7 July 2019

Gentry

Near the reception desk of our little hotel in Santorini, there was a bookcase that contained dozens of paperbacks left by previous guests. I happily deposited the crime novel I had galloped through and looked for something else to read - something more intellectually stimulating.

Unfortunately, most of the books on those shelves were, to use a technical term, sheer crap. However, there was one about the English Civil War (1642-1651). I would have liked to read that but the font was microscopic so I ended up with "Gentry" by Adam Nicolson.

I finished reading it on Friday. It considers the landed gentry of England from the time of The Norman Conquest right through to the present day. 

Who are "the gentry"? They are between the nobility and the ordinary populace. The nobility are like The Premier League of the British ruling class - dukes and earls, duchesses and countesses and their progeny. They still own huge swathes of the British Isles and they still have castles and grand houses and wield enormous influence. Below them the landed gentry of lords and ladies and knights with family coats of arms once owned most of the land, requiring their tenant farmers to cough up annual rents as they went hunting across the landscape or wined and dined in the lap of luxury.

The wealth and influence of the landed gentry has been significantly eroded in the past two hundred years. They own far less land than they used to and few ordinary people doff their caps to them any more. But they never went away. Many wealthy families still trace their continuing success back to landowning families that were rooted in the countryside.

On my walks around the British countryside I frequently come across grand houses in which the gentry consolidated their power. Their mark is everywhere. In the building of churches, in the names of country lanes, in the domestic architectures of villages and in the arrangement of farms and woodland. Their ghosts are imbued in the very landscape I tramp across.

Adam Nicolson focused on a handful of gentry families, using documentary evidence to reflect upon their successes, their failures and their evolution or disappearance in modern times. It was an effective means of examination because a comprehensive historical analysis of the entire landed gentry would be nigh on impossible. Better to pick just a few and dig deep.

My ancestors included rabbit catchers, cowherds,  gamekeepers, farmers, milkmen, railway workers and coal miners. There was not even a tiny hint of blood linkage to the landed gentry. They were a class apart, born to govern the land. My people were serfs - born to obey and born to pay.

I found Adam Nicolson's book most fascinating and I am glad that I picked it up. The gentry and their inheritors remain an important feature of what it means to be British. Their influence is woven into our culture like undeniable threads of filigree. You may not like them but they are still there.

29 comments:

  1. When I was about 11 or 12, I became interested in my family tree. I wrote my grandfather to ask about his family, he told me that my family were serfs as well. My great grandfather was a miller with a fondness for gambling and my granny's grandmother was the warden of a women's prison in Ireland.

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    Replies
    1. I guess that serfdom and the influence of the gentry were reasons why so many British people emigrated to North America. It was probably seen as a fresh opportunity.

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  2. I too have peasant blood coursing through my veins. From research carried out by various cousins I am told that my dad's predecessors were from a farming and mining background in God's own county. My gran was apparently in service before she married. On my mother's side it is pretty mixed. An Irish connection from my grandfather and way back, Spanish Jewish ancestors from my great grandmother. I am a bit of a Heinz 57.

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    1. It would be no surprise to me if you are shaped like a squeezy bottle of Heinz ketchup. Do you also make that thick glugging sound? Nice to learn that you have strong Yorkshire roots.

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  3. Every country has it's hierarchies and 'nobility' of one sort or another. And where you have leaders and 'nobility' you have those who are serfs. I suppose we are at least fortunate that we don't have the Indian caste system. We can at least struggle out of serfdom. It's a funny old world and 'twas ever thus.

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    Replies
    1. The book suggests that the English gentry is quite unique. Okay - many other countries have their nobilities - but the landed gentry of England wielded incomparable power.

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    2. In their era I'm sure they were unique and did because they wielded power the globe over (indeed that's how many of them became landed gentry making massive fortunes from the riches brought through conquest and trade). However I'm sure a study of the landed nobles during the various Chinese Empires and the ruling classes of India would show that they must have come a pretty close second.

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  4. Not just gentry. I've noticed from family histories how wealth and privilege can pass down through generations, so that many comfortably-off, middle-class, nineteenth-century families (e.g. professional jobs, private education, servants, large houses) have held on to their advantages.

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    Replies
    1. Many of them have held on since Norman times. This is still a long way from being a meritocracy.

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  5. Sounds like an interesting book. The lack of available, reasonably priced land in Britain for the ordinary person to buy is something that I found hard to grasp when I first realized it. In Canada, especially in the less populated provinces, it is very common - and affordable - to buy land of one's own. And there are swaths of land owned by the government, both for protection of wild areas and for the use by and enjoyment of all citizens.

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    Replies
    1. Canada is an enormous country. 9.985 million square kilometres compared with The United Kingdom - 242,495 square kilometres. 37 million people live in Canada but 66 million in The United Kingdom.

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  6. What an interesting book that must have been to read. I can see many things both good and bad in all levels of society although it must be nice to know that your future is secure and your children will be provided good educations. Most members of my family have worked hard and owned their own homes however basic they may be. Our home is nothing fancy but we own it free and clear and because of that we were able to retire. What disturbs me in my country is the quickly reducing size of the middle class. The middle class has always been the backbone of our country (in my opinion) and now more and more are being pushed into poverty as a small percentage of the super wealthy take over more. It is the whole principle Trump works on I am afraid and it is not healthy for the country.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your honest insight Bonnie. How America looks from the inside these days. Can't be easy.

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  7. Your last sentence says it all. My grandparents came to this country for better opportunities. I think they lived a hard life but would be satisfied with what their family accomplished.

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    Replies
    1. I don't think they'd be satisfied with you spilling coffee everywhere Red.

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  8. I'm not of the landed or un-landed gentry.

    However, my ancestors did land on this land Down Under after having traversed the oceans from Scotland and Northern Ireland back in the 1800s.

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    Replies
    1. The controlling power of the gentry drove many British and Irish people to Australia - to forge new lives. It is likely that you would not be where you are without the British gentry.

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    2. I'm here because of the Scots and the Irish, Yorkie. :)

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  9. It sounds like a book I would enjoy, too.

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    1. The first chapter deals with the decline of a Yorkshire family who belonged to the gentry. Their "seat" was at Plumpton near Knaresborough.

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  10. Of course Adam Nicholson comes from the gentry class as well, he is the grandson of Vita Sackville West. The only book I have read of his is 'Sea Room' three little islands, in The Minches by the Isle of Lewis, his family owned in Scotland. Historically as a country, we have always been ruled by an upper class, they live like 'parasites' on I suppose be described as inherited wealth. The question is whether it is a good system or not, on the whole it probably is ;)

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    Replies
    1. In spite of his background, I thought that Nicolson (no h) was quite even-handed in his examination of the landed gentry. He certainly wasn't bewailing the changes that have occurred with time.

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  11. I'm perfectly happy not to belong to the 'gentry' but to be from honest, hard-working stock.
    I do agree with your word to describe the holiday reading of the British abroad, we always make a very poor showing compared to the books left by other countries!

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  12. We Americans like to believe that our country was founded on the idea that all are created equal.
    Of course, by "all" they meant all men and only white men. We did not have serfs so we just went and stole human beings with darker skin to come and do the actual building of this country. It all looks very different from the English system but it sort of shakes down to the same thing. At least seen through my lens. But no, we do not have generations upon generations of gentry. Our gentry is generally of much shorter history. And those who are born into it are definitely privileged although they generally don't see it that way. As we say, "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple."
    Sigh.

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