Snakes and Ladders in the English ‘ruling classes’

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Snakes and Ladders in the English ‘ruling classes’

Archbishop Scrope came to a bad end /

Archbishop Scrope came to a bad end /

Before anything else the careful writer must define the phrase ‘ruling classes’. In these peculiar days of forced equality, where the American rule of political correctitude insists on the total exclusion of old-fashioned terms such as ‘the lower, middle and upper classes’, the term ‘ruling classes’ is not elitist. It defines the kind of people who tend to make a career out of ruling over others – politicians for instance. The present Prime Minister David Cameron comes from what always used to be defined as ‘the upper class’, but he would also be found in the category ‘ruling class’, as members of his family are and were accustomed to ‘rule’.

Having got that off the chest it is time to examine a bizarre case of reversal of rôle that roughly needed 600 years to take place. Today, the head of the great house of Grosvenor is the Duke of Westminster. He ascended to dukery young, married an American girl, built a hideous modern palace near Chester, leaving the family’s original house to fend for itself. It was his name that was used to christen Grosvenor Square, Place, Mews etc., in England’s capital. His ancester ‘Bendor’ rode to battle in the First World War in one of a fleet of armour-plated Rolls Royce motor cars. The present incumbent is not the premier Duke of Great Britain – that is the hereditary rôle of the Norfolks, who have been dukes the longest. But Westminster is very, very rich, with properties spread round the planet.

Now the head of the even more ancient, and equally Norman family of Scrope (pronounced ‘Scroop’) these days is a plain Mr., or perhaps a Major or a Colonel. There are two branches, the Scropes of Danby and the Scropes of Derby. In 1385, the position was reversed. Then, Sir Robert Grosvenor was a simple knight from Cheshire, whereas Lord Scrope was High Chancellor of England, a notable landowner, moving easily among the highest in the land. Then something happened: Sir Robert G. and Lord S. went up to Scotland, not for the grouse-shooting but to bash a few Scottish head with a mace. It was that time of year when the the flower of English chivalry journeyed up north to put down some Pictish rebellion or other.

Sir Robert and Lord Scrope met on this outlandish crusade, and started a terrible row because they found they both wore the same coat of arms! Both shields bore Azure a bend Or (a golden diagonal band on a blue background). This was unheard of, and Lord Scrope could hardly wait to get back to London to bring in the lawyers.

The celebrated case of Scrope versus Grosvenor carried on more or less continuously in the Court of Chivalry for five years. At the time, everybody who was anybody sided with the great Lord Scrope, praying that the obscure little northern knight Grosvenor would be properly put down. The Grosvenor faction (small and weak) claimed that a Grosvenor had been a Chief Justice. The Scropes trumped this by insisting they had been graundes gentilhommes es de noblez) since the Conquest by William the First – which was true.

Among those called the give evidence or bear witness in the Court were Geoffrey Chaucer, at that time England’s greatest poet, author of The Canterbury Tales; Harry Hotspur, the martial son of the Earl of Northumberland, later to be characterised in Shakespeare’s Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2) and Henry V ; and Henry of Bolingbroke, who would later become King Henry IV after usurping Richard II’s throne.

No-one talked about anything else for years, and there were only a few rebellions, treacheries, executions etc., for the case in court was more interesting. At last the Lord High Constable gave a judgement in favour of Scrope. Sir Robert Grosvenor instantly appealed to King Richard, who told him not to be silly, he had lost the case, and must now change his arms to a wheatsheaf. Those of our bloggers who have long memories will not have forgotten that The National Westminster Bank used the wheatsheaf as its logo for as long as the bank lasted.

The centuries passed, but the Grosvenors never forgot their lost gold band on a blue field. The Ist Duke of Westminster, by then fabulously rich, won the Derby in 1880 with a horse called Bend Or, and the jockey riding him was wearing gold and blue colours. The family decided there and then to give the nickname ‘Bend Or’ or ‘Bendor’ to the winner’s grandson. The name is now a Westminster tradition. But what of the Scropes? Well, they made a series of bad career moves, for example refusing to change their religion at the Reformation. This got them banned (as Roman Catholics) from all high offices or preferment. They lost their titles. They lost their houses and lands. The Head of the family is still Lord of the Manor of Danby, land which they inherited during the Wars of the Roses (qv) and which would be difficult to wrest from them.

The Scropes have hardly been humbled, as such. If you are a London hostess and you can produce a Scrope he or she will trump any old duke or marquess you have found, not because of rank or title or money, but simply because he or she is a Scrope. In Britain, just as in France or Spain or Italy, it is your surname that counts. Anyone can get a title, even a grand one, but the surname is worth more than heraldry. The Scropes, Berkeleys, Herberts and a small group of certain other names bear the weight of English history on their backs. They are now plain Misters and Misses. But they have played Snakes and Ladders since 1066, and lost.                            

By | 2011-10-14T16:56:18+00:00 October 14th, 2011|English History|0 Comments

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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