Your RDA of Irony

Blue Blood

In my meanderings through the internet, I have found a website that provides an unique, shamelessly pompous yet essential perspective on British history:

As an alternative to O.J. and Britney, enjoy a better class of gossip. For example, there is Sir Robert de Neville (1291-1319), known as the Peacock of the North. In a quarrel over money, he and his brother Ralph killed their cousin Richard FitzMarmaduke (which would really be a great name for a Peacock of the North). And these Nevilles were underachievers: a century later, the family would be choreographing the War of the Roses. As prolific as they were treacherous, they provided a number of ancestors for the current royal family. (See Cecily Neville for details!)

The website is wonderfully snobbish. For example, Harold MacMillan–a mere Prime Minister– is included primarily because he married the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire. You can read all about her ancestors, but nothing about his. Those MacMillans may have been rich–publishing, you know–but they were trades people. And Lady Antonia Fraser must have the website’s editors reaching for a brandy. Her people–Earls of Longford, the Pakenhams–have 77 entries on the website. Her first husband was of good–albeit Scottish–stock: the Frasers. They may have been Highlanders, but at least they were the chieftains. However, her second husband is—well–unsuitable. He is Harry Pinter, the son of Hyman the tailor. Mr. Pinter does have a Nobel Prize in Literature, but those pushy types would.

However, blue blood is not completely incompatible with gray matter. The grandson of the Duke of Bedford, Bertrand Russell, was a Nobel laureate. So was the grandson of the Duke of Marlborough, Winston.

Yet even the less illustrious biographies tell us England’s history. War was the original justification and business of aristocracy. The oldest peerages were won and maintained through martial feats. Scanning the biographies, you will see how often the dates of death coincide with the epochs of England: The Wars of the Roses, The English Civil War, and the Napoleonic Wars. A Pakenham—Lady Antonia’s great-great-great-great-great uncle–died leading the British debacle at New Orleans. Yet, these losses are numbed and even romanticized by their distance. Every noble killed in the War of the Roses at least got two lines of dialogue in Shakespeare. But the World Wars are not remote, and now the dates of death–1914, 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945–have a poignant meaning.

Every family in Britain had its losses. A generation was slaughtered in the First World War. In the British armed forces, one in six was killed. Among the officers, however, the mortality was one in three. The men who led were the first to die. Their family crest was no protection from machine guns. They were born with every advantage and with one responsibility, and they fulfilled it.

  1. Tom Kelso says:

    And here you see the advantage of the great egalitarian American Revolution: the scions of our advantaged classes apparently have no responsibility except to mismanaage basseball teams, corporations, states, or even the whole nation if they can get their hands on it.

    I had the pleasure once (as I’m sure I have said) of escorting a group of Louisiana college students on a trip to London for a summer. Our visit to St. Paul’s proved to be quite interesting when we foudn a memorial, off in a transcept, to Pakenham and Ross, “who gave their lives before the enemies’ works at New Orleans, 8 January 1815.”

    It was fun watching them as the Pogo moment seeped in — they had met the enemy, and they was us. To the Brits it had been an annoying sideshow, to be dispensed of after a decade of war against a REAL threat; the kids were a little flabbergasted to find out how little the central event in their home’s history was regarded, Johnny Horton notwithstanding.

  2. The leadership of Britain may have sent a generation to the slaughter in 1914, but those old men did not spare their own sons from the sacrifice.

    Prime Minister Asquith lost one son. His successor Bonar-Law lost two. An earlier Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, did not live to see the carnage but six of his grandsons were killed.

    But our Commandude and Dick Cheney don’t even want to pay the taxes for their brilliant crusade.

  3. Hal Gordon says:


    “They were born with every advantage and with one responsibility, and they fulfilled it.”

    That’s a line worth engraving in marble. Well done.


  4. Peggles says:

    What a difference between the sacrifices of England’s nobility and the utterly ruthless selfishness of King Georgedick.
    I recall an episode of Upstairs Downstairs in which a character’s son died in battle in WWI. A verse was recited, something like this:

    And how can man die better
    than facing fearful odds,
    For the ashes of his fathers,
    And the temples of his Gods

    Somewhat like “Dulce et Decorum Est” – but their sacrifice was real and personal.

  5. Lord Bellamy was quoting Macauley’s “Lays of Ancient Rome”.

    “Dulce at decorum est” can be taken two ways. Horace meant it; Wilfred Owen didn’t.

  6. Peggles says:

    At one time I knew the source and the exact words. (Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.)

    I wonder if Horace would have meant it if he had seen the carnage up close and personal as Owen did?

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