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Aristocrats

Power, Grace, and Decadence: Britain's Great Ruling Classes from 1066 to the Present

Lawrence James

St. Martin's Press

Aristocracy means “rule by the best.” For nine hundred years, the British aristocracy considered itself ideally qualified to rule others, make laws, and guide the nation. Its virtues lay in its collective wisdom, its attachment to chivalric codes, and its sense of public duty. It evolved from a medieval warrior caste into a self-assured and sophisticated elite, which made itself the champion of popular liberty: It forced King John to sign the Magna Carta and later used its power and wealth to depose a succession of tyrannical kings from Richard II to James II. Britain’s liberties and constitution were the result of aristocratic bloody-mindedness and courage.

Aristocrats traces the history of this remarkable supremacy. It is a story of civil wars, conquests, intrigue, chicanery, and extremes of selflessness and greed. The aristocracy survived and, in the age of the great house and the Grand Tour, governed the first industrial nation while a knot of noblemen ruled its growing empire. Under pressure from below, this political power was slowly relinquished and then shared. Yet democratic Britain retained its aristocracy: Churchill, himself the grandson of a duke, presided over a wartime cabinet that contained six hereditary peers.

Lawrence James illuminates the culture of this singular caste, shows how its infatuation with classical art has forged England’s heritage, how its love of sport has shaped the nation’s pastimes and values, and how its scandals have entertained its public.

Impeccably researched, balanced, and brilliantly told, Aristocrats is an enthralling story of survival, a stunning history of wealth, power, and influence.


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PART ONE
ASCENDANCY
1066–1603
1
A Game of Dice: The Growth of Aristocratic Power
The history of medieval England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland is of four embryonic polities engaged in a prolonged struggle to achieve order, stability and prosperity. It was a difficult, slow and frustrating task because political power was inseparable from military, and those who possessed it used it promiscuously. A king was the first warrior in the realm: he defended it from its external and internal enemies and was ready to uphold the laws he made by force. Immediately below him were a body
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Praise for Aristocrats

Praise for Aristocrats

“Erudite history . . . [James] has an aptitude for the literary flourish and caustic aside.” —Sunday Herald (UK)

“A detailed and enjoyable political history of the British aristocracy . . . packed with lively and interesting anecdotes.” —Alexander Waugh, Literary Review

 “Paints the nobility with all its warts. . . .  [James] has a gift for illustrating points with memorable examples and writing generally pithy prose.” —Financial Times

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Lawrence James

  • Lawrence James was born in Bath in 1943 and took degrees at York University and Merton College, Oxford. After a career as a schoolmaster at Merchant Taylors’ and Sedbergh schools, he became a full-time writer in 1985 and is the author of several books, including Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India, the highly acclaimed The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, and Warrior Race. He writes occasional pieces and reviews for various newspapers and is a contributor to the Dictionary of National Biography.

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    Aristocrats

    Power, Grace, and Decadence: Britain's Great Ruling Classes from 1066 to the Present

    Lawrence James

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    FROM THE PUBLISHER

    St. Martin's Press

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