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The Upper Nobility

Just as the peasantry shaded into the yeomanry and the yeomanry into the squirearchy, so the squirearchy shaded into the supreme class, the Magnates. These were, in truth, simply squires on a very great scale, often owning estates in many parts of the country, maintaining princely state in splendid mansions, and coming together annually for the season in London. This regular assemblage of the great leaders of English rural society did indeed give a unity to the whole of England, every part of which had its representatives in the intimate luxurious life of the capital during the season. It was as natural that the magnates should in the main govern the country as a whole as it was that the yeomen should in the main govern the village and the squires the county. The magnates were in a real degree in touch with the local life of England ; as Lords-Lieutenant they were the leaders of county affairs ; and their activity in electioneering business 1 had at least this advantage that it gave them an intimate knowledge of the feelings and desires of the whole country. So long as their interests were not in conflict with those of the mass of the people whom they ruled-and as yet there appeared to be no such conflict-these great rural magnates seemed to be the natural leaders and spokesmen of this homogeneous, rural society. Their immense political power, therefore, was not as unrepresentative of the national mind as it might at first sight appear to be.

The little group of great families who dominated British affairs during the 18th Century in many ways resembled the great senatorial families who ruled Rome during the most splendid period of the republic. They formed a very exclusive society, closely linked by intermarriage. They were on the whole a highly cultivated body of men, with a fine taste in the arts and a real delight in literature; many of them were widely read in the great literatures of Greece and Rome. They encouraged and rejoiced in the utmost freedom of thought and speculation, and many of them gave their patronage to thinkers, men of letters and artists.

The magnates were full of pride, and very conscious of their own dignity. They had both the virtues and the defects that mark most oligarchies. They thought it right and natural that all power should rest in their hands, and that they and theirs should be enriched by pensions and offices at the cost of the State. But they had also a high sense of personal and national honour, and a real feeling that noblesse oblige to public service. With their great wealth they might easily have been content with a life of idleness ; but few of them gave way to the temptation, and many of them spent laborious days in the work of Parliament and the administrative offices, or trained themselves to serve the State in arms by sea or land.

The self-complacency which marks all oligarchies blinded them to the grave injustices they were perpetuating in Ireland, and to the magnitude and difficulty of the problem of combining freedom with the unity of the Commonwealth in the young lands beyond the seas ; nor could this body of aristocrats understand or sympathise with the democratic society of New England. Above all, they were terribly blind to the needs and sufferings of the poor in their own country. They could not rise to the conception of the State as a great free partnership for the common weal. That is a conception slow to arise anywhere ; it did not yet exist in any of the countries of Europe ; but the self-complacency of this small, brilliant, powerful society made it impermeable to such an ideal.

The extraordinary ascendency of the land-owning magnates was the chief feature of English life in the eighteenth century. It was the natural result of the predominance of the landed interest in the life of the nation. But it extended itself over almost the whole organisation of the nation's life and thought. The Established Church was treated simply as an appendix of the State. Its offices, all but the humblest, ^provided respectable positions for younger sons. Its bishops and deans were members or proteges of the great families, and shared in their life and ideas ; its parochial clergy belonged to the class of the squirearchy, often sat with them on the bench, and gave more attention to public than to religious duties. The function of the Church was to be decent, dignified and orderly, and to teach the people to be so-not to challenge them to live nobly, or remind them that they were sons of God.

The legal profession was even more directly incorporated with and controlled by the ruling class. All the great judicial offices were filled by members of that class, and the highest of these offices formed the most frequent mode of access to the inner sanctum of the House of Lords. The system produced some really great lawyers, for the great families had a profound respect for law, and regarded its interpretation and enforcement as the highest function of the State. But the lawyers inevitably regarded their functions in the light of the ideas of the class from which they were drawn ; they were the chief upholders of the fundamental idea that the land-owning class formed the most essential and vital element in the State.

The universities, again, had been in effect annexed by the great families. Their sons attended them with special privileges, wearing the tuft that marked the ' nobleman.' Dons and tutors looked to noble patronage for promotion, and became ' tuft-hunters '; the mass of undergraduates, preparing themselves for the Church or the bar or public life, either belonged to the class of the squirearchy or looked to the ruling class for their future careers; and thus the universities became funnels through which the ability of ( the country was sucked into the service of the oligarchy. In the same way the great public schools, Eton and Winchester, Westminster and Harrow, originally founded for the education of poor scholars, had become the training grounds of an aristocracy. Here, amid Spartan conditions, the sons of the ruling class were trained to be loyal gentlemen and good sportsmen, and to know something of that world of old Rome which their own lives were so nearly to reproduce.



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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:07:53 ZULU