Nobility and Gentry
THE word “gentleman” is peculiarly English. In other languages it has counterparts, but not equivalents. Although its application has been widened even in England during the last century, the core of its meaning has not been changed. To this, rather, there have been made additions, as the suburbs have been added to old London; but the city is the city still. It is in the English of England only that the word has this inner steadfastness; for, as I have had occasion to say before, when writing upon another subject, in “America” this word is entirely without meaning unless we know the person who uses it; and generally, too, we must know the occasion of its use and the persons before whom it is spoken. A gentleman is properly a man of gentle, or genteel, birth and condition; and this sense remains fixed in the word in England, although it has there, besides, all the varieties of meaning and of use that it has in the United States. When the gentlemen of the county are spoken of, or the gentlemen of England, not every man is meant, nor even every respectable, educated, and decently behaving man. There is implied a certain condition in life, a certain social position, which may or may not be accompanied, but which generally is accompanied, by a certain degree of wealth. But an English gentleman in his completeness is much more than this, even if he is lord of thousands of acres upon which his forefathers have lived for centuries. Earl Dudley, writing to the Bishop of Llandaff in 1821, said of Mr. Stuart-Wortley (a political opponent) that on an occasion of much public importance he “ spoke as became a great English gentleman;” and the Emperor Nicholas said that to be an English gentleman was his highest ambition. Now the earl and the emperor had something much more in mind than the visible position of a man whose forefathers had been “spacious in the possession of dirt.” It was an idea of a man of independence, of probity, of a high sense of honor, of courage, of personal dignity, of good breeding, and of some knowledge of the world and of books. The ideal English gentleman adds all these to the position which is given him by his birth and his estate; and it is because it is acknowledged that, in theory at least, gentle birth in England, and the condition of life by which gentle birth is usually accompanied there, tend to foster all those fine qualities of manhood, and because they are expected of a man in that position, that the word gentleman has come to be, of all words that can be applied to a man, the most gracious and the most comprehensive of all that is admirable and lovable and of good report, and that it has come to mean something that is not always found under the coronets of earls or the crowns of emperors.
A complete English gentleman is thus one of a class composed of the most admirable and enviable men that can be found or imagined. It is not in human nature that the whole of a large class, or even the great majority of a large class, should be men of such completeness; but such is the model which the man aspiring and honestly striving to be an English gentleman has before his mind’s eye.
Besides this name and notion of the individual gentleman, there is in English, for the class or body of which he is one, a name, a word, which has neither counterpart nor equivalent in any other tongue, — gentry. This word means, first, the condition in life of a person gentle by birth and breeding; as when Mrs. Page says to Mrs. Ford, in regard to Falstaff’s love-making, “ And so thou shouldst not alter the article of thy gentry.” Next, and as now most commonly used, it means the whole body of those who are distinguished from people below them in rank by being of acknowledged gentle, or (to use again an old fashioned word) genteel, birth and condition, and from those above them by not being noble according to the English rating of nobility. For in England nobility is a dearer possession and is more charily bestowed than it is in other countries that have an established aristocracy. English literature is thorny with slighting allusions to French and Italian counts and German barons; and the sharpness is not the mere sprouting of prejudice or of arrogance. In England nobility means very much more than it does on the continent of Europe. Not that English nobility is more ancient, more, important in history, or more splendid in associations than the nobility of France, of Spain, of Italy, or of Germany. On the contrary, any one of the latter countries can show a roll of nobles who, in the antiquity of their titles, the grandeur of their positions, the importance of their actions, and the vastness of their possessions, far surpass the existing nobility of England, which, with few exceptions, is comparatively of recent origin and of minor historical dignity. The superiority of English nobility consists, first, in the fact of its limitation to peers of the realm, who have a seat and a voice in the House of Lords; and, next, in that this rank and position is, practically, always the accompaniment, the token, the splendid witness, of large landed possessions and correspondent political and social influence.
An English nobleman is a great landlord. The tillers of thousands of acres, the dwellers in half a dozen or a dozen of villages, occupy their land and their houses by his sufferance, — because they pay him rent. The exceptions to this rule are so few that they are of no significance. Macaulay and Disraeli are the two most eminent examples of comparatively landless men who have been ennobled in England. For Marlborough and Wellington great estates were bought. And as to Macaulay and Disraeli, it may be safely assumed that if they had had children, or expectation of children, they would not have been made peers. Peerage merely personal and not hereditary is scouted by the House of Lords; and an hereditary lordship without an income to support the dignity, and without landed property, is abhorrent to Englishmen, or, what is worse, ridiculous.
