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challenges confronting aristocracy
the special case of the british

In 1914, at the end of the long nineteenth century, the European aristocracy was in a weaker position than had been the case on the eve of the French Revolution. In regard to political power, social status, and cultural influence, the traditional ruling and landowning class faced more powerful competition than had existed in the 1780s. Nevertheless, in most of Europe the aristocracy still remained a very powerful force in government, politics, and society. One hundred and twenty years after the French Revolution had challenged the old European order, what may in fact be most surprising was just how much power and status parts of the aristocracy had retained.

It is important to stress the word parts, however. While many of the greatest aristocratic families had become the core of an evolving plutocratic elite, the wealth of most of the traditional landowning class had declined sharply in comparison to non-landed fortunes in the half-century before 1914. Meanwhile in some European states the political power of the aristocracy had declined steeply, whereas in others the power of the traditional ruling class had remained very great or even in certain respects had grown between 1789 and 1914.


Before going into these issues in more detail, it is useful to define briefly what aristocracy means in the nineteenth-century European context. In almost every European state in 1789 there existed a group called the nobility whose membership was defined in law and that enjoyed a range of privileges. The term nobility had vastly different meanings from one European society to another, however. In England, at one end of the European spectrum, it meant the peerage, a group numbered in the low hundreds. At the other end of the spectrum lay Poland and Hungary, where nobles constituted 5 percent of the population or more. Between lay France, where roughly 1.5 percent of the population enjoyed noble status in 1789. Clearly all European nobles were not aristocrats.

It was much more nearly the case that all titled nobles (from barons up to dukes and princes) were aristocrats, but even this was actually an illusion. Again England was the extreme case in which not only titles but all landed property were inherited exclusively by eldest sons. In almost all cases throughout the nineteenth century one could assume that an English (though not necessarily an Irish) peer was a wealthy man with high status in his society. Elsewhere in Europe, where titles and property were often inherited by all sons, the automatic English correlation of title, wealth, and status did not apply. Russia, where all children—both sons and daughters—inherited titles and only a minority of the greatest aristocratic families passed their main estates to eldest sons (save in the Baltic provinces where this custom was more widespread), provides the counterpoint to England. It was the case in

nineteenth-century Europe that the great majority of the richest and most prestigious aristocratic families were titled, but there were exceptions, even in Britain and in Russia. Throughout the period 1700 to 1914, for example, the Naryshkins were one of the richest, most powerful, and most respected aristocratic families in Russia and were indeed closely related to the Romanovs. They never, however, had titles. Nor in late-nineteenth-century Britain did the statesman Arthur Balfour, whose wealth, connections, and values made him an unequivocal aristocrat.

Aristocracy ultimately can be defined only in relatively loose sociological terms, rather than in more tight legal ones. Aristocrats were members of the traditional ruling class. They inherited wealth, status, and power from their ancestors. In the over-whelming majority of cases in 1789 the core of their wealth lay in land. The precise nature of their political power differed from one European country to another. In 1789 the English and Scottish aristocracy dominated Parliament, which itself wholly controlled government. The British aristocracy was a ruling class in the fullest meaning of the word. Matters were a little more equivocal in most of continental Europe where supposedly absolute monarchs ruled through various species of bureaucracy. Even in Russia, however, where monarchical absolutism was most extreme, the emperor could not rule without the landowning elite. Without the landowners' cooperation the tiny bureaucracy even in 1825 had no hope of governing (i.e., taxing and conscripting) the peasant masses, on whose fiscal and military exploitation the whole tsarist state rested. Moreover, the aristocracy totally dominated the court, the guards regiments, and the top ranks of government in St. Petersburg. Monarchs who alienated this aristocratic elite between 1725 and 1825 risked their lives.

The best definition of European aristocracy in 1789 therefore is "traditional ruling and landowning elite." It makes sense to reserve the term aristocracy proper for the top echelon of this elite, usually very wealthy, usually titled, and dominating the top positions in metropolitan government. The lesser, usually nontitled, landowners who dominated provincial society and who possessed the means to live the lives of leisured gentlemen are best defined as gentry. Herein, however, the word aristocracy is used to cover both groups, save where an attempt is being made to distinguish between them.

challenges confronting aristocracy

Two overall challenges confronted aristocracy in the long nineteenth century. The first were the egalitarian values and ideologies that sprang from the eighteenth-century radical Enlightenment and were embodied in the French Revolution. The second were a number of interrelated changes in society that can broadly be defined as modernization. These included industrialization and urbanization; mass literacy; the vast growth in industrial, commercial, and financial wealth; and the increasing complexity of both society and government, which gave birth to a vast swathe of professional and technical experts without whose skills a modern community could not flourish.

Enlightenment and French Revolution

The radical Enlightenment and the French Revolution rejected corporate privilege and inherited inequality in the name of rationality, efficiency, and individual merit. They asserted that the individual rather than the family or the corporation was the building block of society, and they assumed a fundamental equality between individuals, at least in regard to the rights possessed by all of a community's citizens. These ideas had great appeal to many Europeans in the nineteenth century. The French Revolution turned these ideas into political reality and provided a model to which subsequent generations of European radicals looked with admiration.

The impact of the Revolution was equivocal, however. In the first place, though the French Revolution was hostile to legal inequality and inherited privilege, it was far less egalitarian in socioeconomic terms and did not reject private property. Indeed some of the reforms pushed through in Europe in the Napoleonic era actually strengthened private property by, for example, handing church and common land over to wealthy individuals. Though the aristocracy were not in most countries the major beneficiary of these changes, they were nevertheless very great property owners and could often turn to their own advantage the new era of absolute property rights. A striking example of this were the great profits that many nineteenth-century aristocrats made from their forests, whose use was previously very often shared with the peasantry, but which now became the unrestricted possession of noble landowners. In a century in which wood prices grew enormously, this could be a crucial factor in the survival of large sections of the traditional rural elite.

Though the 1790s inflicted a very heavy blow to the French aristocracy from which the latter never fully recovered, the damage was not mortal. Napoleon I went out of his way to reconcile the aristocracy to his regime and to draw them back into court, civil, and military service. He was partly successful in this endeavor. To some extent one can see the evolution of the French aristocracy from 1789 to 1815 as a sudden and very brutal example of a change that overtook much of the European aristocracy in the nineteenth century. Losing part though not most of its land, the French aristocracy turned in the direction of becoming a government service elite. In this sense it moved closer to the pattern of the Russian, Prussian, and even lesser Austrian aristocracies of the late eighteenth century. Like them but in the face of much stiffer non-noble competition, it had to sustain its status by military and civil service to the growing bureaucratic state. Over the long nineteenth century one was to see a variant on this theme even in Britain. Financial pressures, changing aristocratic values, and the need to sustain aristocratic legitimacy by public service all pushed in this direction throughout Europe, albeit to differing degrees.

It is also important to remember that if the memory of the French Revolution attracted some Europeans, it appalled others—including very many nonaristocrats. If the French aristocracy as a group had been the single largest victim of the Terror, most of those who died under the guillotine were not aristocrats. What had seemed initially a movement for moderate and rational constitutional reform had spiraled quickly into a terrifying dictatorship that had consumed innocent bystanders and its own children alike. Particularly in Brittany, the civil war unleashed by the Revolution had been waged with near-genocidal frenzy by the republic. The army that had emerged from the Revolution as the dominant force in French politics had created a military despotism in France and subjected Europe to twenty-two years of warfare and conquest. Relative to its population, Europe suffered more casualties in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars than in World War I.

Not surprisingly, the lesson many Europeans drew from this was that even moderate reform could easily spiral out of control and that the traditional pillars of political order (monarchy, church, aristocracy) were crucial bulwarks against anarchy and terror. The history of the unicameral French National Assembly was used to justify conservative upper houses in much of nineteenth-century Europe. Most of the newly created upper houses gave many seats to aristocrats. This was just one reflection of a broader result of the French Revolution, namely the coming together of those old rivals monarchy, aristocracy, and church against the common revolutionary enemy.

This new unity was not total or immediate in the nineteenth century. The 1848 revolutions in Hungary and Italy had much of the old court versus country flavor. Because monarchical absolutism survived longest in Russia, so too did traditional aristocratic resentment of dynastic regimes that denied political representation or guaranteed civil rights even to aristocrats. The last fling of traditional European court versus country aristocratic liberalism was the Russian gentry's participation in the run-up to the Revolution of 1905. But the events of 1905 provided graphic evidence why in the modern age monarchs and aristocrats could no longer afford to fight. Having weakened the tsarist regime by its opposition in the decade before the revolution, the Russian nobles saw their estates overrun by peasant rioters in 1905 and then threatened with wholesale expropriation by the parliament that the regime had been forced to concede. As a result of this experience regime and aristocracy drew back together in the period from 1906 to 1914, not least in united support for policies that made private property in land secure. In so doing, the Russians conformed to a European conservative norm.


Radical ideologies were dangerous because they were underpinned by the social changes inherent in modernization. Industrialization, urbanization, and mass literacy had the potential to transform the consciousness of the masses and their capacity for political organization, while making them much less susceptible to control by the landowning elite. As democracy spread in the last quarter of the

nineteenth century the aristocracy usually lost control over the urban mass electorate, though this was not universally and immediately true. The English Conservatives had many working-class supporters in the late nineteenth century, not least in Lancashire, where the earls of Derby were able to tap not just local deference but also the Protestant mass electorate's dislike of Catholic Irish immigration. In Germany the Catholic Centre Party, in whose leadership aristocrats were still important in the early twentieth century, had mass electoral support even from many urban workers. Nevertheless in time it was the case that mass urban politics everywhere ultimately undermined the power of traditional rural elites.

A number of factors determined whether the aristocracy could effectively mobilize rural society as a conservative bulwark against urban radicalism. In England the Conservative Party succeeded in doing this to a great extent by the 1880s but by that time the degree of urbanization in England, added to rural radicalism in the Gaelic fringe of the United Kingdom, made this of limited use. In the two 1910 general elections, fought in large part over the role and power of Europe's most aristocratic and most powerful upper house, the Conservatives actually won by a narrow margin in England, only for that victory to be reversed by the votes of the Scots, Welsh, and Irish. More successful was the German aristocracy, who provided the core leadership for the Bund der Landwirte, Europe's most formidable agrarian lobby group in the early twentieth century. Not merely, however, did this force the aristocratic leaders to accept the overriding logic of rural populist politics (e.g., the ruthless pursuit of agrarian sectional interests and a demagogic anti-Semitism that did not sit easily with the claim to provide responsible national leadership), it also was a weakening asset as Germany became Europe's increasingly urbanized industrial powerhouse.

Meanwhile in Europe's "second-world" western, eastern, and southern periphery—an arc that stretched from Ireland through Iberia and Italy to Hungary and Russia—where the population was still overwhelmingly rural, it was also usually radical and often very hostile to the aristocracy. In these countries mass politics by 1900 often entailed the risk of social revolution and the expropriation of aristocratic landholding. Huge differences in wealth and culture between rural elite and mass, combined with the masses' growing political consciousness and organization, made this a real threat in much of Europe's second-world periphery at the turn of the twentieth century. The threat might become reality through peasant revolution and jacqueries (peasant revolts) or, in those countries where democracy was spreading, through the ballot box. Because by 1905 even Russia had acquired a parliament elected by near universal (though not equal) male suffrage, the challenge of managing democracy was becoming a matter of life and death for much of the aristocracy of peripheral Europe.

Social revolution was somewhat less likely in rural societies where the Catholic Church was strongly rooted and where the aristocracy had powerful potential allies in a substantial peasant farmer class owning its own land and employing a handful of laborers, who might or might not be family members. The perfect example of such a conservative society was the Spanish province of Navarre, home of Carlism, a mass Catholic and royalist movement that opposed the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and all other aspects of modernity. But though equivalent areas did exist in other parts of rural and peripheral Europe in 1900 they were exceptional. At the other end of the spectrum, rural radicalism was enhanced if the local aristocracy was alien to the rural masses not just in wealth and culture but also in ethnicity and religion. Facing this reality in Ireland as the era of democratic politics dawned, the British government bought out the landed elite on generous terms, thereby disarming social (though not national) revolution. But this policy reflected not just British wisdom but also the unique wealth of Britain's state and society. Nowhere else in the European periphery was such a policy either politically or financially conceivable, and almost everywhere the landowners were the most vulnerable element within the property-owning and relatively wealthy minority.

In the wealthy "first-world" core of Europe where by 1900 a big middle class existed and property was much more secure, the aristocracy could find powerful allies in both urban and rural society against emerging working-class socialist parties, let alone social revolution. To somewhat varying degrees and with many local nuances the aristocracy increasingly allied itself politically with the representatives of commercial, industrial, and financial wealth. In many countries parts of the rapidly growing professional middle class might also be potential recruits for the conservative alliance, especially where professional elites were traditionally linked to the gentry (e.g., English lawyers) or in countries where the expanding state bureaucracy was recruited very often from the sons (often younger sons) of aristocratic or more often gentry families. Hungary, after the creation in 1867 of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, was probably the perfect example of the latter phenomenon, and its administrators for that reason retained an unusually clear gentry ethos and style. But in relatively unbureaucratic England the Indian and colonial services provided a similar outlet for the sons of the gentry, and the British public schools created common elite values and lifestyles that served to integrate the sons of aristocracy, gentry, high finance, big business, and the professions into a single expanded ruling class. Just as Britain's immense wealth, power, and prestige helped to legitimize this elite in the nineteenth century, so a similar process could be seen in Germany in the period between 1871 and 1914, though in the German case religious differences and very recent unification made this process more fraught.

Every European aristocracy came to its own compromise with newly emerging, modern business, financial, and professional elites. Some of these compromises were more successful than others, but each case inevitably embodied the specific national context to which an aristocracy brought its own values (e.g., militarist or civilian, authoritarian or parliamentary), as did the often very heterogeneous elements of the new "bourgeois" elite.

For example, the very wealthy British aristocracy with its old and close links to the London financial world found it relatively easy to embrace (very often literally via marriage) the enormous fortunes made by nineteenth-century financiers and to consolidate a united plutocratic ruling class by the Edwardian era (1901–1910). In Prussia/Germany, Europe's other financial-industrial superpower, the process was bound to be much more difficult. The traditional Prussian core elite was not a true aristocracy but the relatively poor and somewhat puritanical gentry of the eastern provinces. By tradition this group had minimal contact with the world of high finance and shared neither its wealth nor its values. Indeed most of the key families in the Prusso-German financial world originated not in old Prussia but in Frankfurt, which had been very unwillingly (on both sides) absorbed into the Hohenzollern state in 1815. The fact that so much of this new financial wealth by 1900 was Jewish greatly complicated the consolidation of a united Prusso-German plutocratic elite on British Edwardian lines. But the very different natures of the British and Prussian aristocratic and gentry elites goes a long way to explaining why the British aristocracy found it easier to live alongside the (also very often Jewish) vast wealth of the London financial elite in the early twentieth century.

Even the most successful aristocratic compromise with the new business, financial, and professional classes entailed some dilution of aristocratic power and some change in aristocratic values. Thus Otto von Bismarck, probably the most important aristocratic politician of the nineteenth century, succeeded brilliantly in legitimizing the Hohenzollern dynastic-aristocratic elite by annexing and controlling the energies of German nationalism. But as his conservative critics pointed out, he did so by twisting many of the traditional religious and political values of the Prussian aristocracy. The next generation of aristocratic politicians, ever deeper enmeshed in the logic of agrarian and nationalist populism, strayed even further from the Pietist and dynastic loyalties of their grandfathers. Equally the English plutocratic grandee of the Edwardian era was already halfway to being a member of a rentier, leisured elite rather than of a true ruling class in the sense of the English aristocracy of 1800.

Coming to terms with the industrial-era European economy was far easier for some sections of the European aristocracy than for others. For that reason, although gradations of wealth within the aristocracy were already considerable in 1800, they were far more extreme by 1914. A large gap had opened between a plutocratic-aristocratic elite that had made huge fortunes from the growth of the urban and industrial economy, and the bulk of the aristocracy and almost all the provincial gentry. Inevitably this was most true in the more advanced economies, but all European landowners were hit by the decline of agricultural prices in the last decades of the nineteenth century. No one whose core income depended on agriculture could hope to even remotely match the wealth of those who had a stake in the new urban and industrial economy, and the financial and commercial worlds that sustained it.

A minority of aristocrats did have a huge stake in this world. Unlike in previous centuries, few of these aristocrats were themselves industrialists in the sense of owning and running big industrial enterprises. By 1900 even most of the great Silesian landowners, the most successful aristocratic entrepreneurs of the nineteenth century, were retreating from this role. Running big enterprises required great effort, huge capital, and entrepreneurial talent. For rich men usually deeply conscious of their responsibility to pass on a family's wealth and status to their heirs, the risks of industrial entrepreneurship were often unacceptable. Even the duke of Devonshire was embarrassed by the sums he poured into the new town and shipbuilding industry he created at Barrow-in-Furness on one of his estates. The collapse in 1909 of the business interests of Prince Christian-Kraft von Hohenlohe-Ohringen, the Duke of Ujest, caused great scandal in Wilhelmine Germany.

By 1900, however, it was possible to tap the wealth of the Industrial Revolution through shareholding without taking the risks or bearing the burdens of unlimited liability, ownership, and management of industrial enterprises. By then many aristocrats had invested large sums in government, railway, and corporate bonds and shares. Though most great aristocrats in 1914 still owned big rural estates, almost everywhere they had diversified their assets and bought significant amounts of government and private paper. The Russian aristocracy and gentry are a case in point. After the emancipation of the serfs many estates in infertile, central Great Russia became uneconomical as agricultural enterprises, nor did the aristocracy have the capital to develop them. With the onset of the agricultural depression in the 1870s, matters worsened. Meanwhile relations with the local peasantry were often conflict-ridden, and rural life was less attractive than the cities. With the growth in population leading to ever-rising land prices, the logic for the individual aristocrat of selling out and becoming an urban rentier was often clear, even if this logic undermined the aristocracy's dominant position in rural society. Very similar though less pronounced shifts occurred in Piedmont: if the overall pressures were the same, noble–peasant relations were on the whole not as strained as in Russia and rural life was not so isolated.

For much of the gentry financial pressures might mean withdrawal from the countryside and absorption into the urban professional and rentier world. For wealthy aristocrats such stark choices were unnecessary, however. At the very top of the German aristocratic world, for example, Prince von Thurn und Taxis still owned 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres) in 1895, but the family had also received massive financial compensation from a number of German states for lost seignorial and other inherited rights in the nineteenth century. Even by the late 1850s when the process remained uncompleted, recorded compensation exceeded £800,000—a vast sum in the mid-nineteenth century and one that allowed large-scale and diverse investments in stocks, bonds, and shares.

