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Old 09-17-2018, 10:12 PM
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How the Nobles Earned Their Living

I'm a big fan of watching movies with old English settings, such as literature adaptation films (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, etc), even Sherlock Holmes and Wolfman (2010).

I'm always fascinated with the life of the nobles depicted in those movies; living in a huge mansion, dining with formal attire on, surrounded by full time servants who live within the compound (such as in Brideshead or Downton Abbey). So from where I see in them, they seem to live a life of eternal financial security.

I was wondering, how did (or do) the nobles earn their living?
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Old 09-17-2018, 10:31 PM
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Originally Posted by lupacexi View Post
I'm a big fan of watching movies with old English settings, such as literature adaptation films (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, etc), even Sherlock Holmes and Wolfman (2010).

I'm always fascinated with the life of the nobles depicted in those movies; living in a huge mansion, dining with formal attire on, surrounded by full time servants who live within the compound (such as in Brideshead or Downton Abbey). So from where I see in them, they seem to live a life of eternal financial security.

I was wondering, how did (or do) the nobles earn their living?
The “Downton Abbey” type of nobles were basically landowners. Most of their income came from land leases to tenant farmers.
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Old 09-17-2018, 10:37 PM
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In the 19th century especially, noble families in the north of England allowed coal mining on some of their land holdings and grew wealthy on that. Others, in Cornwall, had money from the extremely profitable tin mines. Some land owners promoted coastal villages on their land in the hope they would grow into prosperous seaside resorts. Still others bought land/properties in Town, especially London, like the Grosveners.
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Old 09-17-2018, 10:46 PM
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If we go back to 1066 the King said he owned all the land and split some of it up as rewards for his supporters often making them nobles in the process - if they weren't already Norman nobles.

Along with the land came the people to farm the land - the peasants. The peasants paid the noble or knight or church for the right to work the land - usually in the form of produce from their pieces of land. In addition the noble had some land for himself which the peasants also worked. This produce, in whatever form provided the wealth of the nobles. They also controlled large areas of land in the later middle ages for the grazing of sheep as the wool industry took off.

As time went on a couple of things started to change - the enclosure acts meant they were able to remove many of the peasants, become more efficient in their farming methods and also graze animals like sheep which produced wool and continued.

As the industrial revolution took off many of them invested in mills on their land to take advantage of the new technology but even if they didn't they still owned the land producing the food and other primary produce that was sold for trade as well as still had many families living in rented properties on their land (some families are still living in the villages that their ancestors lived in in the middle ages and still work for the 'lord of the manor'.)

In the 17th - 19th century many of these nobles were involved in a range of trade initiatives with the new world - including in some cases slaves - as well as investing in property in the new cities.

As they already had the wealth they were able to invest in the new means of producing wealth over the centuries.

Sometimes they were lucky - e.g. one of the ancestors of the present Duke of Westminster was a woman whose father gave her husband a large block of poor land as her dowry in the 17th or 18th century. It was in an area of London where nobody really wanted to live and then William III based himself at Kensington Palace and Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace and this area became a gold mine for the Westminster family as rents skyrocketed.

In something like Pride and Prejudice it is the number of acres that are important as that equates to farming land and from that they got their wealth e.g. Darcy had 10,000 pounds a year due to the number of acres and number of tenants.

These estates can be large enough to have several villages actually situated on the estate - e.g. today the Sandringham Estate of The Queen has a 'big house', a number of other houses including Anmer Hall and Wood House (where William and Philip live) along with villages such as Anmer and Dersingham. Not everyone who lives in these villages works on the estates but back in the middle ages that would have been a given.

Remember that agriculture was the world's largest employee until about a decade ago but going back centuries it employed up to 98% of the workforce.

Land = wealth due to what the land could produce such as food and wool for making clothes or hides for leather goods.
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Old 09-17-2018, 11:08 PM
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Mostly land. These families go back centuries so what made a family wealthy 300 years ago may not be the same thing that is making them wealthy today. Also some families are less wealthy now than they were during the 18th and 19th centuries.


Going by families who married into the British Royal Family, the Bowes-Lyons (QEQM) had land and their coal mining interests added to their wealth. The Montagu Douglas Scotts (Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester) were / are large landholders. The Spencers (Princess Diana) had land and were sheep farmers. I don't know if it is adding to their wealth but the Spencers are now involved in tourism. Other noble families are also opening their homes to the public to make money.
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Old 09-17-2018, 11:29 PM
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There was a wide-spread agricultural depression in Britain in the 1870s that continued until World War One (partly exacerbated by technology finding a way of transporting frozen beef from the Argentine and Canada, lamb from NZ, cheese and butter from other countries as well as wheat from Canada.) Landowners that hadn't diversified into other things were hit hard. Taxation went up in the 20th century, partly as a result of two world wars, and many stately homes and estates suffered.
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Old 09-17-2018, 11:41 PM
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A major issue for the large estates has been death duties which has seen many noble families have to sell assets, transfer their homes to the National Trust, English Heritage or in the case of the Warwicks Madame Tussards to be turned into a theme park rather than a stately home anymore. Most others, including The Queen, have opened their homes or at least part of them, and their grounds to the public to keep their homes in their families.
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Old 09-18-2018, 02:50 AM
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Lands (with lots of tenants), industries, investments, colonies, banking, real estate. Think about the series Poldark: the Poldarks were copper/tin mine-owners and the Warleggans were bankers.
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Old 09-18-2018, 03:53 AM
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Originally Posted by lupacexi View Post
I'm a big fan of watching movies with old English settings, such as literature adaptation films (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, etc), even Sherlock Holmes and Wolfman (2010).

I'm always fascinated with the life of the nobles depicted in those movies; living in a huge mansion, dining with formal attire on, surrounded by full time servants who live within the compound (such as in Brideshead or Downton Abbey). So from where I see in them, they seem to live a life of eternal financial security.

I was wondering, how did (or do) the nobles earn their living?
It’s interesting that you mention Downton Abbey as Lord Crawley married Cora, an American heiress which bolstered his family fortune. There were a number of British Lords who married American heiresses (called dollar princesses.) Diana’s great grandmother Francis Work was an American heiress, as was Jenny Jerome - Winston Churchill’s mother. The strategy of marrying money is not new, indeed Richard III and his brother George, Duke of Clarence married the wealthy Neville sisters in the 13th century.
In earlier years in addition to owning land those close to the King or Queen often acquired more land or positions and other sources of wealth such as being granted wardships of wealthy minors, or being granted licenses to collect taxes on certain imports from the sovereign.
If your assets provide you with more than you spend, then you invest in other money making ventures, which, if successful further increase wealth.
I think it was also important that the system of primogeniture evolved enabling the estates to remain intact from generation to generation rather than being split amongst several siblings thus concentrating the wealth in one branch of the family over multiple generations.
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