory is littered with aristocratic debris, and we instinctively use the term aristocratic to describe anything superior or exclusive. But hereditary distinctions are no longer created, even in a country which still has a House of Lords. In time the last toffs will wither away, like the vanished forelock-tugging peasants over whom they lorded it for so long.
William Doyle is Emeritus Professor of History and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bristol. A Fellow of the British Academy, he has written extensively on eighteenth century European History, and taught in universities on both sides of the Atlantic – including courses over many years on the history of aristocracies. He has written two titles for the VSI series: Aristocracy: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2010) and The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2001).
The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday!