‘Their Noble Lordships’ by Simon Winchester

1981, 305 p.

I am of an age and political bent that makes me fairly dismissive of aristocracy and I bridle at deference demanded on the basis of birth or wealth alone.  On the other hand, I must admit a sneaking fascination, tinged with horrified incredulity, at lifestyles and attitudes that seem so foreign to me and yet part of the cultural baggage that comes from growing up in a Commonwealth country.  Since I have started my thesis, I have often been frustrated by the impermanence of the titles by which a person was known:  Viscounts turn into Earls, not just Viscount Bill to Earl Bill but Viscount Bill to Earl Ben.  Meanwhile family names (surnames to the rest of us) coexist with titles, so that one person can move through an array of names and titles within one lifetime. Conversely one title can, within a few decades, be held by several people.

This is one of Simon Winchester’s early works, published in 1981 but actually written in 1976 when he was still a journalist and travel writer.  The hiatus between manuscript and publication is interesting: the book was held up because of threats of legal action against the author by some of the peers he interviewed.   It finally emerged, it would seem, with the legal assistance of the “redoubtable scholar of Scots peerage lore”, the splendidly named Sir Iain Moncrieffe of that Ilk (yes, that’s his whole name), whom Winchester thanks in his preface.  He also thanks Hugh Mongomery-Massingberd of Burke’s Peerage as well, but he did not return the favour.  In a review of the revised and finally released book  in the Times, 28 Jan 1982, Mongomery-Massingberd responded to Winchester, “a drippingly wet liberal” by writing:

Apart from the cuts imposed by the lawyers, one wonders how much real revision has been undertaken by the author; the book is frequently out of date.  The learned Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk has clearly had a hand in the overhaul; many of the pithy footnotes can be confidently attributed to this colourful scholar…To be fair to Mr Winchester this second attempt is an improvement on his first- as far as I can recall the “suppressed” version contained about one mistake a page, this time the average is nearer one to every two-and-a-half pages.  As he has regaled us with so many meaningless statistics I offer these by way of exchange: from a total of some 259 pages of actual text (as opposed to absurd maps, corny or pointless epigraphs etc) I counted very nearly 100 errors ranging from really whopping howlers to mere misspellings of names. This is surely unacceptable for any book with even half a claim to be taken seriously.

While I certainly didn’t take the umbrage that Hugh Mongomery-Massingberd (where DID that ‘t’ in Montgomery go?), I do agree with the dated feel to the book, but probably not for the same reasons.  I raised an eyebrow at the designation of the Labour party as the “Socialist Party” complete with capital S.    What about Thatcher? What about Lady Di? I asked.  But, on closer investigation, I have become muddled over dates and chronology.  He does mention Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but she had not, when he wrote the book, yet created the last three hereditary peers (Viscount Whitelaw (Wille Whitelaw) created in 1990, Viscount Tonypandy (Thomas- a Labour Party politician)created  in 1983 and the Earl of Stockton(Harold Macmillan)  in 1984).  Lady Diana Spencer, whose royal descent brought the peerage into full view only became engaged and married to Prince Charles in 1981.  So it was not so much that Winchester’s work was dated, as that these events had not yet occurred.

Winchester goes through the five ranks of the peerage, from highest to lowest.  For this, I am grateful.  I have now devised my own mnemonic, using the names of my children, to keep them straight in my own mind: Dean and Martine Eat Victoria Bitter.  (Duke, Marquis, Earl, Viscount Baron).  Yes, I know that it doesn’t make sense.  Yes, I know I could have them “enjoying” Victoria Bitter, or eating “Vita Brits”.  I like it the way it is:  it works for me, and that’s all that matters.

Dukes are the highest, and at the time of writing this book there were only twenty-five surviving, not including the three Dukes of the Blood Royal or the Duke of Edinburgh.  Fewer than 500 men have been Dukes in the last six and a half centuries they have existed.  They are called “Your Grace”, not “My Lord”, and the monarch calls them “Our right trusty and right entirely beloved cousin”.

Then come the Marquesses, which has always struck me as a rather effeminate name.  Its origin is the Latin marchio, referring to the Continental counts who guarded the “marches”, the borders with neighbouring countries.  Apparently it’s not a particularly well-received honour, and often the Earls who follow them in precedence are wealthier. There were thirty-seven when the book was written, with the last created in 1936.  Many Viceroys of India were awarded the honour.

The Earls are the backbone of the British peerage system, with Lord Lucan one of the more notorious twentieth century ones.  At the time of writing there were 173 non-Irish Earls and Countesses dotted around the country. They are often of Old English or Scots county stock, distinguished heroes, or ex-Prime Ministers.

They are followed by the Viscounts- 110 of them in 1981.  They are a recently revived rank, with more than a hundred created in the twentieth century.  Here there can be detected the rewards for mercantilism, with the captains of industry often being awarded the title.  Few are landowners to any great degree,  but they do not lack money.

The Barons are the broad base of the pyramid, with 438 men and women in 1981.  Hereditary barons are no longer created : since 1958 with the Life Peerages Act, they are now life peers.   The bulk of the baronage is of twentieth-century origin, with many war heroes being awarded the honour after WWII, and industrial figures, civil servants, judges, politicians, scientists, writers and artists being recognized  with the title.

The Irish Peers,  left out in the cold, are awarded their own chapter.

The book has a chatty, journalistic tone as the author travels around the countryside, conducting interviews with various worthies.  There are direct quotes, and quite a bit of paraphrasing but it is reported without much rigour in a strictly historical sense.  There is a reading list, organized alphabetically by title (rather than author), and although David Cannadine is quoted as the one academic text, the title of his work is not included in the reference list.  Each chapter begins with a map, showing the distribution of the title under discussion, but I found my lack of knowledge of British geography rather limiting here- a label or two wouldn’t have gone astray.

Near the end of the book he tries, without success, to establish the land holdings of the nobility. Interestingly enough, it was a very difficult endeavour with few firm official figures available- intentionally so.  It is obviously a question that powerful people did not want answered, at least in the 1980s.  His conclusion?

On Spaceship Earth, ennoblement by reason of fortuitous birth has no place: the British nobility, decent a body of men and women as well they may be, have outlived their usefulness, and must go quietly, out by the back door. (p. 305)

And it seems, by the House of Lords Act of 1999, that certainly things have changed since the book was written, and no doubt will change even further.

This book is not academic and seems to have sunk without a trace- Simon Winchester’s own webpage certainly underplays it.  I think that perhaps it was a book of its time, written largely for a home audience, and surpassed by his later work.

One response to “‘Their Noble Lordships’ by Simon Winchester

  1. By the sound of it, it would be a bit of an embarrassment LOL

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