Though all the great aristocratic families had far more chance than the gentry to diversify their assets and enrich themselves by tapping the urban and industrial economy, the greatest fortunes were usually made by families who owned urban property or coal mines. In 1914 probably the richest aristocrat in Europe was the duke of Westminster, with an income of roughly £1 million per year. Though the Grosvenors had never played a very prominent role in British political or military affairs, they were the happy beneficiaries of a seventeenth-century marriage that brought them a large slice of what later turned into London's fashionable West End. The other richest aristocrats in Britain at that time were also either great urban landlords or owners of extensive coal mines or both. In Germany the history of the Holy Roman Empire meant that very few aristocrats were big urban landlords, but Prussia's richest aristocrats in 1914 usually derived a huge slice of their incomes from Silesian or Ruhr mines. The vagaries of Italian history meant that some regional aristocracies were far likelier to own urban property than others. Meanwhile Russian aristocratic incomes from urban property and mines in 1914 were usually less enormous than British or German for the simple reason that the urban-industrial economy was less developed, but in a few cases they topped £200,000 per year. With urbanization and industrialization taking off in Russia before 1914 there was every reason to expect that the fortunate minority of aristocrats who owned extensive urban property or mines would in time match the very richest German and British plutocrats.

The most accurate generalization about aristocracy's fate in the long European nineteenth century would therefore emphasize the very powerful trans-Continental challenges to which all aristocrats were subject, the common fundamental strategies that they used to meet those challenges, but at the same time the way in which the aristocracies of some countries and regions, and above all certain sections of the aristocracy, were much better placed to cope with these challenges than others.

the special case of the british

Throughout the long nineteenth century the British aristocracy was the most admired and emulated in Europe. To some extent this was but one aspect of widespread admiration and emulation of the world's richest, most powerful, but also in many ways most liberal, society and polity. There were also, however, very specific aristocratic reasons for admiring Britain. At a time when Continental aristocracy was coming under increasing challenge, there was comfort to be had from the fact that Britain was both Europe's most successful country and the one in which the aristocracy was uniquely powerful.

As already mentioned, of all European aristocracies in 1815 the British came closest to meeting every definition of a ruling class. In terms of power and wealth, the British monarch was at best primus inter pares (first among equals) with regard to the aristocratic elite. No absolute monarch could infringe the civil rights or deny the freedoms of the British aristocracy, nor indeed challenge their role as hereditary legislators or rulers of the polity. Nevertheless, Britain remained a monarchy down to 1914 and this was important for aristocrats in Britain as elsewhere in Europe. The monarch and his court accentuated, legitimized, and put a stamp of public approval on the social hierarchy.

Even in 1914 royal patronage and traditions still mattered a great deal in the core institutions of the old regime, meaning the armed forces and diplomacy. Despite the continuing role of French aristocrats in the army, diplomatic service, and (especially) navy of the Third Republic, there was a big difference in the overall origins and ethos of British and French top soldiers and diplomats.

It was not just the power, wealth, and freedom of British aristocracy that were envied and emulated by many of its European peers. So too was the English cool aristocratic hauteur, the public face of Victorian aristocratic respectability and service, and the gentlemanly lifestyle. If French remained the lingua franca of European high society in 1914, the English nanny was making a growing impact on upper-class European values and mentalities. British bloodstock, horse racing, and fox hunting were widely admired. As is always the case with high society's fashions there was much that was silly and superficial in this emulation of England. But there was also a more serious and political aspect to the admiration of English aristocratic public rectitude and political skill, not to mention English rural sports and county lifestyle. Faced with the challenge of the urban and industrial world an aristocracy needed to justify its position as a ruling class under the gaze of middle-class newspapers and public opinion.

It needed also to consolidate its leadership of rural society. It was a commonplace among nineteenth-century aristocratic publicists that the royalist counterrevolution in the Vendée and other areas of western France in the 1790s owed its strength in part to local loyalty to a resident and paternalist rural nobility. It was therefore seen as important for other European aristocrats to spend more time on their estates, providing patronage, example, and leadership to their rural neighbors. Because traditionally much of the European high aristocracy had devoted its life to royal courts, military service, or metropolitan society and politics, this required a considerable change in lifestyles and mentalities. What better model than the English aristocrat, whose manic pursuit of foxes kept him deeply attached to county society, in whose life the aristocratic household remained a great source of patronage and leadership throughout the nineteenth century.

By 1914, however, the British aristocracy's political power was clearly slipping. The aristocracy no longer dominated the Liberal Party, a mass socialist party was emerging, and the House of Lords had been stripped of much of its power. The logic of democratic politics with a mass electorate had persuaded even the Conservative Party to buy out the Anglo-Irish landlords and reject agricultural protection. As a result the British gentry had suffered much more severely than reforms than was the its Prusso-German counterpart from the collapse of agricultural prices in the late nineteenth century. After three election defeats and facing the threat of Irish Home Rule, many Conservative British aristocrats were beginning to harbor very serious doubts about the virtues of democracy in 1914. Not at all surprisingly, in the rest of Europe, where democracy might prove far more dangerous to aristocracy than was the case in Britain, doubts about democracy went much deeper in aristocratic circles, and the British political model was losing some of its charm.

Nevertheless as the European aristocracy approached 1914, its political position was by no means everywhere weak. In Germany, the Austrian empire, and by 1905 Russia the monarchical regimes' creation of aristocratic upper houses and lower houses with restricted franchises had actually given the aristocracy much more freedom to articulate its interests, choose its own leaders, and block reforms than was the case in the heyday of absolutism. In that sense constitutionalist and semidemocratic politics had actually enhanced the leverage of a traditional social elite that had most to lose from democracy. Everywhere in Europe by 1914 aristocracy felt itself under increased challenge, but in 1914 most European aristocracies were by no means powerless or resigned to extinction.

See alsoBourgeoisie; Class and Social Relations; Landed Elites; Peasants; Popular and Elite Culture.


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Berdahl, Robert M. The Politics of the Prussian Nobility: The Development of a Conservative Ideology, 1770–1848. Princeton, N.J., 1988.

Cannadine, David. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. New Haven, Conn., 1990.

Cardoza, Anthony L. Aristocrats in Bourgeois Italy: The Piedmontese Nobility, 1861–1930. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Gibson, Ralph, and Martin Blinkhorn, eds. Landownership and Power in Modern Europe. London, 1991.

Higgs, David. Nobles in Nineteenth-Century France: The Practice of Inegalitarianism. Baltimore, 1987.

Lieven, Dominic. The Aristocracy in Europe, 1815–1914. Houndmills, U.K., 1992.

Reden-Dohna, Armgard von, and Ralph Melville, eds. Der Adel an der Schwelle des Bürgerlichen Zeitalters, 1780–1860. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1988.

Reif, Heinz. Westfälischer Adel, 1770–1860. Göttingen, Germany, 1979.

