This is a strategic condensation of The Dukes written, and re-written, by Brian Masters and published and re-published most recently by Pimlico (Random House, London) in a “revised and updated” 2001 edition. Masters’ book places a microscope over the British Dukery – a small, but important, fraction of the Euro-aristocracy. The 24 Dukes form a rich, influential circle. They range from arch-conservative to fascist. They are passionate environmentalists.
“Dukedoms” debuted in Western Europe 1500 years ago. A “duchy” in Britain came to mean a grant of land by the King usually to a wealthy noble and key ally. The Dukes owned vast land holdings including the real estate of entire towns. Within the duchy the Duke was King-protected governor and sole landlord. Over 160 ducal titles were decreed most surviving a few centuries. Of the 24 functioning duchies today the oldest was founded 1483 and the youngest 1900. Dukes are not all there is to British aristocracy. Masters refers to a population of “to 199 Earls, 132 Viscounts, and 493 Barons”. (1) These men lack the peerage of a Duke but remain members of the well-networked crew of hereditary landlords clinging to the sceptred isle.
Masters has finally found use for the monarchy! It serves well as a gauge to measure the wealth of Dukes. Nine own more real estate than Elizabeth II. Her holdings are 40,000 acres around Balmoral Castle and another 7,000 near Sandringham. “In contrast” Masters writes “the Duke of Buccleuch has 250,000 acres, the Dukes of Northumberland and Argyll 80,000 each and the Duke of Westminster owns a quarter of central London.” Whereas a few Dukes fell on lean times “nearly all of them are multi-millionaires”. (2) (One acre is about 1.6 football fields.)
The Duchy of Westminster was formalized in 1874; however the core royal grant of land took place during Norman England. The recipients were descendants of the Chief Huntsman (le Gros Veneur) to William the Conqueror. The un-interrupted record of Grosvenors accumulating real estate dates back to 1160. In 1677, they attained a piece of future London through a sketchy marriage giving them a large marsh along the Thames’ north shore. The current Duke owns over 100,000 British acres and “the largest UK-based international property company in the world with offices in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Canada and Europe”. One Scottish estate town was given a makeover and now boasts the nation’s second biggest fish port. The Duke bought 1,700 acre Annacis Island (Vancouver, British Columbia) now home to over 40 factories. But “the jewel in the crown is those 300 acres in London, 100 in Mayfair, and 200 Belgravia. This was ... personal property with which he could do as he pleased.” (3) This is an area of apartment buildings, shopping malls etc. The Duke of Westminster owns, land-and-building, hundreds of city blocks in downtown London!
The Duke of Somerset “has about 5,000 acres, and some of Totnes and Devon, which he has to nibble at occasionally by selling a house or two when necessity demands.” (4)
The Duchy of St. Albans sold their land; however, the current Duke, using remaining resources and contacts, prospered as owner of a conglomerate of property management, advertising and finance companies head-quartered in London’s City district. (5)
The Duke of Buccleuch entered the20th century with 400 square miles and “never had to sell an acre”.(6) His main digs are an 11,000 acre palatial estate, Broughton House, whose grounds contain 70 miles of paved road. The palace is “crammed with tapestries, and marvellous objects...Buhl chests, important pictures and Caffieri clocks.” One mortal guest counted 14 masterpieces hanging in a bathroom. The Director of Paris’s Louvre Museum said the Louvre’s collection of fine French furniture was inferior to the Buccleuch collection. A member of the Queen’s staff said the Duke’s art and jewellery would fetch a better price than the Royal’s. (7)
Ralph Percy, the Duke of Northumberland, is patriarch of the Percy dynasty which has a recorded lineage dating to Normandy, 886. Ralph is a land agent by profession. He inherited 98,000 acres. This is rented out in 3,500 separate tenancies, large and small, rural and urban. The Duke of Northumberland is the great-great grandson of the Duke of Argyll, the great grandson of the Duke of Richmond, the grandson of the Duke of Buccleuch, the Duke of Hamilton is his cousin and the Duke of Sutherland his uncle. Home is an austere 900 year old grey castle his family has inhabited since 1309.
Some Duchy’s have rebounded by finding new commercial use for their land. The Duke of Bedford’s principle residence, Woburn Abbey, is situated in a 3,000 acre park containing eleven and a half miles of brick walls. Woburn Abbey, no longer affordable as a private residence, has been turned into a commercial tourist attraction drawing 1.6 million visits per year. The Duke also owns Bedford Arms Hotel and “the finest collection of golf courses in the country.”
The Dukes of Richmond, troubled with taxes and inflation in the first half of the 20th century, sold much of their 280,000 acres. However their remaining properties contain famous horse-racing and car-racing tracks; they have developed hotels and heritage tours, they operate a large private airstrip and flight school, and they lease portions of their estate as serviced industrial parkland.
The Dukes of Roxburghe hung onto 53,000 acres and are also in the tourism-hotel business.
The 10th Duke of Atholl died in 1997 leaving 120,000 acres and a 100-employee property management firm. He was also Chairman of the family-owned Westminster Press conglomerate.
The Dukes of Hamilton profited from airstrips and mines on their estate. Their agri-business is of a scale they now farm more land than they own.
Dukes are masters of the strategic marriage. When not marrying their cousins they target heirs to large industrial fortunes. The Gower family, the Dukes of Southerland, were so successful at “absorbing wealthy heiresses” by the dawn of the 20th century they were the largest private landowners of Europe (278). Masters’ limited sampling shows British dukedoms successfully married into capitalist dynasties such as Whigham, Forteviot, Vanderbilt, Zimmerman, Goelet, Onassis, and Niarchos - the iceberg’s tip.
The 11th Duke of Grafton has vast land in Africa and 11,000 British acres including a functioning palace where he lives in “deep privacy”. He ventures to London only to immerse himself in deep green struggle and: “there are not many in his position who are so hardworking, or have such keen desire to contribute to national life.” The Duke was “also one of the half-dozen dukes who regularly appeared in the House of Lords, to speak on his subject of conservation and preservation.”(8)
“John Seymour, 19th Duke of Somerset, was born in 1952 and succeeded to the dukedom in 1984. He is markedly more interested in his ancestry than was his late father, has a house in Fulham and took the seat in the Lords in 1985. He made his maiden speech in 1987, and welcomes any debate on agriculture or forestry, as he feels passionately about the disastrous destruction of rainforests over the globe. As this is a subject which will dominate attention in the new millennium, and moreover is arguably more important to the future of mankind in peacetime than the nuclear bomb...” (9)
(Aristocrats love trees! Any snooker player will tell you “it a’int what you make it’s what you leave.” The value of developed real estate is threatened by the presence of free wilderness land which hence must be “protected” from development. What proper gentleman would flood the market with cheap, newly-deforested acres? Lower class impulses to squat, homestead, pioneer and poach must be blocked if developed real estate is to preserve its value and not be deserted for virgin forests on Western frontiers. Trees are aristocratic soldiers; a wooden gendarmerie thwarting land expansion and encircling tenants. They understand land.)
The 8th Duke of Buccleuch “was one of the country’s experts on forestry, and planted more than a million trees every year on his own lands.” (10)
The 4th Duke of Atholl was “a forester who introduced larch into Scotland and planted millions of trees, to finance which he asked parliament to vote him more money for the sale of the Isle of Man. They did.” (11) The 10th Duke Atholl “attended the Lords regularly, speaking on his own subject of forestry, upon which he was an expert.” (12)
The Grosvenors, in the 1950s planted 2500 acres of “pine, spruce and larch” and currently maintain a separate bureaucracy to manage “forested estates” at their London HQ. (13)
The son of the 11th Duke of Argyll, the Marquess of Tullibardine, is also “a forester by profession” and is commercially involved in recycling. (14)
The Duke of Portland, as the 1970s Kenyan Agriculture Minister, protected many “glorious” forests. (15)
Duke Roxburghe is active in Wildlife Trust. (16)
Duke Wellington gave land and 135,000 pounds to create a park giving urbanites “some pleasant rural surroundings”.
