The Big House in Four Nations – new directions for the study of landed and aristocratic elites?

The Big House in Four Nations – new directions for the study of landed and aristocratic elites?

This week, Dr Annie Tindley (Newcastle University) examines how a four nations approach can be employed to study landed and aristocratic elites.

Although somewhat out of fashion after a burst of interest in the 1980s and 1990s, writing on Britain’s and Ireland’s landed elites – their politics, culture, territorial power, patronage and consumption – at first glance appears relatively established across a four nations perspective. After all, David Cannadine’s Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, still the set text for the field, admirably covers the English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish landed classes in its analysis, as does the work of other important historians in the field, such as F. M. L. Thompson, albeit somewhat dominated by the English perspective.[i]

However, how much of this work is fully transnational or comparative in ways which allow historians to make linkages or highlight crucial differences in experience? Due to the challengingly large and often neglected nature of the archives of landed estates and families, historians (myself included) often take a case study approach, examining one estate or family in great detail. Even where families owned land transnationally, as many did, comparative approaches have been lacking – perhaps particularly in judging the relative nature of the decline and fall of the aristocratic and landed classes so persuasively argued for by Cannadine. This is an obvious lost opportunity, as many historians in the field have already recognised. It is doubly ironic when we remember that many of these families were themselves transnational – owning land and estates, developing interests through industry, investment, marriage or politics across national (and regional), boundaries. Indeed, historians might spread the analysis further still, by incorporating the imperial and global dimensions; we might talk of an imperial aristocracy, rather than a ‘British’ one, as recent work on British peers in the American West, Anglo-American aristocratic marriages, and the concept of an ‘imperial aristocracy’, extending its traditional purpose as a service aristocracy into the empire, attempts to do. The possibilities are endless, and must be fruitful in re-framing the field of country house studies, as well as histories of landed elites and their estates. For the purposes of brevity, I would suggest the four nations perspective might be applied in three new directions: the dynastic, the legislative and the imperial.

Hamilton Palace.jpg

Hamilton Palace

Firstly, the dynastic: both the ownership and management of landed estates in Britain and Ireland was (and is) a fundamentally dynastic operation. The owners of estates, as members of a powerful and durable – into the early twentieth century, at least – social and economic elite, passed on their wealth and power via their bloodlines, bolstered by legal, economic and social conventions supporting the sacrosanct principles of property and contract. Taken together, they constituted a coherent class with shared values, education, outlook and sense of both responsibility and privilege. Questions about the nature of estate governance and management and their hierarchies can, therefore, usefully be asked via these dynastic estate, family and management structures.

Secondly, the comparative legislative histories of landed families and estates in different parts of Britain and Ireland, and within the wider imperial context, might be explored across the four nations. Firstly, via the agitation for land law reform seen across Britain and the empire in and beyond the late nineteenth century and secondly, the evolving political and economic philosophies which underwrote reform (and resistance to it), including the work of Malthus, John Stuart Mill and Henry George. Landowners, as the often interchangeable ruling classes, were faced both with insurrection on their estates and demands for constitutional reform both domestically and from the empire.

Taymouth old photo.jpg

Taymouth Castle

Lastly, as the two foregoing approaches have already indicated, the imperial interrelations between estates could be developed much further, and the relationship between estates in each of the four nations and the empire untangled, reconstituted and analysed comparatively. Experience and perception of the empire will be very different on a shooting estate in the north of Scotland than wheat-dominated agricultural estate in the Home Counties.

Taken together, these approaches can help us think imaginatively about how landed elites and their estates influenced, were influenced by, and engaged with their home regions, nations and the imperial and global context. Their outlook was fundamentally framed by the four nations and beyond, and it is time for historians to explore this rich seam of possibility.

[i]D. Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990); F. M. L. Thompson, English Landed Society in the nineteenth century (1963).

Image credits:

Dr Annie Tindley is a Senior Lecturer in modern British History at Newcastle University. She completed her MA (2001), MSc by Research (2002) and PhD (2006) in Scottish history at the University of Edinburgh, her research focusing on modern rural Scottish history, with a particular focus on landed estates and aristocratic families. After a short spell at the University of Aberdeen as a temporary lecturer in early 2006, she worked from 2006-13 at Glasgow Caledonian University as Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer, the University of Dundee from 2013-16 and joined Newcastle University in September 2016. Her particular research interests revolve around the interrogation of the aristocratic and landed classes, landed estates and their management from the mid-eighteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, in the Scottish, Irish, British and imperial contexts. She is interested in the ways in which landed elites defined and translated their power – territorial, political, social, financial – across their estates, the domestic political world of Westminster, and into the imperial context as governors and legislators.


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