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Emergent Change in the Nineteenth Century

Bastardy-prone social enclaves are of course just one strand in the history of the nobility’s private life. There were also singletons who conducted their love affairs in secret as well as noblemen and noblewomen who chose to abstain from adultery, even in the eighteenth century when infidelity seemed to be quite common among the nobility. But the luxurious and licentious lifestyles of royal and noble courts might well have added to the sense of irritation already felt by the populace towards the rulers and their families and noble entourages. This opposition spilled over into open hostilities in the French Revolution, when furious mobs flocked to the streets and squares to demand the deposition of the monarch. However, King Louis XVI’s court was hardly any more extravagant than, say, King Louis XlV’s (r. 1643-1715). The problem was that in the coming nineteenth century, this extravagance began to lose its justification, via two routes. The splendour that earlier appeared to be a true reflection of the power of royalty and the nobility now seemed out of step with a reality where the power of monarchs was fast dwindling. Collins (2009, 281) goes so far as to claim that by the 1750s, absolute monarchy in France stood in complete ruin. No one else believed in the absolute power of the king except the king himself. At the same time, new social forces were beginning to enter the portals of power, as if unnoticed by monarchs and nobilities, and they were keen to enhance their power and influence. In this light it is understandable that English landowners, for example, were described as idle, greedy, parasitical, self-interested profi- teers—as men who enjoyed wealth that they had not themselves created (Cannadine 1999, 49).

The nobility seemed to be heading the same way as monarchism. It was running out of privileges in the nineteenth century, albeit at a different pace in different monarchies (Macknight 2012, 17-19; Cannadine 1999, 35-87). This was not a one-way linear process, however: the power of the nobility was not in straightforward, steady decline. Just as importantly, the nobility moved into the twentieth century as if oblivious to the changes happening in its surroundings. For example, following the restoration of monarchy in France in 1815 and during the Third Republic (1870-1940), the old French noble dynasties, even though they had lost most of their privileges, continued to retain their prominent position in state and municipal politics, even from father to son (Macknight 2012, 120-4), and even recruitment to noble status was closed off by the 1906 decree (Macknight 2012, 221). In Denmark, the constitution of 1849 abolished all privileges and advantages associated with nobility, but the systems and terminology of nobility, titles and rank were allowed to continue (Jespersen 1995, 69). In Britain, some 200 people entered the ranks of the hereditary peerage between 1886 and 1914, and as late as 1931-38 more than 90 new peers were created (Cannadine 1999, 196, 205). Moreover, the monarchy maintained the House of Lords (James 2010, 375, 384-6), in which peers continued to enjoy privileged membership, albeit with diminishing powers. The House of Lords could suggest, amend and plead for the reconsideration of bills, and in the event of an impasse delay their implementation for a year. The bill of 1998 expelled 400 hereditary peers from the House of Lords, leaving a token 95 who had to be elected by their fellows and giving life peers a majority status. In Sweden (Eriksson 2011, 14, 340-1, 402-5, 412), the nobility’s privileges had been gradually curtailed by successive reforms since 1809. The most important change was the decree of 1866, which abolished the Estates. In addition, even though Sweden remained a monarchy, the number of ennoblements began to decline at an accelerating rate by the nineteenth century. The last ennoblement was granted in 1902. In Finland, which was annexed to Russia as an autonomous Grand Duchy in 1809, some 100 new ennoblements were granted during the nineteenth century, the last one in 1904, two years before the parliamentary reform, which abolished the Estates. The fall of the nobility was a complex process subject to two opposite forces, one drifting away from and the other continuing to adhere to the old regime and style. The first force was strongly supported by legislative reforms mainly introduced from around the mid-nineteenth century on, while the second force was tied to a social phenomenon that I would call legacy. This provided an extension to the existence of the nobility. For example, the new laws deprived the nobility of their automatic right to the highest offices, but they could not prevent the appointment of nobles to these offices. Moreover, heavy death duties meant that many noble families had to sell their palatial residences, although many country houses did, nonetheless, remain in private possession. In fact nothing was terminated in one fell swoop by law, except under the socialist regime. For others, the glorious past was like a long trail that swept all the arenas that nobles entered.

