Why should we learn about the Victorian aristocracy? It’s important, because in an era when aristocratic power and authority was being questioned, they remained remarkably strong in Britain compared to the rest of Europe. Aristocratic families usually have a large fortune, and it is money that has been in their family for generations, rather than those who became very wealthy in the Victorian era. Their existence may have been threatened by the growth of the middle class in Britain, something Marx would call the bourgeoisie.
The Victorian aristocracy was made up of about 10,000 individuals, but they had a huge degree of social, economic and political power. They often owned large amounts of land in the countryside, and mostly gained their fortunes from inheritance and the produce of their land. They were also historically very close to the monarchy, but this relationship became a little more distant in the Victorian era as Victoria and Albert wanted to associate more with the growing middle class.
The middle class were growing in wealth, some of them were even richer than the aristocracy. They also bought former aristocratic estates, because some of the aristocracy were losing money. They dreamed of living the life of an aristocrat, and they believed owning a country estate was key to this. Charles Tennant, a chemical manufacturer and MP, bought 4,000 acres of land in 1853. He, and many other entrepreneurs, desperately wanted to be accepted into the ranks of aristocracy, so they would marry their children to aristocrats, and send them to the same expensive boarding schools (places like Eton). These people wanted to hang out with the aristocracy, so they started attending the same social events.
The aristocracy may have turned their nose up at this, but they couldn’t really afford to. After the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846 (these were laws that protected British grain. Once they were repealed, cheaper grain from abroad started coming in, ruining production at home), land lost a lot of its value. The Duke of Devonshire got himself into £2 million worth (that would be over 100 million pounds in today’s money) of debt just to keep his estate.
But the aristocracy managed to survive for a number of reasons. Firstly, they recognised that they would spiral into decline if they did not do anything about it. Thus, they married wealthy entrepreneurs. Some of these were from the middle class, but some were also from America – so Winston Churchill’s father, William Randolph Churchill, married the daughter of wealthy American press tycoons. Some aristocrats also owned industrial businesses, like factories and mines. Others hoped to preserve their fortunes by going into the City and working in the banking sector. By doing this, they were able to maintain a lot of their influence. The fact that the middle class wanted to be like them is surely proof of their dominance of society. Also, the aristocracy on the whole didn’t actually lose that much land – an 1882 survey revealed that 4/5ths of the land in Britain was owned by just 7,000 individuals. They were able to keep hold of their social, political and economic power far more than any of their counterparts in Western Europe.
Image from: http://www.katetattersall.com/coming-out-during-the-early-victorian-era-debutantes/