Tag Archives: British Peerage

Winter as a Child, Again

It is just over a year since I started my blog.  I decided to revisit my very first post, written when I was getting ready to travel to Vienna for the Christmas markets, the concerts and the museums–and of course the apple strudel.  Now I’m lucky enough to be leaving again for Vienna, one of my very favorite places.  Here’s to discovering new places and revisiting old ones!  A year ago, I wrote:

Travel is not just about being there.  Travel is about memory and anticipation.  As I pack my one small suitcase for Vienna in November, I am full of memories of past trips and high hopes for this one.

Lady Caroline Scott as Winter; image from Commons Wikimedia
Lady Caroline Scott as Winter; image from Commons Wikimedia

Last year, the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum had a special exhibit:  “Winter Tales.”  Paintings, sculpture and artifacts from all over the world were gathered in a glorious celebration of winter.  My very favorite piece was this portrait of a child with a fur-and-velvet muff and a scruffy little dog impatient for her to play:  “Lady Caroline Scott as Winter,” by Sir Joshua Reynolds.  Winter is so often personified as Death, or as a creaky old man.  Here, though, winter is a child full of hope and wonder.  She gazes out at us from the barren winter grounds of her British home, her face as fresh as the day she was painted in 1776 at the age of two or three.

This is not a glamorous society portrait.  It is only about 57 x 45 inches (just the right size to place over my fireplace, if I could afford such a thing!)  I can imagine the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, age 51 at the time, encountering Lady Caroline in the bare winter grounds of her home.  Anyone would be captivated by her rosy-cheeked face and direct gaze.  I can see Sir Joshua dashing off a sketch and finishing the portrait back in his studio.  It would have made a nice break from painting his more demanding adult subjects, who proudly posed with the emblems of their wealth and power:  swords, globes, weighty books, jewels and fine silks.

The British Peerage tells us that Lady Caroline was the daughter of the 3rd Duke of Buccleuch. She married the 6th Marquess of Queensberry (slightly lower in rank than a Duke, but who’s keeping score?) She had 6 surviving children and lived to the age of 80.  So she was an exact contemporary of Jane Austen, although Jane died at age 41.  I’d like to think Lady Caroline read Jane’s books.

Lady Caroline was a privileged child.  As she grew up, no doubt she learned that many children were cold and dirty and hungry.  Her rank would come with some responsibilities to take care of the less fortunate.  She lived through the American Revolution, the Terror in France, and the Napoleonic Wars.  And we all know that even for the most privileged, life holds heartbreak and disappointment.  But on this wintry day, all that is in the future.  In this perfect moment, Lady Carolin stands on her sturdy little legs, happy to be walking about in the wide world.

Vienna is an enchanting city in any season, but my favorite time there is winter.  The Christmas season begins in late November, an ideal time for crowd-free travel.  I do not have a fur muff or a scruffy little dog, but I am setting off for Vienna with all the anticipation of a child at Christmas.

No More Lords a’Leaping?

More than 237 years after the American Declaration of Independence, Great Britain is moving closer to a fully representative democracy. But considering that the British resolved to start working on the process over a hundred years ago, it might still take awhile. Since 1911, the British have made repeated stabs at reforming the House of Lords, which historically included only hereditary peers (plus high Church of England officials). In recent years, pressure has been building to just do it. Many would like to replace the ancient House of Lords with a fully-elected body, which would be similar to our Senate.  Slowly but surely, change is coming.

In 1066, William of Normandy crossed the English Channel and conquered England.  He codified a feudal system in which a council of large landowners and church officials advised him. Titles were formalized, as in my previous post, More Peering at the Peerage. Having a title was a mixed blessing.  At any time, the holder of the title could be summoned to the monarch’s court, at his own expense.  He could be ordered to pay crippling taxes, or to raise an army.  In compensation, he got to sit in council with the king, theoretically having some influence on decisions. (If I’d been sitting across the table from King Henry VIII, I’d have kept my head down). Eventually, the king’s council became the House of Lords, filled by nobles with hereditary titles and the lands that went with them.

In 1215, under King John, the Magna Carta, or Great Charter of the Liberties of England, was written.  Among other things, it stated that never again could the king tax without the consent of the governed–i.e., the nobles.  (At this point, no one thought to worry much about commoners). Five hundred years later, the American colonists demanded the same rights for themselves. The Boston Tea Party was an audacious challenge to the English king’s practice of taxation without representation.

