Kimberley  Schutte, Women, Rank, and Marriage in the British Aristocracy, 1485-2000: An Open Elite? (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. xi + 290. ISBN 978-1-137-32779-6 (hb).

Research output: Contribution to Specialist PublicationReview


Although gender and women's history have been part of the mainstream of historical scholarship for some time now the practitioners of these disciplines have rarely paid visits to the country house. Why bother, after all, when women led, in the words of G. E. Mingay, a ‘humdrum existence’ in a macho world of estate management, political power‐broking and patrilineal inheritance? Given this blind‐spot it is refreshing to see Kimberley Schutte's attempt to place women back into the spotlight of research, exploring the part that women played in constructions of identity through marriage and in forming the boundaries of aristocratic status. Theirs was far from the peripheral role we have been led to believe, Schutte argues. The role of women in marriage (as both potential partners and matchmakers) and their understanding of that role were central to the ‘rank identity’ of the aristocracy.

This volume is delivered in two parts. In the first section, Schutte draws on published genealogies to analyse 7,178 marriages within 750 families across this long period from 1485–2000, primarily in order to measure rates of endogamy and exogamy and shifts in the choice of marriage partners. The second section turns to personal sources, the diaries, memoirs and letters of 200 women, to provide an insight into the thought processes of aristocratic women engaged in the processes of marriage and elopement. The main findings of this research are disarmingly though somewhat unsurprisingly straightforward. Until the early twentieth century aristocratic women generally married aristocratic men and they were more likely to marry endogamously than aristocratic men (hardly surprising given the differential flows of wealth involved in the two types of marriage). Until the 1880s rates of endogamy ‘hovered’ at around 50 per cent. Across the period around 35 per cent of women married exogamously and the shortfall was made up by non‐marriage and ‘hypogamous’ marriages: those marrying into the landed gentry. The First World War in particular ushered in a rapid rise in exogamy that was sustained throughout the twentieth century.

The idea to approach the question of the ‘openness’ of landed elites from the perspective of women is a good one. But the problem with research of this kind is the interpretation of the results since there is no definitive measure of what ‘openness’ or ‘closed’ really means and this seems to be an issue with Schutte's conclusions, which are puzzling. She asserts that these marriage patterns, along with the caste‐conscious comments and values found in the personal sources, show that the British nobility was a ‘closed’ elite, not one ‘open’ to new wealth and one that jealously guarded its separate noble status. This seems somewhat at odds with wider research on this group and with the findings of the project. The lowest rates of exogamy were in the seventeenth century when 23 per cent of marriages were of this type, and even if we ignore the patterns of the twentieth century they peaked at almost 39 per cent in the nineteenth century (Table 1.1, p. 21). Although we may expect a greater magnitude of change this hardly reflects a ‘closed’ social group, particularly when we acknowledge, as anthropologists such as Martine Segalen do, the natural propensity for people to marry ‘their own’. In fact, a very convincing argument could be extrapolated from these figures that emphasises relative ‘openness’. Where, after all, does the boundary lie? If Schutte had found rates of exogamy consistently in excess of 50 per cent might she have argued that this group was being diluted in each generation by incoming parvenu wealth? Perhaps expectations also played their part. Schutte admits in her conclusion that she expected to find a ‘revolution in the marital behaviour of aristocratic women’ (p. 161) when she embarked on her project. The results may look disappointing to one expecting revolution. Perhaps the real value in Schutte's findings is that exogamy increased dramatically into the twentieth century, which supports some of F. M. L. Thompson's comments on the ‘self‐liquidation’ of the nobility in this period.

Schutte makes no great claims to being a historian of gender nor does she promise grandiose insights to the gender identities of aristocratic women. But there does seem to have been an opportunity embedded in the diaries and correspondence that was missed here to tease out more meaningful findings in this area. The second section of the book is strongest when revealing the way women seemingly inculcated the wider needs and requirements of the group, often at the expense of their own needs and wishes. Generally, though, these sources were under‐exploited. We know, from the work of Leonore Davidoff and others, that upper‐class women played an important role in surveying possible suitors for marriage but what does this tell us specifically about the gender identities of aristocratic women? Aside from some references to Judith M. Bennett's ideas there is little effort at problematising gender, or to think about identity through this social group. Overall, this is a valuable set of results in terms of marriage patterns secured through sustained research and Schutte's assertion that women played a central role in aristocratic identities is undoubtedly quite true. But the figures needed to be interpreted more sensitively and the value of the personal sources required more consideration in order to do justice to that important role. The wider issue of the ‘openness’ of the aristocracy remains what is has always been – a moot question.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages2
Specialist publicationGender and History
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2016


  • British Aristocracy
  • Marriage
  • Women
  • Kimberley Schutte


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