In the history of England, one fact is remarkable in regard to its social aspect: there has never been that hatred of the nobility by the common people which has been so often manifested in other countries, and which in other countries has been the cause of so much political disturbance. The common people of England have always been proud of the nobility; and they may even yet be said to be proud of them. The liberals, the very radicals, are opposed to nobility rather in a theoretical way. I did not hear a word among the lower classes and the lower middle classes of disrespect toward the nobility as a class, or of dislike of noblemen as nobles. It should be said, however, that I saw less of the lower middle class, that is, of small shopkeepers and of artisans, than of any other, — much less than I saw of the peasantry and of the corresponding classes in the towns. This is natural. A stranger, not in the condition of the former, is by force of circumstances thrown among the upper middle classes, and, if he happen to have acquaintances in it, among the aristocracy. Among the farmers and the peasantry he may go if he will; but dissimilarity of habits makes intercourse with the classes just above them constrained and without interest , and even access to them difficult. And these people, — the lower middle class,—notwithstanding their great numbers, are of the least importance in the organization of English society. They have no apparent influence upon it, and do not represent it in any way. This will be apparent from the consideration of the fact that they furnish neither private soldiers nor officers to the army, and, with very rare exceptions, no scholars to the universities, no members to the learned professions, and it need hardly be said, with exceptions of like rarity, no members to Parliament.
This lower middle class, however, shares with the lower classes — the lowest— a feeling toward the aristocracy which is the result of a peculiarity in the constitution of English nobility, — a peculiarity which is as old as England itself. The commoners of England have never been overridden by an army of nobles. In other countries all the sons of noblemen have been and are noblemen, and the land has swarmed with counts and barons, who assumed the bearing and had the privileges of nobles, who held themselves aloof from all intercourse with those of inferior birth, and disdained to give themselves to any useful occupation. It is not so in England, and, for centuries at least, it has not been so. There the son of a nobleman of the highest rank is a commoner before the law; and, except by courtesy, he has neither title nor privilege.1 He has the advantage of his connection, which is of course very great, and which gives him position and opportunities the value of which can hardly be overestimated, But before the law he is only a commoner, like a shopkeeper or an artisan; and any one of these may, if he will, enter upon the unequal contest with him for any of the good things of life, or even for its high places. And unequal as the contest is, men from the lower classes have risen, as we all know, to the highest places in the English social scale,— to the bench, to bishoprics, to the woolsack, to the peerage. It is the consciousness of this possibility, the consciousness of the limitation of nobility and its privileges, the consciousness of the established rights and recognized power of the Commons, which has kept the nobility of England so long in its eminent and (with allowance for the evils and the defects almost inevitably consequent upon an aristocracy) its admirable position. English landlords are generally respected, often liked, and not rarely loved by their tenantry. English noblemen are looked up to and treated with willing deference by all below them in rank, unless by their own conduct they forfeit, respect and deference. No Englishman hates them because they are noble.
Because, however, there are no nobles in England except the peers, the members of the House of Lords, it does not follow that there is no other aristocracy. An English gentleman — using the word in its proper English sense, already set forth—is noble. The gentry of England correspond to the petite noblesse of other countries which have an aristocratic society. Many an English gentleman, a mere commoner, whose forefathers have been commoners time out of mind, is tenfold a more important personage in every respect than hundreds of Continental counts and barons are. He has birth of which he is as honorably conscious, perhaps as proud, as any count or baron of them all; he bears arms which his forefathers have borne for centuries; and, more than all, he lives in the house, and is lord of the acres which have been in his family for generations. In the observation of English society, it must he constantly borne in mind that, although only peers are noblemen, the English gentry are a kind of nobility, and that in any other country having an aristocracy they, or at least the greater part of them, would be ranked as nobles. Mr. Stuart-Wortley, whom Lord Dudley wrote of as a great English gentleman, was soon afterward raised to the peerage as Lord Wharncliffe. By this he gained a step in rank; but he hardly gained in importance in Yorkshire, where his family had been seated as great English gentlemen for five centuries. He was rather made a peer because of that very importance, and because of his course in Parliament.
