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aristocracy

aristocracy. A vague term, derived from the Greek aristokratia, meaning the rule of the best. In ancient Roman society it was represented by the patricians. It is broader than peerage or even nobility. In common parlance, it was usually taken to mean the upper classes or ‘betters’ and was confined largely to landowners. Since, unlike peerage, there was no legal definition, it was a matter of opinion who constituted the aristocracy, whether the concept included the gentry, and, if so, how far down that group it went.

In origin, nobility applied largely to kings and their immediate families. As kingdoms grew larger, the surviving members of previous royal families were often incorporated into the aristocracy, together with particularly trusted advisers and supporters. A characteristic of aristocracy was therefore a tendency for it to grow larger. The early 7th-cent. laws of Æthelbert of Kent already distinguished eorls from ceorls for the payment of wergeld. Elaborate justification was scarcely needed. It was assumed that an eorl was a man of honour, whose word could be trusted on oath. Noble blood guaranteed bravery in youth and sage counsel in age.

Hereditary membership of the aristocracy was established at an early period, save for upheavals like the Norman Conquest, which brought in a new governing élite, and in most parts of the country the practice of primogeniture ensured the survival of estates intact. Only in Kent and in Wales did the custom of gavelkind produce the partible inheritance which reduced many noble families to penury on the continent.

In Alfred's day, governors of counties or regions were called ealdormen, though the reassertion of Danish influence in the early 11th cent. meant that the word gave way to eorl, which remained for three centuries the only recognized title. After the Norman Conquest the high aristocracy consisted of the 1,400 tenants-in-chief, to whom had been allocated all the land not expressly reserved for the crown or the church, and who held it directly from the king. But some of the subtenants also accumulated substantial property and formed part of the governing élite. The knightly class soon ceased to be purely professional soldiers and became landed proprietors in their own right, acting as seigneurs or lords of the manor. The local jurisdiction which they exercised under the crown gave them great power at a time when government at Westminster was very distant.

The ‘barons’ who confronted John in 1215 were not peers in the formal sense and titles were so rare that in the reign of Henry I there were only eight earldoms in existence. Two developments in the 13th and 14th cents. transformed the situation. The summoning of parliaments, with a separate upper chamber, made it necessary to establish which lords were entitled to attend and began the process of separating lords of Parliament from the rest of the aristocracy. Secondly, a diversification of titles led to a considerable increase in peerage numbers. To the old title of earl was added dukedoms (1337) which were at first reserved for the royal family, marquisates (1385), baronies (1387), and viscountcies (1440). By the end of Henry VI's reign the peerage had grown to about 60. In the Tudor period, commentators like Sir Thomas Smith began to distinguish a greater nobility from a lesser nobility, or gentry. But the size of the greater nobility remained small, making it inevitable that it should rely upon the gentry for help in governing the country.

Two further developments in the Tudor period strengthened the position of the aristocracy. At the dissolution of the monasteries most of the estates found their way, sooner or later, into the hands of the nobility and gentry. The Russells were one of many families whose fortunes were established at this time, picking up many monastic estates, including Covent Garden and Woburn abbey. The removal of abbots from the upper house of Parliament after the Reformation left that chamber dominated by secular lords. The growing prestige of Parliament as an institution gave the aristocracy a powerful base from which to challenge the monarchy and defend itself against the commonalty.

The 17th cent. was full of vicissitudes. The lavish creation of titles by the early Stuarts, including the introduction of baronetcies, threatened to dilute the aristocracy and weaken its powers of resistance. The long struggle with the crown, which was attempting to find non-parliamentary sources of revenue, seemed at one stage to have brought down aristocracy and monarchy alike: in 1649, with the king executed and the House of Lords declared useless and dangerous, it looked as though the split in the upper classes had handed power to the forces of radical dissent. For many aristocratic families, the 1650s were particularly hard, their houses and property plundered, their church disestablished and derided, their income subject to swingeing taxes levied by the parliamentary victors. Worst of all was the short rule of the major-generals, several of them men of humble origins.

After the Restoration, the aristocracy recovered much of its wealth and influence. But the underlying rivalry with the crown re-emerged in the 1680s. This time the outcome was decisive, with gentry and nobility united against James II, and supported by most of the nation.

