Unlike most other European countries, Britain had no noble-destroying revolutions in history, so its noble class appears to be present. But are there limits based on noble/not noble in modern Britain? Parliament consists of 2 houses, but are there any other limits?

This question based on some British films. There are, nearly always, close ties inside high establishment. It looks like high establishment is a closed class of rich nobles. Is that true?

Does noble/not noble dividing (if it is present) affect Britain's social and power structures.

You may answer in a broad way - for example, "some limits here, for example: ..., some limits there, ... And a big limit here (again, for example)", to provide a general understanding of how the system works.

  • 1
    There's a reason there are two Houses of Parliament - the Lords, and the Commons. Members of the House of Lords are noblemen and retain their seat through title while members of the House of Commons are elected by the country to their seat. Members of Parliament can thus be either a noble or not, or indeed both (have a seat in the Lords but elected to a seat in the Commons - they give up their Lords seat for the duration). The PM can be (and has been) either, but in general is expected to sit in the Commons. – Moo Jan 21 '19 at 8:01
  • 2
    Someone will come with a precise and detailed answer, but the Wikipedia articles on the Houses of Lords and Commons are surely of interest. Tony Blair doesn't seem to have any noble origin. – Taladris Jan 21 '19 at 8:02
  • 1
    "In fact, question is about - how noble/not noble dividing(if it is really present) affect Britain's social and power structures?" That may be a bit too broad. I can easily imagine writing multiple volumes of text books full of social studies about that topic. I would narrow it down somewhat. Maybe there is something of special interest that you would like to know. For example, are there any official direct limits to anyone not having a Sir in front of the name,... – Trilarion Jan 21 '19 at 10:00
  • 1
    @Moo the vast majority of memebers of the House of Lords these days are Life Peers, people who were granted a peerage due to their status in business, the sciences, media or charity work. The 1999 Lords Reform Bill abolished most hereditary Lords except for a small number <100, there are also members of the House that are Bishops of the Church of England as well. – Sarriesfan Jan 22 '19 at 17:06
  • 1
    @Moo although they have the title Lord it does not make them noblemen, people like Lord Robert Winston who pioneered IVF treatments achieved their titles through merit not by privilege, – Sarriesfan Jan 22 '19 at 20:08

I would argue that you are roughly 100 years out of date with the idea that "high establishment is a closed class of rich nobles."

The landmark Act was the 1911 Parliament Act. After Conservative peers blocked a Liberal budget, the power of the House of Lords to veto bills was replaced with the power to delay them and in the case of financial bills removed altogether. No Prime Minister has taken office in the House of Lords since then.

More generally, the period around WW1 1914-1918 often marked a large decline in the lower levels of the nobility. The servants who went away to war often didn't come back, and inherited wealth with modest income became eaten away by inheritence taxes. And as elliot noted, genteel poverty was known a hundred years earlier still. Even Marx, writing in the England of the 1880's really only refers to the nobility as a thing of the past.

Now, one could argue that there is a lack of diversity in the Establishment, in that a lot of them went to the same expensive private schools and Universities. However that would be bourgeoisie rather than nobility.

  • +1 The final paragraph is particularly apposite. The government and institutions of the UK are mostly controlled by a small, wealthy elite who are there because their parents bought them an expensive public school/Oxbridge education. – Dave Gremlin Mar 10 at 13:29
  • @DaveGremlin A health share of that elite, while not actually having a peerage, descend from someone who did, but didn't by primogenitor receive the title. – ohwilleke Mar 11 at 6:05
  • 1
    @ohwilleke True but irrelevant. From community.dur.ac.uk/a.r.millard/genealogy/EdwardIIIDescent.php "There is an extremely high probabilty that a modern English person with predominantly English ancestry descends from Edward III, at a very minimum over 99%, and more likely very close to 100%. The number of descendants of Edward III must therefore include nearly all of the population of England, and probably much of the populations of the rest of the UK and Eire, as well as many millions in the USA, former British colonies and Europe, so 100 million seems a conservative estimate." – Dave Gremlin Mar 21 at 11:28

This question based on some British films. There are, nearly always, close ties inside high establishment.

