Defence Of The English Peerage by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

It is by a continued secretion (so to speak) of all which forces itself to the surface of national importance in the way of patriotic services that the English peerage keeps itself alive. Stop the laurelled trophies of the noble sailor or soldier pouring out his heart’s blood for his country, stop the intellectual movement of the lawyer or the senatorial counsellor, and immediately the sources are suffocated through which our peerage is self-restorative. The simple truth is, how humiliating soever it may prove I care not, that whether positively by cutting off the honourable sources of addition, or negatively by cutting off the ordinary source of subtraction, the other peerages of Europe are peerages of Faineans. Pretend not to crucify for ignominy the sensual and torpid princes of the Franks; in the same boat row all the peerages that can have preserved their regular hereditary descent amongst civil feuds which ought to have wrecked them. The Spanish, the Scotch, the Walloon nobility are all of them nobilities from which their several countries would do well to cut themselves loose, so far as that is possible. How came you, my lord, we justly say to this and that man, proud of his ancient descent, to have brought down your wretched carcase to this generation, except by having shrunk from all your bloody duties, and from all the chances that beset a gallant participation in the dreadful enmities of your country? Would you make it a reproach to the Roman Fabii that 299 of that house perished in fighting for their dear motherland? And that, if a solitary Fabius survived for the rekindling of the house, it was because the restorer of his house had been an infant at the aera of his household catastrophe. And if, through such burning examples of patriotism, far remote collateral descendants entered upon the succession, was this a reproach? Was this held to vitiate or to impair the heraldic honours? A disturbance, a convulsion, that shook the house back into its primitive simplicities of standing, was that a shock to its hereditary grandeur? If it had been, there perished the efficient fountain of nobility as any national or patriotic honour; that being extinguished, it became a vile, personal distinction. For instance, like the Roman Fabii, the major part of the English nobility was destroyed in the contest (though so short a contest) of the two Roses. To restore it at all, recourse was had to every mode of healing family wounds through distant marriage connections, etc. But in the meantime, to a Spanish or a Scottish nobleman, who should have insisted upon the directness of his descent, the proper answer would have been: ‘Dog! in what kennel were you lurking when such and such civil feuds were being agitated? As an honest man, as a gallant man, ten times over you ought to have died, had you felt, which the English nobility of the fifteenth century did feel, that your peerage was your summons to the field of battle and the scaffold.’ For, again in later years than the fifteenth century, the English nobility–those even who, like the Scotch, had gained their family wealth by plundering the Church–in some measure washed out this original taint by standing forward as champions of what they considered (falsely or truly) national interests. The Russells, the Cavendishes, the Sidneys, even in times of universal profligacy, have held aloft the standard of their order; and no one can forget the many peers in Charles I.’s time, such as Falkland, or the Spencers (Sunderland), or the Comptons (Northampton), who felt and owned their paramount duty to lie in public self-dedication, and died therefore, and oftentimes left their inheritances a desolation. ‘Thus far’–oh heavens! with what bitterness I said this, knowing it a thing undeniable by W. W. or by Sir George–you, the peerages that pretend to try conclusions with the English, you–French, German, Walloon, Spanish, Scottish–are able to do so simply because you are faineans, because in time of public danger you hid yourselves under your mammas’ petticoats, whilst the glorious work of reaping a bloody harvest was being done by others.

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But the English peerage also celebrates services in the Senate as well as in the field. Look for a moment at the house of Cecil. The interest in this house was national, and at the same time romantic. Two families started off–one might say simultaneously–from the same radix, for the difference in point of years was but that which naturally divided the father and the son. Both were Prime Ministers of England, rehearsing by anticipation the relations between the two William Pitts–the statesmen who guided, first, the Seven Years’ War, from 1757 to 1763; and, secondly, the French Revolutionary War, from the murder of Louis XVI. in 1793 to the battle of Trafalgar in October, 1805. Sir William Cecil, the father, had founded the barony of Burleigh, which subsequently was raised into the earldom of Exeter. Sir Robert Cecil, the son, whose personal merits towards James I. were more conspicuous than those of his father towards Queen Elizabeth, had leaped at once into the earldom of Salisbury. Through two centuries these distinguished houses–Exeter the elder and Salisbury the junior–had run against each other. At length the junior house ran ahead of its elder, being raised to a marquisate. But in this century the elder righted itself, rising also to a marquisate. In an ordinary case this would not have won any notice, but the historic cradle of the two houses, amongst burning feuds of Reformation and anti-Reformation policy, fiery beyond all that has ever raged amongst men, fixed the historic eye upon them. Neck and neck they ran together. Hatfield House for the family of Salisbury, Burleigh House (founded by the original Lord Burleigh) for the family of Exeter, expressed in the nineteenth century that fraternal conflict which had commenced in the sixteenth. Personal merits, if any such had varied and coloured the pretensions of this or that generation, had, in the midst of wealth and ease and dignity, withdrawn themselves from notice, except that about the splendid decennium of the Regency and the second decennium of George IV.’s reign, no lady of the Court had been so generally acceptable to the world of fashion and elegance, domestic or foreign, as the Marchioness of Salisbury, whose tragical death by fire at Hatfield House, in spite of her son’s heroic exertions, was as memorable for the last generation as the similar tragedy at the Austrian Ambassador’s continued to be for the Court and generation of Napoleon.[1] It is not often that two kindred houses, belonging in the Roman sense to the same gens or clan, run against each other with parity of honour and public consideration through nearly three centuries. The present representative of the Exeter house of the Cecils[2] was not individually considered a very interesting person. Or, at least, any interest that might distinguish him did not adapt itself to conversational display. His personal story was more remarkable than he was himself.

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[1] Napoleon attached a superstitious importance to this event. In 1813, upon the sudden death of Moreau, whilst as yet the circumstances were entirely unknown, he fancied strangely enough that the ambassador (Prince Schwartzenberg) whose fete had given birth to the tragedy, must himself have been prefigured.

[2] ‘The present representative of the Exeter Cecils’ was the father of the present peer, Brownlow, 2nd Marquis; born 2nd July, 1785; succeeded 1st May, 1804, and died 16th Jan., 1867.–ED.

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