In 19th century England, everyone's place in
society was precisely defined and those who could not recognize one's social
standing were looked down upon as ignorant. This masquerade of titles was
so prominent that lists of social rankings were published and often used
by women as references when throwing a gala event. A hostess back then
would be absolutely horrified if she improperly introduced her guests.
There were two orders of titled folk in England, the peerage and those below the peerage. The peerage, according to rank, included Dukes, marquesses, earls viscounts, and barons. Baronets and knights were considerably lower on the social scale and were not considered to be peers. Titles had to be awarded by the monarchy and were always passed on through heredity, generally to a couple's eldest son. If no male heir was produced, the title ceased to be passed on. If the heir died the title would pass on to his brother. A woman who married a man of the peerage acquired her husband's noble status in society. However, if a man beneath the peerage were to marry a woman of high rank, he would not be able to take on her title.
Although this sounds fierce, English society actually moved down the scale from Duke to labourer through minute and subtle steps. The English system was less of a "caste" system and more of a graduated staircase (that's not to say that it was any less important, it was just not as harsh as other aristocracies). To become English peerage, a person needed to amass a fortune, buy an estate that met the "requirements" of other peerage, and finally seek after the royalty to obtain a title. Although this sounds relatively easy, very few people actually achieved it - expecially within thier own generation. Usually, it took up to three generations for a family to obtain their goal.
Once someone obtained the rank of peerage, it was no longer necessary to follow the etiquette of society. General manners, such as punctuality, were neglected. In fact, the British peerage was best known for their individuality and eccentricity. This also meant that the British were mostly accepting of new ideas - what better to show their rank in society than to have a garden like no one else, or an entirely new type of architecture?
The British peerage was quite different from other
aristocracy. For example, the British peerage was more rural than other
countries - many spent more time in their country homes than in the cities.
Since they were more rural, agriculture became very important to them.
Not only the use of their land (although most British were more than happy
to exploit their own natural resources), but the look of the land as well.
Many landowners were in no hurry to change the layout of their land, but
very few actually objected to changes that their gardeners suggested. In
fact, many took an active interest in these changes, and even went so far
as to keep notebooks on the work being done.
Like other ruling classes, the peerage enjoyed showing off. Many took part in sport, or watching sporting events, such as racing, prize-fighting, hunting, and cricket. Also, the peerage took an active interest in the arts - mainly buying out theatre troupes, but some took to writing, painting, or acting themselves, to show off their "talents". In addition, open houses became a very big way to show off wealth. Much like open houses of today, the houses of peerage would be opened up to anyone who wished to view its greatness. However, the peerage themselves did not really benefit from this - rather, the servants did, but expecting and sometimes demanding tips from the visitors.
The British peerage had more
political power than any other aristocracy. Although they were not awarded
many legal priviliges, but instead recieved the power of governmental rule.
In the 19th century, most of the Parlaiment was made up of the peerage.
And though the Parlaiment sometimes became corrupted (the peerage sometimes
passed laws benefiting themselve), for the most part the government ran
well. But typically the peerage voted for the good of the people, even
voting for higher taxes on themselves, cutting back on their own power,
and revoking laws that had benefitted them the most. Even when England
was going through hard financial times, the peerage continued to vote for
the people, and not take advantage of the situation to better themselves.
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