History of the British Aristocracy: Part One (1849) | Anonymous

The following first chapter in the history of the aristocracy, titled ‘The Aristocracy: Its Origin, Progress, and Decay’, was written anonymously by someone named “Alpha,” and was subsequently published in Reynolds’s Political Instructor in 1849.[1] The republican, pro-democracy sentiments in it are clear for all to see, especially in its discussion of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. It has been transcribed by Stephen Basdeo, a writer and historian based in Leeds, UK.

The Aristocracy: Its Origin, Progress, and Decay

The greatest and most fatal error in the annals of the world was suffering the growth and formation of an Aristocracy; it is the direst plague with which this earth is cursed, filling it with eternal bitterness, and nullifying all efforts at civilization and progress. Like other pestilences which have stricken the human race and made desolate the hearths of millions, it is of Eastern origin, and appears to have existed during the earliest ages in those regions of barbarous despotism. In the course of these papers it is our intention to sketch its career in England,—the insolence and crime, the avarice and tyranny that have marked its progress,—the ages of woe and the seas of blood—the delusions and monstrosities—the fire and the sword—the gibbet and the torture—by which this foul and hideous evil has been upheld so long. England and its Aristocracy at the present time present a singular spectacle to the rest of the world; the latter struggling for its existence, and striving energetically to polish up the rusty chains of feudal servility; and the former—one of the greatest nations on the face of the earth inflicting upon herself mortal wounds by upholding and sustaining the weight that oppresses her, instead of dashing it to the earth and annihilating it for ever.

The Aristocracy of England dates its origin from the Norman Conquest. True, it existed in the country before, but was totally suppressed and uprooted by the Norman invaders; and from that army of robbers, murderers, and beggars do some of our present nobles boast of deriving their pure and immaculate descent. Edward, the Confessor, son of Emma of Normandy, a profligate woman, invited over to this country a party of Norman nobles amongst others William of Normandy, the son of Carlotta, a tanner’s daughter of Falaize, a notorious prostitute—the English word “harlot” being derived, it is said, from her name. At the death of Edward, this William laid claim to the throne; and collecting a multitude of unprincipled adventurers from all parts of Europe, thirsting for blood and plunder, he invaded England, and assumed the reins of government. All the pretensions of man’s avarice became awakened and active; some demanded territory, castles, and towns; others simply wished to receive a Saxon heiress in marriage; and the greater part of this band of marauders laid hands on all the booty they could collect, as the shortest way of enriching themselves and followers.

But the Conqueror himself was not ungrateful; for no sooner had the decisive battle of Hastings placed the crown upon his brow than he commenced his great plan of action, and parcelled out, according to promise, the country to his followers. In the first instance he affected great mildness towards the English, declaring that he would reign over them with justice and mercy: but the moment the fortresses he had been constructing were completed, he threw off the mask and installed his clamorous and greedy followers in their usurped possessions. From these sweepings of the rabble and refuse of Europe do some of our proudest, haughtiest, and most arrogant nobility of the present day boast their descent.

The sufferers implored for help in vain: William retired to his possessions in Normandy, and remained, deaf to their entreaties, until borne down by the most unheard of outrages, they rose in vengeance through various parts of the country, and would have overpowered their oppressors had not William arrived in England with a fresh army of bloodthirsty brigands and commenced an exterminating march with his fierce and ravenous followers, making a wilderness of the land, and for seven years perpetrating the most ruthless and bloody executions. In the north of England the wildest tempest of his implacable fury fell: traversing the counties of Yorkshire, Durham, and Northumberland with fire and sword, and dividing his army into exterminating columns, William sent them forth to destroy man and beast-towns, cities, and crops women, children, and churches. The minds of men were paralysed with terror. Roger Howeden, says:—”It was a horrible spectacle to see on the high roads and public places, and at the doors of houses, human bodies eaten by the worms; for there remained no one to cover them with a little earth.” Other historians relate that “the fields in culture were burned; the cattle and the corn in the barns carried off by the conquerors, who made a famine where they could not maintain themselves by the sword. This frightful scourge was felt in those parts in the months that followed, with a severity never before experienced in England. After eating the flesh of dead horses which the Normans left behind them, the people of Yorkshire and Northumberland, driven to the last extremity, are said to have made many a loathsome repast on human flesh; and pestilence followed in the wake of famine.

