Lawrence James, in his new book, "Aristocrats", takes a long look at the British aristocracy from 1066 to modern times. He examines the role the aristocracy has played in English history, society, governmental affairs, the arts, and warfare.
The aristocracy has held a middle place between English royalty and the common people. Great families were raised to aristocratic level - pointedly one layer under royalty - as a reward to helping the monarch in both war and peace time. Along with the Church, aristocrats were often the only members of society educated during the late middle ages and served their royal masters as government officials and representatives of the central government. These families often fought among themselves for access at court - for continued royal favor. Great dynasties could flourish and often overwhelm a weak ruler. There was a constant balancing act between sovereign and the aristocracy over power. Royalty often married into aristocratic families and those families were particularly good at grasping at power. This has continued to present day; Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was a member of high Scottish aristocracy when she married the future George VI. And, of course, Diana Spencer was from a wealthy aristocratic family.
Wealthy merchants and military officers were often given peerages as reward for their duties to the Crown. Old families died off and new people were ennobled, replenishing the aristocracy. James is particularly effective when writing about the social impact the aristocracy played in English life.
Aristocrats were often charged with running the various governments of the British Empire, as well as serving as high-ranking military officers. They were influential in importing the arts from countries on the Continent young men had seen on their "Grand Tours". The current aristocracy, made up of hereditary and life-peers, has entered the 21st century, their number being trimmed by war and death taxes. A stunning statistic, noted by James on page 368, was that "two hundred direct heirs to titles or major landed estates were killed between 1914 and 1918". For some reason, that number seems staggering to me.
Lawrence James is a lively, interesting writer. His book was a wonderful history.
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