Aristocrats: Power, Grace and Decadence – Britain’s Great Ruling Classes from 1066 to the Present

Written by Lawrence James
Review by Marina Oliver

This is a wide-ranging survey of the influence of the aristocracy, from 1066 to the present, on politics, the constitution, culture, sport, industry and transport. Up to 1603 the aristocrats are in the ascendancy, from then till 1815 in equilibrium, and afterwards, decline, as the various social and political reforms of the nineteenth century whittle away at their income and power to rule. Using their wealth and influence initially for their own aggrandisement and liberties, the aristocrats eventually provided liberties for the masses as well. With the current uncertainty about the future of the House of Lords, this decline of the former ruling class is a continuing process.

Inevitably, with such a broad canvas, there is selectivity in examples, but some of these, especially the lesser-known details, are fascinating. The author has strong opinions on some of the enigmas of history, with a rose-tinted view of the chivalry of crusader knights, and uncompromising condemnation of the motives of Richard III.

One minor editing quibble is a reference to Plate XX, when the plates are unnumbered and there is no list of them in the contents pages. This can be forgiven for the rest of the book, a good read by a knowledgeable author.