The present nobility of England, as I have before remarked, is not an old nobility. Very few English peers bear titles which have been in their own families more than three hundred years, This is through no fault of theirs; nor is it by reason of any incapacity of England to breed a grand and enduring nobility. But nobility is, after all that may be said, only a matter of hereditary landed wealth, and of the importance and the opportunities given by such hereditary wealth. Therefore, where inheritance fails, no less than where wealth fails, nobility, dependent upon the union of the two, is extinguished. The noble Norman possessors of England, and such Englishmen as they had gradually admitted to their order, killed each other in the Wars of the Roses. If they had been “ Americans,” and each party had regarded the other as “ Indians,” they could not have more thoroughly improved each other off the face of the earth. Consequently, the Tudor kings of England had to make an almost new nobility. But it was not until the second Tudor king, who was so afflicted with wives, took into the possession of the crown all the land of the abbeys and monasteries throughout the kingdom that the new royal family had on hand a good stock of the material for new noblemaking. It must be confessed that they were not allowed to be slack in the labor of their vocation. Would-be noblemen fell upon their monarch like robbers upon an unsinging traveler. Favorites, courtiers, soldiers, eminent lawyers, asked for land and for titles, for abbeys, for priories, for manors. They begged for them; they importuned, they intrigued, for them; they offered themselves souls and bodies in exchange for them. The lands and the houses most of them got, and many of them got the titles. Such a swarm of human harpies was never let loose upon a country as that which ravaged England from 1540 to 1600. It is to this rapacity, this gathering of the vultures over the carcass of the Roman church, that most of the oldest noble families in England owe their possessions and their peerages. Some of those highest in rank owe their coronets to the efforts made by that estimable monarch. Charles II., with the aid of Barbara Palmer, Louise de Querouaille, and Nell Gwynn, to increase the nobility of the kingdom. Those three ladies (the first two were made duchesses, respectively, of Cleveland and of Portsmouth) did their best to prevent the race of dukes from dying out in England; and verily their representatives have done likewise unto this day,
Many more modern noble houses owe their rank to the needs of Sir Robert Walpole and other ministers for votes in the House of Lords. Many peerages were bought, outright, from James I. and his successors. Nor has the fashion of getting them by some such influence entirely gone out, it would seem, even in the present day, Baron Stockmar tells of an application to him by a man eminent in the literary world (could it have been Bulwer ?), who offered him a very large sum of money if he would support his petition to be made a peer. The baron gave the application such a reception as it deserved. A man in his position in the court of Henry VIII, Edward IV., Mary, James I., or the earlier Georges would have taken the bribe, and perhaps have obtained the title. Clarendon, who recorded what he knew, tells us that even poor Charles I. in the extremity of his distress, and Charles II. when in exile during the Commonwealth, were tormented by importunities for titles. It is not thus that the untutored mind imagines the growth of an old nobility. But it is thus that the greater part of what is called the old nobility of England came into being. To this rule there are some admirable and many respectable exceptions, to specify which would be both superfluous and invidious.
Admitting, however, that the origin of few — comparatively few — noble houses in England could be remembered by an honorable man with pleasure, does it follow that the English nobility is to be regarded and estimated from the point of its origin ? I think not. The ancestors of most of these noblemen got their lands and their lordships in the manner which was the fashion of their day. The matter would not be at all bettered if the old Norman nobility had survived. In the eleventh century the fashion of getting lands and lordships was by conquest; in plain words, by forcible robbery. Then the great man was the strong man. In the condition of society at that time, it was inevitable that the strong should take and keep; Dugdale 2 quotes from the record of an old trial, or examination, in which a certain baron of Norman descent, is asked by what title he holds a certain manor. Whereupon produxit in curiam gladium suum antiquum el evaginatum, etc.,—he produced in court, unsheathed, his ancient sword, —and said that this was his title; that his ancestors had come to England to conquer it for themselves and for their children, and that they had conquered it, and that their children meant to keep what their fathers had taken. Plain speaking, but the simple truth. These men got their manors, in virtue of which they were summoned to Parliament as barons, by seizing them violently, slaying or driving out their old owners, and holding the land by force of arms. Those of some hundreds of years later got theirs by the arts of courtiers, by favoritism, by importunity, by intrigue, or as soldiers, or as lawyers, in reward for services which would not bo thought very admirable by Englishmen of to-day, or even perhaps tolerable, unless they were performed in India or in Africa.
