When I talk to people about the Regency period, I find that one of the most common areas of confusion is the Titles of the aristocracy (quite rightly too, it
is a bit complicated!). So here is a summary of who was more important than who, and of how that did (and often didn’t!) relate to wealth.
So – the simplest part of this – Titles. Different titles had different levels of importance. They were, from most important down
Whilst each title had its own estates and responsibilities (usually – there are some types of Barons that did not necessarily have land estates attached to them), it was possible for one person to be the holder (by inheritance, and the tangled family trees of the nobility) of more than one title at a time. When that was the case, the title holder could, as a courtesy, allow his heir to take on one of his own ‘lesser’ titles (and its lands and responsibilities). So the heir of a Duke was often a Marquess, the heir of a Marquess an Earl etc.
Whilst the persons of the major families of the aristocracy were referred to as ‘the upper 10,000’ – because that is roughly how many of them there were – the distribution of titles was not even within that group of people. For a title to come into existence, the King or Queen at the time had to create it, and sign formal ‘letters of patent’ which brought the title into existence, and attached estates to it, to become its holdings. Like most things that have value, scarcity adds to it – so the more important a title, the less of them there were.
For example, in 1801, there were, between England, Scotland and Ireland, only 40 extant Dukedoms in total, and a number of those were reserved for junior members of the Royal family (as they still are today). The numbers for each title got larger, as the importance of the title got less. There is an excellent article on this, with links out to detailed lists for each level of title, here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_nobility.
So all those Dukes we meet in Regency Romances……. were unlikely to exist – but they make for good stories!
Now lets look at the wealth associated with a title. Just having a title might make one asset rich, but not necessarily cash rich, or saleable asset rich. A title holder, whose property was all entailed to the title, had to ensure that their lands were well enough managed to create enough income to offset their upkeep, and still make a profit. Bad management could easily send that equation into negative. If the previous holders of the title had been profligate spenders, or gamblers, then a person inheriting the title might be inheriting more debt than wealth – and could not sell the entailed properties to clear it. Some peers eventually fled the country to escape their debtors, and to escape ending up in debtors prison – rare for an aristocrat, but not unheard of.
Because of this, it was entirely possible for a Viscount, whose family were all good managers, and not prone to overspending or gambling, to end up far wealthier than a Duke who came from a long line of spenders. Equally, it was not uncommon for astute men from the merchant class to end up overwhelmingly wealthy, as the result of good business ventures and management (like those called ‘nabobs’ who had made their money out of trading in India and importing to England). That did not make them any better regarded by the nobility, but…. the huge dowries that they provided for their daughters did sometimes make those daughters suddenly become acceptable brides for men of the nobility – who happened to be rather in need of the cash infusion that the dowry could bring!
So – the picture that we paint in our stories is rather a fairytale version of the reality! but its fun for us.