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The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy
by David Cannadine
Yale University Press, 813 pages, $39.95

As might be expected of a book whose title echoes Gibbon’s magnum opus, David Cannadine’s history of the British aristocracy since 1875 is long, exhaustive, wide-ranging, and anecdotally rich. For a book of its size, and given the detail with which it traces the fortunes of its subjects in every sphere of life, it has remarkably few longeurs. Surely it will remain for many years the best, and not just the fullest, treatment of its topic.

Cannadine begins by arguing that, despite the great reforms of the 1830s, as the nineteenth century entered its final quarter the British nobility and landed gentry retained as much power and sway as they had ever had. They, to be sure, would not have agreed, believing for the most part that the reforms had left them mere shadows of their ancestors. Nevertheless, in 1880 they still dominated the political and economic life of their nation, and maintained that dominance largely by means of their land holdings. For instance, in England proper fewer than 5,000 men (they were almost all, of course, men) owned 56 percent of the land; in Scotland, a mere 1,758 owned 93 percent of the land.

But in the 1880s what was alleged to have happened half-a-century earlier did in fact take place: a series of profound reforms would undermine this dominance and, according to Cannadine’s compelling story, would within a century transform this elegant and confident elite into, with few exceptions, an economically powerless, politically ineffectual, and even socially marginal group.

It was the Third Reform Bill of 1884 and 1885, according to Cannadine, which by drastically expanding the voting franchise, started the ball rolling. Soon there would be laws that would make landowning less profitable by increasing tenants’ rights at the expense of landowners’ prerogatives. Eventually the loss of profitability, coupled with a series of agricultural depressions, would force many aristocrats to sell off much (in some cases all) of their land—often to the businessmen and industrialists whom they had despised as their social inferiors. Those who were able to keep their land frequently did so by going into business themselves and in so doing risked being regarded as traitors to their class, though all they were in fact doing was coming to terms with a radically altered economy, one in which landowning was no longer the key.

Perhaps even more telling is Cannadine’s account of the collapse of the House of Lords as a political force. It is sometimes said that the Lords showed weakness of will by voting away their own powers when they passed the Parliament Bill of 1911, but Cannadine shows that they were forced to accept defeat at the hands of an unlikely partnership: the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith (backed by his incendiary Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George) and King George V himself. King George secretly agreed to create as many liberal peers as Asquith needed to get the bill passed; when this royal promise was revealed to them, the Lords, rather than accept what they felt would be a horrifying dilution of aristocratic society, grudgingly (and by a very narrow margin) passed the bill. From that point on, their powers would wane; never again would the peers be a significant force in British politics.

These events are related relatively early in Cannadine’s story; the rest of the book explores in relentless detail the accelerating rate of aristocratic decline. Cannadine is certainly no supporter of the old regime; indeed, he can be passionate in his chronicle of its injustices. But one of his greater virtues (perhaps learned from the novelists whom he regularly to portray—with wit, charity, and sympathy—individual members of the aristocratic class faced with the task of adjusting to a strange and often unfriendly world, one for which their background offered them no preparation. Some of the best parts of the book are devoted to such characters: the orientalist and aesthete Wilfred Scawen Blunt; the Mitford sisters (Nancy, Jessica, and Unity), with their widely divergent political views and consequent antagonisms; the Kenya settlers and their attempts to rebuild a patrician society in equatorial Africa. And there is something poignant in Cannadine’s portrayal of aristocrats who have survived by exploiting their own belatedness, by spending the only coin they have, that of celebrity: they interest us as representatives of “a day gone by,” a “lost way of life” that can be seen now only in the stately homes that they manage to keep by opening them to public scrutiny.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the treatment of the changing relationship between the aristocracy and the Church of England. Readers of nineteenth-century fiction—Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, say, or Trollope's Barsetshire novels—will remember the old system: the nobles and the landed gentry dispensing benefices according to their personal preferences, frequently overlooking honest and devout men in favor of sycophants, younger sons of other lords or gentlemen, or even members of their own family According to Cannadine, in the late 1870s over half of the 13,000 clerical livings in the Anglican Church were in the hands of individuals; the Duke of Devonshire alone controlled thirty-eight parishes.

