Recognizing that social class in Britain does not correspond to wealth, that that peers have been gambling away fortunes since time immemorial, has a hereditary peer, a duke, marquess, or earl, ever been described as living in a typically lower-class way?

Of course there is no absolute definition for this, but the social class distinctions are strong enough that if a duke really were living in a council flat and going on and off the dole, someone would write an article about it.

This article and this discuss social class. The focus is on the set of behaviors rather than amount or source of income. The class system has changed over time, but is still recognizable. We can take examples from any time period, historical or current.

Links to articles, or Google search terms, will be appreciated.

Searches like "impoverished baron" lead to (mostly fictional accounts of) people who lost their money but not their social class (upper-class behaviors). They are usually looking for a rich heiress to marry.

Do any impoverished peers really live in London and try to live off of £300, while maintaining the set of behaviors that defines the British upper class? I am looking for a peer living (at any time period) like an average (lower class) commoner, as discussed for example in the above cited article, focusing on social behaviors rather than income or wealth.

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    Just for clarity, you're asking about a peer who retained that rank but lived in way that would suggest a lower social status rather than a peer who renounced their peerage in order to be a commoner (such as Tony Benn)?
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 8:28
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    @RedSonja I don't know how to quantify it, but I googled every combination of search terms that I could think of.
    – Joshua Fox
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 8:31
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    I approve of the approach, however, "The baronetage is not part of the peerage, nor is it an order of knighthood." Britannica If you care about the peerage, search for "Impoverished baron" rather than baronet. (I really hoped that "Duke chav" was going to return results - or Marquis chav perhaps?)
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 8:40
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    @Steve most peers are no longer entitled to attend the House of Lords and claim the attendance allowance. See the Wikipedia article.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 10:10
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    @JoshuaFox - please don't reply in comments; edit the question to address all issues, then flag the comment for deletion. Long comment strings tend towards question closure.
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 10:18

3 Answers 3


The Ninth Earl Nelson was brought up under modest circumstances. He joined the police and rose to the rank of Detective Serjeant. However, at a later point he did gain a Directorship in a Company so his style of life was perfectly middle class. His son too joined the Police force. It may be that as valorous police officers, the family did not want to get associated with any potentially disreputable commercial venture whereas other peers may have had no such scruples. Vide https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/law-obituaries/5090475/Earl-Nelson.html

Speaking generally, the British aristocracy can easily repair its fortunes if the economy is buoyant. Companies like to have an Earl or a Viscount on the Board. Also, in the old days, they could marry American or other heiresses. In any case, so long as there was an Empire, there was always a demand for Colonial Governors with the right pedigree thus Britain- which in any case had a much smaller number of peers- did not have any 'lower class' Lords. In France, they had a rule such that a family which did not have enough money to live in a genteel manner lost its aristocratic title. No such rule was needed in England. Family fortunes could be repaired by marrying an heiress from the middle class. Sometimes, if the title-holder was too old or unattractive, he would be paid a little money to live abroad, while the younger brother married the heiress. But this still would not be a case of a peer living like the 'lower class'.

On the other hand, some peers with problems with alcohol or drugs may have been 'remittance men' on the Continent or the far Colonies. But this would not count as 'lower class' even if they didn't have much money because they were living abroad where the cost of living was very low and even a few British pounds went a long way.

  • The first paragraph is relevant -- thank you! Policeman is definitely working class according to the traditional class system, (except for upper officer ranks.)The other paragraphs show how hereditary peers usually did not become lower class, but I knew that. My questions was about examples, however rare, of them becoming lower class.
    – Joshua Fox
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 7:11

Following on from the comments, many would argue that class is fundamentally about money. The question makes reference exclusively to economic factors, like lords gambling away fortunes, living in council flats, and claiming dole.

Not only do peerages come with rights to claim certain allowances which would guarantee an income well in excess of the average earned income (as I explained in the comments), but it also conveys a right of close access to rich and very rich individuals. Other peers are not only likely to take pity on a fellow peer who is doing very badly financially, perhaps even extending to pure charity and handouts in the case of those who are seen as mentally ill, but also offering jobs, offices, and business opportunities to any competent operator.

The right of access to other peers can also be valuable earner, such as by lobbying on behalf of wealthy corporations and individuals who are not part of the peerage, and charging for that service.

So for the most part, being a peer is institutionally inconsistent with having poverty imposed, and thus inconsistent with being lower class or living like the lower class.