Victorian image of William the Conqueror

To afford amusement to himself and to the Aristocracy he had created, William formed the New Forest in Hampshire as a hunting ground, by burning down the houses and farms of innocent persons, showing, according to “Doomsday-Book,” that one hundred and eight places, manors, and villages were laid waste, and the people driven forth at the point of the sword, without the slightest compensation, for the pleasure of the Conqueror and his nobles. The country was entirely divided between William’s Norman followers; the land was confiscated and passed into their possession; as likewise did the treasures of the Saxons, their charters, title-deeds, and similar documents of value.

In such a manner have the Aristocracy of this country obtained possession of fertile acres of England, which by the atrocious possession laws of the of primogeniture, have been confined entirely to their order, until the value of these immense possessions, increasing with the wealth and enlightenment of the age, has served to fetter the nation and wrest from the third estate of the Constitution its rightful power. Property in the case of the Norman Aristocracy was acquired by rapine, murder, and violation of all laws, both human and divine: that property has descended by title of heirship down to the holders of the present day: these holders are the descendants of robbers and wholesale plunderers; and the origin of property, therefore, held by many Aristocratic houses boasting of their lineage, is robbery! Shrewsbury, De Roos, and other families proud of their descent, might shudder at the revolting scenes that laid the foundations of their fortunes, and blush with shame when they think of the lawless, bloodthirsty ruffians from whence they delight to trace their origin.

The obtaining and the establishment of Magna Charta, the great achievement of our Rights, has always been claimed by the Aristocracy; and their claim has been generally conceded by most historians; but it has been conceded in opposition to facts, and in contradiction to every principle of equity: it has been made the occasion of heaping adulation on the descendants of the Norman robbers, as in after days the miserable concession of the Reform Bill may form a subject-matter for demonstrating the liberal principles of our House of Peers in carrying such a measure; whilst, in both instances, the voice of the people was too powerful either for King or nobles. Far be it from us to attempt any depreciation of the Barons’ conduct when assembled at Runnymede: would to heaven their successors had always been as honestly employed! The Barons were seeking their own objects, but found them difficult of attainment without the aid of the villeins (as the mass of the nation were termed) and the freemen. The interest of the former, the grand multitude of the people, is only noticed in one article of the Charta—the twentieth: and in what does this grand concession consist? “That they must not be unreasonably fined for a trivial offence, nor be mulcted of the instruments of their husbandry!” The co-operation of the freemen who had become a powerful body, and which class of persons would answer in the present day to what we denominate “the middle-class,” was essentially necessary to the success of the cause, and they must therefore be included in the concessions to be obtained by the Charta. Could the Barons, who looked down on both these classes with the most sovereign disdain, have done without their assistance, they would have rejected their pretensions as an innovation on the hereditary privileges of the Aristocracy: but finding themselves powerless, unless supported by the people, they smothered their pride, and for once coalesced with the mass. The freemen’s claims were consequently recognised, and comprised in Articles 39 and 40, as follows:—

“No freeman shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or dispossessed of his tenement, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any ways proceeded against, unless by the legal judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.”

And in Article 40—

“Justice shall not be sold, refused, or delayed to anyone.”

These two sentences comprise the whole liberties of the English people: but are we indebted to the magnanimous consideration of the Barons for the obtainment of these rights? or was it to suit their own interested views that they coalesced with those whom they affected to despise, and wrung from the wicked John a small instalment of that liberty which their successors have contrived so materially to curtail?

