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Who were the aristocracy?

We hear a lot about Dukes, Earls, Viscounts etc in Regency Romances and even in the classics don’t we? This prolific use of aristocrats within the Regency genre can lead to a romanticised view of the aristocracy. With so many books crammed full of Dukes, Earls and Marquesses it’s easy to think they were all over the place back then.

Duke of Clarence - Aristocracy in the Regency - Philippa Jane Keyworth - Regency Romance Author

Duke of Clarence

Just as a fun little game, let me ask you, how many Dukes do you know right now this instant? (If you know one, then, seeing as we’re best friends and all that, do go ahead and introduce me the next time I’m around ;-) ) But being serious – how many members of the aristocracy do you mingle with on a daily basis?

If you are anything like me, that number will be approximately zero. I guess modern day has a lot in common with the Regency in that respect because if truth be told be told, the aristocrats did not make up most of Society, not even a large margin.

To fully understand the aristocracy, you have to go back to the beginning, right to when the aristocracy was first starting to be formed in England in the seventh century. It had already been created in some form by the ancient Greeks and Romans but it was not until the Germanic peoples invaded Britain that the idea of aristocracy too invaded our shores (though then it wasn’t called that of course).

Feudalism - Aristocracy in the Regency - Philippa Jane Keyworth - Regency Romance Author

Feudalism began the structure which would lead on to the Aristocracy – Photo by Philip Halling

The Saxons brought, along with their physical presence, their structure of life. Fading were the days of the farmer colonists and here were the Kings who would claim a divine right to rule. These Kings rose up and with them came their supporters who gradually created a new society based on feudalism (the practice of men owning large amounts of land with serfs to farm for them). Yes, an aristocracy was forming and that tier of society owed all it had to the King.

Where did the titles come from? They came from uprisings and wars after the Norman invasion. How could a King reward his subjects when they fought loyally for him against usurpers and other foreign invaders? Does a title and land sound about right? Land equalled money and a title lended power and certain rights to its holder.

William the Conquerer - Aristocracy in the Regency - Philippa Jane Keyworth - Regency Romance Writer

William the Conquerer sculpture at Canterbury Cathedral

So, fast forward just under 800 years and who were the aristocrats of the Regency? They were those who had been born into their titles and wealth. True, George was still handing out titles as Sir Arthur Wellesley’s elevation to the Duke of Wellington shows, however, the majority of the aristocracy had inherited their titles. With this in mind, it makes you realise that the aristocracy was not exactly going to have a growth spurt any time soon. The aristocracy would be kept to the few and the middle-class and lower classes to the many.

If you want to put a number on it, which I always like doing, there were 200 or so families with their heads holding an aristocratic title in the Regency. That’s 200 within millions.

 

It really makes you start to think about the use of aristocrats in novels (I’m talking about our beloved fictional ones).

Titles were avidly fought over in the marital mart because there simply weren’t enough to go around to everyone who wanted to gain one. Even more important was the fact that not all aristocrats during the Prince’s Regency were single, rich and between 25-30. Neither were they all rakes looking to be reformed.

Earl of Pembroke - Aristocracy in the Regency - Philippa Jane Keyworth - Regency Romance Author

George Herbert 11th Earl of Pembroke (1756-1827)

Although I love a story about a lovely, normal woman marrying a handsome and rich aristocrat I also like some realism in what I read or write. It makes me think about how I use aristocrats in my novels.

Do I really want to be writing today’s equivalent of, ‘Millionaire playboy falls in love with good-natured, normal woman.’ ?

Well, no because I don’t really write contemporary fiction, but it’s a very difficult decision to give up my aristocratic heros for the likes of a mere, ‘Mr’. Then again, was not Mr. Darcy just that? He was wealthy, handsome and powerful though he bore no title and I expect their were many like him.

This is all worth pondering over as I consider new story lines and something for the discerning reader to consider when they have dark and broody Dukes, Earls, Viscounts and Barons coming out their ears!

This aristocracy lark is definitely something I want to research more so bear with me while I learn :-)

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