Some of those of a century or so later got theirs because some half dozen women bore illegitimate children to a king of England: those of yet another century because they served the ends of an unscrupulous prime minister. But, however this may be, it happened long ago; and the present fact to be considered is that their descendants are in possession — legal possession — of the lands and the titles. This being the case, they must be regarded, and they will be regarded, as to their estates and their rank, just as if they had bought the one with money, and won the other from a grateful king and people by an exhibition of all the ennobling virtues in the service of their country . As to personal character and conduct, it is they, not their forefathers, who must be judged by the standards of to-day. What does it matter to an anxious mother that the man proposing for her daughter is descended from a pretty actress? It is not unlikely that among his married ancestresses there were women far less estimable than she in every way; and the present fact is that he has forty or fifty thousand acres, and is a duke, and that he is just as likely to be a decent man and a good and loving husband as if all his foremothers had been she-dragons of chastity. Of what, moment is it to his friends, his political associates, his tenantry, how his ancestor got his title and his lands two hundred or three hundred years ago, or what were the personal traits of that ancestor’s character? Hardly more than whether his ancestor was tall or short, or whether his lady-mother’s nose was snub or aquiline. He has full possession of his rank and his estates, and it is not his ancestor or ancestress whose personal character concerns us, and who is to be tried by our moral standards. If we are to go into the origin of titles to possession which are centuries old, we shall oust more than half the peoples and governments of Europe and America. A consideration of these facts may modify the views of some who seem to think of nobility as if it were born full-grown out of the chaos of the dark ages, and of others who regard every nobleman as a robber and an oppressor, because he did not buy his estate at an auction.
The relative degrees of rank in the English nobility, and the position of the members of noble families and of commoners who bear titles, are so frequently misapprehended by people in general, and even misrepresented by accomplished writers, that I shall venture to set them forth succinctly, even at the risk of seeming to offer needless instruction to many of my readers.
The various ranks of noblemen now in England are, beginning at the lowest, baron, viscount, earl, marquess,and duke. Every peer is a baron, and every baron is a peer. The House of Lords is. and has always been, an assemblage of the barons of England. A baron being in the old feudal sense of the word a man who is lord of certain manors, and who, upon the summons of his sovereign, must take the field at the head of a body of retainers, the title is a generic one for noblemen of all ranks. Thus Magna Charta was extorted from King John by certain barons ; but they were the most important and powerful noblemen in the kingdom. A man summoned to Parliament by writ was summoned as baron of a certain lordship in land which gave him his title, or one of his titles; and a man who in modern days is raised to the peerage is made a baron, whatever other and higher rank may be bestowed upon him. But the title baron is never used in England in addressing a peer. On the Continent it is used in speech and in writing; and barons are baroned from morning till night by every person who addresses them. In England the word used is simply “ lord; ” and this is applied to all peers below the rank of duke, except in formal addresses or other documents, or " in print,” when there is some reason for particular distinction.
The next step in nobility is to the rank of viscount, which, however, is not an old title in English nobility, and, like marquess, is not regarded us particularly English. A nobleman raised from the rank of baron to that of viscount still retains his baronage. Thus if a gentleman were raised to the peerage as Baron Stratford, he would be called Lord Stratford; and if he were afterwards made Viscount Avon, he would be called Lord Avon, but he would still be Baron Stratford as well as Viscount Avon. This adhesion of the inferior titles (except in certain cases of limitation by patent) continues as the nobleman rises, if he should rise, to the highest rank; and it our supposed example were made Earl of Coventry, then Marquess of Coventry, and finally Duke of Warwickshire, he would be baron, viscount, earl, and marquess, as well as duke; and he might also be a baronet; and all his titles would be mentioned in an account of his rank in the peerage.
Earl is the oldest of English titles, and of all titles is the most thoroughly English. There are barons, viscounts, marquesses, and dukes in other countries, but earls only in England. I am sure that I cannot be alone in finding a peculiar charm and attractiveness in the position and title of an English earl. He has the rank which was once the highest in the land, and which is still high enough to be of great distinction, while it is not one which must be kept up with a great deal of splendor, and his title is one peculiar to his country. I know that if I were an English earl I should not receive with any great thankfulness an offer to make my wife into a “ female markis,” especially if my earldom were one around which was a cluster of pleasant historical associations; for example, the earldom of Warwick, or that of Derby.