Tony Benn, who renounced some of his privileges for ideological and occupational reasons, has already been mentioned in comments, but I don't think he could be described as living "in a typically lower-class way" even then.

It's difficult to understand what exactly lower-class living means, if it isn't having to live in relative poverty, and of having a lifestyle tailored to and constrained by the economic circumstances. In some cases, there will be an influence on the social culture not just from poverty per se, but from the heavy, dirty, or dangerous occupations associated.

If lower class is to be understood as meaning all the bad things associated with the poor in general, then there are certainly candidates like John Hervey, but their bad, uncivil, or undesirable behaviour still has an upper class flavour enabled by their wealth. Such a comparison would be pejorative, rather than reflecting a real correspondence to the lifestyle of the typical lower-class person.

It's also known that the real upper classes are not nearly as pretentious as the middle classes in their use of language and so on. The Queen might speak relatively proper, but that doesn't stop the Duke of Edinburgh exclaiming in exasperation things like "just take the f***ing picture!".

Edit: @DaveGremlin makes the valid point that since 1999 many hereditary peers are not entitled to sit in the HoL.

There are really very few aristocratic rights remaining, and where the right to sit in the HoL is stripped away, since that right is (amongst other things) a right of association, I might question in what sense any substantial aristocratic status remains.

I assume the interest in a peer coming to live in a lower class way, rather than just the rich in general coming to live in a lower class way, is because peers are assumed to be different from the 'mere' wealthy in some way. But it is difficult to see what difference remains once the institutional differences are stripped back.

  • 1
    > "are not nearly as pretentious as the middle classes in their use of language" Indeed, this is the U/Not-U distinction that places the upper with the lower classes as distinct from the middle. > "many would argue that class is fundamentally about money". Historically, class was about a set of behaviors and ways of life, not about money. Maybe less true today, but still, an impecunious aristocrat can be upper class, a starving philosopher middle class, and a well-off plumber still lower class. theguardian.com/news/datablog/2013/apr/03/…
    – Joshua Fox
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 15:25
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    ">council flat" Living in a council flat is lower class, where a decaying mansion or even a dilapidated ordinary flat might not be.
    – Joshua Fox
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 15:27
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    -1 None of the assertions in this answer are supported by citations, and I'm pretty sure that every one of them is incorrect. Peers who do not sit in the House of Lords don't have an automatic source of income solely because of their title. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Privilege_of_peerage. Also, this would be a useful site for you to read: brewminate.com/a-history-of-peerage-in-the-united-kingdom Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 17:28
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    @Steve An earl who gambled away all his money, or whose father or grandfather did, might in principle have to drive a cab for a living. Yet he retains his title as earl. My question: Are there any such?
    – Joshua Fox
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 19:52
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    @Steve: But what exactly are those upper class behaviors that you call "the symptoms of aristocracy"? I think a lot could be reproduced without having a lot of money, just as people who've made lots of money could retain lower-class behaviors.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 0:02

Short Answer:

I am not an expert on the British peerage, but I know of some evidence to suggest that possibly some hereditary British peers moght have lived a lifestyle that might be considered by some to be low enough to be considered lower class.

Long Answer in seven parts:

Evudence for the possibility of hereditary British Peers living lower class lifestyles.

Part One: Some possible and disputed royal analogs of British peers living lower class lifestyles.

There was a period in Norwegian history when a few men came to Norway and claimed that they were illegitimate sons of Norwegian kings who had been born of affairs those kings had in foregin lands. Some of those claims were accepted and some of those claimants became kings or co-kings of part or all of Norway.

So there is considerable speculation and debate about which of those claims were true and which were not.

King alexander III of Scotland and his wife Margaret had a son Alexander and a daughter Margaret. The daughter Margaret married KIng Eric II of Norway and had a daughter Margaret born in 1283. King Alexander III's daughter Queen margaret of Norway died and then Prince Alexander died childless, leaving KIng Alexander III without any heirs except for his Norwegian granddaughter Margaret. So King Alexander III remarried and had the nobles in Scotland vow to make his grandaughter Margaret the heir if he died without any children by his second marriage. Then Alexander III died in a riding accident in 1286 and his widow did not have a posthumous child, so Margaret the Maid of Norway was recognized as the rightful Queen regnant of Scotland. Margaret the Maid of Norway sailed to Scotland in 1290 aged 7 but died in the Orkney Islands.