But in this area as in others, expansion of the voting public eventually meant changes for the aristocracy. A series of laws—in 1898, 1923, and 1931—took much of the power of appointment away from the aristocracy and gave it instead to the bishops and, to a lesser extent, to parish councils. (We can assume that this was often good news for the average churchgoer, but it certainly meant economic hard times for the clergy: clerical salaries remained very low throughout the first half of this century, so low that, according to Cannadine, many clergy couldn’t even afford telephone service, much less an automobile.) As the church gained greater control over its clergy, it began to ask more of them spiritually and theologically than had their aristocratic patrons. For instance, the 1908 Lambeth Conference mandated a year of graduate training for all candidates for the priesthood. Eventually, argues Cannadine, the church produced a new generation of bishops who, unlike their predecessors, were neither patricians themselves nor indebted to patricians; instead, they were “members of a new, professional elite.”

Nevertheless, the aristocracy remained influential in the Church of England for much longer than it did in other areas of public life. For many peers, such as the ecumenically-minded Anglo-Catholic Viscount Halifax in the late nineteenth century, or the long-prominent Cecil family, commitment to the church provided a way of fighting modernism in art, architecture, theology, and even politics—though the last of these they increasingly thought to be a lost cause. In fact, the energy that they devoted to the church, rather than to political life, indicates just how lost they thought the cause was. In Cannadine’s words, “By the interwar years, these men were no longer governing the state: they were governing the church instead.”

Yet even here, Cannadine argues, they were ultimately ineffectual. Though devout aristocrats mustered the overwhelming support of the House of Lords in their attempt to block the disestablishment of the Welsh church (in 1914, three years after the Parliament Bill had lessened their powers), Lloyd George, now Prime Minister, and the Commons got it through anyway. And in 1927 and 1928, their great project, a revision of the Book of Common Prayer, was killed by the Commons—with unhappy consequences for the Church of England until today, with Alternative Service Books and consequent liturgical incoherence.

Cannadine contends that aristocratic churchmen lost their authority with the Anglican membership for the same reason that aristocrats as a class lost it with the nation: their beliefs and attitudes alienated them from the recently empowered lower classes. On the other hand, he tells us that by 1940 the Church “was no longer primarily rural and rich, but was now urban and poor.” This suggests that the author might not be on totally secure ground here. He could mean to say that Anglicanism lost enough support in the countryside to make it only proportionately more “urban and poor,” but even that is dubious. The cities of England have traditionally been strongholds of what used to be called Dissent (Baptists, Presbyterians, and, later on, Methodists), and in recent years Roman Catholicism has grown increasingly prominent in urban areas. In this climate it would be very surprising if Anglicanism did better in the cities than in the countryside.

In any event, Cannadine’s assertions about the changing character of the church are only a part of the larger argument, which is that if the aristocrats had hoped to compensate for their loss of political prestige by controlling (or at least profoundly influencing) the Church of England, “they had nailed their colors to a sinking ship.” There is no doubt that English church membership in this century would have declined in virtually any circumstances, but the causal chain might run both ways. Might not the decline of the Anglican Church be attributed in some measure to its traditional affiliation with the sinking ship of aristocracy? (Today, only a little over 2 percent of English people regularly attend Anglican services.) The church has long been aware that its difficulty in recruiting members from the working classes, and to a certain extent from the middle classes, results in part from the widespread perception that the national church is really a church of, by, and for the gentry and nobility.

There remains, then, at least the possibility, albeit a faint one, that the Church of England could slow, if not stop, its own decline and fall by distinguishing itself from the declining and falling aristocracy. There is a recent precedent in English culture for just this sort of move: the Thatcher government’s success in snatching the Conservative Party from the aristocracy and placing it firmly in the hands of self-made men and women of an entrepreneurial class exemplified not only by Thatcher herself but also, and more dramatically, by the new Prime Minister, the secondary-school dropout John Major. It was only this reorientation of the Conservative Party that made it palatable to an electorate which would have had nothing to do with the old Toryism. Likewise, it may well be that the Church of England’s best chance for escaping the downward spiral of the aristocracy lies in the selection (by Margaret Thatcher herself) of George Carey, Bishop of Bath and Wells, as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. In many ways, Carey’s working-class pedigree is even more impressive than Major’s; and his status as a leader of the evangelical wing of the church is likely to make him more appealing to (again, what used to be called) the Dissenting interest. David Cannadine’s fascinating history comes too late for the aristocracy to profit by it; but its message could provide an appropriately cautionary tale for the weakened, but not yet prostrate, Church of England.

Alan Jacobs teaches in the English Department at Wheaton College.