D. Lieven

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Since the early 1980s historians have debated the importance and the role of the aristocracy in early-twentieth-century Europe.

This debate originated from the thesis advanced by Arno J. Mayer in a book titled The Persistence of the Old Regime (1981). Mayer argued both that aristocracy still dominated much of European political, social, and cultural life in 1914, and that this domination was a key cause of Europe's descent into war.


Mayer's book was very useful in encouraging modern historians' attention to the aristocracy, which had hitherto been a neglected topic. Nor is his thesis without some virtue. In political terms, for instance, the Russian and Prussian aristocracies were in some ways more powerful in 1914 than a century before. Ironically, this was due to the retreat of absolute monarchy and the introduction of parliamentary institutions. Not merely did aristocrats often dominate upper houses, but the restricted franchise gave them great power in lower houses too. This allowed the aristocracy unprecedented opportunities to articulate and defend common interests, choose its own political leaders, and block legislation it disliked. Both Petr Arkadyevich Stolypin in Russia and Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg in Germany had reformist legislation wrecked by aristocratic intransigence in the years before 1914.

Mayer is also correct in pointing to the immense wealth and continuing prestige of some great magnate families, and to the continuing predominance of men of aristocratic origin in the armed forces and the diplomatic services of monarchical Europe. Nor is he wrong to argue that a sense that modernity was increasingly marginalizing the aristocracy was a source of pessimism, even cultural and political despair, for some aristocrats, and that this could sometimes feed into political radicalism (e.g., the British Conservatives' unconstitutional encouragement of Ulster rebellion from 1912 to 1914) or even into willingness to accept the "heroic remedy" of war as a solution to intractable domestic political crisis.

Nevertheless, Mayer takes his argument much too far. By 1914 landed wealth was well outstripped by financial, industrial, and commercial fortunes. To the extent that a small minority of the richest and most prestigious aristocratic families had consolidated their position at the core of the emerging European modern plutocracy, this was possible only because they had tapped into these new "industrial era" sources of wealth—always in the form of stocks and bonds, but often as owners of coal mines or urban property. Moreover even these untypical aristocratic families risked being marginalized as a mere leisure class and losing their traditional position at the core of political life as a true ruling elite. This had much to do with the increasing complexity of society and its management, which had spawned a swath of professional bureaucracies, politicians, and experts.

Even in the armed forces, in which officers of aristocratic origin remained very important, increasing professionalization greatly affected the mentalities of the military elites. As regards the decision to go to war in 1914, railway timetables and the logic of mass mobilization were at least as important as aristocratic values. Moreover, in the military context it is wrong to associate aristocracy with belligerence, and modernity with more pacific values. Young turks at the cutting edge of military modernity—Erich Ludendorff in Germany or Mikhail Tukhachevsky and Alexander Nemitz in Russia—were more wholehearted advocates of aggressive "total" war than aristocratic courtier generals desperate to sustain the traditional social order of which they were major beneficiaries.

This bears on the more general issue of aristocracy, modernity, and democracy. Particularly in the United States there is a strong tendency to automatically equate modernity with virtue, liberalism, and democracy. American identity to some extent always defined itself against an aristocratic "other" and therefore finds it easy to condemn aristocracy for the world's problems. Moreover to blame "premodern" aristocracy for many of the twentieth century's political disasters is very comforting because in the early twenty-first century aristocracy is dead, liberal democracy has triumphed, and therefore disaster is by definition a thing of the past. In reality matters were never so simple.

In Imperial Germany, for instance, the Junkers adapted very successfully to the pressures of modernity through a military professionalism that made the German army a model for the world, and by creating the world's first mass agrarian interest group, the Bund der Landwirte. There is unfortunately nothing unmodern about the latter's organizational sophistication, its ruthlessly single-minded pursuit of sectional interest, or its brilliant exploitation of popular self-interest and ethnonational prejudice. Moreover, the single most dangerous element in German foreign policy, namely the pursuit of Weltpolitik and naval power, had far more to do with new professional and industrial groups than with the aristocracy. The German naval lobby saw Junkers as an anachronism and itself as the epitome of modernity. Given the geopolitics of imperialism and the history of nineteenth-century liberalism, they had a point. Nor were these trends a merely German phenomenon. The French and American republics played an enthusiastic part in the imperialist expansion of Western power and territory. White settler democratic electorates yielded to no one in their racism or their hunger to expropriate native land. The land and culture of Algerian natives were better preserved under the military despotism of Napoleon III than under the Third Republic. In 1914 European aristocracy was not as powerful nor was its influence as baneful as Mayer argues. Nor was European modernity as virtuous. The coming of war was closely linked to the logic of imperialism, but neither the world war nor imperialism can simply be explained by the Primat der Innenpolitik (primacy of domestic politics), let alone by supposed aristocratic hegemony and wickedness.

World War I hastened the decline of the European aristocracy. Particularly in Germany and Britain, young male aristocrats suffered disproportionately heavy casualties partly because of their traditional role as officers but also perhaps because they saw the war unconsciously as a time to relegitimize their leading role in society through sacrifice for the national cause. In the less "national" and less modern Romanov and Habsburg empires, aristocratic self-sacrifice was less universal, depending much more on individual motivation and the differing traditions of military service from one aristocratic family to another.


The war destroyed the Russian and part of the Austrian aristocracy. Expropriated wholly in Transylvania and to a much lesser extent in Czechoslovakia, the only place where the Habsburg aristocracy retained its prewar wealth and political influence was in the rump Hungarian state. In Hungary the aristocracy survived thanks to successful foreign (Romanian) intervention, which led to the victory of the counterrevolution in the Hungarian civil war and the overthrow of the Hungarian "Bolshevik" regime. Though the establishment of Admiral Miklós Horthy's regime was accompanied by a "white terror" against its socialist enemies, once Horthy was firmly in place the traditional aristocratic liberalism of the Hungarian elites reestablished itself.

The self-esteem and identity of the Hungarian traditional elites were linked to Hungary's ancient constitution, laws, and parliament, which the Hungarian aristocracy had defended for centuries against Habsburg absolutism. The aristocracy's role in the 1848 revolution also became part of its defining myth and added a modern twist to Hungarian elite liberalism. The Hungarian aristocracy was never democratic even by British aristocratic standards, but on the whole its traditions did distance it from the right-wing populism, anti-Semitism, and fascism that came to dominate much of eastern and central Europe in the 1930s.

