Aristocracy means what anyway?

‘Aristocracy’ literally means ‘Rule by the best’ as opposed to monarchy or oligarchy, which implies that the nobility were those most qualified to rule.  If anyone ever believed that, I doubt many do today, even among aristocrats. In any case, they no longer rule, whether or not they are in any way so qualified, as even the house of lords contains very few hereditary peers today.

How to join the aristocracy

In England, the first lords were Norman warriors who served William the Conqueror and their main quality was military prowess, along with loyalty to William. That hardly made them fit to rule other than by force and it never guaranteed that their descendants would have even their ability. In every generation monarchs, and later prime ministers, gave out peerages to their friends, cronies, and  favourites, including some who lent them money.  Occasionally they rewarded competent administrators such as Lord Burghley. The other way into the club was through marriage.

What are the aristocracy proud of?

Members of the aristocracy and people related to them are always proud of it, as if being the great-great-great grandson of a friend of a king was an achievement. This is true even when most of us now have a poor view of the remote ancestor in question. On the other hand, we rarely hear of descendants of scientists, social reformers or philanthropists because they don’t have titles linking them to their ancestors. There are some exceptions, where aristocrats such as  Henry Cavendish, Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill, have become renowned for their personal achievements rather than their antecedents.

Pembroke Castle from where various members of the aristocracy oppressed the people of much of Wales

Pembroke Castle from where various members of the aristocracy oppressed the people of much of Wales

What’s hidden?

Many noble families have skeletons in their designer cupboards and dirt under their expensive carpets. Stately homes abound with portraits of previous occupants and objects they have collected, whilst hiding evidence of wrongdoing. How much wealth did they make from the slave trade? Who got his peerage for oppressing the poor at home or abroad? Who was a war criminal? I have written before about the need to look honestly at the past rather than celebrating only the good whilst covering up the bad.  Some in the government have attacked the National Trust for trying to be open and honest about the histories of the properties it manages.

Is change coming?

I am delighted that Lord Harewood has acknowledged his family’s role in the slave trade by commissioning a portrait of a descendant of a slave owned by one of his ancestors. Perhaps we can begin to have a better understanding of our past and some honest discussions of its implications.