Almost everywhere in Europe, the 19th century saw a decline in the power of the aristocracy. Political change was partly the cause, whether implemented by vote or revolution. However, economic changes underway decreased the relative importance of agricultural wealth. Not only were greater fortunes being made in commerce and new industries but maintaining an extravagant standard of living off the land was becoming more difficult, at least in Britain. Grain prices fell, thus so too did the agricultural incomes of the nobility. Along with an unsustainable taste for conspicuous consumption, this led one notable aristocrat to near ruin. The liquidation of the 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos’s estates was a milestone event in the decline of Britain’s landed aristocracy.
Stowe House is a palatial mansion in England’s Buckinghamshire. The estate, known for its scale and its remarkable park and library, was added to by many of its owners, most notably the 1st Viscount Cobham in the early 1700s. Even a century later, Queen Victoria remarked that “I have no such splendour in either of my two palaces”. The property was by now under the ownership of the 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos. Like Cobham, the Duke was a politically involved aristocrat. However, this involvement did not help him to understand that economic changes underway, combined with his limitless extravagance, would bring their once magnificent estate to financial ruin.
Up to the 19th century, it was common for aristocrats to sink considerable fortunes into their houses. Elsewhere, the Duke of Devonshire spent so much on Chatsworth House, changing his mind midway through construction in ways that made cost overruns unavoidable, that he ultimately had to sell some of his estates in Yorkshire. This would all have to change soon enough.
Grain and Aristocracy
The 19th century started out well enough for aristocrats. The French Revolution petered out and the conservative powers of Europe won the war against Napoleon. Grain prices rose during the wars, causing land values to rise as well. In Britain, industrialization brought even greater wealth to landowners sitting on deposits of coal. The construction of railroads provided a new non-agrarian income to the holders of the lands crossed by new railroads and urbanization lifted urban land values. Despite this, many aristocrats borrowed heavily, either to improve their estates or engage in rather extravagant consumption.
At the time, there were perhaps 2,000 landowners who owned more than 2,000 acres in England alone. To earn annual incomes of tens of thousands of pounds though required owning tens of thousands of acres. Just thirty or so families earned rents from their lands of £60,000 a year or more; the wealthiest few earned over £100,000. Their incomes were threatened as midcentury approached. In the 1840s, grain prices fell as production rose, transport became cheaper, and tariffs on imported grain were reduced.
It’s the last of these reasons that is most well-studied. The repeal of the Corn Laws, a tariff on imported grain, removed a key source of support for the incomes of the aristocracy and was a turning point in British economic policy. Imported grain could now flow into Britain more cheaply. Of course, the impending adversity of the agrarians was a common argument against repeal and, unsurprisingly, the profitability of estates did fall. Some aristocrats were indeed finding themselves in financial trouble.
2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos
Among the nobles finding themselves in the greatest distress was Richard Plantagenet Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, the 6th Viscount Cobham and 2nd Duke of Buckingham. As the hyphenation alone tells you, Grenville was the descendent of several great families and the heir to several great fortunes. The Duke was regarded as willfully blind to the economic changes underway; if he was aware of them, he simply refused to accept them.
Grenville owned 67,000 acres in England, Ireland, and Jamaica. He was a Member of Parliament and from within Parliament and from outside alike, he opposed the repeal of the Corn Laws with particular rigor. As a leader of the agrarian interest in Parliament, he spent a lot of money attempting to block it. For his commitment to agrarian protectionism in the face of reform, the future Duke, then still the Marquis of Chandos, was called the ‘Farmers’ Friend’.
The Duke was also called the ‘greatest debtor in the world’. His annual income of £72,000 was outdone by expenses of £109,000. He accumulated a debt of over £1 million by 1845 and perhaps £1.5 million by 1848. How all of this debt came about is uncertain; some of it was likely accumulated through land purchases, in political meddling, and payment of annuities or other amounts to children, widows, or other members of the Duke’s family but in this particular case, these reasons seem insufficient, even together.
The most likely reason was a simple excess of living expenses over income for more than a single generation, much of it for no productive purpose. For example, in January 1845, the Duke hosted Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Stowe House. A Regiment of Yeomanry, three musical bands, and hundreds of laborers were hired as part of the festivities, the latter merely to line the avenue of the Queen’s approach. Presumably, all this was paid for by the Duke. Grenville did not keep good records of his personal finances and, not atypical of large debtors, was cagey about his financial habits, leaving much of his family in the dark. His wife and son would later be surprised by the sorry state of the family fortune.
The debt was so large that the Duke of Buckingham was not borrowing from the sort of lenders typically serving ordinary individuals, but rather from other aristocrats and even insurance companies like the Norwich Union Life Assurance Society and the Globe Insurance Company. He paid solicitors outside the family’s usual attorneys to find new lenders; the Duke was wary of revealing his predicament to those near him. Grenville was paying 5% on much of this borrowing and vastly more on a few specific loans, some made at 15% interest. Even at 5%, the lion’s share of his income from land was required merely to make the interest payments on the debt.
Since many of the Duke’s properties were held merely as life-tenancies he controlled only for the duration of his life, creditors could not foreclose on the estate if they were left unpaid upon his death. So, Grenville was required to maintain a life insurance policy to the benefit of his creditors. This cost the Duke of Buckingham another £9,200 a year. Added to this were many other expenses. Even a conservative estimate of the minimum upkeep of his houses would come to a cost of £12,000 and the Duke would have had to pay further amounts to maintain his land in good order and cover no-doubt extravagant discretionary expenses.
Grenville was clearly unable to maintain his debts without further borrowing. When other aristocrats were nearing dire straits, their estates were occasionally put in the hands of bankers acting as trustees. The trustees usually drew up a more modest budget to which the indebted nobleman was to adhere. The situation for the Duke was worsening too quickly for such a solution to work. Further, the successful repeal of the Corn Laws by the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, threatened to reduce grain prices and thereby agricultural incomes. Conditions were only getting tougher for the landed aristocracy.
“His safety was to be found in denuding himself of his broad acres. But a latent hope seems to have inflated the ducal breast that corn laws would keep up prices, that rents would again rise to the war level, and the family be restored to ease and grandeur by the value of the land being doubled. Inexorable fate, and Sir Robert Peel have put an end to this hope both in the duke and his creditors, and the abolition of the corn laws has undoubtedly hastened the catastrophe which the house of Buckingham has to deplore.”The Economist, August 19 1848
The Duke of Buckingham could not simply sell properties due to the terms of his inheritance, which required that his son be made tenant in tail in remainder, protecting the son from a liquidation for the benefit of his father’s creditors. The Duke was also barred from placing traditional mortgages on the properties because he did not own them outright. The debts could only be secured by the life interest he held which would extinguish upon the Duke’s death; this made the borrowing more expensive. This structure was designed to keep the estate intact for perpetuity. Of course, the Duke could reach some agreement with his son to sell properties, but this required that the latter be of age. Though Buckingham pestered his trustees to permit a sale of properties sooner, this did not happen.
The Duke’s son, the Marquess of Buckingham, upon coming of age in 1844, agreed to disentail his inheritance and wind down much of the fortune. True, his father’s borrowing was not mortgaged by anything more than a life interest in the estate, and not the absolute fee simple ownership in the land that could then be repossessed. As such, his own inheritance was generally not threatened by his father’s debts.
So, the Marquess could have just refused such a move and awaited his inheritance but he would have no income in the meantime, and that could mean decades of waiting. In the end, he opted not to wait, agreeing to disentail and permitting the sale of properties in exchange for securing some of them for himself along with an income of £3,000. This potentially saved the family some embarrassment but the borrowing went on.
Consolidations and Auctions
The first serious attempt at repairing Buckingham’s finances came in 1845 when his debts were ‘only’ in the neighborhood of £1 million. This plan consisted of a consolidation of the Duke’s obligations into traditional mortgages with a lower interest rate than existed on some of the borrowings and using the savings to repay debts. For whatever reason, the Duke abandoned this project, likely using some portion of the new mortgages raised for personal expenses rather than refinancing his other existing debts. He was now only more indebted and this was likely the reason his obligations ballooned to £1.5 million in so little time.
After asking another favor from his son, he found the Marquess less willing to commit to any new plan drawn up by his father. The Marquess instead offered that he receive all of his father’s holdings in exchange for taking on his debts as well. In 1847, this transaction was affected and the future 3rd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos would now handle the estate as he saw fit and a quite extensive liquidation soon began.
Some of the family’s outlying lands were sold. Then, in August 1848, just three-and-a-half years after Queen Victoria’s visit to the estate, much the contents of Stowe House were auctioned off – its wine, china, artwork, books – everything but the furniture. As the Duke’s china was sold to the highest bidder, The Economist magazine remarked that it was as if the Duke of Buckingham were ‘a bankrupt earthenware dealer’.
Whatever extravagance and splendor the Queen saw, at least some attendees of the public viewing before the auction left disappointed. John Evelyn Denison, a Member of Parliament, reported that the house was poorly decorated, the paintings were copies, and the ‘marbles and busts all very bad’. Nonetheless, £75,000 was raised from this auction. The Duke’s wife would soon divorce him, this at a time when obtaining a divorce required an Act of Parliament. Buckingham by now resented his son and the downfall of the Grenville family was the talk of Britain.
“During the past week the British public has been admitted to a spectacle of a painfully interesting and gravely historical import. One of the most splendid abodes of our almost regal aristocracy has thrown open its portals to an endless succession of visitors, who from morning till night have flowed in an uninterrupted stream from room to room, and floor to floor — not to enjoy the hospitality of the lord, or to congratulate him on his countless treasures of art, but to see an ancient family ruined, their palace marked for destruction and its contents scattered to the four winds of heaven. We are only saying what is notorious, and what, therefore, it is neither a novelty nor a cruelty to repeat, that the most noble and puissant prince, his grace the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, is at this moment an absolutely ruined and destitute man. Our advertising columns have introduced to the public the long list of estates, properties, and interests, which are no longer his, and will not revert to his heirs. The last crash of this mighty ruin is that which now sounds. Stowe is no more.”The Times, August 14 1848
A Quiet Revolution
The auction at Stowe coincided with the Revolutions of 1848 on the continent. The Times could not resist making a connection, perhaps somewhat hysterically, to the events occurring across the English Channel.
“We have recently had to pronounce the judgment of public opinion, and to call for the vengeance of the laws upon the rash men who have perverted the first gushes of youthful genius and the rude instincts of popular freedom to an impious rebellion. We have been forced to do so, and we have done so without a pang. Should we deal fairly if we spared the destroyer of his house, the man whose reckless course has thrown to the ground a pillar of the state, and struck a heavy blow at the whole order to which he unfortunately belongs? The public opinion of this country respects the House of Lords, but not a degenerate aristocracy. It is apt to canvass and to censure noble names, because it measures their ill deeds with their great responsibility. The Duke of Buckingham has filled all minds with a painful presage of a wider ruin. Such events speak in these days. When dynasties are falling around, and aristocracies have crumbled into dust, disgrace acquires the force of injury, and personal ruin is a public treason. For an event of peace we have known nothing more serious and lamentable. This has not been in war or revolution. It is not a pillage by force of arms or revolutionary dogmas. In the midst of fertile lands and an industrious people, in the heart of a country where it is thought virtuous to work, to save, and to thrive, a man of the highest rank, and of a property not unequal to his title, has flung all away by extravagance and folly, and reduced his honors to the tinsel of a pauper and the baubles of a fool.”The Times, August 14 1848
If somewhat overwrought, the point remains. All over Europe the old order was being overthrown, or at least facing its greatest threat to date. In Britain however, this was happening without violent revolution. It was via orderly political reforms and unplanned economic change that the aristocracy was being overthrown, not by any ‘force of arms or revolutionary dogmas’.
Grenville, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, was not the only financially pressed noble of his day. His difficulties quite justly ‘filled all minds with a painful presage of a wider ruin’. The Earl of Durham’s trustee warned him that he ran the risk of finding himself in the same position as Buckingham. Just among those related to himself, the Duke of Wellington knew of two noblemen that were also facing financial trouble.
Returning to the liquidation, unlike most of the other estates, Stowe itself was not sold, as no buyer could be found for the massive house. Instead, it sat unoccupied and in a state of decay for years. Now under the management of Britain’s National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, Stowe lies emptier than it had in the 1830s. It contains grand rooms without grand furniture and alcoves emptied of the statues they once sheltered, a legacy of the decline of Britain’s aristocracy in the 19th century.
The lands around Stowe House were sold off over a number of years. Many tracts were bought up by the new elite, including the bankers Baring and Rothschild, whose wealth and importance rose to displace that of the old aristocrats. Even the younger Marquess of Buckingham was diving into the commercial world, becoming chairman of the London and Northwestern Railway, a company to which fifty-six acres of the Stowe estate was sold. A quiet revolution had taken place.
At the end of the 18th century, though Britain possessed many commercial fortunes and was amidst the early days of its industrial revolution, the country was still, like the rest of Europe, an aristocratic society. A handful of noble families controlled the largest fortunes and much of the political system, as seats in Parliament were bought and sold as though they were country houses.
The 2nd Duke of Buckingham was among the most prosperous of the landed nobility until his extravagance outran even the large incomes of his estates. The family fortune was liquidated, including the contents of Stowe House, one of the greatest country homes. The Duke was just one of many financially pressed nobles of the 19th century. Profligacy was not the only reason for the aristocracy’s decline. Political reforms and economic changes that favored industry and commerce threatened the once unbreakable link between the control of land and preeminence in society, politics, and wealth.
More from the Tontine Coffee-House
Read about what the repeal of the Corn Laws meant for free trade. Also, policies judged to favor the wealthy, including great landowners, garnered attention in the debate around the ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909-10. Lastly, consider subscribing to this blog’s newsletter here.
1. Ferguson, Niall. “The Property-Owning Aristocracy.” The Ascent of Money, Penguin Books Ltd., 2012, pp. 234–241.
2. Heath, Frederick B. “The Grenvilles in the Nineteenth Century: The Emergence of Commercial Affiliations.” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 1, Nov. 1961, pp. 29–49.
3. “Ruin by the Possession of Land.” The Economist, 18 Aug. 1848.
4. “Ruin of the Duke of Buckingham.” The Times, 14 Aug. 1848.
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