Aristocracy is not a word that appears in Jane Austen’s novels, but its influence shows up in them. After all, we are told that Darcy’s uncle is an earl, and Anne Elliott’s father Sir Walter obsesses over the Baronetage. Some of Austen’s funniest characters are those who revere the aristocracy the most. But what, exactly, is the English aristocracy, and why should we care about it?
The word doesn’t mean much to most Americans because we haven’t had the experience with nobility and titles that Europe and Great Britain have. For us, learning that Fitzwilliam Darcy is the nephew of an earl is interesting but we’re not likely to swoon over him because of it. We really don’t know what it means. If we’re lucky we might get a fuzzy image of a castle in our head, or maybe a vague idea of a coat of arms. But an earldom would have had very specific connotations for Austen’s readers, so we should try to understand it for ourselves.
The English aristocratic ranks, or peerages as they are called, got their start in the middle ages. At that time the king would distribute parcels of land to some of his supporters, called barons, in return for their oaths of loyalty to him. Barons received not just the land itself but also the responsibility to manage the land (and the people living there) and the right to collect income from it. Over time different ranks of barons developed, and over centuries they transformed into the baron, viscount, earl, marquess, and duke titles that we know today.
Traditionally the title and the land given by the king were linked together; if you inherited the title, you got the land that came with it. But that, too, has changed. Today a person can hold one of these ranks without owning any land to go with it. (Alert readers may remember that this issue was mentioned in the TV series Downton Abbey.) It was also common for a peer (also known as a lord) to hold more than one title. A man might be the marquess of A______, for example, but also the earl of B_______ and C________ and the baron of D_________ and E__________ . Normally he would be known by his highest rank.
There were duties that came with these titles! The king (or maybe queen) could summon his lords to Parliament and call on them to supply soldiers in time of war. The lords had to pay taxes on all that income, and they were expected to administrate their holdings in accordance with the sovereign’s wishes. Above all, they were expected to be loyal to the sovereign of England, and to offer aid and counsel when needed.
There were also privileges. Noble families could display a coat of arms that was unique to their family. Under some circumstances a peer could not be arrested in a civil case. And a peer had the right to be tried by a jury of other peers, not by commoners.
Peerages were passed down from father to oldest son. If there was no son to inherit then it went to the lord’s oldest brother and would then be passed down through those heirs. In some cases where there was no son, a daughter of the title holder could marry and pass her father’s title on to her husband. But if there was absolutely no family member left to inherit the title, then the title and the land would revert back to the crown and the title would become extinct.
So with all this in mind, why does it matter that Darcy is the nephew of an earl?
It matters because it shows how far Darcy is above Elizabeth. He is utterly out of her league!! Earls were about halfway up the ladder of aristocracy, not royalty, but definitely a cut above the rank and file. Darcy’s uncle was likely fabulously wealthy, and the majority of his wealth would have come from his holdings in land. He certainly never worked with his hands! He would have been addressed as “my lord,” taken precedence in most social situations, and attracted attention wherever he went. And as his nephew Darcy could expect to bask in some of that glory. It’s no wonder that Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the earl’s sister, would be horrified at the thought of Darcy marrying Elizabeth Bennet, who is relatively poor and only the daughter of a country gentleman!
A few little pieces of trivia about peerages:
- Dukes were- and are- often members of the royal family. When Prince William married Kate Middleton, his grandmother, the Queen, revived the extinct title of Duke of Cambridge and awarded it to him.
- Traditionally the king of England would only marry another royal or someone from the upper nobility. When King Henry VIII fell in love with Anne Boleyn, who was only the daughter of an earl, he elevated her to marquess before marrying her. She remains one of the few women to have been a marquess in her own right.
- The wife of a duke is a duchess, and the wife of a marquess is a marchioness. But the wife of an earl is a countess.
- Peers are aristocrats, not royalty. When Prince Charles married Diana Spencer, who was the daughter of an earl, he married a commoner. Not a commoner like you and me, of course, but still a commoner.
- Occasionally a woman *might* inherit a peerage in her own right. This depended on the terms that were applied to that particular peerage when it was created. But even if she inherited the title she still could not sit in Parliament, as some male peers could.
- A peer would sometimes allow his oldest son to use one of his own lower ranking titles while the father was still living. So the peer holding the title might be called the earl of A___________ while his son would be the Viscount of B____________. After the father died, the son would then assume the highest title.
- A higher ranking lord was not necessarily wealthier than a lower ranking lord. A baron who managed his land and holdings well could end up with more money than a marquis or even a duke who squandered his wealth or managed his holdings poorly.
Could Darcy ever become the earl? Yes, he could! In the book we are told that the title will go to Colonel Fitzwilliam’s older brother. Since the colonel does not mention any other brothers we assume that if his older brother passes away without an heir the colonel would be next in line. And if the colonel were to be killed in some tragic accident or to die in battle, presumably Darcy would inherit the title.
What do you think? If Darcy and Elizabeth were to wake up one morning and find out that they are now an earl and countess, how would they react? What would be the first words out of their mouth? Drop a line and let me know!