Which films? This is rather like basing one's perception of America off cowboy movies.

The noble class is still there, but hugely reduced from their pre-20th century importance by the events of the 20th century. Inheritance tax and economic disaster did away with most of the hereditary wealth. There are a few conspicuous exceptions; the Duke of Westminster is the landlord for a large area of London, for example.

In terms of day-to-day political influence, you'd be better off following the money and looking at major donors to the Conservative party. That includes Saudi royalty and Russian oligarchs. Foreign wealth is quite visible in London, such as the Emirates stadium and associated "Emirates Air Line" cablecar boondoggle. Roman Abramovich owns Chelsea football club.

The old social aspect of "high society", with all its debutante balls and such, lives on. I think that, like the ceremonial Lord Mayor of London and his parade, this should be regarded more as a sort of very expensive cosplay fandom than structurally important to the country.

I don't think there's anywhere outside maybe a few private clubs that requires a noble title. You don't even need one to marry into the Royal family, although that has been the subject of recent controversy. For all other purposes, enough money will get you in.

There is one final restriction in the other direction: hereditary peers are not allowed to be members of the House of Commons.

  • "Inheritance tax and economic disaster did away with most of the hereditary wealth." There is a fair amount of economic scholarship that would dispute this claim. It may be diminished, but one can track surnames to see it and aristocrats still far exceed the average commoner in wealth. – ohwilleke Mar 11 at 6:04

Short Answer

In a nutshell, aristocrats, and their extended families who are not aristocrats, make up an outsized share of the power and wealth elites of modern Britain. But, they have largely lost the formal rights and privileges that they had as recently as the Victorian era and early 20th century.

They now share their educational, economic and power privileges with wealthy commoners who derive their wealth from professional and business activities. they now share their power with members of parliament, regional legislators, municipal politicians, senior judges, and senior civil servants, who are disproportionately derived from this elite, but also include commoners of much more humble origins.

The wealth of the aristocracy in Britain peaked in the late 1800s, took hits in World War I and World War II, hit a low point in the last 1970s and early 1980s. But since then, it has significantly rebounded to near record highs in inflation adjusted dollars, although aristocrats are still not quite as dominant in their land holdings as they were in the Victorian era and earlier times.

Simple inherited wealth has proven more enduring for Britain's peers than inherited legal and political privileges.

Formal Privileges Of Peerage

Prestige, an exclusive right similar to a trademark right to use the aristocratic title, and eligibility to serve in the House of Lords if elected by one's fellow aristocrats to the remaining posts for hereditary lords in the body, are the main remaining privileges of British aristocrats.

A few of the rights historically shared by all peers, however, are still retained by the Queen, and sometimes also by some royals, and sometimes by serving members of the House of Lords.

The privilege of peerage is the body of special privileges belonging to members of the British peerage. It is distinct from parliamentary privilege, which applies only to those peers serving in the House of Lords and the members of the House of Commons, while Parliament is in session and forty days before and after a parliamentary session.

The privileges have been lost and eroded over time. Only three survived into the 20th century: the right to be tried by other peers of the realm instead of juries of commoners, freedom from arrest in civil (but not criminal) cases, and access to the Sovereign to advise him or her on matters of state. The right to be tried by other peers was abolished in 1948. Legal opinion considers the right of freedom from arrest as extremely limited in application, if at all. The remaining privilege is not exercised and was recommended for formal abolition in 1999, but has never been formally revoked.

Peers also have several other rights not formally part of the privilege of peerage. For example, they are entitled to use coronets and supporters on their achievements of arms.

. . .

