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  • Writer's pictureWho Owns Norfolk?

How to define the British aristocracy

The English remain fascinated with the aristocratic class, with the popularity of Downton Abbey serving as an obvious example. But who actually are the British aristocracy? We all have an approximate idea of what they are - a posh person, with an inherited title, inherited wealth, who typically owns a grand country house and lots of land. But there is no official definition of the aristocracy in the specific context of England or Britain. And there are plenty of very wealthy people who live aristocratic lifestyles but who are arguably not aristocrats. 

Highclere Castle, the setting for Downton Abbey - taken from Visit Newbury

As Who Owns Norfolk (WON) has researched Norfolk's landed elite, and sought to calculate how much of Norfolk's land is still owned by the aristocracy, this has necessarily required defining where the aristocracy ends and the nuveau riche begins. We have developed the following definition.

The English aristocracy - a definition

"The English aristocracy are a collection of families who can trace a clear lineage to the families who were large landowners at a time when the United Kingdom was politically controlled by a small number of large landowning families (I.e., before the 1832 - 1885 period).

We should note here that the aristocracy is not limited to holders of noble "titles" (I.e., British peers, such as dukes). In England, the untitled landed gentry were also bestowed with a range of direct and indirect social priveleges - for example, they could hold manorial rights and received very large quantities of unearned rental income from their estates. They also dominated the House of Commons until the late 1800s, meaning that as a class they held significant control of the political process and could use this to protect their status. And, as David Cannadine notes in his book 'Decline and Fall', the gentry and peerage classes were incredibly fluid, mostly related and often intermarrying, with some gentry often owning more land than titled aristocrats, and with the vast majority of new peerage titles being issued to the gentry class. 

David Cannadine's Decline & Fall - a landmark book on the British Aristocracy

An aristocracy, generally speaking, is defined as a jurisdiction that is ruled by a small upper class, who typically enjoy inherited social status, wealth and beneficial rights compared to non-upper classes. An aristocrat is a member of this class, or a descendent thereof.

The UK's political process is no longer controlled by the aristocracy. The executive branch of government and the legislative are not dominated by large estate owners. Titled nobles do get beneficial treatment, as they are entitled to occupy a portion of the house of lords, and due to their inherited wealth are more likely than an average British citizen to become a member of parliament in the House of Commons. However, they are not in charge in a way that they used to be. The powers of the House of Lords has largely been curtailed in favour of the House of Commons.

That was clearly not always the case. According to Pam Barnes in her 1993 book 'Norfolk Landowners Since 1880' the landed class held a majority in the House of Commons until the 1885 general election, which is corroborated by 2013 research by David Krein (source). Their loss of a majority was largely a result of the expansion of democracy via the 1867 Reform Act (which doubled the electorate), the Third Reform Act of 1884 (which almost doubled the electorate again) and the Reform Act of 1885. These pieces of legislation expanded voting rights to people who were less likely to vote for landowning MPs, and reduced the archaic political structures that weighted votes towards powerful landowners. So 1885 is likely the date at which the UK arguably transitioned from an aristocracy to a (albeit highly flawed) democracy. 

Note: The Barnes source indicates that the landed elite lost their power over the House of Lords in 1911. 

The Houses of Parliament - By Terry Ott - CC BY 2.0

This process was started even earlier after the 1832 Reform Act. A 2000 analysis by Wasson of the families who held sway in parliament from 1467 to 1945 found that, while landed families remained in the majority, a drop off in traditional family dominance occurred after 1832 (source), indicating a shift in the balance of power away from older aristocratic families. This period coincides with the rise of the industrial and capitalist classes as the industrial revolution continued to gather pace in Britain. Many industrial magnates used their wealth to buy landed estates and enhance their social standing, alongside using it to rapidly expand their political influence and protect their capital interests.

Given Wasson's research, we can see the inherited benefits of these old families (e.g. dominance of parliament) starting to fall away after the 1832 act in favour of a new, more plutocratic class who had earned (rather than inherited) wealth from the dramatic growth of Britain's industrialising economy. Whilst these nuveau riche businessmen often bought country estates, they do stand apart somewhat from the older landed elite and represented a different set of more modern and capitalist interests. Families who entered the landed elite in the period from 1832 to 1885 are therefore defined by WON as 'Late Gentry' or 'Late Peers'. 

Families who entered the landed elite before 1832 but after 1600 are defined by WON as 'Middle Gentry' or 'Middle Peers'. The selection of 1600 is arbitrary, but aligns with the founding of Britain's East India Company, which over time ushered in the era of capitalism that would gradually replace the fuedal social structures from which the aristocracy originated. Families who entered the landed class before 1600 represent a more ancient form of aristocrat, and we therefore define them as 'Old Gentry' or 'Old Peers'. 

Families who bought significant landholdings after 1885 are not defined by WON as part of the English aristocracy.

The Coke family bought the Holkham Estate (pictured above) in 1609. However, available research indicates they have been landowners since 1206 at least.

Does England still have an aristocracy?

One interesting question remains as to whether English aristocrats still enjoy beneficial social rights when compared to non-aristocrats. In de facto terms, they enjoy massive and beneficial indirect rights when compared with normal people, by the fact that they inherit large quantities of wealth, with all the associated social benefits that wealth provides (namely health, education, housing and career). But in de jure terms, the picture is less clear cut in terms of actual social priveleges provided to people based on their class, that provide meaningful benefits. Many aristocrats enjoy a inheritance tax exemption that applies to agricultural land, meaning that large estates can be passed from one generation to the other without significant disruption. However, this applies to all landowners, such as farmers, as well - not just aristocrats. That said, extant landed aristocrats often have significant local influence - often they will be a significant local employer, own much of the housing in a village and may own the local amenities too - such as the local pub

Some of the informal societal benefits provided to aristocrats appear to have also largely declined over the past 100 years. In the late 20th century one West Norfolk aristocrat is rumoured to have crashed his car whilst significantly over the alcohol limit. Surveying the damage, he called the local superintendent to ask if the car could be dragged off the road with no legal proceedings. The superintendent replied, 'those days are over, old boy'. The license was lost, to much aristocratic chagrin. 

Despite these relative declines, Who Owns England estimates that a third of England is still owned by the aristocracy. Of the 40% of Norfolk that has been mapped by Who Owns Norfolk, 13% belongs to aristocrats, supporting this estimation. The English aristocracy, whilst facing a clear loss of power over the past 140 years, remain a class of considerable affluence and significant influence in the English countryside.

The Who Owns Norfolk flagship West Norfolk map can be seen below:

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