Not very long ago Mr Blair and his henchmen decided that the Upper Chamber of Parliament, where matters of the day were discussed calmly instead of noisily and rudely, as in the Lower House, was obsolete, unnecessary, out-of-date and up for the chop. The House of Lords, as it was called, had benches packed with hereditary lords of every rank, plus many life peers (those who had earned a title but could not pass it on to heirs). The hereditary peers were, in ascending order of rank, barons, viscounts, earls, marquesses and dukes. Quite a lot of these were women, though only a few noble titles pass only in the female line. What they had in common was normally a good and ancient surname, and a tradition (how modernists hate this word) of involvement in politics, for good or bad. Some were sane and very serious; a few were insane but kept out of asylums, one assumes for the sake of the other inmates.
After the First and Second World Wars, Westminster politicians tried to wipe out the aristocracy using both ingenious and vulgar methods connected with property and cash. One PM said if a favourite Act of his was not passed by the Lords after acceptance in the Commons, he would ask a pliant King to make dozens of new peerages, virtually using a pin in the telephone book, to flood the House of Lords with his supporters, many of whom were working class leaders who strangely enough dearly loved a lord, and especially wanted to be one.
Mr Blair (who had been educated at the Scottish elitist school Fettes where he lived and ate with the sons of peers) went ahead with his plan, swept the hereditary peers out of the Lords, and replaced them with his followers. Might this have happened because Blair knew that a vast new generation of Dukes, Marquesses etc. were at that moment being schooled, and would soon inherit their father’s or uncles’ or cousin’s titles, and that they were a vigorous, disciplined (with one notable exception), courageous and proud lot worthy of being British lords. Blair did not like the idea of a huge collection of chaps and lassies who might have made excellent ‘marcher lords’ in the fourteenth century exercising power in the Lords. So he destroyed it. What is left of the Lords is now an international joke of the kind exchanged in lavatories.
But the fact remains that among our Dukes, Marquesses etc. are some thriving, energetic types who would not only have entered the lists in ‘the old days’ but have made damned good Prime Ministers too. Certainly better than Mr Blair, who, poor fellow, had a sort of ‘William Wallace’ figure like a monkey on his back throughout his administration, called Gordon Brown.
Take the present Duke of Northumberland for example; by the looks of him he is a true Percy, descendent of marcher lords, brilliant soldiers like Harry Hotspur, living in a pre-medieval castle like all his family since they first appeared through the mist. Ralph is the 12th Duke, and has the look of someone who could make a breakfast of today’s politicians, with both hands tied behind his back. But being a hereditary lord, he cannot sit with the lords, if you understand me.
The Percies did indeed come over with the Conquerer. They have lived in or around Alnwick Castle in Northumbria for the customary eight hundred years. What better way to publicise Alnwick, which is of course open to the public, than by allowing it be used for exterior and interior shooting in the Harry Potter film series of eight movies?
The Duke of Norfolk is Edward Fitzalan-Howard, 18th Duke since he inherited in 2002. Norfolks and Northumberlands have come a cropper throughout the history of Britain by not agreeing with monarchs. He is the Hereditary Lord High Marshal of Englandresponsible for protocol at coronations for instance. He is the Premier Duke in the kingdom. He is also, like all the dukes of Norfolk, the senior Roman Catholic of Britain, a kind of lay archbishop of Canterbury. He has no seat in the House of Lords because his title is hereditary. He lives in a castle called Arundel.
The Duke of Argyll is of course Scottish, head of the clan Campbell, and he is the 13th in the line. His home, Inverary Castle is one of Britain’s most historic homes.
The Duke of St. Albans, Murray Beauclerk, is the 14th, while the 19th Duke of Somerset in John Seymour (one of the best known and most significant surnames in English history; Henry VIII married a Seymour girl).
Gerald Grosvenor is the 6th Duke of Westminster and one of the richest men in the world, despite punitive taxation. John Spencer-Churchill is the 11th Duke of Marlborough and his home is still Blenheim Palace, a countryside monstrosity built by a grateful nation and Queen (and Sir John Vanbrugh who was also the architect of Castle Howard) for his ancestor John, who won battles everywhere but especially against the pesky French.
Andrew Russell is the 15th Duke of Bedford, whose home is called Woburn Abbey. He was born in 1962; his ancestor was a younger brother of Henry V, victor at Agincourt, but he has no seat in the House of Lords because his title is hereditary. His grandfather was one of those dukes who introduced the idea of opening his house and parks to the public and giving them something worthwhile to look at.
Berkeley Castle remains the most wrong but wromantic private homes in Britain because a King (Edward II) was murdered inside it, but the interesting thing is that it is owned by the Berkeleys (of course) but they are plain Mr and Mrs R.J. Berkeley, so there. It is one of the most enormously distinguished surnames in Britain but they are neither dukes nor marquesses. R.J. Berkeley must make do with a plain Esq.
Longleat is a magnificent palace in Wiltshire but the present Marquess of Bath is an odd fellow who was even odder at school, when he was called Weymouth. I cannot see him reforming the House of Lords, but he has a nice family who will carry on the traditions of the Marquesses of Bath, so who needs to worry?
Of course there are Earls and Viscounts and Barons a’plenty and most of them have lengthy family histories. Many still manage to live in their family homes, which they run themselves or with the munificent help of the National Trust. None of them can sit in the House of Lords. Nothing could better illustrate Great Britain’s current lunacy. (note: many of these photo/portraits were made by Allan Warren)