Sometime in the 14th century, due to popular pressure, a House of Commons evolved in Britain so that commoners could have a say in government.  The present 650 members are elected.  They are called MPs, or Members of Parliament.  They actually do the business of government.

Since Great Britain is a constitutional monarchy, the monarch still has a formal role in government.  The theory is that she (or he) provides continuity and stability.  The same theory applies to the House of Lords, but its days could be numbered.  To this day, though, the Queen presides over the opening of every new session of Parliament.

I’ve often watched Question TIme in the House of Commons.  Amid catcalls from one side and cries of “Hear, hear,” from the other, the British Prime Minister leaps up from his seat to answer the most provocative of questions.  It’s a pretty good show. As far as I know, there is no such opportunity to watch the House of Lords at work. There are still 93 hereditary peers eligible to sit in the House of Lords.  The remaining positions are filled by a complicated and ever-changing system of election and appointment which I can’t for the life of me understand.  In fact, I can’t even figure out how many people are entitled to wear the heavy red velvet robes of the House of Lords.

Should the British eliminate the peerage?  One reason it has not yet happened is that the British people love their traditions.  Cynics argue that the hereditary peerage (and the monarchy) provide nifty spectacles for tourists.  I can’t argue with that.

Anyway, as an American, I don’t think I’m entitled to an opinion on either the peerage or the monarchy.  After all, in our “classless” society, we pay outrageous salaries to athletes while teachers have trouble feeding their families.  And we pay homage to “celebrities”–including reality stars of dubious talents–in all our media. Meanwhile, I’m as fond of British traditions, including titles, as any other Anglophile.  England would be a different country with no one to call “Lord” or “Lady.”

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles.

Peering at the Peerage

The New York Times recently published a story about momentous changes possibly coming to the hallowed British laws governing titles and property.  The article is titled “Son and Heir? In Britain, Daughters Cry No Fair.” Royal heredity laws were recently changed to benefit the baby due soon to Prince William and Duchess Catherine.  Boy or girl, the child will become third in line to the throne. (I’m thinking that fun-loving Prince Harry will not really mind giving up his place).

This raises questions for other families still under the laws of primogeniture:  inheritance by males only.  Only in the British Isles does this still happen.  Most European countries have long since required parents to provide for all of their children, regardless of sex or birth order.  But in the British Isles, titles and lands have been held together and preserved for families precisely because the oldest son almost always inherits, and no one else gets anything.

But the changes in royal inheritance law have emboldened other families to question the age-old way of doing things.

Liza Campbell, daughter of the 25th Thane of Cawdor; photo from NYT

Liza Campbell, daughter of the 25th Thane of Cawdor; photo from NYT

For example, Liza Campbell, pictured above, grew up on her family’s Scottish estate, complete with castle, knowing all the while that her younger brother would inherit it all.  (There is still actually a Thane of Cawdor–he’s not just a character from Shakespeare’s MacBeth). Her father always told her, “Your face is your fortune”–meaning that it was up to her to marry well since there was nothing else coming to her.

Now, laws to allow the oldest child to inherit, whether male or female, are making their way through the British legal system.  This means that both titles and lands could still be held together for a family, but having the all-important son would no longer be a requirement.  In Downton Abbey terms, Lady Mary would just inherit the whole kit and kaboodle, and she could marry whomever she pleased.

The ultimate source on titles in Britain, Burke’s Peerage, still publishes the guide found on many a British bookshelf.  Naturally, it’s now an interactive website, too.  Founded in 1826, Burke’s Peerage also lists the genealogical history of all the royal families of Europe and the presidential families of the United States.

Only in Great Britain, though, do titles mean anything in a legal sense.  Many Europeans use their hereditary titles, but they have no legal standing.  And unless the person in question inherited the lands and estates that used to go along with the title, there is no income either. Of course, the “death tax” wreaks havoc on those lucky enough to actually inherit real estate as well as titles.  Some people joke that royal titles in most of Europe are about as valuable as vanity license plates.  In Britain, though, inheritance among the aristocracy still means something.  So any change will have profound results.  Whether there should even be heredity titles–or a monarchy–are subjects of another whole debate.  Change comes slowly in a land as bound by tradition as Great Britain.

The article from The New York TImes is at

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/world/europe/son-and-heir-in-britain-daughters-cry-no-fair.html?_r=0.

Join me next time for more explorations into the history of Europe and the British Isles!

