I ONCE made a bet with a high-born dame that not fifty of the English peerages were two hundred
years old. She was the granddaughter of earls on both sides of the house, and insisted that my remark
was mere republican raillery. So we agreed to leave the decision to her cousin, a vice-chamberlain,
and of course an authority. lie pronounced that in one sense I was right. If we considered the titles
by which the peers are now known, the old ones are as few as I had declared, but there are still others
in existence lost in the promotions to which their wearers have later attained. As I had bet with a
lady I paid without a protest, and she rewarded me with an invitation to Oakley Park, the seat of Earl
Bathurst, which Pope celebrated in the line: "Who plants like Bathurst, and who builds like Boyle."
The peerage indeed would have been small by this time but for the accessions which it constantly receives. There were seventeen new lords created the last year I spent in England. Politics is the principal avenue that leads to the House of Lords. But though the Prime Minister makes noblemen by the score, only one premier in the last hundred years has given himself a peerage before the close of his career. Lord Beaconsfield could not wait so long, and seized the prize in advance. He also conferred the Order of the Garter on himself and took the office of Lord Privy Seal, which gave him precedence over all but five people in the kingdom, of less than royal degree. Sir Robert Walpole and Lord John Russell both took their promotion when they ceased to be premiers. Sir Robert Peel, the younger Pitt, and Charles James Fox remained commoners, but they all died young for English statesmen; as did also Canning. The widow of Canning, however, was made a viscountess. Lord Beaconsfield, on the contrary, made his wife a peeress long before he put on a coronet himself. Like most of the premiers, he felt that the House of Commons was his proper place, but the glitter of the gew-gaw was too much for him, and after a while he laid his hand upon an earldom. The wonder was he did not make himself a duke, for there was no one to say him nay. Doubtless had he remained in power, he would have mounted to the highest step in the ladder of the peerage, and donned the strawberry leaves.
The demand for promotion is very openly made. A political adherent who thinks his services entitle him to the reward has no hesitancy in presenting his claim. The late Sir Francis Goldsmid narrated to me in detail the persistent efforts his father made for this sort of recognition. Sir Isaac Goldsmid was one of the most prominent Jewish gentlemen in the kingdom; he had served, not only his party, but the country, faithfully and liberally, and advanced large sums to the Government in critical emergencies. He was extremely anxious for a title, but a peerage was out of the question, and he had a long struggle before Lord Palmerston consented to make him a baronet. This was forty- five years ago, and not until last year was a Jew created a peer; the head of the Rothschilds was then elevated to the House of Lords. Long before this the financial importance of the great Hebrew family had secured them nobility in nearly every other European state, but the Rothschilds were not satisfied till their wealth had bought them admission to the British House of Lords.
For these foreign titles, which the Continental courts do not scruple to bestow on successful bankers and others in trade, are not much esteemed in England. They confer no precedence there, and are not recognized at court. The bearers must obtain especial license from Her Majesty to use either arms or title, though they sometimes put the latter on their cards without authority. Not long ago there were two of these gentlemen living in England, well known and respected Baron Worms and Baron Stern. The latter was made a viscount by some European sovereign, whereupon the wits remarked: "This will give him precedence of Baron Worms."
Some years ago I congratulated a subordinate member of Mr. Gladstone's government upon being made a privy councillor, but the ambition of the placeman was far from appeased. He told me that his eldest son, then an Eton boy of twelve or thirteen years, had said to him : "Papa, if they offer you a peerage, be sure not to refuse it. Kemember me." The boy and his father had evidently set their hearts on the same prize. The aspiring commoner has since become a peer, so that the son is satisfied; and the father, then a strong Radical, is now a Tory of the Tories.
In 1871 the Queen created the rich and charitable Miss Burdett-Coutts a baroness in her own right; a recognition of moral excellence never made before in the history of the British aristocracy. But even in this case the wealth was as indispensable as the individual worth. Lady Burdett-Coutts might have emulated the virtues of all the Saints in the Calendar, but if poverty had been on the list of her merits, she could not have entered the English peerage. Indeed, had Her Majesty foreseen that celibacy was not to be included, the wealthy philanthropist would certainly have remained a cominoner. It was because there could be no successor that the sovereign was pleased to dispense her favor. The lady married, however, at the mature age of sixty-five, and the Queen was indignant at this violation of the implied contract ; although it was certain the baroness would never transmit her honors to an heir.
