In his highly entertaining book "Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Extraordinary Exploits of the British and European Aristocracy", Karl Shaw describes some of the habits, achievements and hazards of noble lords and ladies down the centuries.
The blurb reads:
The alarming history of the British, and European, aristocracy - from Argyll to Wellington and from Byron to Tolstoy, stories of madness, murder, misery, greed and profligacy.
From Regency playhouses, to which young noblemen would go simply in order to insult someone to provoke a duel that might further their reputation, to the fashionable gambling clubs or 'hells' which were springing up around St James's in the mid-eighteenth century, the often bizarre doings of aristocrats.
An eighteenth-century English gentleman was required to have what was known as 'bottom', a shipping metaphor that referred to stability. Taking part in a duel was a bold statement that you had bottom. William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne certainly had bottom, if not a complete set of gonads following his duel with Colonel Fullarton, MP for Plympton. Both men missed with their first shots, but the colonel fired again and shot off Shelborne's right testicle. Despite being hit, Shelborne deliberately discharged his second shot in the air. When asked how he was, the injured Earl coolly observed his wound and said, 'I don't think Lady Shelborne will be the worse for it.'
The cast of characters includes imperious, hard-drinking and highly volatile Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who is remembered today as much for his brilliant scientific career as his talent for getting involved in bizarre mishaps, such as his death as a result of his burst bladder; the Marquess of Queensberry, a side-whiskered psychopath, who, on a luxury steamboat in Brazil, in a row with a fellow passenger over the difference between emus and ostriches, knocked him out cold; and Thomas, 2nd Baron Lyttelton, a Georgian rake straight out of central casting, who ran up enormous gambling debts, fought duels, frequented brothels and succumbed to drug and alcohol addiction.
Often, such rakes would be swiftly packed off on a Grand Tour in the hope that travel would bring about maturity. It seldom did.
For this morning's snippet, I've chosen the chapter titled "Pride and Prejudice", examining the aristocracy's financial ways, spendthrift and otherwise.
There are many different ways for the aristocracy to display rank and wealth. Some are for the benefit of the lower classes, others so finely calibrated that only other aristocrats can grasp their meaning, as if to say ‘Just between us, I’m richer than you.’
Among the more subtle status symbols were the height and general turnout of footmen, known as ‘fart catchers’, so called because they walked behind their employees with no discernible occupation. Some of these retainers were paid by height – extra for every inch over six foot – so a row of towering footmen was a clear signal of superiority. In the 1920s, the footmen at Blenheim Palace, home of the Duke of Marlborough, were hard to ignore: all well over six feet tall, they wore maroon coats covered in silver braid, their hair powdered with a mixture of violet powder and flour: the violet powder came out of their own wages.
As well as height and impressive bearing, footmen required speed and stamina. The 4th Duke of Marlborough was one of many aristocrats who employed a running footman – a servant dressed in full livery paid to run alongside his lordship’s coach. A good running footman could average about seven miles per hour – more, it was said, if they were fed white wine and eggs. Noblemen amused themselves by arranging and betting on races between these footmen and horse-drawn coaches. One of the last recorded races of this kind was staged between Marlborough’s footman and the duke himself, riding in a carriage and four, from Windsor to London. The duke won by a narrow margin; the footman died from his efforts.
The 4th Duke of Queensberry kept a running footman who was employed to run messages and errands for him and to beat a path before him in heavy crowds. He interviewed prospective candidates by making them do a test run up and down Piccadilly in London, dressed in full ducal livery, while he watched from the balcony of his home overlooking the busy street. One candidate ran so quickly that Queensberry called down to him, ‘You’ll do very well for me!’ ‘And your lordship’s livery will do very well for me,’ the man replied, as he disappeared from view.
For some reason Irish footmen were all the rage in English aristocratic circles, but how much this had to do with innate athleticism and how much with economics is unclear. Fynes Moryson, English travel writer and bigot, thought that Irish footmen performed best when treated poorly. It was definitely a mistake, he suggested, ever to let them sit on a horse, or they would never run again. There were running footmen in other parts of Europe too. The almanac Chambers Book of Days quotes ‘Mrs St George’, a traveller in Vienna around 1800, who was appalled at their treatment. ‘They seldom live more than three or four years and usually die of consumption,’ she noted.