Tyntesfield: Mr. Gibbs Made His Dibs

Entry Hall

William Gibbs’s son Antony did not take over the family business as expected.  The story went that William would not allow it, after he observed that the boy could not add four columns of figures simultaneously (I wonder how many of us would pass that test?)  I doubt Antony was disappointed.  He managed the Tyntesfield estates and charities, became an accomplished carver of ivory, and puttered with inventions such as a bicycle which supposedly stored energy going downhill and used it when going uphill. It didn’t work, though.

Instead, William’s nephew Henry Hucks Gibbs took over the company.  Henry was elevated to the peerage, becoming Baron Aldenham in 1896.  (What exactly is the peerage, anyway?  A subject for another post).  Henry also became Governor of the Bank of England, earning him the popular jingle which forever followed the Gibbs family: “Mr. Gibbs made his dibs, Selling the turds of foreign birds.” Not very elegant, but it certainly told the story. And he must have laughed all the way to the bank.

The little ditty no doubt followed George Abraham Gibbs, a war hero who moved in higher social circles than his humbler ancestors.

George became 1st Lord Wraxall and Treasurer of the Royal Household–an example of the new commercial and industrial wealth overtaking older titled families.

The 2nd Lord Wraxall, known as Richard, inherited the title at the age of 3.  His mother, Ursula, Lady Wraxall, presided at Tyntesfield until she died in 1979.  She received an OBE for her services to the war effort. During World War II, the house became a medical distribution center, with the books in the library replaced by bandages. It was also a convalescent home for American soldiers, who stage reunions there to this day.

When he came of age, the 2nd Lord Wraxall (Richard) served with the Coldstream Guards, then took over management of the estate. He maintained the house and grounds as they were, not following the lead of so many great homes in getting rid of Victorian furniture and features as they became unfashionable. He never married, and ended up living alone in the house with most of the rooms closed. When he died unexpectedly in 2001, the place was a treasure trove of Victorian items from the past 150 years.

TyntesSotheby1

Join me next time when I consider the very challenging acquisition of the house by the National Trust.  It’s one of the chapters in the fascinating story of the history and art of the British Isles.

Winter as a Child

Travel is not just about being there.  Travel is about memory and anticipation.  As I pack my one small suitcase for Vienna in November, I am full of memories of past trips and high hopes for this one.

Lady Caroline Scott as Winter; image from Commons Wikimedia

Lady Caroline Scott as Winter; image from Commons Wikimedia

Last year, the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum had a special exhibit:  “Winter Tales.”  Paintings, sculpture and artifacts from all over the world were gathered in a glorious celebration of winter.  My very favorite piece was this portrait of a child with a fur-and-velvet muff and a scruffy little dog impatient for her to play:  “Lady Caroline Scott as Winter,” by Sir Joshua Reynolds.  Winter is so often personified as Death, or as a creaky old man.  Here, though, winter is a child full of hope and wonder.  She gazes out at us from the barren winter grounds of her British home, her face as fresh as the day she was painted in 1776 at the age of two or three.

This is not a glamorous society portrait.  It is only about 57 x 45 inches (just the right size to place over my fireplace, if I could afford such a thing!)  I can imagine the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, age 51 at the time, encountering Lady Caroline in the bare winter grounds of her home.  Anyone would be captivated by her rosy-cheeked face and direct gaze.  I can see Sir Joshua dashing off a sketch and finishing the portrait back in his studio.  It would have made a nice break from painting his more demanding adult subjects, who proudly posed with the emblems of their wealth and power:  swords, globes, weighty books, jewels and fine silks.

The British Peerage tells us that Lady Caroline was the daughter of the 3rd Duke of Buccleuch. She married the 6th Marquess of Queensberry (slightly lower in rank than a Duke, but who’s keeping score?) She had 6 surviving children and lived to the age of 80.  So she was an exact contemporary of Jane Austen, although Jane died at age 41.  I’d like to think Lady Caroline read Jane’s books.

Lady Caroline was a privileged child.  As she grew up, no doubt she learned that many children were cold and dirty and hungry.  Her rank would come with some responsibilities to take care of the less fortunate.  She lived through the American Revolution, the Terror in France, and the Napoleonic Wars.  And we all know that even for the most privileged, life holds heartbreak and disappointment.  But on this wintry day, all that is in the future.  In this perfect moment, Lady Carolin stands on her sturdy little legs, happy to be walking about in the wide world.

Vienna is an enchanting city in any season, but my favorite time there is winter.  The Christmas season begins in late November, an ideal time for crowd-free travel.  I do not have a fur muff or a scruffy little dog, but I am setting off for Vienna with all the anticipation of a child at Christmas.