Decline on Downton Abbey: Why the Nobles and Gentry Went Broke

Spoiler Alert: This post reveals details of Downton Abbey, through Season 6, Episode 1.

On Downton Abbey, Earl Robert repeatedly faces financial trouble. Many of his fellow nobles and gentry find themselves in even more dire straits. They cope by selling off their birthright — castles, houses, treasures, and land — and living humbler lives. Why do these apparently rich people teeter on the edge of financial ruin?

Inveraray Castle: Shrimpie's estate in Downton Abbey
Earl Robert’s cousin “Shrimpie” is forced to sell his beautiful castle. (In the real world, this is Inveraray Castle, Scotland.)

For most of their history, Britain’s nobles and gentry lived on the profits of farming. And by the early 20th Century, agricultural wealth had been dwarfed by the riches of industry. Farms still made money but proportionately much less. They couldn’t easily support the upper class’ high cost of living or the tax burden of industrial society. And many nobles and gentry could not or would not supplement their income by working.

Landed Wealth and Industry

Until the 19th Century, Britain was a paradise for landed wealth: for landowners who rented out farmland and did not work. The landed nobles and gentry dominated government, with a lock on the House of Lords and a consistent majority in the House of Commons. Plus, Britain was one of history’s least governed countries. The government didn’t do much, particularly in the countryside — so it didn’t tax much. As a result, the nobles and gentry lived almost tax-free.

By the 19th Century, however, Britain had become the world’s first industrial society. Throughout that century and beyond,  power shifted away from the gentry and from nobles like Earl Robert. In 1911, the House of Lords lost its veto over the lower house: its last real power. And by then, industrialists, workers, and the middle classes had taken over the House of Commons, thanks to the money they controlled and the expansion of voting rights. At the same time, governing and defending an industrial society had become expensive, particularly once Britain began grappling with World War I debts. Taxes rose, and industry-focused Parliaments happily levied them on rich land-holders (among others). By the early 20th Century, the nobles and gentry paid high taxes on farmlands like those surrounding Downton Abbey, as well as high income taxes and crippling death duties. (Check out this fun video form World History Encyclopedia for more on the Industrial Revolution.)

Aristocracy in the Age of Capitalism

Industry makes a lot more money than farming. So the nobles and gentry faced wealthier competition for high status goods, just as their taxes were rising. In other words, the cost of fine living rose, while the relative value of farm rents fell. At the same time, industry and commerce created a competing market for labor, so the cost of servants and farm-workers rose. And World War I killed much of the workforce, from 1914 to 1918, driving labor costs even higher. So the nobles and gentry couldn’t afford the servants and other staff necessary to run great houses. That’s why fear of serving-staff reduction stalk Downton Abbey after the war.

Trentham Hall 1880 -- Downton Abbey parallel
Trentham Hall in 1880. Its owner, the Duke of Sutherland, was forced to demolish it in 1912.

For a nobleman with a title, one solution was to marry an industrialist’s daughter, often from America. The nobleman got a hefty dowry and the industrialist got a duke, earl, or viscount for a grandson. That’s how Dowonton Abbey’s Earl Robert ends up married to Cora, the daughter of a Jewish American businessman. But even that wasn’t always enough because the nobles (and gentry) often managed their money badly. Their culture taught few commercial skills. Earl Robert, for instance, only keeps his riches because his distant cousin Matthew Crawley applies his middle class skills to running the estate — and stumbles into yet another injection of inherited cash.

Many of the nobles and gentry weren’t so lucky.

The Downton Abbey Leisure Class

In Pride and Prejudice — set around 1800 — fellow gentry criticize the heroine, Elizabeth, because she has an uncle “in trade.” Instead of living a life of leisure while farmers work his land and pay rents, Uncle Gardiner runs a business. Leisure marked high status in Britain (unlike in the U.S.). And a landed gentleman could not stoop to work — other than as an army officer, statesman, MP, or lightly employed clergyman. Even by the 20th Century, the nobles and gentry couldn’t take jobs to supplement their income — at least, not without losing status.

In Downton Abbey Season 6, Episode 1, Earl Robert’s neighbor is forced to sell his estate. Sir John says that, after the sale, he’ll barely have enough to get by. We’re not given any numbers, but I suspect most of us would consider whatever Sir John has left a hefty nest-egg. It’s just not enough to generate a comfortable lifestyle all by itself. You and I would get a job. But that would humiliate Sir John, and he probably has few marketable skills anyway.

Some nobles and gentry did adapt. Some became investors in industry, while others took the plunge and supplemented farm rents with jobs. But the 20th Century brought disaster for many others. They sold out and often ultimately joined the middle classes. And most of those who remained lived humbler lives, with smaller houses, less purchasing power, less political power, and less status — as well as fewer servants, or none.


© 2016, 2022 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

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