There were many hazards for footmen. The 5th Earl of Lonsdale’s London residence had a particularly dangerous antique lift to the upper floors. The lift was completely open at the sides and was no more than a caged platform offering no protection from the walls on either side. One day Lady Lonsdale, who was on her way to the races at Newmarket, was waiting on the ground floor for her footman to bring down her trunk in the lift. On the way down he got wedged between the trunk and the walls and by the time the lift arrived at the ground floor the footman was dead. This was very awkward for her ladyship; not only had she lost a footman, she also very nearly missed her train. No tragedy, however great, was allowed to interrupt the ducal routine.
In British country houses of the 1700s it was fashionable to keep a black servant. Some were well treated, but many were not. Often they were regarded as slaves and paid no wages. Some, like the Duchess of Kingston’s black servant Sambo, once they reached adolescence and lost their appeal as fashion accessories, were sold back into slavery on a plantation. Others remained as family retainers. At Knole in Kent the Earls of Dorset kept a succession of black servants who, regardless of their real names, were known as John Morocco.
One of the more eccentric status symbols enjoyed by the English aristocracy was the acquisition of real, mechanical or occasionally stuffed ‘ornamental hermits’. In the 1830s Lord Hill installed a human hermit in the grounds of his home at Hawkstone in Shropshire. The bare-footed ‘Father Francis’ was required to sit in a cave with an hourglass in his hand and exchange bon mots with passing visitors. He was eventually replaced by an automaton that would nod its head whenever someone came by, but according to regulars, the effect was disappointing. Charles Hamilton, a younger son of the 6th Earl of Abercorn, advertised for a hermit for his estate at Pains Hall, near Cobham, Surrey. The conditions of employment were stringent: ‘He shall be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for timepiece, water for his beverage, and food from the house. He must wear a camlet robe, and never under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr. Hamilton’s grounds, or exchange one word with the servants.’ Sadly, real people were not as reliable as mechanical hermits. They got rheumatism, became bad-tempered and often failed to nod when required. Hamilton’s first hermit lasted three weeks before running away and being found drunk in a nearby hostelry.
By the eighteenth century, every self-respecting aristocrat with a scientific bent had a private menagerie of exotic animals. The Duke of Richmond had a private zoo at Goodwood, comprising five wolves, two tigers, one lion, two leopards, three bears, monkeys, eagles, and ‘a woman Tyger’ and ‘a new animal he is very fond of which he calls a mangoose’. The Duchess of Portland collected animals so frantically that friends wondered if she was anticipating another biblical deluge. The Earl of Shelburne, later to become prime minister, kept an orangutan and an allegedly tame leopard in his orangery at Bowood House. Sir Robert Walpole’s pet flamingo warmed itself by his kitchen fire, while Sir Hans Sloane was followed round his Chelsea home by a tame, one-eyed wolverine; it kept his opossum and his porcupine company. The 4th Duke of Marlborough kept a tigress in his grounds in a cage, fed by regular orders made to the local butcher’s shop. Records show that the tigress cost the same as three servants to feed.
Parrot ownership was all the rage, but you had to be seriously rich. In the mid-1700s a macaw would cost you the equivalent of a domestic servant’s annual salary. Sadly, attitudes towards animal welfare were not very enlightened. One polar bear was fed on bread and milk and a rhinoceros was given three bottles of wine a day, while a baiting contest pitched twelve dogs against a panther.
Exotic animals were also luxury ingredients. In Georgian Britain, turtle feasts were something of an obsession among the affluent classes and no high-society dinner was complete without copious servings of the freshly prepared reptile. A gentleman who wanted to show off would generously donate a turtle to his club. It isn’t clear why the ruling classes developed a taste for this unlikely delicacy (people who have sampled it describe its flavour as muddy, dirty, mushy and chewy: if you must, general consensus seems to be to go for the innards and flippers). Perhaps it was simply because they could. Turtles were incredibly difficult and expensive to come by because they were caught in the West Indies and had to be kept alive during the long voyage across the Atlantic before being slaughtered in Britain. Vast turtle warehouses sprang up in Bristol, where the turtle boats usually docked. It is an indication of how gastronomic taste has changed over the past 200 years that oysters were then so cheap that servants refused to eat them more than a couple of times a week. Now oysters are an expensive luxury and turtles are relegated to tinned soup.
