HE aristocracy in England not only monopolizes the highest social honors of the kingdom, it possesses one-fifth of the soil, and is master of the time and services of immense numbers of the population, millions of whom live upon its estates or occupy its tenements, from the hovels of Killarney to the mansions of Belgravia. Although of late years the nobility has declined in political power, it still retains an important influence. One House of Parliament is composed exclusively of its members, and more than half the highest offices of every Government are taken from its body. It fills a large proportion of the best places in the Church, the army and the navy, and in diplomacy. It constitutes, with those whom it draws about it, and, directly or indirectly, influences and controls, what are called, and correctly, the governing classes of England.

The outward splendor of the peers may be imagined from the advice of the Shah of Persia to the Prince of Wales. That Eastern potentate had been entertained by the Duke of Sutherland at one of his estates, where the grounds and mansions were probably more palatial than any the royal savage had ever seen; and he is said to have declared to the Heir Apparent: "I should behead that duke. He is too magnificent for a subject". Something of the same sort, though probably not carried so far, must have been in Her Majesty's mind some years ago; for, as she was quitting a ball at Stafford House, another residence of the same nobleman, the sovereign said to the duchess: "I shall leave your palace and go home to my house".

In order to retain its importance, the aristocracy must be kept small in numbers, and this is accomplished by the infliction of immense wrongs upon the greater portion of its own members. Only one child can inherit the principal honors and possessions of the family. All the others are of inferior rank and consequence from their birth. In the enforcement of this rule the English aristocracy is more rigorous than any other in the world. The continental titles descend for the most part to all the children, and whole families continue noble for centuries. But the English maintain the importance of a house by the sacrifice of all its sons and daughters to the head. Even the wife of one peer and the mother of another is immolated on the altar of family pride. A woman who has been a duchess abdicates when her son comes to his title, she hands over the family jewels to her successor, is turned out of the mansion where she once presided, and although she retains the title of duchess, it is with the prefix of dowager, to indicate her fallen state; while the brothers and sisters, bred in luxury and splendor in their father's house, descend in one day to comparative indigence and insignificance. The brother thinks nothing of requiring them to leave, and they accept their fate as inevitable. They have always known it was to come, and are, perhaps, somewhat prepared for their downfall.

A nobleman now living is very generally censured because, having no sons, he has settled his unentailed estates upon his daughters, who thus will inherit fortunes which otherwise would have gone to his successor in the peerage. It is considered that he had no right to divert the estates away from the title, both having descended to him from the same ancestor. Even he, however, settled the bulk of his property on one daughter, leaving the other comparatively poor.

Circumstances and conditions like these necessarily have an unhappy effect upon the family relation. There cannot but be heart-burnings and discontent at the unnatural inequalities of fortune in a single household. The disparity between the deference paid to one brother by guests and servants, equals and dependants, and the indifference shown to another cannot but be galling to him who is set aside. The eldest son, even in childhood, knows that all is for him, that he is the superior. The younger children are early taught that they are only sojourners in their father's house, while their brother is a noble by birth, the future master and the head of the family. The next heir can hardly mourn very deeply if his elder brother dies, and there must be times when terrible temptations arise. A duke once said to a friend of mine, as his only son, a child of three years old, was taken out of the room: "There goes my natural enemy".

I remember the son of an earl talking to me with tears in his eyes of the lot of the younger members of a great family. He said he was repelled by the mothers whom he met in society as if he had the plague, lest he should fall in love with their daughters. He was to take his place almost without the sphere in which he had been born. He supposed he should become a steward on some nobleman's estate, or perhaps manage for his brother the property to which he was as much attached as the one who was to inherit all. But he suddenly checked himself, and declared that not for the world would he have it otherwise; nothing would compensate for the ruin of the old English families. The youngster was handsome, well-mannered, and evidently in love with some girl beyond his reach. He was cleverer by far than the man who would become the chief of his house, better fitted to bear the honors, bnt the accident of birth had intervened. It did not seern to him so great good fortune to be the son of an earl so near the prize, and yet excluded from the race.

Nevertheless, the cadets of great houses are better oif than if the aristocracy did not exist; better oif than if they were humbler born. The sons and brothers of peers enjoy enormous advantages at the start. They have a high place in society, powerful friends, prestige, and sometimes opportunities to marry well, in spite of the dowagers. As a rule they are placed in the army or the Church, or pushed in politics or diplomacy, or possibly the law. Of late years, it is true, they have begun to take to trade, and there are sons of dukes who are "in tea". But this is not approved of in society, and aristocrats are not often reduced to such extremity.

After all, it is the mothers and daughters whose fate is most deplorable. Nothing in the whole system is so barbaric as the treatment of the women. Nothing is more pitiable than the lot of ladies delicately reared, accustomed from childhood to profusion and magnificence, and suddenly reduced to a pittance for an income. The daughters of a ducal house, the annual revenues of which cannot be less than a million of dollars, receive at their marriage, portions that do not amount to $3,000 a year; and this is considered a generous provision. I know a lady of less degree whose allowance from her father's estate is 200 a year, while her brother's is 10,000. For these unfortunates there is only one escape from comparative and often absolute poverty, and that is marriage. This is what makes the marriage market of London such a by-word. A well-known peeress, famous for the matrimonial successes of her daughters, is called in aristocratic circles "professional". The men declare it unfair in her to compete with amateurs, and I heard one of her acquaintances say that he was present the night she "caught York".

