RECEDENCE is the foundation on which the aristocracy is established, and the prop by which it is sustained; but precedence is the capital and crown of the edifice, the outward and visible sign by which as much as by pomp and show, the nobility asserts its superiority. For whoever acquires wealth, by whatever means, can of course command houses, estates, and retinues, and all the varied paraphernalia of luxury and display; but in England all this, without precedence, profiteth nothing. All the rest, to the ambitious aspirant, is but sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.

Precedence is not a matter of courtesy, nor often of mere custom, however ancient; it is the subject of absolute law. Its violation is actionable. One person is by law entitled to go before another person. The precedence of every individual of rank in the kingdom is regulated either by express statute, by letters patent, or by the common law. You will find it all set down in Blackstone and his successors. An earl of England goes before an earl of Scotland. A viscount's eldest son precedes an earl's younger sons. The daughters of a nobleman outrank the wives of the younger sons of the same peer. The intricacy is involved in the last degree, and when a woman of quality gives a dinner she often consults the books to settle the places of her company. For the married daughters of an earl must not be put before the unmarried daughters of a duke, nor the daughter of a peer of later creation before the daughter of one of the same rank whose creation is earlier. These are the ladies, a little distant from the sun, who insist most rigorously upon their reflected glories. Precedence, poor things, is all they have at times, and you cannot expect them to yield it readily.

There is, however, one result of the rage for rank that is refreshing. The precedence of the younger sons and daughters of the nobility continues through life. It matters not how poor they may become, their place and their titles remain; so that mere wealth cannot elbow aside the distinction that comes from lineage. No rich upstart can precede the broken-down woman of birth, and the fact that poverty and privation may coexist with even exalted rank depreciates the undue influence of mammon. The poor aristocrats can never lose their consequence in a society where a title may come to them suddenly by the death of a distant relative; and the mother of a possible duke must always be important to families whose daughters he may one day deign to ennoble.

For these potentates of the peerage can marry whom they please, arid their wives step into the grade beside themselves. The Marquis of Salisbury is descended from the famous Lord Burleigh, so that his family has been noble since the time of Elizabeth, but he married the daughter of a lawyer. The wife afterward became intimate with a peeress more highly descended even than the late Premier. I asked this lady once whether her friend was of family that entitled her, according to English notions, to so grand an alliance; and she, herself sprung from royal lines, replied: "I mean to say that Lord Salisbury could marry whom he chose". As Marchioness of Salisbury the lawyer's daughter took precedence of her high-born friend.

She once had a greater triumph still. Many years ago her husband quarrelled with Lord Beaconsfield, but in 1874, when the Tories returned to power, it was found impossible for Beaconsfield to form a cabinet unless the two were reconciled. Great efforts were therefore made to bring them together. But Lord Salisbury was stubborn, and the same peeress assured me that the Duchess of Marlborough literally went on her knees to Lady Salisbury and implored her to persuade her husband to serve under his enemy. Lady Salisbury was won, Lord Salisbury consented, and, as a result, he became Prime Minister of England; for had he not submitted to Beaconsfield, he never would have succeeded him.

Precedence is a subject of so much consequence that no tribunal below the crown can be trusted to determine its finer points, and the difficult questions are referred in the last resort to the Queen, whose fiat in these matters is irreversible. Her Majesty fully realizes the importance of the prerogative, one of the few she yet retains in all its ancient plenitude, and devotes her best abilities to the distribution of justice in so grave a cause. But even into royal minds partiality will sometimes penetrate, and when her own family is concerned, the decisions of the sovereign have not always been received without suspicion of favor. She gave great offence by insisting that the Prince Consort should go before the Prince of Wales; and, had her husband lived, it is doubtful whether the English would have submitted to the regulation. The future king should have preceded his father, by all the unnatural rules of rank and royalty. More recently still Her Majesty has outraged the feelings, not only of her own nobility, but of the reigning families of Europe, by conferring the title of Royal Highness on the husband of her daughter Beatrice, when he has a right only to be called "Serene". Precedence is a question that comes up constantly in all the ceremonies of the aristocracy; once a day, at least, to everybody, for everybody must dine, and everybody goes to dinner according to degree. I have seen at German watering-places English women of birth, sisters and sisters-in-law, as punctilious in yielding and taking place at a table d'hote as if they had been at court. The last night I dined in England two earls were leaving the room together, and as the one whose rank was more recent held back for his senior, he said laughingly, but he meant it all the same: "I must not go before my betters".