Now peers are tried by juries composed of commoners, though peers were themselves excused from jury service until the House of Lords Act 1999 restricted this privilege to members of the House of Lords. The right to be excused was abolished on 5 April 2004 by the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

(Peers were, and still are hypothetically, subject to impeachment. Impeachment was a procedure distinct from the aforementioned procedure of trial in the House of Lords, though the House of Lords is the court in both cases. Charges were brought by the House of Commons, not a grand jury. Additionally, while in normal cases the House of Lords tried peers only for felonies or treason, in impeachments the charges could include felonies, treason and misdemeanours. The case directly came before the House of Lords, rather than being referred to it by a writ of certiorari. The Lord High Steward presided only if a peer was charged with high treason; otherwise the Lord Chancellor presided. Other procedures in trials of impeachment were similar, however, to trials before the House of Lords: at the conclusion of the trial, the spiritual peers withdrew, and the temporal Lords gave their votes on their honour. The last impeachment was that of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, in 1806 for misappropriating public money (he was acquitted). Since then, impeachment has become an obsolete procedure in the United Kingdom.) . . .

Now, civil proceedings involve arrests only when an individual disobeys a court order. Since 1945, the privilege of freedom from arrest in civil cases has arisen in only two cases: Stourton v Stourton (1963) and Peden International Transport, Moss Bros, The Rowe Veterinary Group and Barclays Bank plc v Lord Mancroft (1989). In the latter most recent case, the trial judge considered the privilege obsolete and inapplicable, and said in proceedings, "the privilege did not apply—indeed ... it is unthinkable in modern times that, in circumstances such as they are in this case, it should". . . .

each peer is commonly considered a counsellor of the Sovereign, and, according to Sir William Blackstone in 1765, "it is usually looked upon to be the right of each particular peer of the realm, to demand an audience of the King, and to lay before him, with decency and respect, such matters as he shall judge of importance to the public weal."

From Wikipedia.

Privileges Of Particular Aristocratic Positions

Also, every aristocratic office, e.g. a hereditary dukeship, originally carried with it privileges and obligations particular to the office, frequently, but not always, trivial ones, like the right and obligation to blow the first horn announcing a coronation, or the right and obligation to supply flowers for a royal garden. This has declined in importance, however. From the same source:

Individual privileges that did exist have fallen into disuse—for example the Lord of the Manor of Worksop (which is not a peerage) was extended the privilege and duty of attending the coronation of the British monarch until 1937, but the right was not exercised at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 as the manor was under corporate ownership at the time.

Other Residual Privileges And Limitations of Aristocrats

As noted in another answer, a British peer may not serve in the House of Commons as a member of parliament.

In some countries, British aristocrats would be given special privileges or treatment in diplomatic, and might be treated differently in immigration matters.

Sometimes this is a positive point, and sometimes it is negative.

A British aristocrat might secure one a better place in a receiving line or table setting at a state dinner than a British commoner would.

But, a hereditary title might also disqualify you from serving as an individual in a U.S. government post that doesn't itself require U.S. citizenship.

For example, a British baron could not serve in the U.S. military without renouncing his peerage, even though you do not have to be a U.S. citizen to serve in the U.S. military, because a peerage implies a duty of loyalty greater than that of a foreign commoner to a foreign monarch.

Wealth and Education

As other answers have noted, a noble title does not automatically imply great wealth. But, in practice, British aristocrats are indeed, on average, quite wealthy.

As a practical matter, status as a peer or heir to a peerage is a plus in getting admitted to high status educational institutions, in being considered positively as a prospective spouse (especially of another aristocrat foreign or domestic), and in being admitted to prestigious clubs and business firms, although it is rarely the sole outcome determinant in any of these matters. This is somewhat comparable and analogous to the advantages someone in the U.S. would have as a legacy or graduate from an Ivy League college, or as a child of a famous or influential person (e.g. the child of a former President), in general.

For example, as of July 19, 2019:

On average, Britain’s 600 or so aristocratic families are now as wealthy as their Victorian forebears at the height of Britain’s imperial expansion.

The ten largest aristocratic personal fortunes left in the last decade add up to £1.06bn when adjusted to reflect current purchasing power.

At the head of the league of aristocratic wealth stands the high-profile figure of Hugh Grosvenor, 7th Duke of Westminster, who will eventually inherit the personal fortune worth some £659m in 2019 prices left by his father following his death in 2016.

