10 things you didn’t know about the aristocracy

From Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited to television dramas such as Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, we are fascinated with how the ‘other half’ live. But just how much do you really know about the aristocracy?

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1. The term aristocracy is derived from the Greek ‘aristokratia’, meaning ‘the rule of the best’. Aristocrats are considered to be in the highest social class in a society and possess hereditary titles (Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, Baron) granted by a monarch, which once granted them feudal or legal privileges. Within Henry VIII’s Tudor court the aristocracy abounded, reaching its ‘golden age’ in the 18th century and continuing into the ‘languid, be-plumed pomp’ of Queen Victoria’s heyday.

2. One aristocrat who always dazzled the English court with his extravagant clothing was Edward, Duke of Buckingham (1478-1521). “Edward was only five when his father rebelled against Richard III,” says historian Dr Deborah Young of Swansea University. “The boy was hunted by the king and a price put on his head, but he was kept hidden by loyal friends. In order to provide a disguise, his head was shaved; he was dressed as a girl, and was taught to ride side-saddle so that he could escape to places of safety.” Such dressing up seems highly appropriate for a man who, at the wedding of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon in 1501, wore a gown estimated to be worth around £1,500 (worth over £700, 000 today).

3. The aristocracy are certainly not known for being reserved, especially when it comes to their estates. “The home of the Earls Fitzwilliam, Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, covers an area of two and a half acres, three times the size of Westminster Abbey,” says Professor Ellis Wasson author of Aristocracy and the Modern World and A History of Modern Britain: 1714 to the Present.

4. Speaking of large estates, the Dukes of Sutherland in the late 19th century owned an estate in England and Scotland that when combined would equal the size of the state of Delaware in the USA.

5. Today we visit stately homes and grand estates but this is a tradition that dates back to the 1840s. “The first ever ‘package holiday’ – or rather, commercial excursion – was organised (by Thomas Cook naturally) to take workers on a visit to Belvoir Castle, the home of the Duke of Rutland, in 1841,” says Professor Peter Mandler at the University of Cambridge.

6. As Professor Wasson observes, “Middle class first names for boys once common in Britain such as Percy, Stanley, Cecil, and Neville are taken from historic aristocratic dynasties.”

7. The Cabinet (a body of high ranking members of government) has seen its share of aristocrats. “Every Earl of Derby between 1830 and 1948 sat in the Cabinet,” says Wasson. “And every Marquess of Salisbury in the 20th century, with one exception, was a member of the Cabinet, the last departing in 1997.”

8. Hunting and shooting have long been favoured past times of the aristocracy. “The Marquess of Ripon shot half a million animals between 1867 and 1923,” adds Wasson. However, it would appear that sometimes the animals bit back. “The Foreign Secretary at the beginning of the First World War, Sir Edward Grey (1862-1933), who descended from an ancient Northumberland family, had one brother eaten by a lion and another killed by a Wild Buffalo while on safari in Africa.”

9. The British aristocracy has had its share of colourful characters. “The 7th Baron Newborough (1917-1998) had his ashes fired from a cannon on his estate in North Wales in accordance with his will,” says Charles William Kidd, editor of Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage. “Also, the 9th Baron Forester (1975-) has a licence dated from the reign of King Henry VIII which gave his ancestor the privilege of wearing his hat in the royal presence.”

10. When it comes to historical connections they don’t come greater than the 11th Duke of Devonshire (1920-2004) says Professor Wasson. “He was closely related by blood or marriage to President John F Kennedy, the fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, the Hollywood star Fred Astaire, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, the novelist Nancy Mitford, and the communist journalist Jessica Mitford. His great grandfather was three-time Prime Minister the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury.

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