I have been speaking as though the peerage were a static class of particular families whose blood flowed down from antiquity, and this was the recognized convention. Of course the notion of “blue blood” is a complete fabrication, and everyone’s blood could theoretically be traced back to primordial man. But, unlike most commoners, the aristocracy supposedly knew who their ancestors were. There was thought to be a natural order in English society: monarch, nobles, people, like immutable species before the advent of Darwin. It was perhaps accepted---grudgingly---by the common people when they referred to “the nobs,” “his nibs,” and so on. Bagehot comments on this in his English Constitution (1867) when he calls England a “deferential” nation: “Every rustic feels that his house is not like my lord’s house; his life like my lord’s life; his wife like my lady.” Such a rustic is transfixed by the theatrical show put on by the aristocracy “because they inherit a sort of pomp which seems to make them worthy of it.” Consequently, “an old lord will get infinite respect.”1 John Stuart Mill concurs, mentioning in a letter that “The English, of all ranks and classes, are at bottom, in all their feelings, aristocrats. . . . the very idea of equality is strange and offensive to them."2 The propensity was savagely satirized in Thackeray’s Book of Snobs (1848): “What Peerage-worship there is all through this free country! How we are all implicated in it, and more or less down on our knees.”3
But in fact there was a degree of social mobility that made it possible for new families to be admitted to the peerage. Perhaps the reason there was not a general revolt against the privileged aristocracy was that commoners might aspire to join them. Though some peerages really did go back to medieval times, far more had been bestowed on a deserving subject by, say, a Hanoverian king. In his comprehensive study The Aristocracy in England, 1660-1914, J. V. Beckett cites an estimate that, when Victoria came to the throne in 1837, only 22% of the 359 peers held a title dating back before 1688.4 A. R. Wagner in English Genealogy notes that though there was a class system, “barriers between classes have historically been less rigid in England than in most other countries.”5 Among his many examples of families whose different branches migrated up or down, in conventional social terms, is the family of Jane Austen, who rose from clothiers to gentlemen. While the line of one of her brothers descended to sons who were a grocer’s assistant, a printer, and the driver of a bread van, her other brothers’ families rose to high positions in the academic, professional, and naval worlds. Her brother Edward had a grandson created Baron Brabourne, whose descendant the 7th baron married a great-great-great granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
Thus peerage creations were a source of absorbing social speculation and political manoeuvring. The first requirement of an aspirant to the peerage was enough money to support the dignity and responsibilities of the position. Money alone, however, especially when derived from commerce, was looked down upon. The aristocracy was a territorial one: every patent of nobility specified that someone was Lord so-and-so of such-and such a place, even if he was not really; and so a landed estate was also required. That quintessential Victorian nobleman, the Duke of Wellington, began life as Arthur Wellesley, the landless fourth son of the Irish Earl of Mornington. Between 1809 and 1814 his military success advanced him rapidly from Viscount, Earl, and Marquess, to Duke. At the same time Parliament helped out by granting him a total of £700,000 to erect a suitable “Waterloo Palace.” Instead he settled on buying both a Hampshire country estate and Apsley House in London, where his Waterloo trophies are still displayed, including an enormous nude statue of Napoleon as Mars dominating the staircase. In a similar vein, when Disraeli wanted to reward his secretary Monty Corry with a peerage, he needed to get round the difficulty that Monty was not a landowner, being descended from the younger son of an earl. Luckily, he was a favourite of his elderly, widowed, and childless aunt, Lady Charlotte Lyster, who owned a castle and estate in Shropshire. Disraeli persuaded her to sign a deed making Monty the owner of the estate on her death, and when this evidence was presented he was duly made a baron.
