Tag Archives: aristocracy

DOWNTON ABBEY AND THE CLASS SYSTEM

Downton Abbey

The latest series of Downton Abbey is currently showing on PBS in the United States.   The hit series is set in an English stately home. It started four years ago with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.   We have gone through World War One with the Grantham family and are now witnessing events in 1924, when the first Labour government came to power.   Hopefully, the series can get us through to World War Two and its aftermath, before falling ratings finish it off.

As I come from England, I’m often asked if the class system so accurately portrayed on the program still exists.

The answer to that can be found at Highclere Castle, which is the real name of the fictional Downton Abbey.

Whereas Downton is supposed to be in the county of Yorkshire in the North of England, it is actually filmed at Highclere Castle, which is west of London.   It is the home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.

A documentary on Highclere Castle was shown some time ago on PBS.  It showed the Earl and his wife are very normal people who are dedicated to preserving their ancestral home and its estate.   High taxes were a major factor in the decline of the aristocracy, starting with the 1906 Liberal government.   After World War II taxes on inherited wealth were so high that many aristocrats were forced to abandon their homes and property.  The Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, owners of Blenheim Palace, Churchill’s birthplace, now live in the Caribbean; visitors can tour their home, ensuring its financial upkeep and giving the Marlboroughs enough to live on.

What about all those servants?   Downton’s plot lines involve those employed downstairs as much as Lord Grantham and his family.   Sadly, all those butlers, footmen, ladies’ maids and cleaning staff are no longer likely to be there. Some may see this as progress. However, before World War One there were three million domestic servants in Britain – not so long ago, that number was down to 68,000, with three million unemployed!

The documentary on the real Downton Abbey showed the present-day residents have just one butler, a really old gentleman who probably can’t handle all the hard physical work some of the younger staff did decades ago.   What was apparent is that the three of them, both aristocrats and their servant, work together as a team to preserve the historic house and ensure its continuity for members of the public who wish to visit it.   And for any television company that wants to hire it.

So, does England still have a class system?   Great Britain still has titles, but a title does not equate to wealth.   That was true in the latter half of the nineteenth century when Britain was the wealthiest country in the world.  Due to rapid industrialization and cheap food imports from its colonies, many aristocrats fell on hard times.   At the same time, the US had created many multi-millionaires in the aftermath of the Civil War.   Those millionaires often sent their daughters to England to find a titled aristocrat to marry.   The American heiress gained a title and the English husband was solvent again!   Winston Churchill was the product of the most famous marriage between a wealthy American and an aristocratic Englishman.

The question asked – if England still has a class system – belies a simple reality.   That reality is that all nations have an aristocracy. The difference in Great Britain is that British aristocrats tend to have titles. Not all do.   The wealthiest people in Britain today are not likely to be aristocrats, so much as oil sheikhs from the Middle East, Russian businessmen hiding from Vladimir Putin, rock stars, football players and, leading them all, J.K. Rowling, the wealthiest woman in the country, once a struggling single mother who could not buy more than one coffee at the local equivalent of Starbucks, until, that is, Harry Potter came along.   For years, Madonna came in at number two.   The Queen is not even in the top 500 wealthiest people in the country.

Today’s aristocracy is just as likely to be found in the United States as in Britain.

The Economist cover story on January 24th highlighted “America’s new aristocracy.”   An accompanying article showed that education is behind today’s inheritance of privilege.   Educated couples typically earn the most.   They then ensure their children get the best education so they, in turn, are at the top of society.   So an inherited, but untitled, aristocracy continues from generation to generation.   They may not have all the servants the Granthams had in Downton Abbey, but then nobody does today.

Although I’m sure there are good servants still around, I doubt there are many left like Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes and even the old gentleman at Highclere Castle.   Being “in service” is no longer considered a calling – the great-grandchildren of the Granthams’ servants are far more likely to be enjoying life on the dole!

Progress indeed!

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DOWNTON AND THE ARISTOCRACY

Downton AbbeyDownton Abbey is back on PBS.  The fourth season began a couple of weeks ago.

Why is this show so successful?  People are watching it all over the world.

The series began before World War I, took us through that awful war, followed immediately by the flu epidemic; and has now reached 1922.  We are now seeing a reduced aristocracy facing highB taxes resulting in a slow-but-sure decline, the subject of Evelyn Waugh’s classic “Brideshead Revisited,” which depicted the aristocracy between the two world wars.