Hungary can usefully be seen as part of Europe's peripheral "Second World," which stretched from Ireland and Iberia in the west, through Italy and the Balkans in the south, to the Habsburg and Romanov empires' territory in eastern Europe. Many features distinguished this periphery from Europe's "First World" core in Britain, France, Germany, and the Low Countries. For example, almost everywhere in the periphery society was poorer and more lawless, middle classes were much smaller, and property was less secure. In most countries, of all forms of wealth and property, the big estates were the most vulnerable to expropriation. In many cases traditional peasant resentment of the aristocracy had been exacerbated by the effect that market-oriented capitalism had on the way the aristocracy fenced off and exploited its forests and farms. Peasants deprived of access to common land or to the aristocracy's forests could be willing recruits for the socialist and anarchist movements that were beginning to spread their tentacles into rural areas, which the railways and growing literacy were making less inaccessible to urban "agitators."

It was therefore not unrealistic for large landowners in peripheral Europe to fear social revolution and the arrival of mass democracy in the first years of the twentieth century. Inevitably the disruption of society and radicalization of politics caused by World War I increased such fears. So too above all did the Russian Revolution of 1917, which resulted in the total expropriation of the Russian aristocracy and the death or exile of many of its members. Although the Bolsheviks ratified the expropriation of the landowners in 1917 and 1918, the peasantry had itself taken the initiative in this matter, frequently also burning down the manor houses though seldom murdering their occupants. Had democracy triumphed in Russia the Constituent Assembly would have expropriated the estates without compensation. Only successful military counterrevolution would have saved the property of the Russian aristocracy, as Admiral Horthy and General Francisco Franco subsequently did for their Hungarian and Spanish peers.

Responses to the threat of agrarian revolution differed across the European Second World. In the generation before 1914 the British government bought out most of the Anglo-Irish landowning class. This was crucial in averting social, though not national, revolution in the period from 1918 to 1923. Nevertheless the "Troubles" caused the destruction of some aristocratic houses and hastened the retreat of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy to England. Somewhat similar was the fate of the Baltic German aristocracy in newly independent Latvia and Estonia. A key justification for expropriation here was the avoidance of social revolution and the attractiveness of communism, which in 1917 and 1918 had strong support, particularly in Latvia. The key difference between the fate of the Baltic German and Anglo-Irish landlords was that the former did not have the immensely wealthy British taxpayer willing and able to buy them out on generous terms. In Romania too, the immediate postwar years saw radical land reform with minimal compensation, designed once again to remove the threat of social revolution. In terms of Barrington Moore Jr.'s famous thesis about the agrarian origins of democracy, fascism, and communism, the Baltic and Romanian land reforms are of great interest. Though these reforms were successful in undermining mass support for social revolution, they did not guarantee lasting democracy. In Romania in particular populist politics moved to the nationalist right of the political spectrum, with anti-Semitism at its core.

In Italy and Spain the landed aristocracy survived, though in both cases it did so in alliance with right-wing authoritarian regimes. In the immediate aftermath of World War I the liberal regimes of both Spain and Italy collapsed. The landowning class in northern Italy played an important role in funding and protecting fascist bands in order to terrorize increasingly rebellious agrarian labor and to save themselves (so many believed) from Russian-style social revolution. The traditional Italian elites then lived in relatively comfortable cohabitation with the fascist regime for a generation, their confidence, status, and interests being boosted by the survival of the key political institutions of the prefascist era—namely the monarchy, royal army, and diplomatic corps on the one hand, and the Vatican on the other. Fascist Italy then played an important role in ensuring Franco's victory in the Spanish civil war (1936–1939) and thereby saving the estates of the Spanish aristocracy. By 1936 it was not unrealistic for the aristocracy of, in particular, Andalusia to believe that only military counterrevolution would save its lands from expropriation. Extreme class conflict in parts of the Spanish countryside was probably not the most important reason why Spanish democracy collapsed in the 1930s, but it was a significant contributory factor.


Ultimately, however, Europe's future and aristocracy's role within it would be decided mostly in the Continent's First World core. By 1914 the British aristocracy was much weaker than it had been in 1850. British agriculture, unprotected by tariffs, had suffered severely in the four prewar decades. The great majority of the population now lived in towns. Financial, industrial, and commercial wealth far outstripped the proceeds from agriculture. A mass socialist party had emerged by 1914, and the House of Lords had lost most of its power in 1911. The long-term trends that underlay these developments continued in the interwar years. Nevertheless the British aristocracy remained very significant in political, cultural, and social terms, and some of its members were still extremely wealthy. Victory in World War I enhanced the legitimacy of monarchy, political system, and aristocracy alike, not least because the British aristocracy's sacrifices in the war had earned it respect. The collapse of the global capitalist economy in the 1930s split the socialist movement and resulted in fourteen years of what was in essence Conservative rule (1931–1945). Though the three prime ministers of the 1930s were not aristocrats, many of their key ministers were. Most famously, Winston Churchill, a scion of one of England's greatest aristocratic families, led the country to victory in World War II.

Victory in the war ensured that the swansong of the British aristocracy continued for some time after 1945. Even in the 1960s the head of one of Scotland's leading aristocratic families could serve as Britain's prime minister. By the end of Margaret Thatcher's era (1979–1990), however, aristocrats were marginalized even in the Conservative Party. British mass culture, influenced by American values, had become much less deferential and more self-confident. Education at the elite Eton College had become a positive disadvantage in public life.

The fate of the German aristocracy was less happy. Defeat in World War I and the fall of the German monarchies weakened the prestige of traditional elites, institutions, and values. Except to some extent in territory annexed by Poland, the German aristocracy nevertheless preserved its estates. Moreover the Weimar regime was actually quite generous in the protection it offered to large-scale agriculture. The great suffering caused by the British wartime blockade had convinced many Germans that agricultural self-sufficiency might be more than just a cover for Junker selfishness. Moreover the German army and diplomatic service remained aristocratic havens. Nevertheless most of the German aristocracy despised the Weimar Republic and were not unhappy to see it replaced by the Nazis. Key members of the aristocratic political and military elite, led by Franz von Papen, were instrumental in bringing Adolf Hitler to power, believing that the perks of office would undermine the radicalism of the Nazis and that the latter would be controllable by Germany's traditional elites.