The 150 years following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was the golden age of aristocrats, victorious on both flanks. They were no longer menaced by radicals or republicans, nor by a quasi-absolutist monarchy. Decades of Hanoverian prosperity saw the manor-houses rebuilt and enlarged, the old muddy villages and duck ponds removed to a respectful distance, the parks enclosed and embellished. The greater aristocracy built up their estates, often in several counties, and protected them from the follies of spendthrift heirs by the entail or strict settlement. Their monopoly of office, national and local, was almost complete: cabinets were composed almost exclusively of noblemen, while the gentry, as justices of the peace, looked after the shires. Parliament itself was firmly under the control of the landed interest, though the trading towns sent their own merchants and businessmen to protect their concerns.

In an increasingly utilitarian age, rather less was heard of noble blood and more of service to the nation. Though the aristocracy retained a particular interest in the armed forces, and especially the cavalry, the invention of guns and the introduction of standing armies had deprived them of their former rationale as a military class. In Pitt's words, the iron barons were replaced by silken barons. Nevertheless, their claims were still formidable—that they were superior in education, experienced in making decisions, enjoyed the leisure necessary to consider public affairs, and, above all, that their great possessions gave them a unique concern for the well-being of the country, since they had so much to lose. They also claimed a distinctive political role, as a balancing or stabilizing force, which prevented the country from sliding into royal despotism or democratic licence.

Ideological challenge to noble ascendancy came with the American and French Revolutions, in which titles were abolished and aristocrats denounced. But the identification of egalitarianism with national enemies may have given the British aristocracy a further lease of life. More insidious dangers were developments not overtly political—the growing complexity of public business, which put the amateur at a disadvantage; the growth of new industrial towns, where the symbols of aristocracy were less obvious; the improvements in schooling, which meant that education was no longer the preserve of the wealthy; the eventual decline of agriculture until the great landed interest looked less a national concern than a farming lobby; perhaps, most of all, the gradual effects of new forms of taxation which steadily encroached upon aristocratic fortunes. Significantly, the introduction of a tax upon incomes, which Charles Fox rightly saw must do vast damage to aristocracy, came in the darkest moment of the war against revolutionary France in 1799. Nevertheless, judicious concessions, like the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, enabled the landed classes to preserve much of their influence throughout the 19th cent. But signs of decay were increasingly apparent and the extravagance of the Edwardian period had all the hallmarks of an Indian summer. The Great War of 1914 proved a cataclysm, but it was a crumbling building that was knocked down.

Gentry and aristocracy survive into the 21st cent. in their own world, but it is shrunken and private. They retain many houses and much social prestige, but the houses are often open to the public, with tea served in the stables; others, like Lambton castle, have been turned into fun-fairs, taken over as schools, or developed as conference centres. Aristocrats are still much sought after as patrons, presidents, chancellors, and board members, but the days when a cabinet of nine could contain eight peers of the realm, the ninth being merely the son of a peeress in her own right, have vanished into the past.

J. A. Cannon

Bibliography

Beckett, J. V. , The Aristocracy in England, 1660–1914 (Oxford, 1986);
Bush, M. L. , The English Aristocracy: A Comparative Synthesis (Manchester, 1984);
Cannadine, D. , The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (New Haven, 1990);
Cannon, J. A. , Aristocratic Century: The Peerage of Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1984).

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Aristocracy

Aristocracy

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The term aristocracy derives from the Greek words aristos and kratos, meaning rule by the best. In denoting hierarchy and social differentiation, aristocracy has often been used synonymously with elites or oligarchy. More broadly, the term has been used in modern formulations such as Americas aristocracy to denote a plutocracy of wealth and privilege in the United States, or as labour aristocracy in the United Kingdom to refer to a privileged stratum of skilled workers within the nineteenth-century working class. Indeed, its modern usage is so broad that many commentators have concluded that aristocracy is now impossible to define.

The aristocracy in preindustrial European states combined specific economic, social, and political characteristics that differentiated it from other social strata at the time, and from subsequent notions of aristocracy in industrial and postindustrial societies. For a period of over five hundred years, before the rapid spread of industrialization in the nineteenth century, predominantly agrarian societies in Europe were structured in feudal hierarchies and governed by monarchs in varying alliances with landed aristocrats. In these hierarchies, aristocrats were differentiated from monarchs in one, upward direction, and from gentry, merchants, and peasants in the opposite direction.