Perhaps equally baffling was the upper-class mania for having their wigs dressed in bear grease. Thousands of barrels of bear grease were exported from Arkansas to London to keep pace with demand, decimating the state’s population of bears in the process. Live bears were imported from Russia to be fattened up for slaughter by London hairdressers and wig-makers. Customers were invited to watch the removal of the fat from a recently slaughtered bear so as to prove that they were not being fobbed off with pig fat.
In London and Paris, high-class perfumers, apothecaries and grocers traded in goods prepared from either living or dead turtles, bears or civet cats. The scented glandular secretion extracted from the anal glands of the civet cat was one of the most expensive materials employed by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century perfumers and was used to scent linen, pomades and handkerchiefs and as an ingredient in perfumes or even as a treatment for sexual and hysteric disorders. One expensive eighteenth-century treatment for erectile dysfunction utilised twenty-five grains of civet (four shillings) for a single dose.
TOO POSH TO WASH
Clothes were an obvious way of showing off rank and status. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there were even laws to prevent commoners wearing certain types of clothing thought suitable only for noblemen. In France, the red heels fashionable at King Louis XIV’s court were synonymous for nobility for many generations, long after the fad had passed. In the Regency era, clean linen, precision grooming and good manners were the hallmark of a gentleman. What went on beneath this façade was slightly less glamorous. A gentleman would change his shirt a couple of times a day to keep the louse population down, but only his hands and face saw soap and water. The standard for most male noblemen was a dirty body and filthy hair, both heavily doused with perfume in an attempt to mask, usually unsuccessfully, massive body odour. The Austrian Prince of Kaunitz-Rietberg, for instance, spent a part of every morning pacing up and down his room while four valets puffed a cloud of scented powder in his direction, each with a different colour.
‘Filthy rich’ was a literal description of Charles Howard 11th Duke of Norfolk, said to be richest and the smelliest man in England. When his body odour became unbearable his servants waited until he was drunk then washed him while he lay comatose on the floor. The notoriously unsanitary Topham Beauclerk, great-grandson of Charles II and his mistress Nell Gwynne, was said to be so filthy that, according to the diarist Horace Walpole, he ‘generated vermin’.
Rotting teeth and bad breath were extremely common and painful problems for the rich because only they could afford sugar, sticky fruits and sweetmeats. A lot of damage was also done by contemporary tooth-cleaning methods such as the use of coarse powders and chalk or soda whitening agents that wore away tooth enamel and irritated gums. Lord Chesterfield completely destroyed his teeth through the overly energetic use of sticks and irons.
In the summer, the well-heeled decamped to the spas at Bath and Cheltenham where the alleged medicinal properties of the local spring water had been attracting invalids for centuries. These spas, however, were run on such unsanitary principles that they must have created many more health problems than they solved. Communal bathing in what was basically a small swimming pool full of warm water created a bacterial soup where people with infected wounds and running sores bathed alongside people with contagious diseases.
Even among the wealthiest, standards of hygiene were, by modern standards, abysmally poor. Although Queen Caroline brought the German bathing regimen with her from Ansbach when she came to the throne in 1727 and immediately ordered a set of bathtubs for the royal family, the British aristocracy were notoriously reluctant to convert to ‘foreign’ bathing habits. Although the flushing water closet was invented during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, most English aristocratic dwellings didn’t catch up with the technology until the 1780s. One or two of the great houses, such as Chatsworth and Blenheim, had a bathroom but most did not – even Buckingham Palace didn’t have one when Queen Victoria inherited it in 1837. The top London gentlemen’s club, Brooks’s, didn’t have a lavatory, only a cesspit that was emptied when it started to overflow. In French aristocratic homes sanitary conditions were even worse. The flushing toilet, referred to as les lieux à l’anglaise and the inbuilt plumbing they required were not considered a necessity until the later nineteenth century.
