The English aristocracy is advantageously distinguished from the aristocracy of other countries. Macaulay says of it : "It was constantly receiving members from the people, and constantly sending down members to mingle with the people. Any gentleman might become a peer. The younger son of a peer was but a gentleman. . . . Pedigrees as long, and escutcheons as old, were to be found out of the House of Lords as in it. There were new men who bore the highest titles. There were untitled men well known to be descended from knights who had broken the Saxon ranks at Hastings and scaled the walls of Jerusalem. ... The knight of the shire was the connecting link between the baron and the shopkeeper. On the same benches (in parliament) on which sat goldsmiths, drapers, and grocers ... sat also members, who, in any other country, would have been called noblemen, hereditary lords of manors, entitled to hold courts and to bear coat armor, and able to trace back an honorable descent through many generations. Some of them were younger sons and brothers of lords, and others could boast of even royal blood."
At an early period the leading families of England began to wane, not merely out of power but out of existence. Great baronial houses continually ended in heiresses and co-heiresses who often divided estates and carried them to meaner men. The great struggle between the Houses of York and Lancaster, known as the Wars of the Roses, swept whole families of both the greater and lesser nobility off the face of the earth. Of the twenty- five barons appointed to enforce the observance of Magna Charta, who must have been chief among the magnates of England, there is not a male descendant surviving in its present peerage.
The Wars of the Roses exercised a remarkable influence in the extinction of many noble and gentle houses in England. Rut the same process went on among the smaller gentry, as a result alike of the Civil War of the Commonwealth, and of the more peaceful agrarian changes which took place at the close of the seventeenth, and in the early part of the eighteenth century. With the unsettled state of English society in the time of Oliver Cromwell, with conflict between the Puritan, the Quaker, parliament, the king, and the uprising commoner, law and order, especially as they applied to the records of armigerous families, were brought to the verge of chaos. As a consequence many of those who might have been entitled to bear arms neglected to record the right, others assumed them without proper authority, and still others for political or religious reasons renounced them altogether. Besides these there were a very large number of persons whom Oliver Cromwell actually dispossessed. The truth is, the heralds of that period could not perform their duties with any considerable degree of completeness, and, as a result, the records of the College of Arms were so defective that the less one attempts a defense of them in status quo the better.
Without a direct investigation one can scarcely realise how wholesale has been the disappearance of the smaller gentry ; but both Parish Registers, and the Heralds' Visitations, as well as other heraldic records, give us most valuable materials for appreciating it. In his interesting work on Old Country Life, Mr Baring-gould takes as an example the Parish of Ugborough in his own county (South Devon). He found in its Parish Registers of the sixteenth century the names of eleven families, all of gentle blood, all armigeri, and occupying good houses on small estates. In the seventeenth century he found twenty-two, of whom, however, there are only six whose names appear in the former list. But in the eighteenth century only two remained whose names are to be found in either list, and by the middle of the nineteenth century all were gone ; not a single family of resident gentle folk remained in the parish ; their lands had been swallowed up by larger estates, and their mansions are now at best farm houses. This is only one out of thousands of examples of a change which was universal in England.
The crumbling away of small estates seems to have taken place mostly at the close of the seventeenth century, and at the commencement of the following one. The Civil War was directly responsible for the extinction of many families of the smaller gentry ; and, indirectly, for the impoverishment and agrarian difficulties which brought about the degradation, if not the extinction, of many more. At the close of the war the Land Tax was twenty percent of its gross value ; and mortgage interest stood at seven and eight percent. The smaller gentry had, indeed, nothing of the modern pseudo-gentility which professes an aversion to trade, and the younger sons of armigerous families continually found in it,to a very much greater extent than is commonly believed, the means of a more comfortable and useful existence than if the supposed requirements of their gentility had kept them ud scripti glebae. As years went on and the low price of corn (especially in 1666-1671) brought harder times still to the small proprietors, one after another went under. The wealthier squires extended their estates and influence by the purchase of the heavily burdened lands of the small proprietors, who, compelled by lack of means to a stay-at-home existence little above vegetation, found themselves year by year further out of touch with their wealthier and more influential neighbours, who were better educated, or at least had the means of seeing more of the world, and taking some part in public affairs.
A deplorable change took place in the relations formerly existing betwixt the classes ; and such was the rapidity of it, that, in 1815, properties which forty years before had pertained to 250,000 families were concentrated in the hands of 32,000 proprietors, and even in the latter fell to be computed the lands of 6000 incorporations, and as many belonging to the Church. So sudden an overturn of the former order of things was no trifling event.