In economic terms, aristocracy in preindustrial societies was defined in relationship to the land. Initially in feudal systems, monarchs granted feudal lords the rights to income from large estates or manors in return for military support and local administration of justice. Thus, aristocrats derived their income primarily from land, either directly through the extraction of services and dues from peasants, or, latterly, indirectly through sharecrop-ping contracts or lease-renting arrangements with small farmers.

The economic differentiation of the aristocracy was reinforced by social distinctiveness. Monarchs conferred not only economic rewards but also status rewards in the form of titles. Although titles were not an exact indicator of membership in the aristocracy, they were, when combined with land ownership, the most effective defining characteristic of the aristocracy. Noble rank reinforced notions of social exclusivity, and even among the aristocracy there was an internal hierarchy of titles that distinguished landed magnates from lesser nobility.

The aristocracys combined economic and social dominance was sustained over centuries through inheritance laws based on primogeniture (where succession passes to the firstborn son). In this manner, the indivisibility and continuity of landed estates was secured and the social status of titular rank was passed from one male generation to the next.

A deliberate cult of ostentation characterized the lifestyle of most European aristocrats. Living nobly entailed architectural recognition in the construction of grand country residences and palatial dwellings in capital cities; cultural recognition in the patronage of the arts and music; fashionable recognition in elaborate dress and tailoring; and educational recognition in, for example, the value placed upon multilingualism by European aristocrats.

Political power was closely associated with the economic and social power of the aristocracy. Nonetheless, there were wide variations in the political relationships between monarch and aristocracy from one country to the next. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were marked contrasts between France, where the aristocracy was politically enfeebled, and England, where the landed aristocracy effectively restricted monarchical power through representation in Parliament. Eventually, with the transition to industrial capitalist economies, the political, social, and economic ascendancy of the aristocracy was eroded in all European states. Even in the twenty-first century, however, residues of aristocratic status and wealth can still be traced in many European countries.

SEE ALSO Authority; Conspicuous Consumption; Distinctions, Social and Cultural; Elitism; Feudalism; Gentility; Hierarchy; Landlords; Meritocracy; Monarchy; Monarchy, Constitutional; Power; Wealth

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Clark, Samuel. 1995. State and Status: The Rise of the State and Aristocratic Power in Western Europe. Cardiff, U.K.: University of Wales Press.

Wasson, Ellis. 2006. Aristocracy and the Modern World. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

David Judge

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aristocracy

aristocracy (ăr´Ĭstŏk´rəsē) [Gr.,=rule by the best], in political science, government by a social elite. In the West the political concept of aristocracy derives from Plato's formulation in the Republic. The criteria on which aristocracy is based may vary greatly from society to society. Historically, aristocracies have usually rested on landed property, have invoked heredity, and, despite frequent conflicts with the throne, have flourished chiefly within the framework of monarchy. Aristocracy may be based on wealth as well as land, as in ancient Carthage and medieval Venice, or may be a theocracy like the Brahman caste in India. Other criteria can be age, race, military prowess, or cultural attainment. The best example of a modern landowning aristocracy that conducted government was in England from 1688 to 1832. A resurgence by the French aristocracy in the 18th cent. was ended by the French Revolution, which abolished most of the privileges on which it was based. Inflation, which cut into the fixed income of the aristocracy, the loss of the traditional military role of the aristocracy, and the rise of industry and decline in the importance of landed property have all worked against the aristocracy. Today the political power of traditional western aristocracy has all but disappeared.

See J. H. Kautsky, The Politics of Aristocratic Empires (1982).

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Aristocracy

34. Aristocracy

  1. Almanach de Gotha German social register. [Ger. Lit.: Benét, 26]
  2. Beaucaire, Monsieur portrays English aristocracy as shallow, inept snobs. [Am. Lit.: Monsieur Beaucaire, Magill I, 616617]
  3. blue blood said to flow in the veins of the nobility. [Western Cult.: Brewer Dictionary ]
  4. Brahmin appellation accorded members of old, aristocratic New England families. [Am. Hist.: EB, II: 226]
  5. Cabala, The portrays wealthy esoterics, mysteriously influential in governmental affairs. [Am. Lit.: The Cabala ]
  6. First Families of Virginia elite families of prestigious rank. [Am. Usage: Misc.]
  7. Four Hundred, the social elite; the number of people Mrs. Astor could accommodate in her ballroom. [Am. Usage: Misc.]
  8. gold on white symbol of elite class. [Chinese Art: Jobes, 357]
  9. Junkers Prussian elite. [Ger. Hist.: Hitler, 387]
  10. Social Register book listing names and addresses of social elite. [Am. Usage: Misc.]
  11. St. Aubert, Emily young French woman of wealth and position. [Br. Lit.: The Mysteries of Udolpho, Magill I, 635638]
  12. Winthrop English upper-class family; Americas parliamentary governors. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 937938]

