The American Center for Artists

Artist and Gallery Listings       Arts Organizations and Grants   Articles Stories and Poems  Staff


The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy

by John Sledge

Editor’s Note: It has gone the way of the dinosaurs. The British aristocracy is no more. It took a long time to pass away, over a hundred years in fact. But the recent victory of Tony Blair’s Labour government in denying the vote to hereditary peers in the House of Lords is the final nail in the coffin. From a position of fabulous wealth, power and privilege a century ago, the British aristocracy has fallen to insignificance today.

In an event-filled century, the death of the British ruling class is an important and compelling story. A reissue of a book first published in 1990, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, (Vintage, paper, $20), charts this story in thorough and engrossing detail. Today’s Books page focuses on Cannadine’s epochal work, and by way of introduction, presents a short piece of historical fiction, the better to illuminate some of the themes within this great drama.


He was born on a chill April morning in 1880. His mother, diminutive in the massive four-poster bed, was exhausted by her long labor. After he had nursed and been cleaned, his father, the Duke of Wiltshire, took him out of the bedchamber and held him aloft for the servants in the hall below to see. They smiled and clapped, welcoming the eighth Lord Burleigh, healthy and robust, into his privileged world.

The family home, Burleigh Hall, was a famous landmark, a massive, 18th century porticoed stone edifice topped with statues. It was surrounded by landscaped gardens and served as the seat for twenty thousand acres of rich farmland, all owned by the Duke. The vast estate included villages of houses, shops and pubs and small farms with cottages and barns.

Lord Burleigh wanted for nothing. From the moment of birth, servants saw to his every need: nursemaids to rock him and read to him when he was small, a gardener to lead him around the grounds on a pony, and a gentleman’s gentleman to put out his dinner attire and attend him when he was a young man.

His father the Duke was a hereditary member of the House of Lords, as Lord Burleigh himself would be one day, and was often in London attending Parliament. The family had an elegant town home there. His mother, the Duchess, gentle and kind, directed the household activities of the servants from the drawing room with her books or needlework close at hand. From her Lord Burleigh learned the advantages of an even temper and steady habits. His father was less even-tempered, and one of his most vivid early memories was of the Duke raging through the house damning Prime Minister Gladstone to hell. "He’s done us in!" the Duke had roared. "Given the vote to every dreary shopkeeper and tradesman! No good will come of this!"

Lord Burleigh’s education was the best--public school at Eton, then Oxford, where he excelled at history. After graduation, he returned to Burleigh Hall to prove himself a worthy heir to the Duke. Then came the government’s efforts at land reform and its determination to raise taxes. Lord Burleigh winced at the vicious attacks on his class by Lloyd George and others, who accused them of being useless wastrels. His father had his first stroke that year, after months of fighting the reforms.

The Great War gave Lord Burleigh hope that he and his fellow aristocrats could at last forcefully prove their mettle and value to the realm. He raised a company of working-class men from the estate, and crossed the channel with them as their captain. "I can’t wait to see the show," he wrote to his mother from France, "I’ll give them what for." But "the show" proved more terrible than he or anyone else could have imagined. Virtually all the boys he had known at Eton and Oxford were killed or wounded during the first two years of fighting.

By the summer of 1916, he had no more illusions: He was there because he was there. He knew it was no longer a question of if he would be killed, but rather when. In the nightmarish world of the trenches he became closer to his men. Whatever their social backgrounds, he respected them as soldiers, shared their hardships and grieved over their deaths. And then came the fateful day of the big push. When the signal to attack came, he clambered out of the trench and led his men forward. They were met by a sheet of flame.

He awoke in hospital days later, unable to remember anything other than the noise and the unbearable pain. The nurses explained that he had taken shrapnel in his leg, and that his unit was decimated. Within a matter of weeks he was walking with a cane, but for him the war was over. He was shipped home, physically and mentally scarred. The sight of Burleigh Hall was a balm to his soul, however, and he gloried in the smell of the gardens and the cool feel of the marble halls. His parents had worried desperately over his fate, and were visibly aged and worn.

