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

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Aristocracy means "rule by the best." For nine hundred years, the British aristocracy considered itself ideally qualified to rule others, make laws, and guide the nation. Its virtues lay in its collective wisdom, its attachment to chivalric codes, and its sense of public duty. It evolved from a medieval warrior caste into a self-assured and sophisticated elite, which made Aristocracy means "rule by the best." For nine hundred years, the British aristocracy considered itself ideally qualified to rule others, make laws, and guide the nation. Its virtues lay in its collective wisdom, its attachment to chivalric codes, and its sense of public duty. It evolved from a medieval warrior caste into a self-assured and sophisticated elite, which made itself the champion of popular liberty: It forced King John to sign the Magna Carta and later used its power and wealth to depose a succession of tyrannical kings from Richard II to James II. Britain's liberties and constitution were the result of aristocratic bloody-mindedness and courage. "Aristocrats" traces the history of this remarkable supremacy. It is a story of civil wars, conquests, intrigue, chicanery, and extremes of selflessness and greed. The aristocracy survived and, in the age of the great house and the Grand Tour, governed the first industrial nation while a knot of noblemen ruled its growing empire. Under pressure from below, this political power was slowly relinquished and then shared. Yet democratic Britain retained its aristocracy: Churchill, himself the grandson of a duke, presided over a wartime cabinet that contained six hereditary peers. Lawrence James illuminates the culture of this singular caste, shows how its infatuation with classical art has forged England's heritage, how its love of sport has shaped the nation's pastimes and values, and how its scandals have entertained its public. Impeccably researched, balanced, and brilliantly told, "Aristocrats" is an enthralling story of survival, a stunning history of wealth, power, and influence.


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Aristocracy means "rule by the best." For nine hundred years, the British aristocracy considered itself ideally qualified to rule others, make laws, and guide the nation. Its virtues lay in its collective wisdom, its attachment to chivalric codes, and its sense of public duty. It evolved from a medieval warrior caste into a self-assured and sophisticated elite, which made Aristocracy means "rule by the best." For nine hundred years, the British aristocracy considered itself ideally qualified to rule others, make laws, and guide the nation. Its virtues lay in its collective wisdom, its attachment to chivalric codes, and its sense of public duty. It evolved from a medieval warrior caste into a self-assured and sophisticated elite, which made itself the champion of popular liberty: It forced King John to sign the Magna Carta and later used its power and wealth to depose a succession of tyrannical kings from Richard II to James II. Britain's liberties and constitution were the result of aristocratic bloody-mindedness and courage. "Aristocrats" traces the history of this remarkable supremacy. It is a story of civil wars, conquests, intrigue, chicanery, and extremes of selflessness and greed. The aristocracy survived and, in the age of the great house and the Grand Tour, governed the first industrial nation while a knot of noblemen ruled its growing empire. Under pressure from below, this political power was slowly relinquished and then shared. Yet democratic Britain retained its aristocracy: Churchill, himself the grandson of a duke, presided over a wartime cabinet that contained six hereditary peers. Lawrence James illuminates the culture of this singular caste, shows how its infatuation with classical art has forged England's heritage, how its love of sport has shaped the nation's pastimes and values, and how its scandals have entertained its public. Impeccably researched, balanced, and brilliantly told, "Aristocrats" is an enthralling story of survival, a stunning history of wealth, power, and influence.

30 review for Aristocrats: Power, Grace, and Decadence: Britain's Great Ruling Classes from 1066 to the Present