In 1300 a woman and her husband sailed from Germany to Norway, where she claimed to be Margaret the Maid of Norway, who had been kidnapped when she was said to have died. The woman was eventually burned at the stake. And she was almost certainly an impostor. But if she or any of the men claming to have been illegitimate sons of Norwegian kings were telling the truth, they might have lived in poverty and a lower class life style, depending on the wealth of those who raised them, before coming to Norway.

Kaspar Hauser (1812? – 17 December 1833) was a German youth who claimed to have grown up in the total isolation of a darkened cell. Hauser's claims, and his subsequent death by stabbing, sparked much debate and controversy. Theories propounded at the time identified him as the grand ducal House of Baden, hidden away because of royal intrigue. These opinions may or may not have been documented by later investigations.1 Other theories proposed that Hauser had been a fraud.


Kaspar Hauser was probably not the rightful Grand Duke of Baden, but if he was he would have lived a lifestyle much lower than royalty before he appeared in Nuremburg in 1828.

So with those examples, one can agree that it is theoretically possible for the rightful possessor of a British peerage to live a much lower class lifestyle than that of a peer.

Part Two: James Annesley, possibly the rightful Earl of Anglessey.

James Annesley (1715 – 5 January 1760) was an Irishman with a claim to the title Earl of Anglesey, one of the wealthiest estates in Ireland. The dispute between Annesley and his uncle Richard Annesley was infamous in its time, but his story is perhaps best known today as a possible inspiration for the 19th-century novel Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson and other works.[1][2][3]

James Annesley was allegedly disowned by his father and tossed out into the streets, and then kidnapped age about 12 by order of his uncle Richard Annesley and sold as an indentured servant in Delaware, while Richard claimed the Earldom and the estates as the heir. So if James Annesley's story was true, he was living in poverty and then working as an indentured servant while being the rightful Earl of Anglesey.

Part Three: James Fitzgerald, rightful 12th Earl of Ddesmond.

Thomas Fitzgerald, 11th Earl of Desmond in Ireland (1454-1534), married as his second wife Kathleen Fitzgerald, "the Old Countess of Desmond", who survived him by about 70 years and so was reputed to have lived to be 120 or even much older.

His heir was his grandson, James Fitzgerald, who came from the court of King Henry VIII with his supporters to claim the Earldom. But his grand uncle Sir John Fitzgerald claimed the earldom and succeeded in possessing it de facto . When John died in 1536 his son James Fitzgerald became the de facto Earl of Desmond. James Fitzgerald the rightful, de jure, Earl of Desmond was murdered in 1540 without children. And it is possible that James Fitzgerald the de jure Earl of Desmond was not rich enough to live the lifestyle of an Irish Earl.

And no doubt there are other examples of disputed successions to various noble titles, and possible examples of the rightful peer not being acknowledged as such.

Part Four: Inheritance of titles by distant cousins who might not be rich enough for a peer's lifestyle.

I note that some British peerages can pass to heirs general, meaning a women a can inherit if her father has no sons. Most British peerages pass to heirs male ,by agnatic (male line only) succesion, so if a peer dies with only daughters, the peerage will not go to his oldest daughter, but to his closest relative descended in male line from the man originally grnted that peerage.

And it is very common for peerages that go to heirs male, and specifically go to "heirs male of the body", that is to the agnatic heirs descended from the original grantee of the peerage and not to persons descended from his brothers or other relativws.

Suppose someone was granted a peerage in 1521, 500 years ago. If his family has an average of three to four generations per century, the present day peer could be in the fiftheenth to the twentieth generation from the original grantee. Suppose that peer dies in 2021 without any children, or without any male children. His daughters, if any, would not be eligible to inherit the peerage. So the peerabe would pass to his nearst agnatic relative descended from the original grantee. That could be his brother, uncle, nephew, 1st cousin, 2nd cousin, 3rd cousin, 4th cousin, etc. It would be unusual, but possible, for the nearest agnatic descendant of the original grantee to be descended from a younger son of the original grantee and thus be a 13th to 18th cousin of the peer who dies in 2021. Such a distant heir could obviously not be as rich as the peer and might have a lower class lifestyle before inheriting the title. And maybe he still has a lower class lifestyle after inheriting the title if the peer leaves his wealth to a daughter or someone else who is more closely related to him but unable to inherit the peerage.

A similar situation is in a novel called the The Dukes by Malcolm Ross. In 1849, the childless 5th Duke of St. Omer hires investigators to find if he has any relatives elible to inherit the Dukedom. The closest heir they can find is a struggling entrepreneur named Alfred Boyce who is one step away from his creditors, and clearly has not previously lived the life style of a British peer. One plot involves another family, living in Australia, who have rival claim to the Dukedom, and it turns out that they are the rightful heirs but never prove their claim. Thus in that novel the rightful de jure Duke never gets to live like a duke.