In the eighteenth century there was no greater indication of wealth than the amount of food you were prepared to eat. For gentlemen it was also a test of virility; gluttony was manly, not greedy. In Britain, where the fare was considerably more basic than on the continent, this usually meant vast consumption of beefsteaks. The most legendary of all the beefsteak eaters, the afore-mentioned Charles, 11th Duke of Norfolk, once ate fifteen huge steaks at a single sitting and his meal breaks often went on from 3 p.m. until well after midnight. Surprisingly, he lived into his seventieth year.
Lavish dinners were expected of the nobility. It was customary to provide more food than the company could feasibly eat (unless the Duke of Norfolk was a guest, obviously) so a society hostess would be expected to lay on at least fifteen courses and often many more. Some aristocratic epicures had appetites that were worthy of the Roman emperors. Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset, died in agony on Easter Sunday when his digestive system failed to keep pace with his massive intake of potato pies. The 4th Duke of Rutland was also famous for spectacular overindulgence. He began each day with a breakfast of six or seven turkey eggs then spent the rest of the day washing them down with port. He died aged thirty-three of liver disease.
Just occasionally, the upper classes would try to lose weight for reasons of health or vanity. Lord Byron, whose tendency to put on weight didn’t sit easily with his image as a romantic hero, tried various fad diets and once threw a strop at a dinner party to which he had been invited because there was too much fatty food and demanded ‘nothing but hard biscuits and soda water’. There was none available, so he settled for a plate of potatoes drowned in vinegar.
Sir Tatton Sykes, 5th Baronet, was a miserable hypochondriac who obsessively followed various bizarre health-fads of his own invention. He lived almost exclusively on a diet of cold rice pudding and, so the story goes, in 1911 refused to leave his 250-year-old mansion Sledmere House during a blazing fire until he had finished his bowl. ‘I must eat my pudding!’ he told his fleeing servants as the flames consumed his property. Helena, the Comtesse de Noailles – a thoroughly English lady despite her French title – lived on a diet of milk, champagne, fresh herring roe (to prevent bronchitis) and methane. She encouraged her cows to graze near open windows because she thought the farts they produced were good for her health.
Surviving a country house dinner party required a strong constitution – and that’s where alcohol helped. Gentlemen were encouraged to drink; in fact, part of being a gentleman meant holding your liquor. William Hogarth’s painting A Modern Midnight Conversation shows a typical upper-class drinking bout in full swing. Under a side table is a pile of empty bottles and on top, more bottles and a bowl of punch. The participants are in varying states of disarray. One has fallen over, smashing the bottle he was holding, another is staggering around the room while two others have fallen asleep.
According to Thackeray, the English nobility spent at least a quarter of their lives drinking and were rarely entirely sober. Dr Johnson noted: ‘Claret is the liquor for boys, port for men: but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.’ The 11th Duke of Norfolk had an astonishing capacity for alcohol and was said to be capable of drinking five or six times more than any normal person – including his good friend the Prince Regent, who was partial to the odd gallon of cherry brandy. Sir Beaumont Dixie’s devotion to alcohol earned for himself and his wife the nicknames Sir Always and Lady Sometimes Tipsy. Sir William Paxton, who built a tower in Carmarthenshire high enough for him to keep an eye on his horses in a field near Tenby, thirty-six miles away, drank 406 bottles of sherry in a single year. Another legendary toper, William Thoms Eardley-Twisleton-Fiennes, 15th Baron Saye and Sele, breakfasted on omelettes made from golden pheasants’ eggs, and drank wines and spirits, including absinthe, in truly frightening amounts. A new manservant, on being appointed, approached Fiennes as he was going out to dinner and asked his master if he had any orders. Fiennes replied: ‘Place two bottles of sherry by my bedside and call me the day after tomorrow.’ Ladies drank heavily too. Lady Caroline Lamb downed at least one bottle of sherry every day of her adult life, which ended when she was forty-one.
The Georgian aristocracy was drowned in port, which explains why so many of them died of gout or liver disease. It was the age of the ‘three-bottle man’. The ability for a young man, in a single sitting, to be able to drink three bottles of port, was a sign that you were someone to be reckoned with. To be fair, the standard size of a bottle of port or wine was smaller than it is today, but it still represented a truly alarming intake of alcohol. The Regency diarist Captain Gronow claimed he knew of four-, five- and even six-bottle men – although we can’t be absolutely sure to what degree Gronow’s own recollections were seen through an alcoholic haze.
