Elite Wealth

TNA = The National Archives
ODNB = Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

The Danish proverb: “A lord without land is like a cask without wine” hints at a common assumption, that land was a primary factor upon which the fortunes of English elites depended in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some determined landowners were able to make money from land, but was it enough to support their households and lifestyle? The fact that other avenues were vigorously pursued to maximise income indicates that it was not. To what extent was the acquisition and successful management of land the key to the creation and preservation of wealth by the provincial elites? This paper demonstrates that wealth was accumulated via an interlinked structure of land and inheritance, greatly enhanced by marriage and status, the ultimate achievement of the latter being service at the royal court. Land was one key component that alone was “rarely… sufficient to guarantee a family’s survival” (V.Larminie, Wealth, Kinship and Culture, 1995, p.21).

Properly managed land provided steady income which meant that the owners need not resort to toil and they could enjoy the status that went with landed wealth. Primogeniture ensured that the eldest son inherited the bulk of the family estates; his siblings might receive a share of land as part of their marriage settlements. Some younger sons (or ambitious newcomers) pursued professional or mercantile careers (unless they were destined for the church). If they showed aptitude, they would earn the means to buy their own estates. Particularly able professionals may have been recruited as courtiers, which might in turn earn them recognition, wealth and land. An important entry to the high life was to marry well, preferably an heiress with an impressive lineage leading to more money, land and prestige. Positions of authority were actively sought in the provinces to enhance status. Once estates were acquired, it was only through astute management and development of land that wealth was accumulated and preserved. This entrepreneurial group would have been alert to new ways of harvesting optimum return from the land, making the most of rental agreements, consolidation and enclosure and progressive agricultural techniques. This provided the wherewithal for other ventures (such as projects and investments) which, with luck, increased prosperity still further.

There was an expected mode of genteel behaviour and ostentatious display, such as grand attire and ranks of servants, which set this group apart from the rest of society. Some rogues used unscrupulous means to attempt to join the elite circle by adopting one of the entrance criteria – (at least the appearance of) gentility. I wonder if anyone succeeded where this unnamed man failed – in his trial at the Old Bailey in 1676, he was found guilty of bigamy and hanged. The transcript reads:

“…for about five years last past or more he has made it his business to ramble up and down most parts of England pretending himself a person of quality, and assuming the names of good families, and that he had a considerable Estate per Annum, though in Truth he was old sutor ultra Crepidam, a Knight of the Order of the famous Crispin, being originally by profession a Shomaker and not many years since a Journyman; but on the pretensions aforesaid, where ever he came if he heard of any rich Maid, or wealthy widow at their own disposal, he would very formally make Love to them, wherein being of handsome taking presence, and Master of a voluble insinuating tongue, he commonly succeeded to engage their easie affections”
(Old Bailey Proceedings Online, May 1676, trial ref: t16760510-1).

Rise of the Gentry

Tawney instigated an energetic debate in 1941 on the ‘rise of the gentry’, arguing that the accumulation of land, wealth and status by this group led them to seek commensurate political power, thus causing the civil war. Tawney argued that due to the profligacy and ineptitude of the nobility, the organisation of their estates became obsolete and the way was left clear for the new commercially astute gentry ( J.E. Sharpe, Early Modern England, 1997, pp.159-60). Trevor-Roper vigorously opposed this view and stated that it was the falling fortunes of the ‘mere gentry’ (those with new wealth) and jealousy that they could not secure positions at court that led to their search for political power, leading to the same outcome (H.R. Trevor-Roper, ‘The Gentry 1540-1640’, Economic History Review, 1953). Wrightson studied the structure of English society at this time and concluded that: “… the establishment and maintenance of gentility depended upon the acquisition and retention of landed wealth”. In his example, the criteria for entrance to the baronetcy in 1611 were that the family had borne arms for at least three generations and that they owned land to the annual value of at least £1,000 per annum. He went on to say that secondary criteria were lineage, a genteel lifestyle and positions of authority (K. Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680, 1982, pp.23,27). A more complete picture would have emerged had Wrightson also mentioned advantageous marriages.

To put the economic situation of the elites into context, gentlemen and their families constituted two percent of the whole population in the early seventeenth century. Gentry owned 50 percent of English land; the peerage owned a further 15 percent. Owning a landed estate at a time of burgeoning population in need of food and materials for clothing would seem an excellent opportunity for those with astute commercial and management skills. Trading in leases, higher rents and better estate management resulted in significant productivity in this period. Conversely, keeping pace with rising prices, needing to uphold the outward appearance of gentility, supporting growing families and their education, along with the settlements necessary for marriage and widowhood must have strained the purse-strings, because other means of income were energetically sought. Debt was probably a fact of life, the consequence of cash-flow problems due to money being tied up in land, along with the outlay needed to keep up the appearance of gentility, but cases of spectacular failure due to debt were rare.

Over the years, the rising fortunes of elites added parcels of land and property to the investment portfolio, but they were often spread around the country. Sir Thomas More in 1516 voiced a commonly-held view: “The nobles and gentlemen, not to mention several saintly abbotts, have grown dissatisfied with the income that their predecessors got out of their estates. They’re no longer content to lead lazy, comfortable lives, which do no good to society – they must actively do it harm, by enclosing all the land they can for pasture, and leaving none for cultivation” (R.C. Allen, Enclosure and the Yeoman, 1992, p.9). Some of the more established families were torn between the necessity to make the most of their assets and the respect in the community that their paternalism had nurtured over many generations; their status had to be upheld. More enterprising landowners took advantage of agricultural innovations to increase productivity by crop rotation and use of soil conditioners and manure. Direct sales of produce such as cattle, pigs, hops and rabbits constituted accessible income, and the more adventurous set up mining projects on their land.

