It seemed like such a kind offer. They were going to the same house party a hundred miles or so north of London. The girl—seventeen years old, blonde—didn’t own a car. He—a decade older, boisterous, full of charm, heir to a title—did. So they set off that summer’s day in the early seventies, he at the wheel and she at his side. They were far from London when he turned off the main road onto a small lane. The girl, unaware of the peepholes drilled through to his female lodgers’ bedrooms at his house in Chelsea, knew that their route involved no such detour but said nothing. They stopped. A lunge, the car door flung open, skittering heels hopelessly fighting for traction on tarmac, and his heavier, surer footsteps behind. When he had finished, he said: “You made me do it…sitting there…you’re too pretty…you made me.”
Researching a book about 20th-century “black sheep” aristocrats inevitably yields lurid details. The assailant appears in its pages but not as a primary character, since he eluded public disgrace. He did not invest his inheritance in essentials such as helicopters, heroin, and handcuffs—some of the recreational tools favored by John Hervey, AKA 7th Marquess of Bristol (1954-99). John’s precocious alcoholism led him in adolescence to hide bottles of crème de menthe in water-closet cisterns. Hervey’s family seat, Ickworth, was described by its creator’s wife as “a stupendous monument of folly” whose 200-yard frontage is pierced by a 104-foot-tall rotunda.
John’s father, Victor, 6th Marquess of Bristol (1915-1985), arguably handled his liquor better, decaying gently in Monte Carlo where he initiated his days by proclaiming “God Save the Queen” and swigging vodka from the bottle. Victor had the edge in raw recidivism, being sentenced to three years’ penal servitude in 1939 and later successfully defrauding the Finnish Ministry of Defence.
Father and son are two among the many aristocrats who floundered and failed in the first democratic century. Mowbray Howard, 6th Earl of Effingham, fatally ran down a pedestrian, went bankrupt, and married a suspected KGB agent. The British Secret Service assessed him as “a weakling…fond of drink.” By the 1960s, such traits had commended him to the gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray, who retained him as their London gaming club’s director.
Sir Anthony de Hoghton, 13th baronet, established his reputation at Oxford by urinating in letterboxes, throwing soup in waiters’ faces, and composing poetry deemed blasphemous. (“God is in his garage, cranking up his Bentley.”) He perished in 1978, aged 58, having spent his declining years as a “fat and grizzled tramp.”
By the late 1990s, another viscount had retreated to a basement flat, a sewer of congealed food, unwashed crockery, greasy furniture, and airless rooms. Accompanied by an English male and a female New Yorker, he adhered to a limited but dedicated routine—smoking crack cocaine, and then more. A black butler was entrusted with facilitating re-supply.
Though the British aristocracy doesn’t have a monopoly on depravity or an innately greater propensity to addiction, it offers almost limitless evidence of dysfunction, whether manifested by alcoholism, drug abuse, wife-beating, or sexual delinquency. In his novel I Want it Now, Kingsley Amis partly decrypted why:
They’re worse, not because they’re worse by nature, but because of their opportunities for power without responsibility.…If you’re rich, you can afford to abandon reason, justice and good manners whenever you feel like it.
With the aristocracy, riches were fused to status and an almost ineradicable sense of entitlement. Until 1876—barely a moment ago in terms of mankind’s plod toward civilization—two-thirds of the British Isles was owned by 11,000 people (or 7,500, according to another estimate). The tenants who farmed that land paid rents that had been rising continuously since 1800. The rewards were stupendous: The 9th Duke of Bedford, for instance, enjoyed an annual income of about $300 million in today’s money. The aristocracy dominated governments, Liberal and Conservative alike. Yet a generation later, this ruling class had become, as the 11th Duke of Devonshire (1920-2004) put it, a “spent force.”
A nice little technological innovation killed it off: refrigeration. From about 1875, newfangled refrigerated ships imported American grain and New World meat into Britain in good condition. Import prices undercut the produce being taken to market by the aristocracy’s tenant farmers, who, in consequence, couldn’t—or wouldn’t—pay their rents.
Aristocratic incomes plunged. Many, blithely presuming that rents could only rise, were mortgaged to the hilt. In the subsequent scramble to survive, they developed a keen appetite for wives with undiminished fortunes, often American ones—the solution favored by the fictional Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey.
Ruling classes are, however, usually adroit at looking after themselves, even at the moment of their defenestration. Successive governments—Liberal and Conservative—accordingly passed a series of Land Acts which made huge amounts of taxpayers’ money available to tenant farmers, enabling them to buy the land they farmed. Millions of acres changed hands. Aristocrats’ immediate financial fears abated, but with their status massively and very publicly diminished.
In the century or so since then, many have learned to define themselves by their accomplishments. The policeman in charge of the Royal Protection Squad likes to be known as Peter Loughborough, though he is the 7th Earl of Rosslyn, great-grandson of the twice-bankrupted 5th Earl. It is a happy bonus that the family estates, though much reduced, still include Rosslyn Chapel of Da Vinci Code renown.
Many other aristocrats, however, most closely resemble recipients of what the British ineptly describe as state “benefits”—determined to inoculate themselves against reality via alcoholic or narcotic release, unable to accept responsibility for their actions: “You made me do it.” The only difference is that they’re locked onto a trust-fund teat rather than a welfarist one.
Splendour & Squalor: The Disgrace and Disintegration of Three Aristocratic Dynasties by Marcus Scriven is published by Atlantic Books.
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