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aristocracy

ar·is·toc·ra·cy / ˌariˈstäkrəsē/ • n. (pl. -cies) [treated as sing. or pl.] (usu. the aristocracy) the highest class in certain societies, esp. those holding hereditary titles or offices. ∎  a form of government in which power is held by the nobility. ∎  a state governed in this way. ∎ fig. a group regarded as privileged or superior in a particular sphere: high-level technocrats make up a large part of this “technical aristocracy.” ORIGIN: late 15th cent.: from Old French aristocratie, from Greek aristokratia, from aristos ‘best’ + -kratia ‘power.’ The term originally denoted the government of a state by its best citizens, later by the rich and wellborn, hence the sense ‘nobility,’ regardless of the form of government (mid 17th cent.).

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aristocracy

aristocracy government by ‘the best’ citizens; political supremacy of a privileged order XVI; patrician order, nobles XVII. — (O)F. aristocratie — Gr. aristokratíā, f. áristos best; see -CRACY.
So aristocrat XVIII. — F. aristocrate (a word of the French Revolution). aristocratic XVII. — (O)F. — Gr. -ical XVI.

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Aristocracy

Aristocracy

the nobles or chief officials in a state; the privileged class.

Example: aristocracy is the ruling body of the best citizens, 1531.

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aristocracy

aristocracy See UPPER CLASS.

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aristocracy

aristocracy •radiancy •immediacy, intermediacy •expediency • idiocy • saliency •resiliency • leniency •incipiency, recipiency •recreancy • pruriency • deviancy •subserviency • transiency • pliancy •buoyancy, flamboyancy •fluency, truancy •constituency • abbacy • embassy •celibacy • absorbency •incumbency, recumbency •ascendancy, intendancy, interdependency, pendency, resplendency, superintendency, tendency, transcendency •candidacy •presidency, residency •despondency • redundancy • infancy •sycophancy • argosy • legacy •profligacy • surrogacy •extravagancy • plangency • agency •regency •astringency, contingency, stringency •intransigency • exigency • cogency •pungency •convergency, emergency, insurgency, urgency •vacancy • piquancy • fricassee •mendicancy • efficacy • prolificacy •insignificancy • delicacy • intricacy •advocacy • fallacy • galaxy •jealousy, prelacy •repellency • valency • Wallasey •articulacy • corpulency • inviolacy •excellency • equivalency • pharmacy •supremacy • clemency • Christmassy •illegitimacy, legitimacy •intimacy • ultimacy • primacy •dormancy • diplomacy • contumacy •stagnancy •lieutenancy, subtenancy, tenancy •pregnancy •benignancy, malignancy •effeminacy • prominency •obstinacy • pertinency • lunacy •immanency •impermanency, permanency •rampancy • papacy • flippancy •occupancy •archiepiscopacy, episcopacy •transparency • leprosy • inerrancy •flagrancy, fragrancy, vagrancy •conspiracy • idiosyncrasy •minstrelsy • magistracy • piracy •vibrancy •adhocracy, aristocracy, autocracy, bureaucracy, democracy, gerontocracy, gynaecocracy (US gynecocracy), hierocracy, hypocrisy, meritocracy, mobocracy, monocracy, plutocracy, technocracy, theocracy •accuracy • obduracy • currency •curacy, pleurisy •confederacy • numeracy •degeneracy • itinerancy • inveteracy •illiteracy, literacy •innocency • trenchancy • deficiency •fantasy, phantasy •intestacy • ecstasy • expectancy •latency • chieftaincy • intermittency •consistency, insistency, persistency •instancy • militancy • impenitency •precipitancy • competency •hesitancy • apostasy • constancy •accountancy • adjutancy •consultancy, exultancy •impotency • discourtesy •inadvertency • privacy •irrelevancy, relevancy •solvency • frequency • delinquency •adequacy • poignancy

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