The aristocracy had started losing its power prior to World War I, with the Liberal Party’s victory in the 1906 election.  The Liberals introduced state controlled pensions, which had to be paid for.  In 1910, the Liberals approved a massive increase in taxation.  The House of Lords, the Upper House, over-ruled the Commons, refusing to approve the budget.  It was a major constitutional crisis, which was resolved by the new king, George V, when he agreed to appoint more liberal aristocrats to the Upper House, who would then approve the proposed budget.  The Lords backed down and agreed to the Commons being able to pass budgetary bills without their consent.  From this point on, the House of Commons was the more powerful chamber.  Aristocratic dominance had ended.  In the last century, their power, influence and wealth have been gradually diminishing.  The country is NOT better off as a result of this.

The aristocracy served England well.  They were not perfect by any means but they cared for the country they governed and did what they thought was best to pass on the nation to the next generation.

In stark contrast to today’s politicians, they believed in sound money and a balanced budget.  They had learned the necessity of this running their own estates.  Over-spend and you will eventually go under!

My wife and I have often visited the stately homes of the aristocracy.  Visiting them has given us a greater understanding of why Britain ruled its Empire so well.  Most colonial governors in the early period of the empire were aristocrats.  Cut off from their home base, they ruled over millions of people in a similar way to Lord Grantham in Downton, who clearly cares for his domestic staff and feels he has a responsibility to look after them.  This may sound patronizing but it worked well until World War I brought the old order crashing down.

In our world of constant upheaval, it’s forgotten that these men gave stability to the nations they governed.  A person could wake up in any part of the British Empire and know that the King was still on the throne and his personal representative, the local Governor, was still in charge and that all was well with the world.  This is decidedly not the case now.  That stability and order owed its origins to the English stately home and the aristocrats raised there.

In World War II, one man with an aristocratic background saved the British people and, indeed, the rest of the world from fascism.  His name was Winston Churchill, the son of Lord Randolph Churchill, the second son of the Duke of Marlborough.  Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace in 1874.  You can visit his birthplace.  The palace was named after the first Duke of Marlborough’s famous victory over France’s Louis XIV at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, a victory that preserved British freedom and, by extension, freedom for the colonies.

By some accounts, Churchill himself was offered a dukedom upon retirement.  There are only 19 dukes in the United Kingdom.  The title is hereditary.  Churchill deserved the honor but by the time of his retirement in 1955 it seemed antiquated and he turned it down.  He believed in democracy, describing it as “the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.”

Sixty years later, another quote of his is more apt:  “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.”

Thomas Jefferson, an aristocrat, supposedly said:  “If the common man ever gets his hands on the public purse, the republic won’t last a generation.”  There is now some doubt that he ever said it but whoever did say it captures very well the reality we face today.  Voters will continue to vote themselves ever-increasing financial benefits until the democratic countries go broke.  And leaders will continue to squander vast amounts of money which is not their own.

We should note the following words from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes:  “Woe to you, O land whose king was a servant and whose princes feast in the morning.  Blessed are you, O land whose king is of noble birth and whose princes eat at a proper time – for strength and not for drunkenness.”  (Eccl. 10:16-17)  Surely this is a warning against the weaknesses inherent in democracy!

Judges 21:25 is another one.  “There was no king in Israel in those days.  Every one did what was right in their own eyes.”  Of course, there is a monarch today or a president.  But I believe the verse has a wider meaning.  There is little or no authority today, so everyone does what he wants to do.  World War One has been described as “The End of Order,” the title of a book by Charles Mee.

The death of the British aristocracy can be similarly described as “the end of order.”  A way of life that had given many countries unprecedented stability is gone.

When you think about it, aristocratic dominance constituted a “qualified franchise,” rather than the “universal franchise” we have now.  The aristocrats had a great deal of power and had the vote.  So did many others, but not everyone.

When we lived in Rhodesia, the country had a qualified franchise – and my wife and I did not qualify for the vote!  There were five requirements – citizenship was one.  You also had to pass a literacy test, own property, pay income tax and, if male, do military service or the equivalent.  Only the most responsible people could vote!

Colonial America had a qualified franchise.  So did the US for a long time.  England had one until 1867.  Even then, only men could vote.  It was to be over fifty more years before the vote was given to women.

Our countries would be in a much better state now if we had a qualified franchise!