William B. Willcox's The Age of Aristocracy
This compact little book is Volume III of a series entitled A History of England, edited by Lacey Baldwin Smith, and its inclusion in this series reveals much about its scope and intent. Smith writes in the Preface to the series that "their authors have tried by artistry to step beyond the usual confines of a textbook and conjure up something of the drama of politics, of the wealth of personalities, and even of the pettiness, as well as the greatness, of human motivation." Some of this can be found in The Age of Aristocracy; some of it cannot. William B. Willcox's device for covering the significant people and events of one hundred forty-two years in only two hundred thirty-seven pages is to view them through the lens of the changing power of the oligarchy, and the evolving relationship between Monarch and Parliament. Important military and social events thus become the results of political maneuvering between these governing forces; the book's focus is upon the interdependency of society and event to recreate a sense of what Smith calls "the majestic sweep of history" from 1688 to 1830.
Willcox begins and ends his history with the spoils and applications of revolution. Between the Glorious Revolution and the introduction of the Reform Bill in 1831, Willcox sees the rise and gradual fall of a British aristocracy that "ruled. . . as never before or since" (236), and provided the transition from the world of post-medieval feudalism to the beginnings of the imperialistic British Empire. This is a lot to cover, and Willcox attacks the process by focusing his attention primarily upon the individuals who served as high-ranking ministers in the evolving Cabinet. By explaining the polit...
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...s and patterns many years in the making. The book's 237-page length is appropriate for such a goal, in order that we might not forget how those patterns began and from what forces they were born. For Willcox, these patterns extend even into our own century, and he is careful to remind us of the similarities between figures such as William Pitt and Winston Churchill while raising the spectre of modern Fascism in "the revolutionary idea of nationalism that the French had sown, particularly in Germany and Italy" (211). Willcox's book hobbles a bit on a few too many legs without enough muscle, but it is unassuming and involving. The British aristocracy, writes Willcox, "did not battle to the death" (237), and neither does his brief study of its twilight.
William B. Willcox. The Age of Aristocracy: 1688-1830. Boston: D.C.Heath and Company, 1966. 237 pp.