In Germany as in Italy it was only when the fascist regime was clearly losing the war that core elements in the traditional elite sought to overthrow it. The German conservatives, unlike in Italy, had no king through whom to remove the fascist leader, and many of them paid with their lives for the failure of the attempt to assassinate Hitler and assume power by coup d'état in 1944. There was symbolism in the fact that Hitler's would-be assassin was Count Claus von Stauffenberg, a member of the South German Catholic aristocracy. With few exceptions the Catholic, and above all Bavarian, aristocracy was not closely associated with fascism, unlike significant sections of the Protestant nobility. Nevertheless it is worth noting that many of the key figures in the July assassination plot came from the cream of the Prussian aristocracy and that their opposition to Hitler was deeply rooted in Christian ethics and dated back to his first moments in power. Though it is nonsense to see most of the Protestant German aristocracy as long-term enemies of Nazism, the aristocracy was certainly not more pro-Nazi than the professional middle class or indeed the mass electorate. Given contemporary ideology and the balance of political forces in early-twenty-first-century Germany, it is often convenient, however, to pretend otherwise.


World War II hugely weakened the German and European aristocracy. Everywhere in the Soviet bloc the aristocracy was expropriated. Because the core of German aristocratic power and wealth lay in the territories that fell to communism, this in itself reduced the significance of the traditional elites in German life, even though unlike in Japan the victorious Western Allies did not expropriate the aristocracy in their German occupation zones. In addition, however, all significant sections of West German society after 1945 were determined to make a clean break with the past and had an unconditional commitment to democratic values.

Whereas the great majority of East German aristocrats fled to noncommunist parts of Germany, many Polish and Hungarian aristocrats lived on in their countries, with some individuals playing notable roles in cultural life and even in post-1989 politics. Some property was restored to aristocratic families after 1989, though this amounted to relatively little; some of the most spectacular acts of restitution occurred in the Czech Republic.

Interestingly, the postcommunist Czech Republic was more generous to its Habsburg-era aristocracy than Germany was to the former landowning class of Prussia, Saxony, and Mecklenburg, the great majority of whom were excluded from the restitution of property. Though legal (and indeed Russian) obstacles to restitution were cited, the widespread belief that the eastern aristocracy had been historical enemies of democracy and supporters of fascism facilitated this decision.

By 2000 the aristocracy was of minimal importance in Europe, though some heads of great aristocratic families were still extremely wealthy, especially in Britain, and a disproportionate number of aristocrats could still be found in the higher reaches of some European diplomatic services. The European monarchs and their families had mostly escaped from the traditional aristocratic social circle and had become part of the international world of celebrities, alternately fawned on and hounded by the paparazzi and their readership. Thus the restoration of the Bourbons in 1975 did not much enhance the role of aristocracy in Spain. Even royalty was finding it increasingly hard to compete in the European public imagination with the heroes of the screen and the sports stadium.

See alsoAlfonso XIII; Bourgeoisie; Churchill, Winston; Diana, Princess of Wales; Franco, Francisco; Horthy, Miklós; Nicholas II; Working Class.


Cannadine, David. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. New Haven, Conn., 1990.

Cardoza, Anthony L. Aristocrats in Bourgeois Italy: The Piedmontese Nobility, 1861–1930. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Gibson, Ralph, and Martin Blinkhorn, eds. Landownership and Power in Modern Europe. London, 1991.

Lieven, Dominic. The Aristocracy in Europe, 1815–1914. Houndmills, U.K., 1992.

Malinowski, Stephan. Vom König zum Führer. Berlin, 2003.

Mayer, Arno J. The Persistence of the Old Regime. London, 1981.

Reif, Heinz. Adel im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Munich, 1999.

Dominic Lieven

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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


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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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


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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Social inequality was an accepted part of Renaissance society. Every European culture awarded special powers and privileges to the aristocracy, or nobility. However, societies had different ways of defining what it meant to be noble. The role of the aristocracy varied throughout Europe and changed over the course of the Renaissance.

Definitions of Aristocracy. The men and women of the Renaissance based their ideas about aristocracy on concepts inherited from the ancient world. In Greek philosophy, an aristocracy was a state or community ruled by the best men. Eventually, the term came to refer to the ruling class in such a society.

Societies used three different concepts to identify the "best" individuals. According to the political definition, aristocrats were those who held political power—usually the wealthiest members of society. The hereditary definition, by contrast, depended on birth. The idea behind this view was that great people passed on their qualities to their descendants. By the 1000s and 1100s, many cultures had developed a military definition. According to this view, a nobleman was a man who fought. This idea presented the aristocracy as one of three main segments of society, along with the clergy (those who prayed) and the commoners (those who worked).

All three definitions of aristocracy relied on the notion that some people were better than others. In other ways, however, the three definitions were quite different. The political and military visions allowed individuals to rise from one class to a higher one, while the hereditary view fixed a person's social class at birth. The hereditary and military models recognized the idea that poor people could be noble, but the political view usually defined nobles as wealthy.

These three contrasting views all remained powerful between the 1400s and 1600s. Europeans admired individuals who combined all three ideals—men from old families who fought in battles and governed. However, new ideas about nobility began to gain ground during the Renaissance. Humanists* such as Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus and English statesman Thomas More mocked ignorant and violent noblemen. They suggested that to be truly noble, people needed education. Aristocrats across Europe responded to this message. During the 1500s, they attended universities in large numbers. Learning became a requirement for high positions in society and government. This shift in values improved the position of aristocratic women. Women could not compete in battle, but they could interact with men on more equal terms in the field of learning.

Varying Roles. The aristocracy's role in society varied from region to region. Wars in Poland, Hungary, and Spain created a large class of noble warriors. About 10 percent of the people in these regions were members of the aristocracy. Although many of these nobles were poor, a few held vast estates. In France and central Germany, by contrast, nobles made up about 2 percent of the population in 1500 and perhaps as little as 1 percent by 1650.

The position of the nobility also differed between northern and southern areas of Europe. Aristocrats in the Mediterranean region, especially northern Italy, had close ties to urban life. The governments of many Italian city-states made nobles live in the cities as a way of controlling them. Italian aristocrats also tended to be involved in the business of the cities, such as trade and banking. In northern Europe, by contrast, most aristocrats lived on country estates and avoided any involvement with banking or trade. However, these differences faded during the 1400s and 1500s. Urban Italian aristocrats began building country houses, and nobles in England and France spent more time in the cities.

The 1300s and 1400s were a time of crisis for nobles throughout Europe. Many died in wars and in civil conflicts within nations. They also faced economic problems. Wars and the plague* kept Europe's population low between 1348 and 1500, making labor more costly and lowering the value of crops. Aristocratic income, which depended heavily on land, shrank. At the same time, Europe's lower classes grew more dissatisfied with aristocratic power and privilege. They began to question the nobility's value to society. A series of rebellions broke out among peasants in England, France, Germany, and Spain. The wave of discontent climaxed in the great Peasants' War of 1525, which involved hundreds of thousands of villagers in Germany.