The Duchess of Argyll is an award winning member in “progressive” town planning circles.
The Duke of Richmond grows “organic” produce on his 3,000 acre commercial farm sold under his “Goodwood” brand. (17)
The Duke of Bedford created “one of the country’s most famous safari parks.” (18)
The Dukes once pervaded British governance. Between 1730 and 1830 seven Prime Ministers were Dukes. The Dukes still wield influence far beyond their numbers and wealth; however, now the influence is more indirect and less publicized.
In his autobiography Spycatcher, Peter Wright lamented British military intelligence was lorded over by aristocrats who, unlike Wright, needed neither salary nor pension. From Masters we learn the previous Duke of Portland joined the British Foreign Service in 1919 became Chairman of the Joint-Intelligence Sub-Committee of the Chiefs of Staff and Foreign Office Advisor to the Director of Plans from 1939-1945. He was later ambassador to Poland, Chairman of Bayer UK and the President of the British Nuclear Forum. The Duke of St. Albans was a decorated British Military Intelligence officer before moving onto a distinguished career in the Central Office of Information. Masters provides innumerable examples of Dukes as ranking military officers.
(Aristocrats control many European militaries. There is also an overlap between environmentalism and military intelligence).
Princes, Charles and Philip, are experts at getting appointed to boards of universities, museums, hospitals and environmental NGOs. In fact, most Dukes are involved in board-sitting, philanthropy etc. The Smithsonian Institute was founded by a son of the Duke of Northumberland. The Duke of Westminster “is connected with no less than 139 other organizations which claim his attention though he prefers to avoid public duties which are purely ceremonial. He sat on the House of Lords European Committee for Rural Policy...”(19)The Duke of Grafton is a trustee of the London Museum, Sloane Museum, National Portrait Gallery and is Chairman of Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. A previous Duke of Bedford was President of the Royal Zoological Society...
One way aristocracy influences society is through the silent control of artists. Aristocrats frequently create art as well.
The current Duke of Sutherland’s grand-father (a Gower) was a key member of the influential Roxburghe Club and authored over 20 books.
Violet, the Duchess of Rutland, was an avid painter, sketcher and sculptress. Her work is of the neo-feudalist “pre-Raphaelite” style. Some of it is in the Louvre. She reigned over a little-known castle, Belvoir, and was central in a cultish politico-artistic clique called “the Souls”. They drew their name from their obsessive discussions of souls. “The Souls were an intellectual group at the turn of the century which prided itself on unconventional behaviour and discussion long before the Bloomsbury set of Virginia Woolf ... began to shock polite society.” The Souls “virtually changed the tone of London society within a few years.” At their peak the Prime Ministers’ wife was a disciple. When the Duke of Leinster married a famous London actress it was just another “one of the alliances between aristocracy and stage which was part of life in Edwardian London.” (20) The even more influential novelist, ‘Bloomsbury Set’ Virginia Wolfe, was also related to top aristocrats including the current Duke of Beaufort, Chairman of Marlborough Fine Art (UK) Ltd.
Bertrand Russell was grandson to the Duke of Bedford.
Duke Devonshire’s daughters published numerous novels in the mid 20th century popular in both UK and USA. At this time popular socialites, the Duke of Wellington and his wife, Dorothy Wellesley, “were near the centre of literary and artistic life in London.” He was an author, architect and Ambassador to the Soviet Union. She was a distinguished poet “with many volumes of verse to her credit”.
It comes with the territory that Dukes be well-rooted in British gardening, architecture, and landscaping academies.
The Industrial Revolution happened in England, 1720-1850, and nowhere else before. Its mainspring was the mechanization of the textile industry facilitating mutually beneficial developments in British coal, steel, railways, machinery etc. England went from rural to urban. Some merchants and artisans became wealthy capitalists richer than many aristocrats. The businessman’s rise was the aristocrat’s fall. The aristocrats favoured static, protectionist and loyalty-based economic policy whereas the rising entrepreneurs (then called the “middle classes”) favoured liberalism.