The Duke died two years later, and Lord Burleigh came into his inheritance. At night he would pore over the records and bills, wondering how he was going to hold it all together. Rents were down, taxes were up and competition abroad had significantly depressed agricultural prices. Awful as it was to admit, there was nothing to do but sell off enough of the estate to financially square matters. Though Lord Burleigh was now a hereditary peer, he rarely attended Parliament (after all, it was the blundering politicians who had foolishly sent him and his fellows into the trenches). And so, painful as it was to do so, he sold the London residence to a war orphan society. He also sold off over 5,000 acres of Burleigh Manor itself to several different parties. Land was no longer the key to power; it was, instead, a distinct liability.

The postwar social scene was a dismal run of parties attended by obnoxious, socially obscure young people and vulgar businessmen chomping expensive cigars. Lord Burleigh attended several out of a sense of obligation, but then became disgusted and determined to spend some time abroad. After his mother died, he closed Burleigh Hall and paid an elderly caretaker to keep watch over things.

His first destination was Egypt, where he found that his leg pained him less in the warm climate. While cruising the Nile he met a fellow veteran and aristocrat, Lord Dunbar, who was also fleeing travail at home. The two of them spent months together, indolently wandering the broad African continent. They shot big game, canoed Lake Tanganyika and gazed at Victoria Falls. They parted after a year, and Lord Burleigh decided to return to England.

At age 52, he married a much younger American woman. They had two sons and for a time Burleigh Hall seemed alive again as the delighted giggles of children once more echoed through its rooms. But the house was more than the family needed or could keep up, and in 1938 they demolished the wings. Then came the Second World War, and though the family was safe from the bombing raids that devastated the cities, their lives were disrupted as the British army commandeered the house and grounds for a training base.

After World War II, Lord Burleigh was forced to sell off most of his remaining acreage. The older he got the more his war wounds pained him, and his children thought him sad. He died in 1955 after a stroke. His widow struggled to keep the house up, but servants were impossible to get and she despaired. Home from Oxford, her eldest son suggested she open the house for tours, charging the public to wander through Burleigh Hall’s magnificent spaces. Being an American, she was nothing if not practical, and thought it an inspired idea. In 1957 Burleigh Hall opened to the public and people streamed through by the thousands, gawking at its treasures. Lady Burleigh would stand on the staircase as they came in, smiling and nodding. Occasionally, a guest would stray outside and marvel at the green fields and hedgerows stretching towards the horizon, and wonder what it was like to live in such an extraordinary place.

The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy

Vintage, paper, $20.

"Even in an era when the word processor has encouraged unprecedented authorial prolixity, this remains a long book." So writes David Cannadine, a professor at the London School of Economics, in the new preface to his monumental study of the British aristocracy’s slow demise. Indeed, at 813 pages, including appendices, notes and index, this hefty book would make a serviceable doorstop. Yet the story it tells--how a small number of incredibly wealthy and powerful families fell from a pinnacle of influence and importance to near oblivion in a century’s span--is a sobering reminder of the transience of human affairs.

In 1880, Cannadine informs us, the members of the British aristocracy (which he defines as landholders with 1,000 acres or more) were the "lords of the earth." They were a tiny minority, only 7,000 families in a country of millions. Yet this "tough, tenacious, and resourceful elite" owned four-fifths of the land in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It had been that way since before the Middle Ages, and few had questioned it. The 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke expressed the prevailing view when he wrote, "Nobility is a graceful ornament to the civil order. It is the Corinthian capital of polished society."

Land ownership was the key to wealth, social prestige and political power. Along with their fertile acres and mind-boggling inherited fortunes, the British aristocrats presided over elegant, art-filled country houses and London town homes and proudly bore distinguished titles bestowed by royalty. They dominated their county governments and at the national level controlled both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. As Cannadine writes, these people had "leisure, confidence, experience, and expertise: they had time to govern, they were expected to govern." Their offspring, particularly second and third sons, filled the upper ranks of the army, the church and the civil service, making these "an outwork of patrician power."

