Social Victorians/British Aristocracy

Thinking about the Victorian and Edwardian British AristocracyEdit

for 21st-century AmericansEdit

The Strata of the Aristocracy and Upper ClassesEdit

  1. Royals
  2. Peers (People Who Hold Hereditary Titles)
    1. Duke and Duchess
    2. Marquess and Marchioness
    3. Earl and Countess
    4. Viscount and Vicountess
    5. Baron and Baroness
  3. Landed Gentry
    1. Baronet and Baronetess (even though not peerage, this title is aristocratic)
    2. Knights (an honor rather than an aristocratic title)
    3. Gentleman
  4. Squirearchy

Rules of PrecedenceEdit

In official processions that included the monarch, who walked in front of or behind whom (or even facing which direction when walking) was very important and clearly spelled out. Generally speaking, the ranks followed each other, but because the Rules of Precedence also take into account, say, the children of peers who don't have their own titles, they are also quite intricate. People typically were treated according to their highest title.

Also, these rules were used to determine the sequence people would form for less formal occasions, like going in to dinner. Newspaper accounts of social events hosted by the Queen or Prince and Princess of Wales followed the rules of precedence for categories of people but not for individuals. That is, dukes would be listed after royals, including royalty from other countries, but within that category people would be generally alphabetized. The alternative would have been for the reporters and editors to have worked out the placement of every single individual present or invited.

In his What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist — the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England, Daniel Poole says,

There were two orders of titled folk in England. Dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons (who ranked in that order) were known as the peerage. Considerably below them on the social scale and not peers came the baronets and knights, easily recognizable because they were always addressed as "Sir." Together with the Bishops and the Archbishops of the Church of England, the peers composed the House of Lords, and, indeed, a reference to a "lord" almost always meant a peer or one of his children. (Poole 1993 35)


  • Lady
  • Lord
  • Countess: the wife of an earl had the title Countess.
  • Honourable or Hon.: the children of earls, viscounts?, and barons had the title of "honourable."

The SeasonEdit

The social "season" for the English aristocracy, when they were in London and away from their country estates, was May, June and July. Irish aristocrats, on the other hand, went to Dublin "from Christmas to St. Patrick's Day on March 17, but evening parties started with fox hunting in November" (Leslie 97).

The Big Changes in the 19th CenturyEdit


1867 Reform Act: extended the franchise


In the late 1870s the aristocracy consisted of 7,000 families, or "the 431 hereditary members of the House of Lords" (Spencer).

The collapse of the economic basis of the aristocracy began with an "agricultural depression"Edit

In the late 1870s in the UK

<quote>80 percent of the country’s acreage was owned by 7,000 families, principally those of the 431 hereditary members of the House of Lords—the dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons of the United Kingdom. Beginning in the 1880s, the export of grain from the Americas, followed by the arrival in Europe of refrigerated meat, halved agricultural income in Britain. What had been the lifeblood of the great estates for hundreds of years was cut off suddenly, and unexpectedly, with devastating effect, in both the short and the long term: agricultural rents were the same in 1936 as they had been in 1800.</quote> (Spencer)

American heiresses were admitted to the Prince of Wales's circle and the Marlborough House Set, bringing big quantities of capital to the beleaguered PeerageEdit

<quote>Consuelo Vanderbilt was contracted to bring a $2.5 million ($66 million today) dowry when she reluctantly married the Ninth Duke of Marlborough. In 1895, nine American heiresses married titled British men. Three years prior to that, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had noted the trend, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: “One by one the management of the noble houses of Great Britain is passing into the hands of our fair cousins from across the Atlantic,” he wrote. Between 1870 and the First World War, 100 — 1 in 10 — aristocratic marriages were contracted with Americans.</quote> (Spencer)


1885 Reform Act: extended the franchise further

Caveats and QuirksEdit

  1. Courtesy titles exist, even for high-ranking titles like earl, which were granted to the children of the highest-ranking title in place; for example, the Duke of Percy is a courtesy title for the eldest son and heir presumptive of the Duke of Northumberland, and the Earl of Dalkeith is a courtesy title for the Duke of Buccleuch.
  2. "Life peers" were introduced as a way to get more people into the House of Lords who might vote for Home Rule for Ireland.

The PeopleEdit

In the order of the list from the Duchess of Devonshire's fancy-dress ball, but it needs to be in the order of precedence.

  1. Duke of York (Prince George of Wales in 1897)
  2. Duchess of York (Mary of Teck 1893–1910)
  3. Hereditary Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha ( Alfred of Edinburgh)
  4. Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein
  5. Princess Helena Augusta Victoria, or Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein
  6. Princess Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein ( Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein)
  7. The Grand Duke Michael of Russia
  8. The Duchess of Connaught and Strathearn ( Princess Louise Margaret Alexandra Victoria Agnes of Prussia)
  9. Francis, Duke of Teck
  10. Mary Adelaide (Wilhelmina Elizabeth) of Cambridge, Duchess of Teck
  11. Prince Alexander of Teck
  12. Prince Francis of Teck
  13. The Duke of Fife
  14. Princess Victor of Hohenlohe Langenburg
  15. Countess Helena Gleichen
  16. ...

Peerages OnlineEdit


  • Blake, Robert. "Never Has So Few Owned So Much." The New York Times Archives (4 November 1990). Review of Cannadine.
  • Cannadine, David. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. New York: Yale University Press, 1990.
  • Cracroft's Peerage: The Complete Guide to the British Peerage & Baronetage. accessed December 2016).
  • Debrett's Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage, and Companionage. Ed., Robert H. Mair. Royal Edition. London: Dean, 1884. Rpt. Google Books (accessed April 2015).
  • Kelly's Handbook to the Upper Ten Thousand for 1879, Containing about Twenty Thousand Names of the Titled, Landed & Official Classes. Fifth Annual Edition. London: Kelly and Co., 1879: 276. Google Books: (accessed December 2016).
  • Leslie, Anita. The Marlborough House Set. New York: Doubleday, 1973. Print.
  • Lodge, Edmund. "Galloway, Earl of. Collatoral Branches." The Peerage and Baronetage of the British Empire as at Present Existing. 59th ed. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1890: pp. 266–67.
  • Miller, G. M. BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
  • "Peerages by Courtesy." Debrett's. (Accessed March 2015).
  • Poole, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist — the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England. New York: Touchstone, 1993.
  • Spencer, Charles. "Perfect Manors: Enemies of the Estate." Vanity Fair (January 2010).
  • Thom, Adam Bissett, compiler. The Upper Ten Thousand: A Biographical Handbook of All the Titled... The Upper Ten Thousand: An Alphabetical List of All Members of Noble Families, Bishops, Privy Councillors, Judges, Baronets, Members of the House of Commons, Lords-Lieutenant, Governors of Colonies, Knights and Companions of Orders, Deans and Archdeacons, and the Superior Offices of the Army and Navy, with Their Official Descriptions and Addresses. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1875. Internet Archive.
  • Thompson, F. M. L. English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century. 1963.
  • Walford, Edward. The Windsor Peerage for 1893 (Fourth Year). London: Chatto & Windus, 1893. Google Books (accessed December 2016)