  1. 5 out of 5

    Bryan Alkire

    Ok history. The subject was interesting enough. The organization was reasonable, a mix of political and cultural history chapters within the rise, supremacy and decline of the aristocrats. The writing is ok. It’s neither tedious or enthralling. The content, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. The first 2/3 of the book is just too lightweight. There’s no sense of the beginning of the aristocracy other than to say it came from Normandy or any focus on the culture thereof. The political history is ra Ok history. The subject was interesting enough. The organization was reasonable, a mix of political and cultural history chapters within the rise, supremacy and decline of the aristocrats. The writing is ok. It’s neither tedious or enthralling. The content, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. The first 2/3 of the book is just too lightweight. There’s no sense of the beginning of the aristocracy other than to say it came from Normandy or any focus on the culture thereof. The political history is rather dull, just the usual revolts and rebellions against the monarchy or church. Nothing new here. The last third of the book was more interesting since I’m not as familiar with British history between say 1783 and 1914.Even this light short book filled in some of that timeframe for me beyond the basic timeline of events. I ended up enjoying the focus on that ear as opposed to the early and modern sections of the book. So, I give this a 3. It’s interesting in parts and isn’t bad by any means, but it’s light on early aristocracy and the origins thereof and really, just lacks depth.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    The book assumes a lot of basic/intermediate knowledge of British history making it difficult to fully comprehend without outside study-- particularly during the discussion 18th and 19th centuries. I enjoyed most the beginning where the origins of the aristocracy were discussed and the end of the book where he follows the changing role of the house of lords during the 20th century.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Albert

    I don't feel like James told me anything really new although he pulled together some ideas well. Most people, I think, see historical social change in England as moving power from the King/Queen and the aristocracy to the people. But, as James shows, it mostly devolved from the royals to the aristocracy (he demonstrates, for instance, that many of the members of the Commons were actually the second sons of the aristocracy). The aristocracy saw itself, for the most part, as being a bulwark agains I don't feel like James told me anything really new although he pulled together some ideas well. Most people, I think, see historical social change in England as moving power from the King/Queen and the aristocracy to the people. But, as James shows, it mostly devolved from the royals to the aristocracy (he demonstrates, for instance, that many of the members of the Commons were actually the second sons of the aristocracy). The aristocracy saw itself, for the most part, as being a bulwark against royal tyranny and the protector of the rights of the common person. An aristocrat was (they proposed) not beholden to anyone and so independent thinking. It didn't always play out that way but many saw that as the ideal. This is not so dissimilar to things in the early United States--many thought that only the wealthy had the independence and the freedom of thought to make good decisions for the many.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Theresa

    This is a good book for delineating the rise and fall of British aristocracy but it is a wee bit dry. Lots of dates and names and monarchies are thrown at you so it is difficult to keep things straight without advance knowledge of British history. It also focusses almost entirely on the male aristocracy and their drive for power. More social history and decadence would have made this a better book. Still, the recent downfall of the British aristocracy was interesting and makes one wonder who the This is a good book for delineating the rise and fall of British aristocracy but it is a wee bit dry. Lots of dates and names and monarchies are thrown at you so it is difficult to keep things straight without advance knowledge of British history. It also focusses almost entirely on the male aristocracy and their drive for power. More social history and decadence would have made this a better book. Still, the recent downfall of the British aristocracy was interesting and makes one wonder who the current power brokers are since they are less easily identified without as they likely lack a title.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Lynn

    This book contains the best one-sentence summary of Scottish history I've ever read: 'Argyll prevailed, as his family usually did'. Beyond that, and one short chapter on the Celtic societies of early Ireland and Scotland, the Scottish aristocracy is barely touched on, and a better subtitle would have been "England's Great Ruling Classes. . . ." That said, in light of the time period he was trying to cover, the author really couldn't have covered all three countries' history without writing an en This book contains the best one-sentence summary of Scottish history I've ever read: 'Argyll prevailed, as his family usually did'. Beyond that, and one short chapter on the Celtic societies of early Ireland and Scotland, the Scottish aristocracy is barely touched on, and a better subtitle would have been "England's Great Ruling Classes. . . ." That said, in light of the time period he was trying to cover, the author really couldn't have covered all three countries' history without writing an encyclopaedia. A good overview in an easy-to-read style.