But when it was no longer King or Barons that could decide the nation’s destiny, and when these two powers disagreed and declared war against each other, then was verified the old and well-known saying, that

“when rogues fall out honest men come by their own:”

and then did the Barons throw themselves into the arms of the people; and in spite of the failures, defeats, and almost total destruction they had met with single-handed, the popular feeling was too powerful: they conquered,—and John was forced by the people’s will to sign the Charta. After the nation had thus compelled respect and obedience to its will from its servant, the King,—after this great battle of liberty had been fought and won,—then did the Barons display a pusillanimous, dastardly, and treacherous spirit towards those who had preserved them from ruin.

John for he summoned to his aid a swarm of foreign mercenaries for the purpose of supporting him in the treacherous scheme he meditated, of openly repudiating the Charta he had signed: and when another swarm of locusts had landed in the kingdom, he bestowed upon them the properties of the English Barons. With this fresh horde of ruffians John defeated the Scots, who had nobly aided the people in their struggle for freedom—drove them back to Edinburgh, completely dispersing the Barons—and would have entirely overpowered them had it not been for the noble devotedness of the citizens of London, who threw open their gates to receive the discomfited nobles, and in spite of the Pope’s ban laid upon the City, kept open their churches, rang their bells gaily, and entertained their proscribed guests in a style of hospitality that did equal credit to their hearts and their courage.

Magna Carta (British Library)

The Barons, however, on seeing their estates in the hands of John’s mercenaries, waxed faint-hearted, and concocted the un-English scheme of making over the country to the son of the French King, on condition that he would restore them to the possessions John had seized. This was a fatal measure, had it succeeded: but although the Barons and Knights joined the French standard, the people kept aloof, viewing with well-founded suspicion and repugnance this unnatural union with a foreign monarch. The Barons were cravens and traitors; but the people never lost heart; and on the death of John they resolved to drive the French out of the country. A civil war was the consequence of the dastardly act of the recreant nobles, who now stood under the banners of France, arrayed in arms against their fellow-countrymen: but the brave archers of England went heart and soul to work, and so effectually did their shafts tell, that in the space of one year they soundly thrashed the French prince Louis and his allies, the Barons, who were all glad to escape on board ship, or hide themselves in secure places. The great o Charta of or England, therefore, is entirely the work of the people themselves; for in trusting to the Barons their great object would have for been foiled by the accursed treachery that seems inherent in the blood of Aristocracy.

The principles of the Charta have been nullified, and its intentions frustrated by the overweening influence of a corrupt nobility, who have managed not only to acquire a preponderating and destructive weight in the legislature of the country, but have, by the most shameful tyranny and oppression, usurped to themselves a dominating power over those minds which they have purposely kept in ignorance and subjection.

“Justice,” says the Charta, “shall not be sold, refused, or delayed to any one.”

We ask, is it not sold at the present day? and is it not sold at a price to place it beyond the reach of the poor? Is not justice refused to those who are not willing to be ruined in obtaining it? and is it not clearly denied to others who are incapable of paying the price at which it is alone attainable? are not its delays scandalous, and its expenses frightful? The Charta, by the selfish policy of the Legislature, has been turned into a mockery, a folly, and a play-thing!

Henry the Third, a wretched idiot, was a mere tool in the hands of his nobles, who were constantly urging him on to plunder the people for their own aggrandisement, and at length hurried him into a civil war that spread desolation and misery throughout the country. Edward the First kept his nobles too much occupied in warlike proceedings to allow them much opportunity of aggression on the people’s liberties: but the reign of his imbecile son added a fresh stock of impurity and baseness to the rising Aristocracy. Edward the Second was first under the sway of the insolent favourite Piers Gaveston, and after wards of the De Spensers. Gaveston was a Gascon adventurer, cunning, cruel, and unscrupulous; he caused terrible scenes of hanging, drawing, and quartering to take place; and after luxuriating in gore, rapine, and robbery to his heart’s content he was created Duke of Cornwall, a royal title borne by the present Prince of Wales. The De Spensers, unworthy servants of the Earl of Lancaster, low, base and cunning, were covered with royal honours; and the father was made Earl of Winchester, a title borne by the present senior Marquis of England. Roger Mortimer, the paramour of the “she-devil of France,” Isabella, in consort with this bloody-minded woman perpetrated on the wretched king, her husband, by the means of assassins, the most horrible murder history can record; he was created Earl of March, a title at present borne by the eldest son of the Duke of Richmond.