The growth in popularity of port as the young gentleman’s tipple of choice was partly born of necessity. While the Napoleonic Wars raged on the continent, the vineyards of France, Italy and Spain were denied and the only available trading nation to Britain was its oldest ally, Portugal. Port had been Britain’s wartime drink of choice since the seventeenth century and there was even a degree of patriotism to be seen in the drinking of it.
It was also ostensibly very good for you; according to most informed medical opinion of the time, a regular infusion of port would drive other less welcome toxins out of the body. William Pitt the Younger, prime minister and son of the 1st Earl of Chatham, was referred to his father’s physician, Dr Addington, who gave him a piece of medical advice that probably contributed to his early death. Addington recommended diet, regular exercise on horseback and a daily quantity of port wine, variously recorded as ‘a bottle a day’ or ‘liberal potations’ – at any rate, it was a lot of port. Pitt stuck to this advice throughout the rest of his life, especially the bit about drinking. Coincidentally, he enjoyed a substantial improvement in his health and shook off the illnesses that had plagued him as a child, so he could be forgiven for thinking that the port was doing the job. Drinking a quantity a day for medicinal purposes, however, was still a long way from knocking back three bottles in a single sitting. It also explains why, during speeches in the House of Commons, he often had to dodge behind the Speaker’s Chair to throw up.
After the Napoleonic Wars the British aristocracy took to their fine wines with a vengeance. Wine consumption was directly related to wealth: the more you could afford, the more you drank. To ensure there was always plenty to go around, most estates kept large cellars with very detailed books. It was not unusual for aristocratic families to have several thousand bottles in stock. It’s perhaps only fair to point out that that compared to their Russian counterparts, British aristocrats were lightweights. The test of a true St Petersburg nobleman was to be able to drink vodka by the pail-full. When Friedrich Wilhelm, the teenage Duke of Courland, unwisely got himself involved in a drinking contest at his wedding ceremony with his new Russian in-laws, he dropped dead from alcohol poisoning on his way home.
Throughout Britain’s war with France, which had lasted continuously for almost twenty-two years, the British public was vehemently anti-French, as the cartoons of the day show, but the aristocracy stuck to their fondness for all things French and saw no reason to change their ways. The upper classes continued to pepper their conversation with French, filled their homes with French furniture, ate French food, drank French wine (when they could get it) and generally hankered after a return to Paris. When war with France was briefly interrupted by the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 the British upper classes stampeded to Paris en masse. You can imagine the public reaction if in 1940 the British upper classes had spoken in German to each other at parties about how they couldn’t wait to revisit Berlin.
After Britain’s defeat of Napoleon, however, Europe’s nobility became determinedly Anglophile. The dress, manners and habits of the British elite were slavishly copied right across the continent. In St Petersburg, luxury shops were crammed with British goods and fashionable Russians even sent their laundry to London. Austrian and Hungarian counts were served English breakfast, Transylvanian ladies ate cucumber sandwiches cut in the English style, French noblemen took up polo and horse-racing and Sicilian noblemen ordered shaving soap from Piccadilly.
Some aristocrats are so grand that their grandeur never occurs to them. They see no need to assume airs and graces because their identity is a given; they know other people will respect them because of their name and pedigree.
Others, however, needed to lay it on with a trowel. One of the most wildly ostentatious aristocrats of the early nineteenth century was the eccentric and possibly mad Charles, Duke of Brunswick, who fled political turmoil in Germany in 1830 and decamped to Paris, then London where he maintained his reputation as ‘the wealthiest lunatic who ever lived’. He was chiefly famous for his ludicrous appearance. He stayed in bed until the late afternoon, then began his elaborate preparations for going out around 4 p.m.; he rarely saw the sun during winter months. He used an enormous amount of face paint, dyed his beard every day and had a range of silk wigs, long after the fashion for them had died out, worn according to the hue of facial colouring he assumed. He was also regularly festooned with gems, ‘rescued’ from the Brunswick crown treasury, right down to, or so he claimed, diamond-encrusted underpants.
