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A group of upper crust types on a shoot in the country.
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The British aristocracy: how gossipy memoirs feed national fascination with privileged elites

They don’t dominate parliament, they don’t own Twitter and they don’t star in big Hollywood movies. Yet the British aristocracy’s capacity to intrigue and enthral seems boundless.

The continuing popularity of the TV and film series Downton Abbey, Evelyn Waugh’s upper-crust novel Brideshead Revisited and Nancy Mitford’s autobiographical The Pursuit of Love underscore the popular appetite for all things aristocratic.

In 2016, Vanity Fair noted that an enduring fascination with the Mitford sisters was reignited by the publication of their letters.

This has intensified recently with a wave of biographies and memoirs (long predating Prince Harry’s royal hand grenade, Spare). A notable publishing phenomenon was 91-year-old Lady Glenconner’s 2019 autobiography, A Lady In Waiting which became a New York Times bestseller, and 2020’s well-received Diary of an MP’s Wife by Baroness Sasha Swire.

The memoir of Lady Glenconner – daughter of the fifth Earl of Leicester and the wife of the Third Baron Glenconner – made her a minor celebrity. Appearing on the Graham Norton Show, she entertained fellow guests, who, like the audience, listened agog, shocked and amused.

Hailing from Devon gentry, Baroness Swire, wife of former Conservative minister and old Etonian Hugo Swire, made political waves with her memoirs. It included intimate revelations such as Samantha Cameron (David Cameron’s wife, whose mother married into the dynastic Astor family) claiming her husband liked Jeremy Hunt (who has since become chancellor) because he sucked up to him.

A different world

It is unlikely nostalgia drives this interest in aristocratic lives. What grabs headlines are the usual gossipy standards – shocking indiscretions, sex scandals and marital troubles or spousal abuse.

The attraction is peering inside aristocrats’ mysterious world, to feel its privilege and strangeness, its peculiarly gilded yet feudal lifestyle and wealth. Aristocrat biographies reveal the secrets behind the persistence of ancient privilege in modern Britain.

But academic studies and fictional accounts of the British aristocracy have painted a glummer picture. Whether you read David Cannadine’s definitive history The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy or Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the message remains the same: like their grand estates, aristocrats have fallen into ruin.

Which portrayal is correct? Are aristocrats worthy of popular interest or irrelevant as academic historians suggest? Without doubt, aristocrats hold less power than they once did. They haven’t completely fallen, however. For example, former chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne is heir to a baronetcy, and the Duke of Westminster is one of Britain’s richest men.

But rather than a tapestry of anecdotes and individual stories, our research, which looks at the status and modern history of British and European elites, relies on an approach that quantifies and compares the aristocracy’s power as a whole and over time.

Money, money, money

Historians, the aristocracy’s leading chroniclers, build their case on patchworks of individual examples that offer weak foundations for generalisation. Even if a major historian such as F.M.L. Thompson in his English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century identifies the economic or social position of dozens of titles in the early 1900s, thousands of their contemporaries are ignored.

You can count on one hand the times that historians have followed one family through three generations, let alone the several passing between 1850 and 2022. There is no consistency of evidence. An estate sale is quoted here, the diminishing role of the hunt is noted there. While providing fascinating detail about the customs and lifestyles of the aristocracy, general insights elude readers.

In our research, we seek the wood obscured by individual aristocratic trees to reveal the British aristocracy’s wealth and status as a whole from the mid-19th century to the present.

Analysing probate records of British peers between 1858 and 2018 we found their mean wealth declined from a high of over £20 million (in today’s money) in the first decades of the 20th century to approximately £5 million after the second world war, before rising to nearly £15 million in the decade following the financial crisis of 2008.

This swing must be placed in context. First of all, probate records underestimate aristocratic fortunes by excluding wealth held in trusts – a mechanism for transmitting and controlling “family” wealth. Second, their decline was not unique, but part of an “impoverishment of the rich” in the 20th century. Nevertheless, aristocrats’ average wealth has kept them firmly in the top 1% of Britain’s richest people.

Keeping pace with the “normal” rich is an extraordinary testament to aristocratic tenacity. Aristocrats have a handicap other elites in Britain don’t: it’s a closed shop with no mobility into it and no mobility out. The title passes from father to son.

If an aristocratic heir squanders a fortune, the family becomes poor but it remains an aristocratic family. For the “ordinary” rich, if a family squanders its wealth in one generation it drops out of the top ranking but is often replaced and replenished by the socially mobile nouveau riche in the next, keeping their aggregate wealth high. The aristocracy’s ability to stay, on average, in the richest 1% throughout the 20th century is remarkable.

It’s a rich man’s world

Why so resilient? Contrary to existing accounts, aristocratic wealth does not follow land values, the traditional basis of their social position. To endure and flourish, British aristocrats understood they had to be economically astute like their rich counterparts.

The durability of aristocratic wealth thus hints at a tantalising possibility: upper-class families that rose pre-20th century can persist in modern democratic capitalist societies. But they can only do this by hiding ruthless economic acquisitiveness behind a feudal veneer. Meaning, for example, that they can present as country gentlemen while wheeling and dealing like any other businessman.

But it is their special status and privilege that highlights their advantages and pleasures. For many readers, those pleasures are experienced vicariously through myriad accounts of gilded lives seasoned with riches, decadence and scandal. And as any publisher will tell you, that always makes a good read.

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