These high-born women must find husbands, or become enforced, and often unwelcome, pensioners on the bounty of brothers or more distant relatives. Then there is the mother, the great lady, superseded sometimes, not by the wife of her son, which would be more tolerable, but by some far-off cousin or life-long enemy. The dower-house is prepared, the dowry is paid, and she goes to her social suttee [a woman cremated in this way].

And it will not do to suppose that the head of a great family is always ready to assemble his relations about him, always willing to invite their visits or offer them homes. When a man comes into his titles and possessions he usually has his own wife and his own children to care for. The wife is indifferent to his kindred, and the new peer often forgets or ignores them altogether. The brothers and sisters and cousins of the master are hardly the most frequent visitors in great English houses; inmates they are more rarely still. And when they are received they are careful not to presume too far. They all look meekly up to their chief; they are proud to be connected with him, happy to accept his invitations and his charities. They are retainers and dependents, and there is and can be no equality between them, as a rule.

Of course, there are many families united by the warmest and purest regard. There are parents who insure their lives and economize their incomes in order to secure the independence of their younger children. There are great houses in which the chief considers himself bound to provide for and assist the cadets. The present Duke of Bedford, when he came into millions, settled on each of his brothers fifty thousand pounds. But conduct such as this is not the rule, and if it were, the influence of the institution remains, whatever the merit of the individual.

That influence makes the father lavish pride and affection and interest on the favored one, while even the mother, anticipating, perhaps, the time when he will be the arbiter of her fate, is careful not to thwart him in favor of her younger children. That influence makes the heir not seldom selfish, self-sufficient, over-bearing, and all the others subservient, or envious and dissatisfied. It makes marriages for money, among both men and women, common, and not altogether inexcusable. It made one duke regard his eldest son as his "natural enemy".

Primogeniture, however, in England, is matter of law. It cannot be avoided. If a man is born a peer, he must remain a peer, whether he likes it or no. He cannot be divested of the dignity, even though he may not choose to claim the title. In 1796 the Earl of Berkeley married a dairymaid, a previous marriage with whom was declared by the House of Lords "not proven", so that the children, born prior to 1796, could not inherit. The son first born after that date was of course the heir; but he refused to assume a title that reflected on his mother's fame an act of chivalry seldom surpassed in the annals of any nobility. He died not long ago, having been known for more than half a century as the "Honorable Mr. Berkeley", though legally he was the sixth earl. But the title and honors descended to his heirs. He could not divert the succession. Nobility is in the blood, and nothing but an attainder [conviction] can corrupt the quality.

Thus, distant descendants may claim a long-forgotten birthright, and titles and honors supposed extinct for centuries may be revived. The earldom of Devon had remained dormant from 1566 until 1831, when the heir, who was a clerk of the Parliament, and engaged in examining the records, discovered the original patent of the peerage. In ordinary cases the title descends to the heirs male "of the body" of the original patentee [a privilege secured by patent]; but in this instance the words "of the body" did not occur. The title, therefore, descended to the heirs collateral, when those of the body became extinct. The last earl had died without issue in the reign of Bloody Mary (or, as the English more reverently style her, Mary I), and the title and honors were supposed to be extinct. But when the patent was found the clerk of the Parliament was able to prove his descent in the collateral line, and was declared the lawful Earl of Devon after two hundred and sixty years. Meanwhile, the head of the family had been created a baronet, but, disdaining the inferior title, he never took out his patent. Nevertheless, he was always styled Sir William in commissions from the King, and his son was the second baronet. The antiquity of the family indeed reached back beyond the earldom. Edward I. was a legitimate ancestor, and Gibbon turns aside to record their history while reciting the fate of the Roman empire.

But though titles must descend according to the rule of primogeniture, the land can be entailed for three lives only. If a man dies without a will, his real estate falls to his eldest son, but a number of sudden deaths might prevent the heirs of important families from succeeding to the property. But titles without wealth would be barren honors; and to secure the all-important connection of property with rank a device has been contrived to which the aristocracy habitually resort, in evasion of the intention of the law. When the eldest son of a peer or important commoner marries, the custom is for the father and the son to unite in making an entail for their own lives and the life of the unborn son of the living heir. Thus every ordinary successor is born a tenant for life ; he cannot himself alienate the property, and when he arrives at his majority he is ready in his turn to unite with his father to maintain the family dignity and provide for the greatness of one unborn child at the expense of all the others.

It is this principle of primogeniture, thus secured, which is at the basis of all the importance of the English aristocracy. Without it the nobility would promptly lose its pre-eminence. If all the descendants of a nobleman continued noble, the number would soon be so great that nobility would be no distinction. If all the children shared the wealth, the properties would be divided and subdivided till the pomp and circumstance of the peerage would disappear. It is because one man inherits all that the grandeur is permanent; because the heir has a quarter of a million a year, and his brother less than a thousand pounds, that the family dignity is maintained. When primogeniture is abolished the aristocracy will be near its fall. [As Written]

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