The duke was also known for his passion for lawsuits. He filed hundreds of them, once suing a washerwoman over a seven-franc bill, and including at least twelve lawsuits over the repair of a watch. His most famous legal battle was with the publisher of The Satirist over a series of libellous articles, including one claiming that he had murdered a London prostitute. He consumed vast amounts of sweets, sometimes paying sweetshop owners large sums of money for the privilege of going into their premises and eating as many sweets as he could stomach at once, contributing to his ‘extreme corpulence’ in later years. In 1873 in the middle of a chess game, the bizarre nobleman excused himself, instructing his opponent not to cheat while he was away, then went to his room and died.
Some aristocrats were more determined than others to flaunt their rank and were very touchy about matters of precedence. The 6th Duke of Devonshire, who liked to appear at the races with a coach and twelve outriders, was furious when Lord Fitzwilliam, of inferior rank, turned up with two coaches and sixteen outriders. John de la Pole, 2nd Duke of Suffolk, once refused to ride from his seat at Ewelme in Oxfordshire with just twelve servants, all that were then available to him. The truly grandiose would insist on having horses all of the same colour: the 9th Duke of Marlborough only tolerated greys. The 6th Duke of Devonshire kept a private orchestra on permanent standby and always travelled with his personal pianist, Charles Coote, which was probably a bit too much, especially when you consider that the duke was deaf.
The extraordinarily arrogant Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset, was known as ‘the Proud Duke’ on account of his obsession with rank and protocol: according to the historian Thomas Macauley he was ‘a man in whom the pride of birth and rank amounted almost to a disease’. Somerset was such a snob that he refused to communicate with his servants except by sign language. Whenever he travelled from London to his country estates he sent outriders ahead of his carriage to clear the roads of riff-raff and had a series of houses built at convenient points along the route so that he wouldn’t have to stop overnight in a public inn and mingle with the lower classes.
Even members of his own family weren’t spared his insufferably imperious manner. Somerset insisted that his children always stand in his presence and he cut off the inheritance of one of his daughters when he fell asleep and woke up to find her sitting down.
It was quite normal for the aristocracy to expect deference from their own children, although not everyone went to the extremes taken by the Italian Duke Vespasiano Gonzaga, who kicked his only son Luigi in the testicles when he failed to doff his cap to him in the street. Within a week the son died of internal rupturing.
The 3rd Baron Crewe couldn’t bear the sight of his own servants. Any member of staff he encountered after 10 a.m. was liable for instant dismissal. This was possibly why, in 1866, no one told him about the blaze that destroyed most of Crewe Hall until it was too late. John James Hamilton, Marquess of Abercorn, was so overbearingly aristocratic that it was said even the king was afraid to speak to him. Hamilton wore his ceremonial blue ribbon of the Knights of the Garter everywhere he went, even when out hunting. Servants were required to wear white kid gloves when they changed his bed linen and his footmen had to dip their hands in a bowl of rose water before handing him a dish. The novelist Walter Scott once came across a procession of five carriages with twenty outriders; it turned out to be Hamilton, off for a spot of informal lunch at the local inn. In 1816 Hamilton’s youngest daughter died of consumption. He was grief-stricken, but too proud to admit that a member of his family had died of a disease he associated with poverty and the working classes, so he begged the doctor to write a letter to The Times announcing that the death had been caused by something ‘less common’. Hamilton was scrupulous in his insistence that correct conventions were observed at all times. When he found out that his second wife was about to run off with another man, he insisted that she use the family carriage, so that it could never be said that Lady Abercorn ‘left her husband’s roof in a hack chaise’.
Those aristocrats who could afford it thought nothing of buying vast objects from abroad and paying for them to be shipped home to ornament their estates. Lord Abercorn’s namesake and distant relative Alexander, the 10th Duke of Hamilton, outbid the British Museum by paying eleven thousand pounds for a sarcophagus originally made for an Egyptian princess, then housed it in a colossal and ridiculous mausoleum. He would often visit his expensive coffin and imagine himself lying in it; he even bought the spices he was planning to have himself embalmed in.
There was, however, one small problem; it had been made for someone much smaller than Hamilton. It was also made from a piece of rare Egyptian marble, so it couldn’t be altered. It wasn’t until his death in 1852 that it was discovered that he was too tall to fit inside it: the only way they could get his lordship in was by sawing his legs off.
The 11th duke, son of the fake pharaoh, had his fair share of Hamilton’s love of excess. He never travelled abroad with a lesser retinue than two hundred horses, carriages and servants. In Paris he used to drive down the Champs-Élysées in a carriage drawn by twelve horses and six postilions, in contravention of the law which banned anyone but the Emperor Napoleon himself to drive with more than eight horses and postilions. Hamilton, of course, considered himself at least the equal of Napoleon and above such petty legislations.
A BRIDGES TOO FAR
The ultimate signifier of status is, of course, a title. Technically, it is illegal to buy a British peerage, but this hasn’t stopped people from going to absurd lengths to acquire one by any means.
There were none quite as desperate as Samuel Egerton Bridges, self-styled 13th Baron Chandos. Bridges, antiquarian and part-time poet, was born in 1762 into a comfortable family from Kent who were distant relatives of Jane Austen. He came to believe that he was descended from great nobility through his mother’s side. He spent his entire life and all of his money trying to prove that he was descended from the Earl of Comyn, who came to England with William the Conqueror. One of Comyn’s descendants was created Lord Chandos in 1554. Bridges was convinced that when the then-current holder of this title died, his elder brother Tymewell Bridges would inherit it. Up until now his family had always spelt their surname Bridges, but they changed it to Brydges to show off their newly discovered kinship with the nobility.
In reality, however, Egerton and Tymwell Bridges were descended from much more humble stock, an obscure family of grocers from Harbledown, near Canterbury, completely unconnected with the Chandos family. There were also grounds for suspecting that crucial entries in local parish registers backing the Bridges’ claim were insertions, though nothing was ever proven.
After the death of his brother, who left no male heir, Egerton Brydges styled himself ‘Baron Chandos’ and bought himself a ruined castle at Sudeley in Gloucestershire. In 1808 he was delighted to accept a knighthood from the Swedish order of St Joachim – a totally bogus distinction – and began signing himself ‘Sir’.
Sadly for Brydges, it all went peer-shaped. His claim to the Chandos barony was thoroughly investigated by a committee, who concurred that the claim was unfounded. The events that followed were arguably the silliest ever to have wasted the time of the House of Commons. His resubmitted his claim again and again, and each time it was rejected for lack of documentary proof. Brydges simply decided to invent some. He ‘found’ a small black box in an attic, which he said was full of documents supporting his claim to the peerage. This discovery, however, was undermined by his long refusal to let anyone else study them. In 1803, after thirteen and a half years during which the Committee of Privileges sat twenty-seven times, they decided that Brydges ‘has not made out his Claim to be the said Baron’ and the case was closed for good. Brydges, however, was not going to give up his title without a fight. He proceeded to bombard every peer in the House of Lords with letters urging them to vote against the Committee’s recommendation – a gross breach of parliamentary etiquette, which resulted in a humiliating public rebuke.
Still Brydges persisted. When he compiled the new edition of Collin’s Peerage, the standard reference of its kind for the Georgian era, he dedicated thirty-six pages of it to his own family. Brydges spent the rest of his life struggling to prove that his title was valid, in a single year writing thirty-three letters to the prime minister, only one of which was answered. He published at his own expense a book Lex Terrae in which he argued that the House of Lords had limited powers, which he was not obliged to take any notice of. Finally he published another book, Stemmata Illustria, that tried to prove that he was descended from the Merovingian kings of the fifth century. In 1814, after what the Dictionary of National Biography calls ‘intense pressure’, he was created a baronet in his own right. Brydges died in 1837 aged seventy-five, the last of a line that didn’t actually exist. His absurd pursuit of a title had cost him an estimated one hundred thousand pounds – almost six million pounds at today’s values.
I'm afraid my meager extravagances wouldn't even register as a blip on the conspicuous consumption radar screen. Still, it's interesting - not to mention sometimes horrifying! - to read how the upper half did it.