Some, indeed, by thrift, judicious marriages, or by purchases of land from embarrassed neighbors, gradually added field to field, and so rose into the rank of the squirearchy ; but many dropped into the condition of yeomen, and others lower still. As the colonies increased, and fortunes were made in commerce, or in the slave-tilled plantations of sugar or tobacco ; and as the mineral wealth, and manufactures of the mother country were exploited, the wealth that thus accrued was naturally expended in the purchase of land. The small proprietors often had to give place to those who had thus acquired wealth which they wished to invest, and who were sometimes desiring to found a family ; but who quite as frequently descended from families which had suffered a temporary eclipse, and which a very few generations back had been as "gentle and armigerous" as those whom they now displaced. And this process still goes on, and must in the nature of things go on increasingly.
The first thing that a happy speculator or a successful trader did upon realizing wealth, or it may be an independence, was to hunt up a coat of arms which will harmonize with the name he bears, or with the traditions which his forefathers had left behind them. With this, and a recently purchased estate, he ranked in the opinion of the careless world among the gentry. Happy circumstances placed him, perhaps, in the commission of the peace. His private character was probably unassailable, and two generations later the origin of his rise in life was forgotten in the position transmitted to his descendants.
Those who claim for the gentry of England the best blood in the kingdom forget this, and were often therefore as much in the wrong as those who attribute the same distinction to the peerage alone. Who were the "nobility" of England? Were they to be found in the peerage? Yes, because, of the most ancient families of the gentry, very many members have received titles for services rendered to their king and country who were to this day represented in the Upper House. Were they to be found among the untitled gentry? Yes, because the natural nobility of every country was always in the first instance its landed proprietary.
One reason why this subject has become confused is furnished by the use of the word "commoner," which crept into the vocabulary as signifying all those of gentle birth who are untitled. The expression, whatever its origin, suggested in the gentry a certain inferiority as regards social rank and position, which happened to be the very reverse of truth. Again, a fictitious interpretation has come to be put upon the word "ennobled." An individual who was about to be created a peer was on the point of being "ennobled" or "raised" to the peerage. Now, if he was a "gentleman," and can claim by descent and coat of arms his right to rank among the "gentry" of the land in the strict meaning of the term, he was "noble" whether he become a peer or not. Very many peers were noble, generations before they were titled, and if they possessed that true pride which became the real lord of the soil, their descendants would lay far more stress on that early nobility which they share in common with their ancestors and kinsfolk, than in the coronet they now wear.
The old saying, Fit nobilis, naseitur generosus, really means that any man may acquire a title, but the nobility of the "gentleman," as the term was early understood, is born with him. When the nurse of James I implored him to make her son a gentleman, that shrewd monarch replied, "My good woman, a gentleman I could never make him, though I could make him a lord."
Sir Bernard Burke declared that out of all the barons who signed Magna Charta, not six were represented in the House of Peers in the 19th Century. And probably the number of those represented by lineal male descendants was still less. In the same way, Mr. Shirley calculates that no more than 320 families of the ancient gentry which were in existence previous to the year 1500 were represented in the male line. The genealogical student, therefore, if he wishes to be severe, or at the least exact, will be able to arrive without much difficulty at the very summary conclusion that the old nobility of England, whether titled or the reverse, had in the course of centuries dwindled to a point in which the rareness of the article can alone compensate for its numerical insignificance.
The nobility of an Englishman in the days of chivalry was invariably tested by his shield. An English gentleman of four quarters was admissible into the Order of Malta. When a person was "ennobled," lands were in general annexed to the grant of arms, and it was not until there were no more lands to give, that the system of conferring a coat of arms by patent to which a title was annexed came into practice. From that moment the "nobility" of the country became twofold, the most ancient being the "natural nobility," as that of the landholders, the more modern the "titled," or that of the peerage by patent. The proof, however, of the high esteem in which the first was held, is to be found in the contempt with which the gentry regarded the newly-made nobles. They denounced the system of patents as "an innovation; a dangerous stretch of the prerogative."
There were numberless instances to be found in ancient histories in which the nobility of the gentry is thus expressly recognised. Perkin "Warbeck in his proclamation, quoted by Lord Verulam in the latter's "History of Henry VII," accuses the king of having "caused to be cruelly murdered divers nobles" and he enumerates the names of five untitled gentlemen. In Bailey's Dictionary (ed. 1707) a gentleman is stated to be "one who received his nobility from his ancestors and not from the gift of any prince or state." In the statutes of the Order, temp. Henry VIII, a "gentleman of blood" is described to be he that is "descended of three degrees of noblesse" i.e. of name and coat of arms, his parents being of course both noble. The gentry were, moreover, eligible to the Order of the Garter, and all their disputes were referable only to the Lord High Constable of England or to the Earl Marshal - a fact which is conclusive upon the point.
The most conclusive proof is to be found in the possible changes which an elevation to the peerage may cause in the coat of arms of the newly-titled gentleman. Let us suppose the case of a cadet of a noble untitled family being made a peer. As cadet of his house he must carry in his arms a mullet or a cinque-foil, or other mark of inferiority, in spite of his coronet, while his elder brother would bear his arms without any diminution whatever.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|