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!