Marquess, which means lord of the marches (that is. borders), is a title unknown in England before 1385. The first English marquess, Robert Vere, bad an Irish title, Marquess of Dublin, which was bestowed upon him by Parliament at the pleasure of Richard II. It was rarely bestowed afterwards, until the last century. Its chief advantage seems to be that if affords the crown, or the crown’s advisers, a degree of nobility to which they may raise an earl without making him a duke. Dukes are intended to be very rare birds indeed. To be raised to a dukedom, a man must be enormously rich, and have, very great connections. A marquess, although next him in rank, may be a long way behind him in these respects.
Duke, the title of the highest rank next to that of the princes of the blood royal, is the third in antiquity in England as a title of honor and dignity. As the name of an office, dux, it was used in very remote times all over Europe; but the first English duke was Edward the Black Prince, whom his father made Duke of Cornwall; whence the oldest son born to the reigning monarch is born Duke of Cornwall, but not Prince of Wales, the latter title being afterward conferred upon him.
A duke is the only English noble who is usually addressed by his title. It is proper, in addressing him at the beginning of a conversation, or after a break in it, to say, for example, “ Duke, will you be kind enough ? ” etc.; at other times, it is almost needless to say, he is addressed as “your grace,” in the use of which title much want of discretion and self-respect may be shown. But no other nobleman is commonly addressed by his title, as marquess, earl, or viscount. All from baron to duke are addressed simply as “ my lord; ” and in the use of “your lordship,” although it is legitimate, there is a peril similar to that in the use of “ your grace.”
This phrase, “vour grace,” is called tin! style of a duke, who is formally addressed on letters and otherwise as His Grace, the Duke of, etc. The style of a marquis is the Most Noble; that of earls, viscounts, and barons, the Right Honorable. But, except in the case of a duke, who is supposed to be a very awful and inapproachable person, friends, in writing to each other, usually omit these styles, and address the marquess or earl of —, or, more generally, use simply Lord.
This is an end of nobility, except that nobility which comes of office, as in the case of bishops, the lord chancellor, and certain judges, which, except in the case of the lord chancellor, is not nobility at all. All other titles are merely what are called courtesy titles borne by commoners, or titles of knighthood, the bearers of which are also commoners. The son of a duke, a marquess, or an earl bears the second title of his father, by the courtesy of the crown. A duke, as I have already remarked, is also an earl, a viscount, and a baron, and generally, but not always, a marquess; a marquess is also an earl and a viscount and a baron, and so on. The eldest son of a duke bears, therefore, as his courtesy title, that of his father’s marqnessate or earldom. For example, the Marquess of Hartington is a commoner, just like John Smith; and he is a member of the House of Commons, which he would not be if he were really a marquess. But by courtesy he is called by the second title of his father, the Duke of Devonshire. But the Duke of Norfolk’s eldest son is not by courtesy a marquess, but an earl,—Earl of Surrey; because the dukedom of Norfolk is older than the day when the fashion of making English marquesses came into vogue, and his second title is Earl of Surrey, which he would not have made marquess for any sum of money that could be offered him. The younger sons of dukes and marquesses (although of course commoners) are called Lord, and their daughters Lady. Thus the eminent statesman who for forty years and more was known to all the world as Lord John Russell was only a commoner, and would have been described in a legal document as the Honorable John Russell, commonly called Lord John Russell. His “ lordship ” came to him only by courtesy, because he was a younger son of the Duke of Bedford. He was made a peer in his own right, as Earl Russell.
It should be mentioned, however, that there may be and have been lords in the House of Commons who are noblemen, bearing their titles not by courtesy, but by inheritance or patent. These are Scotch or Irish peers. To sit in the House of Lords, a peer must be a peer of Great Britain, or of the realm, as it is called, unless he is elected as a representative peer from Scotland or Ireland.
All English peers are peers of Great Britain ; but Scotch and Irish peers are not so, unless in addition to their Scotch and Irish peerages they have an English peerage. Thus, the Duke of Argyll, a Scotch peer, sits in the Mouse of Lords as Baron Sundridge and Hamilton in the peerage of Great Britain, and the Marquess of Drogheda, an Irish peer, as Baron Moore of Moore Park, Kent. Lord Palmerston was an instance of a nobleman’s being in the House of Commons. He was third Viscount Palmerston in the peerage of Ireland ; but he was not only English (he was of the family of Sir William Temple), but the most English of Englishmen. He was elected member for the Isle of Wight in 1807, and sat in the House of Commons for nearly fifty years, during which time he was twice prime minister. He was one of the most powerful of British subjects: he made peers of Great Britain, and bishops and archbishops; but he himself never rose in rank, or even became a peer of the realm, but passed his political life in the House of Commons.