Americans, even, may become involved in the labyrinthine mysteries. An American envoy was once visiting at a famous house where the Lord Lieutenant of the county was also a guest, and the hostess went to dinner, according to rule, with the minister. But at this the wife of the Lord Lieutenant was up in arms; she searched the books and declared that her husband represented the Queen, and therefore should precede a foreign minister. The gentlemen staying at the house also looked up the authorities, but disagreed with her. Still she remained dissatisfied, until finally the hostess went to the minister and begged him, in order to pacify the punctilious peeress, to allow the Lord Lieutenant to precede him for a single night; and the American was amiable, and waived his privilege. I think I said that precedence is not controlled by courtesy.

Another time it was the minister's wife who insisted on her prerogative. For Americans who live in this atmosphere are susceptible to the influence. One of our representatives was staying at a ducal house, and the first night the duke took in the minister's wife to dinner; but the next night, to vary or divide his courtesies, he offered his arm to another lady, whereat the minister's wife was wroth, and, being the head of her own family, she insisted on leaving the house, and the democratic envoy cut short his visit because his wife was not taken in every night at the head of the company.

These difficulties extend into the loftiest regions. The Viceroy of Ireland represents Her Majesty, and during his term has precedence even of the Prince of Wales. It is said that the Heir Apparent dislikes to visit Ireland because he is unwilling to follow the Viceroy. This functionary, indeed, has a little court of his own, where, as in all provincial circles, the etiquette is stiffer than in grander spheres. When the Viceroy dines out everybody rises as he enters the room, and when the ladies leave the table each approaches and makes him in turn the courtesy that is due to royalty. Even his wife must do this in public, though I doubt if she does it at home.

I have known earls take their own daughters to table, because these were of higher rank than any one else in the room; and at royal houses the hosts invariably precede their guests, unless the guests themselves are royal. I have even seen a child go in to dinner at the head of a distinguished company. At a country-house where a foreign minister and his wife were guests, the host had not returned from the hunting-field in time for dinner. There were several members of the Government present, men of title and consideration in English circles; but the ladies of the family sent to the school-room for the eldest son, a boy of thirteen, to represent his father, and he, as a viscount, took precedence of all the gentlemen present, and offered his arm to the wife of the minister.

As a rule, scant deference is shown to Americans in this matter of precedence. Neither hospitality nor courtesy is said to be in question, but the law. Now, the law may be very well for Englishmen, by whom and for whom it was made, but it can hardly apply to foreigners who are neither referred to in its provisions nor comprehended in its denominations or degrees. The English, however, habitually apply their own rules and their own ideas on every subject to everybody else. They recognize neither military, nor literary, nor even political distinction among themselves when there is question of rank; a general goes behind his own aid-de-camp if the latter is a lord and the general is not; the greatest writer in the land, Browning or Froude, or, until the other day, Tennyson, would be preceded by any blockhead of a baron; and the Prime Minister, if a commoner, gives way to peers of his own creation. So, American gentlemen, and ladies too, of whatever consideration at home, are usually sent to the foot of the table, because they possess no English titles. European dignities are recognized, for they correspond to those in the English peerage, but our unofficial countrymen do not usually fare so well. Both ex-President Fillmore and ex-President Pierce were in London soon after the expiration of their terms of office, and dined at different times with different Ministers for Foreign Affairs. Each was sent to table without a lady and behind the rest of the company. They were plain gentlemen, it was said, and, "if the Americans give their ex-Presidents no rank, why should we? " General Grant, it is true, except in one conspicuous instance, was given precedence of everybody in England below the royal family, but his case had neither parallel nor precedent.

There are, however, English houses where simply as strangers the place of honor is given to Americans. This is, of course, among people who have seen much of the world, and discovered that even in civilized nations usages may exist different from those of England, and that persons of consequence can be found in other countries who yet are not the bearers of English titles. The greater the house the greater the consideration an American is likely to receive. If he dines with a duke, the chances are that he will go in with the duchess; if the host is a recent arrival in the great world, he may have no lady, and will probably enter last.

But the rule does not always hold. I was dining once with a woman of rank who was also a personal friend. The company included two marquises, one of whom was a cousin of the hostess and a man of cosmopolitan breeding. Before dinner this nobleman came up to me and said: "I have been telling my cousin that you ought to take her in, but she says No; 'she likes you very well, but you can't go before a marquis. I insisted that, as a foreigner and an official, you should precede; but she will not yield."

Mr. Lecky, the historian, was present, and I was then new in English society ; so, with all the simplicity of a republican, I replied: "Mr. Lecky is the most distinguished man in the room. Shouldn't he take Lady Mary?" But the liberal marquis at once exclaimed: "Oh! Mr. Lecky is an Englishman. He must take his place."

So Lady Mary went in with a vapid youth of twenty-two, because he was a marquis, and the most eminent person at dinner had no lady, and went last.

Source: Aristocracy In England by Adam Badeau - Franklin Square 1886, Copyright, 1885, 1886. [As Written] Original text, may contain OCR errors.
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