To provide a preliminary sketch of how the nobility’s dwindling privileges affected its occupational position, I shall first give brief accounts of the social backgrounds of noble parvenus in the nineteenth century and their own occupational merits for ennoblement to see whether they had changed since the eighteenth century. The proportions of noblemen in the Senate, the successor of the Council in the nineteenth century, on the other hand, demonstrate directly the waning of the nobility’s power. These elaborations are made for Finland only. The percentages presented below are not meant to be representative of European nobilities at the time, but to show how the transition proceeded in the nineteenth century from the heyday of the nobility towards its fall.

There were two notable changes in the social backgrounds of all noble parvenus (Carpelan 1942). First, the proportion of noble migrators from other monarchies into the Finnish nobility fell from one-quarter in 1600—1800 to a mere handful in the nineteenth century, most of them from Russia (Tandefelt 2013, 26). The other significant change in Finland was a marked increase in the ennoblement of priests’ sons: their proportion grew from 5 per cent in 1600-1800 to 35 per cent in the nineteenth century. Clerical families were indeed a significant stepping stone for social rise in the next generation (see also Carlsson 1950, 67), as will be seen in the case of other status groups, too. Other changes in the social background of noble newcomers were minor, and just as before, sons of peasants, crofters, craftsmen, farmhands and workers remained conspicuous by their absence in the new nobility.

There were also very few changes in new noblemen’s own merits in the nineteenth century. Between 1600 and 1800, almost all parvenus in Finland were either civil servants or officers, but in the nineteenth century their proportion fell to 73 per cent. Clearly, the state and state administration in particular was still the bedrock of the nobility, whereas an officer’s career was no longer as important a merit as it used to be. The proportion of officers dropped from around 50 per cent in 1600-1800 to a mere 17 per cent in the nineteenth century. At the same time, the proportion of civil servants remained almost the same as before, increasing from barely half to 56 per cent in the nineteenth century. It was industrialists and professors who filled the vacuum in the nineteenth century, at 12 per cent each. However, a closer examination of these professors reveals that their ennobling was well in line with the nobility’s close connection with the state. Most of those ennobled professors were rectors (see also Aminoff-Winberg 2013, 111). Their ennoblements reflected the growing role and significance of the university institution that was now responsible for the education of the expanding corps of civil servants and hence closely coupled with the state. There was nothing new even in the decision to ennoble a handful of professionals—they were medical doctors—who in fact were higher civil servants in charge of health care institutions. When entrepreneurs were ennobled, priority was given to those who had accumulated substantial fortune and to industrialists rather than merchants—industry took precedence over trade, and big business took precedence over small business. It seems that the same is true in other countries as well. In England, for example, one-third of all new titles awarded since 1866 have been issued to commercial and industrial tycoons, including financiers, brewers, newspaper proprietors, railway and shipping magnates, mine owners and industrialists (James 2010, 328). It is clear from the absence of any marked changes in Finnish ennobling conventions that the status hierarchy established at the highest level was set to remain in place unchanged, at least in the nineteenth century.

The Senate, which took over the role of the Council, was very advantageous for Finland, an autonomous Grand Duchy under the Russian crown since 1809, because the Senate was in charge of Finland’s internal affairs and legislation and all senators were Finns (with the exception of the Russian general governors who acted as presidents of the Senate and the last Russian senators nominated at the time of Russification) (Tiihonen 2015, 33-5). Under the Swedish crown, no more than 5 per cent of councillors were Finnish noblemen. In a new situation, however, the authorities continued the tradition which conferred the privileged right on noblemen to be nominated to the Council, from 1816 onwards the Senate. This privilege was dying out during the nineteenth century, along with the declining proportions of noblemen in the Senate. The other point that deserves to be taken up here is the effect that university degrees had on the composition of the Senate. The latter came to have a major impact in driving the number of commoners entering the civil service because in the nineteenth century, there were more and more civil service posts that required a university degree (Ylikangas 1996, 436). To study these developments more closely, I will separately examine the two divisions of the Senate, that is, the Judicial Division (Supreme Court) and the Economic Division (Cabinet).[1]

Between 1809 and 1873, in the early stages of the change, some 55 per cent of the new senators in the Cabinet belonged to the old nobility. In the Judicial Division they accounted for a much smaller proportion, 36 per cent. However, the proportion of noble senators grew remarkably through the ennoblement of non-noble senators, which normally took place when they were nominated as senators. When these senators (25 per cent) are added to the old nobility, the proportion of new noble senators in the Cabinet rose to 80 per cent, bringing the Finnish Senate close to other European Councils and other highest offices at the time. In Sweden, 20 of 25 governors (80 per cent) were still noblemen in 1860, and the first prime minister of non-noble origin was not nominated until 1883 (Norrby 2014, 324-5). In Russia, the majority of ministers were appointed from noble dynasties until the end of the nineteenth century (Tiihonen 2015, 147; Bush 1988, 71). In England in 1867, over 500 of the 658 MPs (around 75 per cent) were members of the landed elite (Stone and Fawtier Stone 2001, 13).