The presence of a Christian name after the title Lord is in itself evidence that the bearer of the title is not a nobleman, not a peer, and also that, he is a younger son of a duke or a marquess. And so also Lady Marys and Lady Sarahs are not peeresses, but the daughters of earls, marquesses, and dukes. For the sons and daughters of viscounts and barons bear no courtesy title, but are styled Honorable. This title Honorable. which is made ridiculous in the United States by its bestowal upon every man who fills, or has ever filled, one of our million public offices, however petty, is little used in England, except as a token of noble descent; and it pertains, as I have remarked, as well to women as to men, which is also true of Right Honorable in case of peeresses or the daughters of dukes and marquesses. This is shown by an old poetical satire, The Metamorphosis of the Town, 1731, upon the fancy costumes worn then on the Mall: —
With high crowned hats, long aprons, too,
Good, pretty girls, I vow and swear;
But wherefore do they hide their ware ?
Ware ? what d' ye mean ? What is't you tell ?
Why ! don't they eggs and butter sell ?
Alas, no y' are mistaken quite.
She on the left hand, dressed in white,
Is Lady C—, her spouse, a knight;
But for the other lovely three
They all Right Honourables be.”
This Lady C—, although she was my Lady, was a commoner, and the wife of a commoner. A knight baronet, or a simple knight, who may be an alderman, a painter, or a musician, is called Sir, and his wife is called Lady, just as any peeress is, under the rank of a duchess. Baronets are peculiar to England. They are commoners; and yet they have an hereditary title. The title was originally sold by James I., who invented it for the purpose of raising money by its sale to quell a rebellion in Ulster; whence all baronets bear the red band of Ulster in their shields of arms.
Knighthood is not hereditary; because it is always conferred upon the bearer for services or qualities personal to himself. It was originally a very great honor, and one which noblemen did not always bear, but, bearing, always greatly prized. The Black Prince himself, the heir apparent to the throne, did not “win his spurs,” the token of knighthood, until the battle of Cressy.3 If conferred upon the field of battle, knighthood was a great distinction, and gave its bearer precedence before other knights not so created. But gradually it sank in estimation, because of the reasons for which it was bestowed. In Shakespeare’s time it was given “ on carpet consideration,” and from that time it became more and more common, until now it is the lowest and least regarded of all tokens of social distinction. It has, however, one remnant of its original value: it belongs to the person, and must be won. But one of the acknowledged gentry of England would not receive with pleasure a proposal that he should be knighted, except, indeed, in the form of being made, for conspicuous merit in the public service, a Knight Commander of the Bath; for that a simple gentleman should be made a Knight of the Garter is quite inconceivable. The garter is reserved for noblemen of high rank; and during the last century and a half if has been worn by many dull and sordid and even base creatures, who had no claim to it but large possessions and great parliamentary influence.
Baronetcy, however, and even simple knighthood are prized for one reason,— precedence. There is in precedence a fascination which even the sturdy manliness of the so-called Anglo-Saxon mind seems unable to escape. To have the right — a right recognized on all formal occasions — to take place before some one else is one of the most highly-prized privileges of rank. It cannot be regarded as a magnanimous ambition; and to see how much this is thought of tends greatly to diminish respect for an aristocratic organization of society. The disputes in regard to it which are recorded here and there in history; the bitter heartburnings about the right to certain seats or places in court; the painful consideration of the grave question as to whether a royal or a princely personage is to take two steps forward or three in receiving a certain guest, or in what exact order some half a dozen others are to be placed at table, or which of two ambassadors is to be received first, and with what ceremonies, and so forth, and so forth, seem to be the mere magnification of frivolity and fiddle-faddle. Courtesy is the flower of good-breeding, the rich, fine bloom upon the fruit of the highest culture ; but between courtesy and etiquette the difference is so great that they have really nothing in common. Courtesy is perennial, immortal; but etiquette is but the artificial manufacture of social pedantry, and changes not only from generation to generation, but sometimes from one year to another. The etiquette of precedence in England is a puzzling and intricate subject , which is in the hands of heralds and masters of ceremonies. It is regulated with an elaborate minuteness which is ridiculous, I am sure, eveu to many of those in whose favor it is established.