The 28-year-old’s total family wealth, held in separate trust funds, is put at some £9bn.

This lengthy report goes on to examine in detail of study of probate estates of British aristocrats, suggesting an average probate estate of £16.1m, compared to an average probate estate in 2019 dollars of £4.2m between 1978 and 1987. "From a pre-war high of £23m, average fortunes fell to £4.9m by 1967 before rocketing again by the 1980s." Elite educations and wealth have been the norm and the higher the title the more successful Britain's aristocrats have been, as the same source explains:

Of the ten largest probates between 2008 and 2018, seven of the deceased attended Eton or Harrow, with the remaining three also attending major public schools. Six of the ten went to either Oxford or Cambridge universities.

Dukes, which represent the highest and often oldest rank of the aristocracy, are also the wealthiest, leaving an average inflation-adjusted fortune of £48m since 1958.

The next echelons of marquesses, earls and viscounts were worth £14.5m and £11.2m, while the far more numerous barons (totalling more than 800 title holders, including the father of former Chancellor George Osborne) were worth on average £9.3m.

Note that in Britain, confusingly, the term "public school" means an elite private educational institution, and not a government run educational institution:

A public school in England and Wales is a fee-charging endowed school originally for older boys that was "public" in the sense of being open to pupils irrespective of locality, denomination or paternal trade or profession. The term was formalised by the Public Schools Act 1868, which put into law most recommendations of the 1864 Clarendon Report. Nine prestigious schools were investigated by Clarendon, and seven subsequently reformed by the Act: Eton, Harrow, Shrewsbury, Winchester, Rugby, Westminster, and Charterhouse.

These were boys' boarding schools, but some are now mixed and some accept day pupils as well as boarders. By the 1930s, the term "public school" applied to at least twenty-four schools, although the term has been in use since at least the 18th century.

Public schools have had a strong association with the ruling classes. Historically, the sons of officers and senior administrators of the British Empire were educated in England while their fathers were on overseas postings. In 2019, two thirds of Cabinet Ministers had been educated at such fee-charging schools, although a slim majority of cabinet ministers since 1964 were educated at state schools.

These wealth estimates, moreover, are minimums. As the July 19, 2019 article explains:

The figures, based on the settled estates or probates of 1,706 members of the nobility dating back to 1858, also only tell part of the story of aristocratic wealth by showing the minimal personal wealth of title holders. The total fortune of the often secretive elite is likely to be far higher because in many cases other family wealth – including land, property and assets such as art collections or investment portfolios – is held in separate trusts which are not open to scrutiny.

Traditionally, however, British aristocrats held most of their wealth in land, and that element of their wealth has dramatically declined, along with their political power and legal privileges, as the New York Times recounted in a 1990 article:

In 1880 the 29 greatest British landowners possessed enormous estates. They all had titles; 12 of them were dukes. The smallest holding in acres -- 19,749 -- was that of the Duke of Westminster, but since a sizable chunk of it was in London he had the biggest income of all -- $:290,000 -- just beating the Duke of Buccleuch, who had 460,108 acres, much of them in Scotland, and the Duke of Bedford, another London landowner, who had 86,335 acres all told. Fourteen of these landowners owned more than 100,000 acres each. The Duke of Sutherland, whose holdings were largely in the Scottish Highlands, had well over a million.

By 1976, the latest date for which figures are available (and they are limited to England and Wales), the picture had drastically changed. Although there were a few maverick cases of an actual increase, more typical were the Duke of Devonshire, down from 133,000 acres to 56,000, and the Duke of Norfolk, from 40,000 to 25,000. Many falls were far greater.

Of course, this did not mean that some of the surviving grandees were other than extremely rich. The postwar boom in agricultural land and the soaring price of objets d'art have recouped the fortunes of many landowners who can now get by with far fewer acres. . . .

But, although the Duke of Devonshire is still one of the richest men in England and although there is still great wealth among the aristocracy, Mr. Cannadine's basic theme is correct. The landed world is not what it was.