Establishing roots in the land often took several generations. Having used their money to purchase a country estate, wealthy families would prepare the soil, so to speak, by working their way into the surrounding county society. Besides giving dinners, they could serve as JPs or town aldermen, contribute to worthy causes such as local schools, hospitals and recreation grounds, and aid the poor. They might draw up a family coat of arms, which could be had from the College of Arms on the mere payment of a fee. They might send their sons to the great public schools where they could mingle with peers’ sons. Disraeli’s Coningsby portrays such a friendship, between Coningsby, grandson of the Marquess of Monmouth, and Oswald, the son of a Lancashire factory-owner. In this case, Oswald’s father sent his son to Eton not to ingratiate himself with the upper class, but just to assert his right to be there. And Coningsby is at first furious with his aristocratic pals for extending a breakfast invitation to “an infernal manufacturer.”6 But they end as friends, and Coningsby marries Oswald’s sister, thus illustrating a typical meshing of classes through marriage. According to Roy Jenkins’ biography of Gladstone, who was the model for Oswald, his father did see paying the fees for Eton as an investment “to turn his sons into members of the ruling class.”7
The applications for a peerage far exceeded requirements, and the choice was highly political. The Prime Minister recommended recipients to the Queen, based on the suggestions of the Chief Whip of the House of Commons, who was Patronage Secretary. Occasionally the Queen would object. Notably, in 1869 she refused Gladstone’s request for a peerage for Sir Lionel de Rothschild, the Jewish banker who had finally been admitted to the House of Commons as an M.P. Her explanations included both the anti-semitic “she cannot consent to a Jew being made a peer,” and the fact that he had made his money through financial speculations, “a species of gambling . . . far removed from that legitimate trading wh. [sic] she delights to honour.”8 In her defence, we note that in 1885 she did make his son Nathan Baron Rothschild, the first Jewish member of the House of Lords.
Party leaders had various motives and criteria for their selections. Sometimes they needed to bolster their party’s strength in the House of Lords by promoting a few trusty loyalists. Often they wished to honour benefactors of the nation, usually in the political or administrative sphere: Cabinet ministers, judges, diplomats, military and naval leaders, former Speakers of the House of Commons, and so on. Good servants of the party in power might well expect, or at least hope, to be rewarded with a title: a typical example was the Whig Charles Poulett Thomson, who had been an M.P. and cabinet member before being made Baron Sydenham in 1840, and becoming Governor General of the united Canadas. It did not harm his cause that he had been plausibly labelled as “a ruthless Machiavellian, unprincipled and cunning, selfish and egotistic, autocratic, narrow-minded, and unbelievably vain.”9
Occasionally peerages were given to artists or the intelligentsia. Thomas Babington Macaulay was one of the few literary men to be so recognized, when in 1857 he became Baron Macaulay. Lord Tennyson was another such, notable as one of the few new peers to have neither an extensive estate nor a distinguished family. He was ennobled by Gladstone in 1883 after the two were on a cruise to Norway and Denmark together. In 1884, assembling support for his Third Reform Bill, Gladstone “made it clear to him that there was no such thing as a free peerage,” and kept up a barrage of requests for his presence and vote in the House of Lords, gout or no gout.)10 Tennyson eventually complied in spite of his pain, but retaliated by publishing a poem urging Gladstone not to be so precipitate in steering the country towards the cataract.
The first artist to be ennobled was Frederick Leighton, President of the Royal Academy, whose peerage as Baron Leighton was the shortest in UK history. Ennobled on the 25th of January, he died on the 26th, and the peerage was extinguished. The first scientist (1892) was William Thomson, President of the Royal Society, who enjoyed a long and productive career as Baron Kelvin.
Prime Ministers varied in their enthusiasm for creating peers. Sir Robert Peel had inaugurated a new era of restraint in the early Victorian period, saying that he considered his nominations “a great public trust,” and making only seven in five years. Thereafter the rate tended upwards. Disraeli’s biographer Lord Blake quotes a letter in which Disraeli speaks of making a flurry of appointments after his defeat in 1880: “My room is filled with beggars, mournful or indignant, and my desk is covered with letters like a snow storm. It is the last and least glorious exercise of power . . . . making peers, creating baronets, and showering places and pensions on a rapacious crew.”11 And Disraeli was by no means the most egregious peer-maker. Blake calculates that Gladstone was the most lavish, having made 37 peers in his first ministry and 28 in his second.12 Both were eclipsed, however, by George III, who had issued 388 patents.