That the royal family should have precedence of all others; that dukes should have precedence of marquesses, marquesses of earls, and so forth; and that a line should be drawn somewhere, from below which people cannot go to court, seems sensible and right in an aristocratically constituted society. But when members of the same family are broken up into classes of precedency, and separated, and we are told that the eldest sons of dukes take precedence of earls, while the younger sons of dukes (all the sons being commoners, it should be remembered) come after earls and the eldest sons of marquesses; and when we find a specific place assigned to the eldest sons of the younger sons of peers, and another much lower to their brothers, the younger sons of the younger sons of peers, we must feel a little pity for grown men who are pleased at walking about in such filigree go-carts.
The complication resulting from this minute dissection and distribution of precedence has its liveliest illustration in the case of the female members of noble families, who generally take this matter of precedence most to heart. Thus, all the daughters of a peer have the rank of their eldest brother during the Life-time of their father. All the daughters of a duke, therefore, rank as marchionesses ; and this rank they retain, unless they are married to peers, in which case of course they take rank as peeresses. But if some of them should thus become countesses, viscountesses, or baronesses, and one of them should marry a commoner, whether a baronet or a coachman, she, as a duke’s daughter, would still rank as a marchioness, and, although a commoner, take precedence of her peeress sisters. Her marriage to a commoner does not lower her in the scale of precedence, or raise him. Tittlebat Titmouse thought that when he married the Lady Cecilia he would be Lord something or other ; but he found that it, was not so; and other Titmice have been similarly disappointed. And can we forget “ The Countess of Warwick and Mr. Addison ” ?
Precedence in England extends even into the servants’ hall and the kitchen. This is manifested every morning. At family prayers all the house servants attend, just as they used to do here in families in which that domestic discipline was kept up. A row of chairs is placed for them in the breakfast-room, and they enter and take their seats. The head of the house reads prayers and the lesson of the day, or some other part of the Bible. I observed that the servants in each house always entered in the same order, the housekeeper marching at the head of the line, and taking the seat farthest from the door. And it was, I am sorry to say, rather funny to see some dozen or more of them pound solemnly in and plump stolidly down upon their seats. After prayers are over, they of course rise and go out,. But I saw that they did not go out in reverse order, the one nearest the door going out first, as would have been natural and convenient. They rose, stood in a line, and then the housekeeper went out first, followed by the servant next her; and thus the line doubled upon itself, the file thus telling itself off, so that the one who entered the room last left it last. The order of entering and leaving was the same. On speaking of this. I was told with smiles that precedence was strictly observed among them ; that in the servants’ hall the housekeeper took the head of the table, the butler the foot, and that the servants, upper and under, had places strictly assigned to them according to the dignity of their positions. What is the order of their sitting or of their going the lord of precedence only knows; but I suppose that the my lady’s maid sits on the right hand of the butler, and my lord’s own man on that of the housekeeper. At dinner they sit together at the common table down to cheese; and the upper servants only rise and go in state to dessert iu the housekeeper’s room. The upper servants are those who have servants under them; an upper servant never wears livery. When visitors at a great house bring servants with them, the guests in the servants’ hall are formally assigned places strictly according to the rank of their master or mistress. I learned also that servants do call each other by the titles of their masters and mistresses, and that this incident of “high life below stairs” is no fiction. A nobleman told me, with much enjoyment of the joke, that when he was going about, a young heir expectant, and by courtesy Viscount —, he often heard the servants at the country-seats of his friends address his valet by his own title. He also heard something which he found much “ jollier ”: —
There was a certain lady, a dowager peeress, no longer young, but rather youngish, who had an own man, a confidential servant, who was her factotum. One day my friend heard some of his own servants call out to this man by his mistress’s title, and ask him to go somewhere or do something with them; to which he replied with a languid air, “ Oh, I can’t. I’ve got to take my old woman into the city to look after the stock-market. You know the old girl likes that sort of thing.” He intimated with much glee that if Lady —, who was very airy and coquettish, had heard the words “ old woman ” and “ old girl ” she would have taken measures to have that man speedily poisoned. He told the story with so much mischief in his eye that I wonder that he refrained from telling it to the lady herself; but that would have been inhospitable and unkind; and that he should be either unkind or inhospitable it is quite impossible to believe.