Masters exposes his bias by writing favourably of the “19th century ethic” wherein Dukes invested in churches, schools, palaces and parks although “the expenditures were enormous and the return or ‘profit’ were non-existent.” (21) Masters excoriates the Duchy of Sutherland for following a capitalistic path which disrupted their 25,000 tenants’ primitive lives.
The 19th century, 4th Duke of Newcastle’s “social attitudes and his political opinions were so far beyond the extremities of right-wing Toryism that he fell out with all and sundry. The Illustrated London News commented upon his ‘unbending consistency and determined hostility to the progress of liberal opinions’”. (22)
The 7th Duke of Rutland (1818-1906) headed a coterie of Cambridge intellectuals (disciples of novelist-politician Benjamin Disraeli) who founded a mass movement of young working class activists called “Young England”. He advocated “advancement of the people, but under the leadership of the aristocracy... the common enemy, in his view, of the aristocracy and the working classes was middle class liberalism.” (23) His daughter-in-law, Violet, was a leading “Soul”.
The 10th Duke of Argyll, who died mid-20th century, was a “crotchety old man, he despised every modern invention, abominated motor cars...He refused to use a telephone or have one in the house.” He once threatened to throw a civil servant into his dungeon. (24)
The 8th Duke of Northumberland, Alan Percy, was a man “entrenched in a feudal paternalism which expected deference due to a mini-monarch.”The Times called him “a strong Tory, militant and uncompromising” (Masters thinks this understated). In the 1920’s the Duke raged against an “international conspiracy which aims at the destruction of all existing institutions of Government and society, of all religions, of all moral laws, and all property throughout the United Kingdom...”.(25)
The Duke of Bedford “was labelled a Fascist”. During World War, facing seething opposition, he campaigned in parliament for British citizens to refuse service in the war effort. He argued for warm, peaceful relations with Hitler. The Duke of Westminster considered Bedford “to be the bravest man in England”. (26)
The Duke of Devonshire was an “explosive reactionary”. His daughter, Unity, “was a personal friend of Hitler”. Another daughter, Diana, married Sir Oswald Mosley founder of the British Union of Fascists. (27)
On May 1941 top Nazi Rudolf Hess parachuted onto the Duchy of Hamilton. The Duke denied he had sought out and negotiated with Rudolf Hess five years earlier at the Nazi-hosted Olympics, which the Duke attended. However he admitted a close acquaintance with a Hess confidant. Also, the Dukes’ family was well-married into German aristocracy. Hess was reaching out to “the handful of German sympathisers within the Conservative Party”. Silly Nazis believed these aristocrats were “the real power” in the UK and the Duke of Hamilton was their sympathetic go-to man. (28)
In 1999 creeping republicanism struck again with many hereditary peers, including Dukes, losing their seats in the House of Lords. The Duke of St. Albans was physically escorted from the chamber. He left chanting “No Queen, no culture, no sovereignty no freedom. Stand up for your Queen and culture!! Vote this treason down!” (29)
The Industrial Revolution was a rising mountain of wealth. The glacier atop the mountain i.e. the aristocrats (or at least those having estates near urbanizing areas) rose with the mountain. The dukes reap billions in rent, are directors of a thousand organizations, and exert a broad influence on artists, politicians and preachers. Their main political project is promoting the “aristocratic land ethic” under various cloaks: “conservationism”, “preservationism”, “environmentalism” etc. They hold lower classes and democracy in contempt.
The Dukes are a fraction of the hundreds who inherited feudal titles along with lucrative parcels of British real estate. Then, of course, there is the Royal family. Add 8 other European royal families and the aristocracies of those countries, plus Italy and Germany, and you have a sum 10 times the British total. These few thousand families are woven together through marriage and through participation in equestrian events, art auctions, state funerals, elite hunting lodges, and social clubs. They are the bulwark of Euro-conservatism. They gave us fascism.
They are the class round which environmentalism swings.
All quotes from: Masters, Brian; The Dukes Pimlico, Random House, London, 2001
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