Could peerages be “bought”?: a question with varied shades of meaning. As late as 1901, in his Studies in Peerage and Family History, J. Horace Round was hoping that there was still in England “a social standard other than that of mere wealth,” and emphasizing the importance of “rewarding service by distinctions which money cannot buy.”13 Bound up with this question is the more general one of the influence of wealth on social prestige. In The English Constitution (1867), Bagehot claimed that “every day it is proved that money alone--money pur et simple--will not buy ‘London Society.’”14 Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875) studies the nouveau-riche Melmotte’s attempt to get into that society; one might emphasize his initial success—the upper classes fawning—or his ultimate downfall. The acquisition of gentility by wealth in Victorian England is often illustrated by a remark of Herbert Pocket in Dickens’ Great Expectations. The pale youth explains Miss Havisham’s background: “Her father was a country gentleman down in your part of the world, and was a brewer. I don’t know why it should be a crack thing to be a brewer; but it is indisputable that while you cannot possibly be genteel and bake, you may be as genteel as never was and brew. You see it every day.”15 (The 2016 BBC television series “Victorian Bakers” has shown us how overworked, underpaid, and unlikely to be honoured the latter purveyors of life’s necessities were.)
Brewers were upwardly mobile; but when Great Expectations was published, in 1861, they were only at the level of the landed gentry. It was not until 1880 that the first brewer was actually ennobled, when Disraeli made Edward Arthur Guinness Baron Ardilaun. In 1886, Gladstone honoured two of Burton-on-Trent’s 31 brewers: Sir Michael Bass became Baron Burton, and his rival Sir Henry Allsopp became Baron Hindlip. (Lord Burton, however, later deserted the Liberals on account of their growing cooperation with the temperance lobby.) The next beer peer, Ardilaun’s younger brother Edward Cecil Guinness, became Baron Iveagh in 1891. His magnificent picture collection, bequeathed to the nation, can still be seen at Kenmore House. At this time we first hear sarcastic reference to “The Beerage;” and Horace Round comments sourly on such a “reward for the acquisition of a fortune by the sale of a recognized source of national poverty and crime.” 16
Yet to call these peerages “bought” is not exactly accurate. The beer barons, besides employing thousands and owning large country estates, were also MPs and local benefactors, tireless erectors of churches, schools, and labourers’ cottages: so not unlike many another new peer. Really the only example of the blatant selling of honours is that of Gladstone in 1891. His Liberal party was in opposition and short of funds to fight the election in 1892. So peerages were promised, if they returned to power, to two unassuming M.P.s, the banker Sydney Stern and the manufacturer of oilcloth James Williamson, in return for wads of cash. According to H.J. Hanham in “The Sale of Honours in Late Victorian England,”17 this was the start of a practice that had become scandalous by the time of Prime Minister Lloyd George.
In an interesting article, “The Introduction of Industrialists into the British Peerage,” Ralph E. Plumphrey studies peerage creations between 1837 and 1911, looking for manufacturers and the like.18 With a variety of charts he meticulously analyzes the class background of the 463 individuals who between them received 497 titles during the period. As late as 1881, he finds, only 14% of the appointees were “other”---that is, not drawn from either the existing aristocratic families or the landed gentry. It was only Salisbury’s ministry in 1885-86 that increased the number of “others,” who became more than one-third of the total. Plumphrey sees this trend as a delayed response to the increasing middle-class nature of the House of Commons after the Second Reform Act of 1867. Peers’ sons, baronets, and landed gentry no longer dominated the House, and so the House of Lords itself began to change; hence his subtitle, “A Study in Adaptation of a Social Institution.” The presence of money-making industrialists was natural reflection of a changing society. But during most of the Victorian period, the majority of those ennobled---even if they were also bankers, company board members, and industrialists---had aristocratic connections, owned land, were already baronets, or had been active in politics or public service.
With such creations and rewards the peerage begins to look like simply the governing class, the fortunate and the successful. What becomes then of the hereditary principle, the notion that governing qualities can be inherited? An hereditary aristocracy supposes a culture of service, a tradition of being brought up in a privileged position to assume duties and responsibilities to one’s fellows, that would be lacking in the case of new creations. Even Bagehot, no great admirer of aristocracy, notes that “in reverencing inherited nobility, we reverence the probable possession of a great faculty---the faculty of bringing out what is in one.”19 For an hereditary aristocracy to make sense, the fiction of a special breed, a class apart, had to be maintained. When a peerage is created, the holder is said to have “ennobled blood” which literally flows down through his descendants. This is the reason, says the writer of the Peerage article in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1911), that a peerage cannot be voluntarily relinquished or extinguished, and that life peerages were thought to be a contradiction in terms.