This same gentleman also once unconsciously illustrated to me one trait of English aristocracy which is in many respects admirable, — independence of the opinion of others. He is of a family eminent for ability as well as for rank. When he was in Yew York, some twelve years ago, I had the pleasure of knowing him well, and one day I took him to see Miss Hosmer’s statue of Zenobia. After we had looked at it for a while in silence, he turned to me, and quietly said. “ Who was Zenobia? I don’t know.” Another nobleman of the same rank passing a day or two at my house, I had occasion to tell him that he would do well to change his drawers for a thicker pair. “ Drawers! ” he replied, “I never wear them;” at which. I was somewhat Surprised; but he continued, “People tell me that it’s not a nice habit not to wear drawers; but I can’t see that it is n’t nice; and as I don’t like them, I don’t wear them.” Although I could not sympathize with my guest in his taste, I could not but like his independence of Mrs. Grundy. But what matter is it to a man who is an earl and a deputy-lieutenant of his county, with two seats, a town-house, two or three livings, and the control of a seat in Parliament, if Mrs. Grundy does whisper arid sniff! He can afford to set her and her cackling at naught. The immunity of such a position has, on the other hand, its evil tendencies with evil men; but it leads, on the whole, to independence of personal character, which is an English trait.
Outside the circle, hardly below the rank, of the recognized gentry of England is the large, respectable, and allpowerful body known as the upper middle class. Of this there is of course a considerable number who are members of the various professions ; but the greater number are merchants or manufacturers, or are connected with trade in some way. Those of them whom I had the pleasure of meeting did not in any way justify the pictures of them that we find in plays and novels, which, according to my observation, are not truthful representations of a class, but caricatures of individuals. I found these gentlemen, as a class, so intelligent and so well informed that I should hesitate in placing the merchants of New York, or even of Boston, as a class, in comparison with them. Many of them live in great luxury and with a splendid display; but very many who have wealth live, although in the height of comfort and elegance, more modestly, as, in their opinion, becomes their station. One of these, who lived in a cluster of spacious, elegant villas, with fair grounds about them, said to me, as we strolled past a very large house, “ Mr.—has offended the taste of his neighbors. He has built himself entirely too great a house for a man who does n’t keep horses. A gentleman in England is a man who has horses and hothouses.” Now he himself had neither horses nor hot-houses, although he could well afford to have both; his plate bore a crest to which his right was undoubted, and he was a man of importance in an important place; besides which, he was certainly one of the best read and most thoughtful men I ever met, and a man of sterling character and high selfrespect. But, being all this, he yet recognized with content his well-defined place in society. This cheerful recognition of place, even by those who areinferior, seemed to me remarkable. I spoke one day to a peeress of high rank in regard to what I had heard from some of her friends of the feeling of some members of the royal family about the marriage of the Princess Louise. “ To be sure,” was her reply, “ how could it be otherwise? I suppose they feel very much as we should feel if one of our own rank should marry an upper servant.” And this of the heir of Mac Allum More, whose rank and family had been far above hers for centuries! It illustrated the same point that one day a peer replied to his wife, who said that a certain estate that was for sale would hardly find a buyer at the price asked for it, “ Oh, my dear, you may be sure that the price will be paid by some opulent shopkeeper.” If my host had brought out his coronet and set it solemnly on his head, he could not have more impressively asserted his rank; and the succession of ops in the last words of his reply seemed to give him great pleasure. They lingered upon his lips, and were uttered with unction.
Briefly, although the government of Great Britain is practically republican, and although the complaint there is that year by year their institutions are becoming more and more “ Americanized,” rank and precedence are still the coveted prizes and the paramount influences of English society.
Richard Grant White.
- The accomplished author of that very clever and delicate caricature, An International Episode, has, in a moment of forgetfulness, erred on this point. Lord Lambeth, although as the eldest son of a duke he was by courtesy a marquis, was really a commoner ; and, being neither a peer nor a member of the House of Commons, he was not a legislator at all, hereditary or otherwise. His reply to his fair Yankee captivator’s question as to his speaking in the House of Lords should have been that he had no right even to enter that house, except as a stranger.↩
- Or perhaps Camden, It is twenty years since I read the passage, and I have not the book now, or time to go to the Actor Library. I am quite sure as to the passage, and it makes little difference whether the authority is Camden or Dugdale.↩
- I have found so many intelligent persons in error upon the point that I am sure I shall be pardoned for mentioning that Edward of Woodstock was a fair, blue-eyed man, with light hair. It was his armor that was black.↩