After 1880, however, historical forces converged and things began to change. A worldwide collapse in agricultural prices diminished the economic power of the large estates. In addition, there was a gradually increasing democratization of the British Isles. In 1884, responding to growing pressure from influential urban trade unions, the Gladstone Ministry passed a series of reform measures which doubled the electorate, from three million to six million voters. Nearly 60% of the male population of the British Isles now had the franchise, and the aristocrats’ hold on the political levers weakened.

More extensive changes were to come. In 1909, Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer (roughly equivalent to the United States’ Secretary of the Treasurer) submitted a budget to Parliament, which called for broad reforms. George’s budget was defeated by the House of Lords, but was only the beginning of a sustained, full-scale assault on the landed classes. Of modest Welsh stock himself, George hated the landlords, and was determined to loosen their hold on British society. In 1913 he launched his "Land Campaign," proposing higher taxes for landowners, governmental control of rents and higher wages for laborers. Throughout the campaign, George "pilloried the patricians" to great popular approval. His measures passed, and the aristocracy’s place in British life slipped another notch.

Then came the Great War, which the aristocrats believed would give them "the supreme opportunity to prove themselves and to justify their existence." After all, the historical purpose of the aristocracy was war; from feudal times the nobility had shouldered the responsibility for the defense of the realm, fielding knights and armies.

The patrician sons answered the call to arms, eager for battle. By the end of 1914 however, the glamour was gone. In that year alone, six peers, sixteen baronets, 95 sons of peers and 82 sons of baronets were killed. When one considers that in 1914 there were only some 500 peers, and not many more baronets, the impact of these deaths becomes evident. Over the subsequent months of fighting, there was hardly an aristocratic family that did not suffer the death or maiming of a loved one. In 1916 Lord Roseberg wrote, "The fountain of tears is nearly dry. One loss follows another till one is dazed." By war’s end, a contemporary would write, "the Feudal System vanished in blood and fire, and the landed classes were consumed."

In the gloomy aftermath of war, the landed classes were not only diminished in numbers but also faced with growing financial pressures. Over the next few years they divested themselves of millions of acres of land in "the greatest territorial transfer since the Norman Conquest and Dissolution of Monasteries." As it happened, however, selling off lands was not enough, and soon the magnificent country houses and London town homes began to be sold and demolished. By 1939, over 250 mansions had fallen to the wrecking ball.

In another societal sea change, the makeup of the House of Commons changed. By 1919, only 25 of 168 new members were aristocrats. The rest were plutocrats, men who had made their money in trade or speculation. One bitter patrician referred to them contemptuously as "hard-faced men." Land ownership was no longer a prerequisite to political clout. Nor was aristocratic status now enough to guarantee entree into the army, the church or the civil service. Concurrent with the rise of the plutocrats was an increase in "professionalism, merit-competition, bureaucracy, specialization and expertise," all of which worked against the old ruling order. Indeed, one politician labeled aristocrats "a public danger in all matters when quantitative knowledge, unremitting effort, vivid imagination and organized planning are concerned."

The age-old honors system changed as well. Titles were given away willy-nilly without regard to birth or merit. In 1914 for example, there were 700 Knights Bachelor awarded, more than triple the number in 1885. Even Lloyd George, implacable foe of the aristocracy, was made an earl. An old-line aristocrat, Lord Salisbury, grumbled, "You cannot throw a stone at a dog without hitting a knight in London."

Deprived of much of their former influence, the aristocrats drifted through the 1930s and 1940s, unsure of their purpose. More than ever in their long history, they were the idle rich, partying mindlessly and, in some cases, naively dabbling in fascism. "They no longer knew who they were," Cannadine writes, "what they were doing, or where they were going." Lloyd George commented with satisfaction that their place in history would be "like the scent on a pocket handkerchief."

The passing of the British aristocracy was not to go unmourned. As early as 1945, the novelist Evelyn Waugh poignantly sketched its decline in "Brideshead Revisited." And American public television viewers pine over stories with aristocratic settings presented by programs like Mystery and Masterpiece Theatre. In David Cannadine’s solid and well-written analysis we now have the most thorough history of this fall from grace that we are likely to have for many a year. Sic transit gloria.