This strange coexistence of a porous aristocracy and an order defined by descent is delightfully illustrated in Trollope’s The Duke’s Children (1880). This is the last in his series of political novels following the fortunes of Plantagenet Palliser, the scion of an ancient family who eventually becomes a duke and, briefly, Prime Minister, and who has retired from politics at last. He is a Liberal who supports measures to better the lot of the lower classes. When his charming American guest, Miss Boncassen, remarks that England is far more class-ridden than America, the Duke is at pains to point out that humble birth need not be a disability in England. “A Prime Minister can make a Duke,” he explains, “and if a man can raise himself by his own intellect to that position, no one will think of his father or his grandfather. . . . Our peerage is being continually recruited from the ranks of the people, and hence it gets its strength.” Yet the whole novel revolves around his refusal to countenance his son’s marriage to this very Miss Boncassen, a labourer’s granddaughter, and his daughter’s marriage to a mere gentleman. Aristocrats should marry aristocrats, to keep up the order.
Evidence of some sort of “dignity of descent,” therefore, was often a final desideratum for a potential peer. The claimant wanted to show that he had come from a long line of ancestors who had figured in the history of England since time immemorial. Such claims to ancient lineage could be carried out to absurdity, even among established peers. The first version of Burke’s Peerage, published in 1826, was rife with false pedigrees, which traced family lines back to the Battle of Hastings, complete with mythical ancestors such as Sir Hildebrand de Alington and Sylvester de Grymestone, standard-bearer to William the Conqueror. One of the first scholars to expose these fraudulent family histories was Edward Augustus Freeman, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, in his article “Pedigrees and Pedigree-Makers.” Why, he wonders, do families who could trace their line back to the Tudors feel the need “either to have come in with the Conqueror or else to be older than the Conquest?” He was himself a specialist in the Norman Conquest, and he pointed out that “When a pedigree professes to be traced back to the times of which I know most in detail, it is all but invariably false. As a rule, it is not only false, but impossible. . . . The names, the descriptions, the titles, are for the most part such as were altogether unknown at the time when they are supposed to have been borne.”20 Most of his 30 pages are taken up in exposing nonexistent progenitors with names such as Titus, Totilus, or Oger de Puges, in refuting land claims by the simple expedient of checking Domesday Book, and in exposing inconsistencies of date and geography. Yet false stories persisted in subsequent editions of Burke, leading to the famous line in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance (1893), “You should study the Peerage, Gerald. . . . It is the best thing in fiction the English have ever done.”
The theme was taken up by J. Horace Round’s Studies in Peerage and Family History, formerly mentioned. Round was another expert on Domesday Book, an accomplished genealogist and historian, and as peppery as Freeman. Whereas Freeman’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography notes that “his words lacked moderation” and “his temper was impatient,” Round’s DNB entry credits him with “a cruel skill in the dissection of absurdities.” (“Lord Brougham’s [family] tree, in its rapid growth, rivalled the Indian mango”). Freeman had criticized Burke for accepting the families’ histories uncritically; Round goes further in suggesting a pecuniary motive for the genealogists and various heralds in the College of Arms (including the Burke family), who cobbled together the ancestry and provided coats of arms. He expands his scope to more recently-appointed peers who choose titles once held by another, but completely unrelated, family of the same name, as if to hitch on to their antiquity, and to peerage lawyers who bring out of abeyance ancient baronies which then entitle their holders to precedence over many existing barons. He casts a scornful eye on some of the pretentious names chosen by the newly-minted nobles for their children: Sholto, Otho, Oro, or Botolph. He reveals some of the tricks of the “old genealogists,” who in their efforts to produce a pedigree went so far as to alter ancient records, for instance by cutting out the tail of a “y” with a knife. Some families even altered the dates on ancient monuments and hauled them from the churchyard to the family chapel, or decorated the chapel with forged effigies, slabs, and brasses.
For all their grandiloquence and melodrama, Disraeli’s novels are a fine guide to this type of social posturing, which was held in scorn long before being attacked by historians. Sybil (1845) features Mr. Hatton, a sinister antiquarian and genealogist who will help make any man a peer (for a price) by digging up, or perhaps manufacturing, evidence of distinguished ancestors. The novel has pretentious peerages aplenty. Lord Marney, the hero’s brother, is actually descended from a servant of Henry VIII who enriched himself during the plundering of the monasteries. The College of Arms furnished him with a Norman ancestry and the family name of Egremont. Lord Fitz-Warene, later Lord de Mowbray, is a descendant of John Warren, a waiter at a club in St. James St. who made his fortune in India. The Duke of Fitz-Aquitaine’s ancestor was the illegitimate child of Charles II and a French actress. These genealogies are typical of actual new peers, descendants of grocers or hairdressers, who had done well in the law or served the state. But Disraeli’s characters represent the worst of political appointments because they had done nothing to benefit anybody and continued to feather their own nests.