Wealth has always been held an essential qualification in the candidates for the aristocracy, and many of those otherwise fitted for the promotion have failed of it because of the lack of this indispensable attribute. The great soldiers had to receive pensions and sometimes estates with their peerages, to enable them to maintain their dignity ; and at one time the politicians also reckoned pelf as well as promotion among their perquisites, but of late years the public feeling would not have sanctioned such a disposition of the public moneys.
The Speaker of the House of Commons is the first Commoner in the Kingdom, and always receives a peerage when he resigns, that he may not step back into the ranks. The Speaker of the House of Lords is the Lord Chancellor; if not already a peer he is always promoted before he ascends the woolsack, and remains noble, of course, with his family forever. The greatest of the lawyers is thus always a peer; but the most successful of his brethren are never ennobled, unless they have amassed sufficient fortunes to compete with inherited splendor.
Physicians may never arrive at the peerage. The slur of the older days, when barbers were surgeons, remains ; and the most eminent medical men who illustrate the English name to-day, though they save the lives of princes and lessen the sufferings of humanity, are never rewarded with more than a baronetcy. The English doctors take their pay with every visit, and the saying is that no man who has held out his hand for a fee can ever be made an English peer. Yet many of the nobility have held out their hands for bribes.
The great brewers, however, nearly all attain to the aristocratic degree. Malt seems to possess a peculiar patrician quality, though no man of letters or purely literary genius, except Tennyson, has ever received a coronet. The blood of the Basses and Alsops and Guinnesses may become "blue," but that of Browning and Thackeray and Fronde remains plebeian.
After politics and money, marriage is the key that unlocks the august portals of the aristocracy with greatest ease. The nobility may marry whom they please, and their wives will be peeresses; their (legitimate) children are all in the succession, even if born of dairy-maids. Many of the wives of the lords are from the middle class. A rich heiress can buy a coronet any day. There are marchionesses now living whose fortunes fresh from trade saved the ancient estates of aristocracy from the hammer; while ladies with the odor of tobacco about their garments have penetrated into patrician families and shone in the most exclusive spheres. The taint disappears at the entrance. They leave the shop entirely behind when once they are initiated.
I knew a countess who dropped her H's, yet she visited the daughters of dukes. I discussed her once with a high-born associate of her later years, who pretended to believe she was American in origin. "No, no, Lady Charlotte," I replied, " the H's prove her nationality ; "and Lady Charlotte unwillingly admitted that the evidence was irrefutable.
Of late years, American beauties and fortunes have often found their way into the aristocracy; and the Queen can count among her nobler subjects at least half a score who began life as republicans.
The stage has furnished peeresses from the days when Miss Farren became Countess of Derby down to a Countess of Essex that I knew, who had been a public singer, and whose manners were as courtly and her assemblies as crowded as those of the De Yeres. Miss O'Neill, the tragedian, became Lady Becher, and was living until lately, charming and respected. The Countess Waldegrave in her youth accompanied her father, Braham, the tenor, at his concerts, at the same houses which were afterwards proud to welcome her as a guest ; and there is a woman of title and fashion in London today, whom a famous wit assured me he saw enter Brighton in tights and on a camel. Now she entertains sovereigns. Every one will remember the ancestress of the St. Albans who sold oranges in the pit to Charles II, and her virtue afterward to the same customer at a higher price.
Beauty has always won the favor of the British peers. The eldest son, or the man in possession, can afford to please his taste ; and doubtless the handsome looks of many of the nobility are due to the beautiful women who have recruited its ranks so largely. The illegitimate children of sovereigns have been ennobled, down to and including the last reign, and in the present day young peers and heirs have sought mates in half a score of instances among those whose presence sullies any society they enter.
The blue blood does not seem to curdle at the contact, for the grandest of English peers welcome to their ancestral homes the brewers and bankers, the tailors and tobacconists, who, as soon as they become noble, look down as superciliously on plebeians as any descendant of peer or paramour. A stroke of the wand of Cinderella's godmother turned vermin into decorated lackeys fit to go to court; and the flunkeys did not forget their rat-hole more readily than these transformed aristocrats their early obscurity. Blood will tell; and their blood is noble now. [As Written]
RANK AND TITLE
THE PRINCE OF WALES
AMERICANS AT COURT
THE CROWN IN POLITICS
QUEENS' PERSONAL CHARACTER
SERVANTS' HALL PRECEDENCE
THE HOUSE OF LORDS
THE PRINCESS OF WALES
A NOBLEMAN INDEED
POMPS & VANITIES OF CHURCH
CHURCH & STATE
HOUSE OF COMMONS
LITERATURE & THE LORDS
THE LONDON SEASON