  6. 5 out of 5

    judy

    This book is so dry it crackles but that's the fault of the subject not the author. James laboriously traced the evolution of British aristocracy from 1066 to the present. He didn't resort to anecdotes about eccentric Earls, Dukes and whatever but focused on their roles in society. I had had as much as I could take by 1642 (think Revolution/Restoration era) so I jumped ahead to 1815. Doing it that way made it interesting and, amazingly, made me see the value of the House of Lords. This book is so dry it crackles but that's the fault of the subject not the author. James laboriously traced the evolution of British aristocracy from 1066 to the present. He didn't resort to anecdotes about eccentric Earls, Dukes and whatever but focused on their roles in society. I had had as much as I could take by 1642 (think Revolution/Restoration era) so I jumped ahead to 1815. Doing it that way made it interesting and, amazingly, made me see the value of the House of Lords.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Helen Carolan

    I was hoping this would be a book that would look at certain aristocratic families down through the centuries but instead we got a potted history of great Britain from the medieval period with the odd mention of an aristocrat. Not a very interesting read.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Cindy

    [Aristocrats: Power, Grace, Decadence] by Lawrence James Most English history books focus on the kings and queens of the land. Occasionally you'll read a book, usually fiction, about some other aspect of history - towns or village life. But this is the only book I've read that talks exclusively about the aristocratic class and how history worked from THEIR perspective. Which doesn't mean that kings and peasants don't get their fair share - they do. It's just that the emphasis is on the 'upper cla [Aristocrats: Power, Grace, Decadence] by Lawrence James Most English history books focus on the kings and queens of the land. Occasionally you'll read a book, usually fiction, about some other aspect of history - towns or village life. But this is the only book I've read that talks exclusively about the aristocratic class and how history worked from THEIR perspective. Which doesn't mean that kings and peasants don't get their fair share - they do. It's just that the emphasis is on the 'upper class' and their role in the history of Great Britain. Some of it was review. I was glad to get a chance to read about the signing of the Magna Carta. Some was entirely new. I never really understood the history of the House of Lords or the Glorious Revolution, for instance. And some was confusing. I still don't really understand the War of the Roses. While I enjoyed this book, and it sure gave me much to think about, it was overload in the amount of names that were thrown around. I had a very hard time keeping things straight. The writer also assumes that the reader already knows about English history and society, and doesn't explain things as much as he occasionally needs to, especially during the modern era. I got kind of overwhelmed. It's safe to say that this book will not overcome my own republican tendencies - that's with a lower case r, to be sure - but it did give me a lot to think about. I am still very much a populist at heart, but when the aristocratic tradition worked as its best, a tradition of honor and public service, it produced great things for England. But when it went wrong, it was amazing how much suffering it caused.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Simone

    A good overview of the institution that is England's aristocracy. Broad in scope, it covers the origins, changing political roles, customs and culture of this social class. It covers not onlg England, but Ireland and Scotland too, as well as analysing the role of peers in countries that made up the British empire. It is unashamedly pro-peer and takes a salicious delight in reporting even some of the more distasteful actions and abuses of certain peers. But I still found it informative and learnt A good overview of the institution that is England's aristocracy. Broad in scope, it covers the origins, changing political roles, customs and culture of this social class. It covers not onlg England, but Ireland and Scotland too, as well as analysing the role of peers in countries that made up the British empire. It is unashamedly pro-peer and takes a salicious delight in reporting even some of the more distasteful actions and abuses of certain peers. But I still found it informative and learnt many things I didn't know about the British aristocracy.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Misty

    This book was good but I like to read about the kings and queens better.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Shawn Thrasher

    Give me The AristoCATS any day over Aristocrats.