Visions of a new type of peerage were not lacking in Victorian England. Disraeli echoes Thomas Carlyle, who in Past and Present a few years previously had poured scorn on the idle aristocracy and called for a new Working Aristocracy of mill-owners, manufacturers, and commanders of working men, the true heroes of today. Mr. Millbank in Coningsby is one such Captain of Industry, who argues for a “natural aristocracy” of eminent men.21 In Sybil The Marquis of Deloraine is a Disraelian aristocrat: “only the grandson of an attorney,” but of a talented and hard-working family that advanced through the peerage and married into the highest houses, “so the blood progressively refined.” Deloraine “might have been selected as the personification of aristocracy: so noble was his appearance, so distinguished his manner.”22 Not all new peers reached this high standard, but apparently enough did to sustain an active hereditary House of Lords into the twentieth century, as we shall see in the next paper.
Appendix: Modern Developments
The creation of hereditary peerages slowed down in the twentieth century, and virtually ceased with the Labour government of Harold Wilson in the 1960s. Leaving aside titles given to members of the royal family, whereby the Queen’s sons and grandsons became dukes with other subsidiary titles, no dukedoms were created after the reign of Victoria. (Sir Winston Churchill was offered one on his retirement, but declined. )23 The last marquess was appointed in 1936. The only earl appointed since 1963 was former prime minister Harold Macmillan, who became Earl of Stockton in 1984. Since 1964, only two viscounts were made, by Margaret Thatcher in 1983; both titles are now extinct. Hereditary barons, created by the hundreds by former sovereigns, have not been named since January 1965.
Life peers, however, have been legal since the Life Peerages Act of 1958, which had the distinction of including women among the eligible. All these life peers are barons or baronesses. Prime ministers took advantage of this new method of conferring honour and obligation, creating an average of 23.7 such peerages per year according to the calculations in Wikipedia: about 21 a year for Conservatives, 27 a year for Labour. Boris Johnson holds the record at an amazing 52 creations in a single year (to Sept. 22, 2020). By May 2018, 1,432 had been created.24
According to the researches of William D. Rubinstein, the Life Peerages Act immensely widened the social background of the peerage. In fact he argues that the Act came about to give the House of Lords more relevance to the political life of the country by introducing Labour supporters, most of whom would consider it ludicrous to become a hereditary peer.25 The majority of these new peers do not come from a wealthy family, have not attended a public school—let alone Eton or Harrow—, are of diverse religions and ethnicities, and come from different walks of life. Baroness James (the writer P.D. James) overlapped with Baroness Thatcher, former prime minister. Robert, Lord Blake, the Conservative biographer of Disraeli and historian of Victorian England (who has been so useful in compiling these notes), is balanced by the Labour-friendly Lord Briggs, who as Asa Briggs wrote on Victorian people, Chartists, and Marx in England. Composer Benjamin Britten became a lord, as did Alan Sainsbury of the supermarket family. Archbishops of Canterbury, former cabinet ministers both Labour and Conservative, ambassadors and singers and actors, have all become members of a once wealth-and-background-conscious class.
With no new creations, the hereditary peerage could theoretically die out over time. However, it appears to be far from that point at present. There are still 24 dukes, excluding the royals. The Duke of Westminster is perhaps the wealthiest man in England, with his enormously appreciated blocs of real estate in London. The Duke of Buccleuch is the largest private landholder in Scotland. The Duke of Bedford is typical of the owners of ancestral country estates, keeping up Woburn Abbey with the help of the public, who love to watch the monkeys climb over their car as they drive through his safari park. In the case of the Duke of Richmond, it’s race meetings that keep Goodwood going, attracting around 800,000 visitors a year.26 There are still 34 marquesses alive, 193 earls, and 115 viscounts. As for the barons—swamped though they may be by the life peers—there were still 443 hereditaries in Oct. 2020. These lines are not likely to expire any time soon.