Renaud de Courteney (died 1190), a French noble, moved to England. His descendant Hugh de Courteney, a great grandson of a women of the Redvers family who were Earls of Devon until 1262, was made Earl of Devon in 1335. It is uncertain whether this was a new earldom or a continuation of the earldom of the De Redvers earls. The earls of Devon were involved with the royal court and their title was confiscated and restored several times duirng the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor dynasty.

In 1553 Edward Courteney was released from prison by Queen Mary and a new earldom of Devon was created for him. He died childess in Italy in 1556, and it was believed that the earldom created for him died with him.

Almost 280 years later, William Courteney (1777-1859) was an MP form 1816-1828, and Clerk Assistant to Parliament when he discovered that the patent for the grant of the Earldom of Devon to Edward Courteny in 1553 "differed from earlier patents in that it granted the earldom to his heirs male forever, rather than to the heirs male of his body." Thus the childless William Courteney (c. 1768-1835), 3rd. Viscount Courteney of Powderham, was de jure the 9th Earl of Devon.

So in 1831 the 3rd Viscount Courteney officially became the Earl of Devon, and when he died childless in 1835, his 3rd cousin & closest agnatic relative, William Courteney (1777 - 1859), became the next Earl of Devon, and also became much richer when he inherited many estates from the 9th earl.

The two William Courteneys, the 9th and 10th earls of Devon, were 3rd cousins and so had a common great great grandfather. They were agnatic descandants of Sir Philip Courteney (1340-1406), a younger son of the 2nd/10th earl Hugh de Courteney (1303-1377).

Edward Courteney (1527-1556) who they became the heirs of, was descended in 7 generations from the 2nd/10th earl Hugh de Courteney (1303-1377) The 9th and 10th earls were descended in 16 generatons, if I counted corrrectly, from the 2nd/10th earl Hugh de Courteney (1303-1377), thus making them 5th cousins 9 times removed of Edward Courteney (1527-1556) who they inherited the earldom from.

And it is possible that in some cases a distant cousin who is rather poor could inherit a peerage without inheriting any wealth and remain poor.

Part Five: A Fugitive peer.

Richard John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan (b. 1934), had an unhappy marraige. His children's nanny, Sandra Rivett, was murdered 7 November 1974, and the earl's wife was also attacked - she said the earl was the attacker. The earl disappeared.

There have been hundreds of sightings of the 7th Earl over the decades, but none proved. He was declared presumed dead in 1992, declared legally dead in 1999, and a death certificate was issuded in 2016 when he would be 82 if still alive, and his son was recognized as the 8th Earl of Lucan.

Since nobody knows what happened to the 7th Earl, and since he was a wanted fugitive, he may have lived for a time in the criminal underground of some location, having a lifestyle very different from that of most peers.

Part Six: A heir who doesn't know.

I read a book by John Ian Robert Russell (1917-2002), where he stated that his parents, who were socialists, didn't tell him anything about his father's parents until he was 16 and they took him to visit them - at Woburn Abbey, the home of the Dukes of Bedford. He eventually became the 13th Duke of Bedford.

And if the 12th Duke had moved his family to a foreign counntry and he and his wife died in an accident without leaving a forwarding address or telling his son about his ancestry, the son might have become the rightful Duke of Bedfored witout knowing it, or living the lifestyle of a peer, for a long time.

Part Six: The Cottage Countess.

Henry Cecil (1754-1804), was a well to do landowner, but fell deeply in dept. His wife Emma had an affair with the Reverend William Sneyd and eloped with him in 1785. Henry made arrangements for his estate income to pay off his depts and left, changing his name to Jone Jones. He lived modestly in the Shropshire village of Great Bolas, and in 1790 he married Sarah Hoggins, the 16-year-old daughter of a local farmer. In 1793 Henry inherited property from his uncle, and he took them to their new home - Burghley House, the great mansion of the Earls of Exeter.

Henry's wife Sarah was nicknamed "The Cottage Countess" because of her dificulties n adjusting ot her new lifestyle. She died in 1793,and Earl Henry became Marquis of Exter in 1801.

Part Seven: Conclusion.

Going by those examples, it seems possible to me that some peers have lived a lifestyle which could be considered lower class. It is even possible that some of the examples I gave might be considered sufficienlty lower class lifestyles.

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