  12. 5 out of 5

    W H

    A super easy summary of the history of the aristocrat in Britain. Emphasis on chivalry and the ability of English nobility to change jut enough to avoid the cataclysmic socialist upheavals of 19 th century Europe. Still got swallowed up by the inequality, but they still have a place due to the conscience of the house of lords and the national trust. Clever asides with out being condescending, good analysis and excellent writing. One of our better history writers.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kirsten

    I'm glad I didn't pay for this book like I originally intended too. Parts of it were great, he moved right along and talked about cool things that the aristocracy has done, but as the book progressed, it became less and less interesting. A bit like how the nobles were perhaps? Maybe he was trying to prove a point, or maybe he just ran out of things to say. Either way, the first two sections were pretty good, the third...was not. I'm glad I didn't pay for this book like I originally intended too. Parts of it were great, he moved right along and talked about cool things that the aristocracy has done, but as the book progressed, it became less and less interesting. A bit like how the nobles were perhaps? Maybe he was trying to prove a point, or maybe he just ran out of things to say. Either way, the first two sections were pretty good, the third...was not.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    This book is very well researched and thorough. It just didn't work for me to keep up with nearly 1000 years of history in fewer than 400 pages. He seemed to get caught up in details like how much money property was worth and the overall political and social issues got lost. It's difficult to keep up with so many names and titles and these could have been easier to track with a timeline or more attention to the issues themselves. This book is very well researched and thorough. It just didn't work for me to keep up with nearly 1000 years of history in fewer than 400 pages. He seemed to get caught up in details like how much money property was worth and the overall political and social issues got lost. It's difficult to keep up with so many names and titles and these could have been easier to track with a timeline or more attention to the issues themselves.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Riet

    Dit boek viel behoorlijk tegen. Het onderwerp is interessant, maar de schrijver moet zo'n duizend jaar geschiedenis in een relatief klein boek stoppen. En dan is het handig ,als je al het een en ander weet van de Engelse geschiedenis. Er zitten leuke interessante stukken in, maar voor een groot deel is het een beetje een saai boek. Dit boek viel behoorlijk tegen. Het onderwerp is interessant, maar de schrijver moet zo'n duizend jaar geschiedenis in een relatief klein boek stoppen. En dan is het handig ,als je al het een en ander weet van de Engelse geschiedenis. Er zitten leuke interessante stukken in, maar voor een groot deel is het een beetje een saai boek.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

    This was a great look at the upper classes in Britain; it was a very entertaining read. Much of the end of the book contained an interesting discussion on the role of the aristocracy with the elimination of hereditary peers from the House of Lords. Recommended to any similarly-minded, Anglo-philic snobs.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    Not a bad book about power in Britain but due to the enormous subject length, a bit terse. At times it got a little confusing as the author jumped around a bit within each time period and I wasn't always sure what he was talking about. However, if you are familiar with much of British history, it is not a bad read for seeing how the aristocracy has changed over time. Not a bad book about power in Britain but due to the enormous subject length, a bit terse. At times it got a little confusing as the author jumped around a bit within each time period and I wasn't always sure what he was talking about. However, if you are familiar with much of British history, it is not a bad read for seeing how the aristocracy has changed over time.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    This history of the British aristocracy was alternately interesting and bone dry. The not exactly lively structure didn't really suit to straight-through reading; better as a snippet here and there. This history of the British aristocracy was alternately interesting and bone dry. The not exactly lively structure didn't really suit to straight-through reading; better as a snippet here and there.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    A good general overview of the history of England's aristocracy, with looks at the aristocracy in Scotland and Ireland, and a bit about aristocratic facist sympathies in the run-up to WWII. A good general overview of the history of England's aristocracy, with looks at the aristocracy in Scotland and Ireland, and a bit about aristocratic facist sympathies in the run-up to WWII.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Christina

    abandoned

  21. 4 out of 5

    Bri

    Interesting deconstruction of how the elite gained and managed and eventually lost political power and control.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Daniel

    not particularly good but provides some very interesting tidbits of information and a decent perspective on the subject matter.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    It just couldn't hold my interest. Don't know why. It just couldn't hold my interest. Don't know why.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Susanne

    Fascinating book which explains casts a light on some things which happen in British novels. Highly recommended for those interested in history.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Melanie

  26. 4 out of 5

    T.P. Davis

  27. 4 out of 5

    Gordon

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kim

  29. 5 out of 5

    Julia

  30. 4 out of 5

    Richard Mombella De Hernandez

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