The term “aristokratia” was first used in ancient Greece with reference to young men who led armies into battle. It was from there that the word gradually developed to mean ‘excellent’ and ‘power’.
The history of the British aristocracy stretches over the last thousand years. Around 1014, English shires or counties were grouped into Earldoms, with each led by a local great man, called an earl; the same man could be earl of several shires. Like most feudal offices, earldoms were inherited. Some of these Earls amassed huge amounts of wealth and all of them had a close relationship with the King.
Historically, the holy trinity for British aristocrats were 1. Good Education 2. Good Marriage 3. Good Income. A good marriage normally meant marrying within the same class. But it could also be someone from outside the aristocracy but a person with plenty of money! The American heiresses of the late 19th / early 20th century, such as Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan who married the 9th Duke of Marlborough, were prime examples of American wealth being used to prop up and inject into ailing British estates.
This is why aristocrats also never used to never divorce: a divorce meant dividing up one’s property. This ‘never divorce’ rule has since been broken and the aristocracy has seen a rise in divorce rates, along with the rest of modern society.
In our impression, aristocrats are those mysterious group of people wearing ‘feather hats with a charming vibe’. However in real life, many British aristocrats are living a relatively down-to-earth life and trying to contribute back to the society.
The 6th Duke of Westminster, one of the richest aristocrats in the UK, once said that he cares more about making contributions to the world than wealth. He also felt strongly about his son’s education “My main object will be to teach him self-discipline and a sense of duty. He’s been born with the longest silver spoon anyone can have, but he can’t go through life sucking on it. He has to put back what he has been given.”
Determined that his children would not be raised in a bubble of privilege, he even sent them to a local state primary school and then on to a co-ed day school. He is someone who seemed to truly live by his family motto of VIRTUE NOT LINEAGE.
Another Duke who keeps a fairly low profile is the 11th Duke of Richmond. He believes that whoever inherits has to go and do their own thing first. He, for example, worked in advertising for many years and his father before him in accountancy. “We get the luxury but also the responsibility… over 12 generations it’s completely clear who has made what contribution. When it’s your turn, you don’t want to mess up.”
Trying to not “mess up his term”, Goodwood Estate hosts a variety of famous motor racing as well as horse racing events throughout the year; there’s the Goodwood Festival of Speed, the Goodwood Revival as well as the Goodwood Festival. In addition, you can golf on the estate, shoot and stay in the Goodwood Hotel.
From these two dukes, we see that in 21st century Britain, the aristocracy generally keeps a low profile and works hard to ensure the continuity of their family and their estate.
From these aristocrats, we can also get a sense of the principles by which they live:
- With privilege comes responsibility
- A sense of custodianship – they are custodians of what they inherit and that it is their duty to hand it to the next generation in a better state than which they received it
- It is not how much money one has that makes a good person, but how that money is put to good use and how one lives one’s life
- Treating everyone with respect, no matter how much money they have or how high-born or low-born they are
- ‘Big’ people, in all senses of the word, don’t need to shout about it