Such is the materials out of which our Aristocracy has been formed; an Aristocracy that expects the multitude to bow before it;—an Aristocracy that claims for its members privileges unjustified by personal qualifications; that insults our understanding by its pretensions and attempts to annihilate and crush the proper dignity of man by arrogance, assumption, and insolence.

Edward the Third was a warlike King, and gained great renown for the country; but, as is always the case, the glory of the Sovereign and the Aristocracy is invariably purchased by grinding and oppressing the people. To carry on Edward’s wars, the Barons had fleeced the people without compassion; and the terror of the King’s name enabled the Aristocracy to resist every attempt of the oppressed multitude to assert their rights. The dread of Edward’s wrath having disappeared with his death, the indignation of the people burst forth. The exasperated men of Kent and Essex rose against the poll-tax and drove the collectors away from their homes; the Government sent down commissioners to punish the offenders; but a worse fate awaited them,-for the indignant populace chopped off the heads of their oppressors and sticking them on polls paraded them throughout the country, as a salutary warning to the tyrants of a nation.

An insult offered to the daughter of Wat Tyler, and similar deeds of atrocity, brought one hundred thousand men to the neighbourhood of London; the complaints of these poor people were loud and pressing; the nobility and the court having for a length of time considered the plunder of the masses as a lawful method of filling their own coffers. The demands of the insurgents were moderate and just; they asked for the total abolition of slavery for themselves and children for ever—they demanded that the exorbitant rent of land should be reduced, and the full liberty of buying and selling, like free men, in markets and fairs, be accorded them. Had these equitable concessions been granted future mischief would have been avoided; for the people, in the exercise of their power, showed a surprising degree of moderation until they saw themselves contemned by the Aristocracy, and disregarded by the Government.

When Richard the Second came to meet his subjects he was treated with respect, and no insult was offered, or intended, to his person, until the assassin, Walworth, Lord Mayor of London, struck the perfidious blow that slaughtered their leader. Even under this bloody aggression, the people still retained a firm and tranquil attitude; and the treacherous King, by the counsel of his nobles, declared their demands just and reasonable, and gave them a charter for what they asked. When this part of the comedy was played out, he turned to the nobility that surrounded him and demanded, “What shall I do next?” The people, trusting in the word of their sovereign, foolishly dispersed, when the perjured King addressed his nobles, and in a tone of exultation exclaimed, apostrophising the people as they separated,—

“Rustics ye have been and are, and in bond shall ye remain; not such as ye have heretofore known, but in a condition incomparably more vile!”

This villainous hypocrisy could not spring from the mind of a youth of fifteen, but was counselled and prepared by the accursed Aristocracy that guided him: the whole of his movements—the entire of his perfidy sprang from the evil councils of his nobility, whose interest then, as it still is, was to suppress the liberties of mankind. Finding himself at the head of an army of forty thousand men raised by the nobles, Richard declared his promises meant nothing; and the charter he had granted was valueless. The Aristocracy supported him in this damnable treachery, and they traversed the country hanging, drawing and quartering the people to the frightful number (according to Holinshed) of fifteen thousand men! But a measure of justice was awarded to this wretched puppet of a King, who had foolishly lent himself to the designs of his blood thirsty Aristocracy; he was ignominiously deposed by one of his ambitious nobles, to whom he had shown the greatest favour, and who, owing him allegiance merely on the score of gratitude, with a blackness of treachery hereditary in his Order, was the cause of his fall, and “reigned in his stead.”

Thus far we have seen that the misery of the nation originated with the nobles—that deeds of blood, rapine, and treachery, were the basis of their power; as we continue an history of their progress the most abominable crimes, the most incredible cruelties, and the most black hearted treachery will be found to exist in the gory annals of the Aristocracy of England.

(To be continued).

[1] Alpha [pseud.], ‘The Aristocracy: Its Origin, Progress, and Decay’, Reynolds’s Political Instructor, 10 November 1849, 5–6.