The situation in the Judicial Division was quite different from that in the Cabinet. When the representatives of the old nobility (36 per cent) are added to those who were ennobled in connection with their nomination to the Judicial Division (20 per cent), we find that the proportion of noblemen (56 per cent) was much lower than in the Cabinet (80 per cent). This clear difference indicates that a degree in jurisprudence provided a good opportunity for commoners to attain the highest posts in state governance. And importantly, it no longer necessarily led to ennobling. This marked the beginning of the separation of the nobility from the state.

The next distinct period was from 1873 to 1891, when the decline of the old nobility gathered significant pace. In the Cabinet, members of the old nobility as a proportion of all new senators fell from 55 to 21 per cent, and in the Judicial Division from 36 to 11 per cent. At the same time, though, increasing numbers of senators were being ennobled, albeit only in the Cabinet: their share increased from 25 to 36 per cent. In the Judicial Division, on the other hand, the proportion of the new nobility declined from 20 to 16 per cent. The increased rate of ennoblement was not enough to offset the declining share of the old nobility. The old and the new nobility together now represented a diminishing segment in the Senate, 57 per cent in the Cabinet and 37 per cent in the Judicial Division. The change was even more dramatic in the period from 1891 to 1917, when the proportion of new senators from the old nobility decreased to 21 per cent in the Cabinet and to a mere 11 per cent in the Judicial Division. At the same time, ever fewer ennoblements were granted to non-noble senators: 16 per cent of the new senators in the Cabinet and 6 per cent in the Judicial Division had been recently ennobled. By this time, then, 65 per cent of the new senators in the Cabinet and 84 per cent in the Judicial Division were commoners. Clearly, the nobility’s heyday was drawing to a close—although it was still to be another 100 years before this point was eventually reached. The ties between the state and the nobility were finally severed in 1904 when the last title was granted to a senator, and in 1906 when the new constitution abolished the Estates and introduced parliament and universal suffrage.

Similar tendencies were seen in other monarchies, too. The old nobility was giving way to the new nobility. In Britain the 1885 election marked a watershed for the patricians, who ceased to be a majority element in the Lower House (Cannadine 1999, 189). In France only a handful of ministers in 1715—89 were from the old nobility; a much larger number were from recently ennobled families, or were in the process of becoming ennobled (Swann 1995, 166). In Spain in the second half of the eighteenth century, 37 per cent of major military and civil servants belonged to the titled nobility; the remaining two-thirds were eighteenth-century creations, very often in reward for service (Thompson 1995, 221). New ennoblements were like a kiss of life for the nobility, allowing it to remain for some while at the pinnacle of power, but the termination of ennobling sent out the significant message that status should depend on occupation and occupation alone, whether in the case of senators or any other officials.

However, despite the steadily declining presence of the nobility in the Senate, some remnants of the glorious old days still survived. Two senators were from the Wrede and one from the Cedercreutz councillor dynasties, which were introduced earlier in this book. In addition, 18 senators formed a complex network of noblemen related to one another by blood and marriage (Ylikangas 1996, 468-9). This network included second-generation senators, some of whom were married to senators’ daughters. Moreover, some of these senators’ daughters married senators. This was reminiscent of the former heyday of councillor dynasties, except that the dynastic chains were now shorter and more porous. Yet, the process of change was by now well under way and gathering momentum as the twentieth century drew closer.

  • [1] Calculations are based on lists of senators (Selovuori and Parkkari 1995, 16-102). Senators’ nobility status has been checked from Almanacs of the Finnish Nobility (Wasastjerna 1879, 1880;Carpelan 1942, 1954, 1958, 1965). Each senator has been counted only once and for the year theywere nominated to the Senate for the first time. The percentages are thus counted for new senatorsonly, in contrast to Ylikangas (1996, 467), whose percentages at ten-year intervals include all senators in the Senate at each time.
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