Nobles' fortunes improved after 1500, as the population rose and the economy grew stronger. However, inflation had lowered the value of the rents that lords typically received from villagers. To profit from the growing economy, aristocrats took direct control of lands and forests. Some nobles managed their own farms, but most found ways to profit from other people's work. Nobles in England leased land to tenant farmers. In Italy and southern France, aristocrats drew huge incomes from sharecropping. In this arrangement, they allowed farmers to work their land in exchange for half or more of the harvest it produced. In eastern Europe, some nobles forced villagers to work the land without any form of pay.

Aristocracy and the State. The growing power of governments in western Europe helped to transform aristocracies after 1500. The most significant change was government's more active role in defining the nobility. In the past, social status had depended on informal understanding within a society. By 1600, a person required a formal letter from the government to be considered noble. Governments also established elaborate systems for ranking members of the aristocracy.

Governments also took steps to control the aristocracy in other ways. They stepped in to end the tradition of private wars between aristocratic families. Governments encouraged aristocrats to spend more time at court, under the eyes of their rulers. In addition, nobles faced new social competition from the growing ranks of state administrators. These government officials, who were often commoners or minor nobles, gained power and wealth during the 1500s.

Although aristocrats lost some independence, they gained other benefits. In many countries, nobles no longer had to pay taxes. In addition, many gained wealth through direct gifts from monarchs and high-paying government and military positions. By the end of the Renaissance, the aristocracy had survived social, economic, and political change and remained a central part of European society. In fact, many writers and artists of the 1600s focused on aristocrats as useful examples for all social classes.

(See alsoBiography and Autobiography; Chivalry; Court; Plague; Social Status. )

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* plague

highly contagious and often fatal disease that wiped out much of Europe's population in the mid-1300s and reappeared periodically over the next three centuries; also known as the Black Death

The Perils of Power

Being a Renaissance aristocrat was not always an advantage. Nearly half of all English dukes in the 1300s and 1400s died violent deaths. Many perished in the Wars of the Roses, a struggle for the English crown that lasted from 1455 to 1485. Civil wars elsewhere in Europe also made nobles' lives risky. Kings acted quickly against aristocrats whose loyalty they doubted, leading to more deaths and the complete disappearance of some noble families.

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The rule by a few by reason of their wealth, nobility, or virtue.

Early Concepts. For plato (c. 427347 b.c.) the perfect state was the aristocratic state. This ideal was given its best expression in the Republic: "Unless philosophers become kings, or those now called kings become philosophers, there will be no end of evils for mankind" (473). Plato describes a state in which social justice would be fully realized as embracing three classes of men: the king-philosophers, or the ruling class, who constitute the legislative and executive power; the soldiers or guardians of the state; and the workers. The rulers must be intensely trained to become true philosopher-kings and must be subjected to a rigid process of selection that will bring the best philosophic minds to the top. Rulers and soldiers must be supported by the state; they cannot hold private property or enjoy normal family life because these are incompatible with full devotion to their duties. This system is proposed as a "model fixed in the heavens for human imitations, but not attainment" (592). Aristotle (384322) attempted to describe the existent state. To discover an ideal state, he observed in the Politics, it is necessary to begin by examining both the best states of history and the best that the theorists have imagined. The best practical policy is aristocracy, the rule of the informed and capable few; this is nowhere described realistically, however.

St. thomas aquinas (c. 122574) also insisted that the state should be governed by the ablest. Right order among men demands naturally that the more intelligent should rule (C. gent. 3.81). Later St. Thomas more (14781535) revived Plato's conception in his Utopia, describing an imaginary communist state so governed as to secure universal happiness. The City of the Sun of Tommaso campanella (15681639) substituted wise priests to rule instead of philosophers. In the New Atlantis, Francis bacon (15611626) placed scientists at the head of the state.

Modern Forms. An imitation of an aristocracy might have been the appropriate political form under feudalism, in which ownership of land was accompanied by special duties of armed defense. In modern circumstances, aristocracy can be described as the dominance of a single, well-organized interest group over other community groupings. Perhaps the most obvious examples are the hereditary aristocracies that alternated in power with absolute monarchies in European history until the time of the French Revolution and even later. Also, merchant groups ruled many prosperous European states, such as Venice and the states of the Hanseatic League.

Plato's Republic has also been the source of inspiration for modern and contemporary theorists, such as Charles de montesquieu, G. W. F. hegel, J. F. renan, Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo emerson, Edmund burke, Friedrich nietzsche, and George santayana. These theorists generally claim that men have always been governed by aristocratic institutions; that political power has changed its shape but not its nature; that every people is governed by an elite, by a chosen element in the population; that aristocracies have been more favorable to literature, arts, and sciences; and, in a phrase that summarizes their theory, that all civilization is the work of aristocracies.

The managerial aristocracy of business corporations corresponds to the members of a mediocre state bureaucracy. It is an aristocracy of wealth. In 1933 President F. D. Roosevelt enlisted a so-called brain trust to cure national ills. Some theorists advocate an aristocracy of talent and the reconstruction of the federal and state system to arm the executive branch with great and immediate power. They find traditional democracy dangerously unworkable when faced by the challenge of the cold war. They fear collapse and defeat by default for the democratic Western world unless something along this line is attempted.

Democratic theorists, on the other hand, such as K. R. Popper or D. Spitz, deny the above allegations, and indict Plato and his followers as forerunners of modern totalitarianism. Plato's ideal state is not regarded as a means to an end, but becomes an end in itself. Such a view militates against sound philosophy and Christian belief. Plato held that each individual and family exists for the state; Christianity holds that each individual and family possesses certain natural rights that every government must respect and protect. Among these rights are the right to life and to a reasonable amount of liberty of movement, of self-assertion, and association.

Bibliography: r. h. crossman, Plato Today (London 1937). h. w. eldredge, The Second American Revolution (New York 1964). The Works of Plato, tr. b. jowett (New York 1936). d. grene, Man in His Pride (Chicago 1950). k. r. popper, The Open Society (Princeton 1963). b. f. skinner, Walden Two (New York 1948). d. spitz, Patterns of Anti-democratic Thought (New York 1949). j. wild, Plato's Theory of Man (Cambridge, Mass. 1946).

[a. j. osgniach]

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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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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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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 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.