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p. 10116. Pomp and Circumstancelocked

  • Christopher Harvie
  •  and H. C. G. Matthew


‘Pomp and Circumstance’ addresses the enduring importance of the aristocracy. They remained the dominant force in Westminster politics and officered the army. Aristocrats augmented their wealth through selling land for urban development, as well as industrial investment and banking. Court association with the romantic portrayal of the moors and mountains of the north made these fashionable. The values of the aristocracy were changing, as exemplified by the hedonism of the Prince of Wales. Despite the absence of Queen Victoria from public life after the death of Prince Albert, important elements of society remained receptive to the monarchy and the timeless qualities that it represented.

The aristocracy (and gentry) was only partly affected by these changes. Of the three great classes in British social life, it probably changed the least in Victoria's reign. The aristocracy was, as the socialist writer Beatrice Webb observed, ‘a curiously tough substance’. It continued to wield considerable political power, supplying much of the membership of both political parties at Westminster, occupying almost all the upper posts in the empire, running local government in the counties, and officering the army – the navy was less socially exclusive. The aristocracy and gentry gained from prosperous farming in the 1850s–1870s, and lost by the agricultural depression; but it recovered some of its losses by skilful investment in urban land, and by the windfall of urban expansion, when what had been agricultural lands of declining value made their owners wealthy as suburbs were built upon them.

The British aristocracy had always been involved in industrialization, especially in the development of mining, canals, and railways. It now shrewdly associated itself with the new wave of commercial expansion: most banks and insurance companies had a lord to add tone to the managerial board. It also shored up its fortunes by astute marriages, notably with the new aristocracy of wealth in the United States: the best-known example was the marriage of the ninth duke of Marlborough to Consuelo Vanderbilt. By these means, many of the great aristocratic estates were preserved despite agricultural decline.

p. 102But they were playthings as much as engines of wealth, and came to be treated as such. The aristocracy came to be known to the urban population chiefly through their representation in the popular press and magazines as men and women of leisure: racing, hunting, shooting, and fishing in the country, gambling and attending the season in London. In a population for which leisure was becoming increasingly important, this did not make the aristocracy unpopular.

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The Court

The court led the way. The gravity which Albert applied to court life in the south was applied with equal pertinacity to the serious business of recreation in the north. Victoria and Albert's development of Balmoral on Deeside in the 1850s, their obvious and highly publicized enjoyment of peasant life and lore, and their patronage of Sir Edwin Landseer, the hugely popular artist of rural slaughter, made Scotland respectable, and likewise similar moors and mountains in the north and west of England and in Wales. The court linked itself to the Romantic movement, now in its declining and consequently most popular phase, and by doing so re-established its popularity and represented the control of nature by an urban civilization. The Monarch of the Glen, Landseer's portrait of a stag, one of the most reproduced of all Victorian paintings, is not monarch of all he surveys, but a stag at bay, within the gun sights of the stalker: no glen was safe, nature was tamed.

Victoria and Albert's life at Balmoral was enjoyable but high-minded: duty to the peasantry was consistently emphasized. The Prince of Wales, Victoria's son Edward who succeeded her in 1901, was merely hedonistic. A series of scandals alarmed his mother but gratified the press by the copy they yielded. The prince with his coterie of rich friends such as Sir Thomas Lipton, who made a fortune from the new retail trade in groceries, epitomized the ‘plutocracy’. The evangelicalism and tractarianism which made such a mark on the aristocracy in post-Regency days, and which made Palmerston's dandyism in the 1850s and p. 1031860s seem conspicuously out of place, appeared to give way to ostentatious consumption and a general moral laxity. Some aristocrats, such as Lord Salisbury, the Tory prime minister, continued the old fashion of simple living despite magnificent surroundings, with a household noted for its religious tone. But Salisbury, the last prime minister to wear a beard, was becoming an anachronism by his last decade, the 1890s. Arthur Balfour, his nephew and successor as prime minister, was seen as a free-thinker. Balfour and Edward VII characterized the new fashion – the one apparently sceptical, the other openly sybaritic.

Despite the marked difference in style between Victoria and her son, the monarchy – the apex of the court and of polite society generally – flourished under both. Victoria in her long reign (1837–1901) jealously guarded its prerogatives, which increasingly she saw as best safeguarded by a Conservative government. Her long disappearances from public life after Albert's death in 1861 were unpopular, and made possible quite a serious republican movement stimulated by the Paris Commune, which was headed off with some skill by the Liberal Party leadership in the early 1870s. It was the absence and idleness of the monarch that caused widespread adverse comment, not her presence. In a rapidly changing society with important elements strongly receptive to the appeal of hierarchy, the monarchy, carefully presented by the growing mass-communications industry, seemed something of a fixed point, with its emphasis on family, continuity, and religion. Walter Bagehot in his classic study, The English Constitution (1867), pointed out that the English ‘defer to what we may call the theatrical show of society … the climax of the play is the Queen’. The monarchy helped to legitimize power: it is ‘commonly hidden like a mystery, and sometimes paraded like a pageant’, as it was with great success at the jubilees in 1887 and 1897. The obvious ordinariness of Victoria herself, her well-publicized sufferings (‘the widow of Windsor’, bravely performing her duties), and the fact that she was a woman, old and often ill, pointed up the contrast between p. 104human frailty and the majesty of institutions, much increasing respect for the latter.

The monarchy represented the timeless quality of what was taken to be a pre-industrial order. In an increasingly urbanized society, it balanced the industrial revolution: the more urban Britain became, the more stylized, ritualized, and popular became its monarchy, for the values which it claimed to personify stood outside the competitive egalitarianism of capitalist society.