There are still supposed to be some 2,000 landed estates in Britain, but whereas they covered over half the land in 1880, they covered at most a quarter, perhaps a lot less, in 1980. And those who have gone by the board are not so much the seriously rich, though some of them have, but the country squirearchy, the men of 1,000 to 10,000 acres who propped the whole system up, constituted the governing class in the counties, went to Parliament as perennial backbenchers, lived on their estates, hunted and held High Tory views. They really have largely vanished. . . .

In 1880 the House of Lords was overwhelmingly landed and hereditary; it had virtually coequal powers with the Commons, most of the members of which were sons or collaterals of the Lords; and it dominated the political scene. A century later it had become in essence a senate of lifetime members, though the largely absentee hereditary peers were still a majority. It is a useful revising chamber but little more. In the Commons the old "landed interest" is negligible now. There has never been a complete sweep of the aristocracy as in parts of Europe but a merger with an upper middle class of professionals, financiers and businessmen -- a new Establishment.

Still, a September 7, 2017 account makes clear that this decline in landholdings after hitting bottom, has recovered somewhat:

For all the tales of noble poverty and leaking ancestral homes, the private wealth of Britain’s aristocracy remains phenomenal. According to a 2010 report for Country Life, a third of Britain’s land still belongs to the aristocracy. Notwithstanding the extinction of some titles and the sales of land early in the 20th century, the lists of major aristocratic landowners in 1872 and in 2001 remain remarkably similar. Some of the oldest families have survived in the rudest financial health. In one analysis, the aristocratic descendants of the Plantagenet kings were worth £4bn in 2001, owning 700,000 acres, and 42 of them were members of the Lords up to 1999, including the dukes of Northumberland, Bedford, Beaufort and Norfolk.

The figures for Scotland are even more striking. Nearly half the land is in the hands of 432 private individuals and companies. More than a quarter of all Scottish estates of more than 5,000 acres are held by a list of aristocratic families. In total they hold some 2.24m acres, largely in the Lowlands. . . .

One legal provision unique to England and Wales has been of particular importance to these aristocratic landlords: over the centuries they built many millions of houses, mansion blocks and flats, which they sold on a leasehold rather than freehold basis. This meant that purchasers are not buying the property outright, but merely a time-limited interest in it, so even the “owners” of multimillion-pound residences have to pay ground rent to the owner of the freehold, to whom the property reverts when their leases (which in some areas of central London are for no more than 35 years) run out. This is unearned income par excellence.

Built property aside, land ownership itself is still the source of exorbitant wealth, as agricultural land has increased in value. According to the 2016 Sunday Times Rich List, 30 peers are each worth £100m or more.

Socio-economic distinctions between those who were rich in 1800 in the U.K. and those who were poor then remained quite significant statistically in their descendants as of 2011 although they have been diluted significantly over the last two centuries:

averaged parent-child correlations of variables such as wealth, education and occupation are in the 0.7 -- 0.8 range over the last 200 years, the same as found in India, with its caste system! . . . Mobility rates are lower than conventionally estimated. There is considerable persistence of status, even after 200 years. But there is convergence with each generation. The 1800 underclass has already attained mediocrity. And the 1800 upper class will eventually dissolve into the mass of society, though perhaps not for another 300 years, or longer.


Unlike most other European countries, Britain had no noble-destroying revolution.

This is quite wrong. Britain had a revolution much earlier than the more famous French and Russian revolutions.

This was the English Revolution which pitted royalists against parliamentarians. The English King, Charles I was put on trial and executed in 1649. This was the first time an English monarch had been executed. Two years later the revolution was won by Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army in 1651 replacing the monarchy with the English Commonwealth, and then in 1653 with the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. Also, the monopoly of the Church of England on Christian worship was also ended.

Although the monarchy was later restored this was only with the consent of parliament and so this set the trajectory for the present arrangement of a constitutional monarchy where it is parliament that is sovereign over the nation and where the monarchy hold ceremonial roles.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .