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Blenheim Palace

My wife was brought up in a house where the number of people exceeded the number of bedrooms by five. There was no car and no telephone and no prospect of a holiday. She worked hard at school and went on to university, as did four of her brothers. She is proud of her background, of its solidarity and lack of luxury, though not boastfully so. When she was in her early forties she became the head of an old Catholic school in the Northamptonshire countryside; the job interview took place in a house which had been used on television for a Jane Austen adaptation. It was her first acquaintance with the three gentry families which dominated the school governors and it was the start of a fruitful relationship which lasted eleven years. The gentry were entirely loyal to their appointee. They spent no time covering their backsides or nurturing their curriculae vitae and careers and they didn't manipulate or dissemble. They shared both my wife's sense of duty and her sense of fun; they thought instinctively about the good of the children rather than about regulations, publicity or politics. I retain a striking image of a school trip to Italy: we had a day at the beach and my vivid memory is of an elderly squirearchical figure of military bearing marching into the sea until he was waist deep and then turning and surveying the twenty three children to make sure they were all safe. Health and safety? Just do it. There were perks, too, to our working relationship with the gentry, including charming lunches in marquees, gifts of game and even a trip to Buckingham Palace.

Adam Nicolson, 5th Baron Carnock, successful farmer, gardener, author and television presenter, needs no praise from me, but he's going to get it anyway. His book on the gentry is superb, written well and combining breadth of vision with detailed narrative. There is a general account of the rise and fall of the gentry over 600 years combined with detailed stories where there were sufficient documents to tell the tale. (Imagine the research assessment terror if an academic historian covered six centuries!) The gentry tales extend geographically to France and Belgium, the West Indies and what is now the United States. The gentry here is defined by landholding and is the class below the aristocracy and above the yeomen in the scale of its property. It owes its "peculiarly English" existence to the persistent exclusiveness of the English aristocracy which remained at a fraction of 1 per cent of the population while grade inflation took the French and Russian aristocracies into the teens and the German aristocracy up to about 7 per cent of the population (my figures rather than Nicolson's).

Thus the gentry was for a long time in pre-industrial and early industrial England the dominant class, owning more land than the aristocracy and populating a parliamentary chamber which soon became more important than the House of Lords. The Civil War was fought between the gentry. The Pyms and the Cromwells were gentry, but so were the hard-drinking, hard-wenching Norfolk cavaliers, from a few miles to their east, whom they fought against. It is thus difficult to talk about the values of the gentry, because at different times and in different places they embraced many different values.

The way of the life of the gentry always seemed precarious to the members of the class, usually because it was. You were dependent on agricultural production and prices. There was every chance of ending up on the wrong side in civil and political conflict: this was the fate of the family in Nicolson's first story, the Plumptons of Yorkshire, in the Wars of the Roses. Neighbouring gentry were as likely to be your bitter enemies as your allies. There is the tale of the late Tudor feud between the Thynnes and the Mervyns; four centuries on the descendants of the Thynnes, raised to the aristocracy, have their own tourist industry, television programme and much else besides at Longleat while the Mervyns have dissipated. Even when you won a kind of gentry lottery, as the Hughes of Kimmel in Wales did when they found a rich lode of metals on their land, life could be cruel. The Hughes built themselves a really state-of-the-art house and acquired a fine town house as well, but the take-up on their invitations was humiliatingly low. They were known as bores.

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