Russell Family of Chenies and Bedford

The Russell family of Chenies and Bedford demonstrated all the essential qualities to establish the wealth needed for provincial elite status; the rise of a dynasty founded on commerce but sustained by income from land, the fortunate patronage of successive monarchs, along with shrewd marriage alliances and investments. My interest in Chenies stemmed originally from the discovery amongst my family ancestors of a gamekeeper who worked at Chenies Manor in the mid-1800s. The village is eight miles from Berkhamsted and about 30 miles from London; the west end containing the Manor is in Buckinghamshire; the east end with the Bedford Arms (built in 1860 by the 7th Duke of Bedford) is in Hertfordshire. The antiquary John Leland as part of his itinerary as surveyor for Henry VIII in 1543, admired the manor and gardens at Chenies: “The old house of the Chenies is so translated by my Lord Russell… that little or nothing of it in a manner remaineth untranslated, and a great deal of the house is even newly set up, made of brick and timber, and fair lodgings be new erected in the garden” (T. Hearne, ed., The Itinerary of John Leland, 1710).

The Russell family can first be traced to Weymouth in Dorset, where they ran a successful wine trade with Bordeaux in France in the mid-fourteenth century. John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford (c.1485-1555) earned his title and considerable fortune as an exceptional administrator for Henry VIII, Edward VI and Queen Mary. Besides his modest inherited property in Dorset and Somerset, he was granted land by the Crown (the Abbeys at Thorney, Woburn and Tavistock) and Chenies manor came into his possession through his advantageous marriage to Guy Sapcote’s daughter Anne in 1526. He invested in mining and commercial ventures, was a ship owner in the 1540s and in 1553 became a shareholder in the Muscovy Company, formerly named the Company of Merchant Adventurers (D. Willen, ‘Russell, John, first earl of Bedford’, ODNB, 2004).

By the time John’s son Francis gained his inheritance, the Bedford estates brought in over £2,000 per annum in rentals (L. Stone, The Crisis of the aristocracy, p.760). Henry VIII and Elizabeth visited Chenies on several occasions, accompanied by their courts. In 1576, a letter was sent from Thomas Horsman of Tybboldes [Theobalds] beside Waltham to Sir William More: “The Queen will probably not come to Loseley this summer. Tomorrow she goes from Hertford to Hatfield, then will go to St Albans, Chenies or Mr Sandys’ house and Reading, and there remaineth during her pleasure for my Lord Treasurer told me that he heard that the plague was about Oatlands” (‘Historical Correspondence Volume 2’, TNA, 6729/7/33, 28 Aug 1576).

The Russell family was not without problems in sustaining family continuity. Francis Russell’s first and second sons Edward and John died before him without male heirs and intestate. His third son was mortally wounded in a fray on the Scottish border just a month before Francis himself died in 1585. This left his grandson Edward to take on the title of 3rd Earl of Bedford. He married into the Harington family which brought in £10,000 and the estate of Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire. Unfortunately he lost at least that amount in his support of the Essex rebellion and died without issue. The 2nd Earl’s youngest son William was created 1st Baron Russell of Thornhaugh in Northampton in 1603 and it was his son, another Francis, who sustained the family title as 4th Earl of Bedford. Chenies was the family seat until 1627 when Francis relocated to Woburn Abbey, to escape the plague around London. In 1628, Francis valued his estates at £3,450 per annum (W.T. MacCaffrey, ‘Russell, Francis, second earl of Bedford’, ODNB, 2004).

More difficulties crowded in on the family when Francis’ son William Russell, 5th Earl of Bedford, fought for both Parliamentarians and Cavaliers during the civil war, which earned him the distrust of both sides and sequestration of his estates for a time. Disillusioned, he later concentrated on the management of his recovered estate and became involved in a project to drain the fens in 1649 (the Bedford levels), but this ended in failure a few years later when the peat shrank and the area flooded, depriving people of their livelihoods. William’s son (also William) married Rachel Wriothesley, a descendant of the Dukes of Southampton; her Hampshire manors and property in Bloomsbury would have added considerably to the Russell family coffers. Alas, Charles I refused to spare William who was executed in 1683 for his alleged involvement in the Rye House plot and thereafter named ‘William the Martyr’. Despite this, William senior was elevated to 1st Duke of Bedford during his service with William and Mary, just six years before his death in 1700. He was succeeded by his grandson Wriothesley Russell, whose estates at this time were calculated at £20,000 per annum. This is equivalent to £1,561,800 today. During the first 70 years (between 1558 and 1628), the family estates had not quite doubled in value, whereas during the following similar period (between 1628 and 1700), they had increased 10-fold from the starting position, aided by lucrative marriage settlements.

As a lasting reminder of the wealth and status of the Russells, the Bedford Chapel, built to the north side of St Michael’s church in Chenies, contains “the richest single storehouse of funeral monuments in an English parish church” according to Pevsner. An alabaster tomb and an inscribed stone tablet are evidence that the wishes of the 1st Earl to have a Christian burial were carried out in appropriately grand fashion by his wife: “Anno Dni 1556: Thys Chappel ys built by Anne Countysse of Bedforde wyfe to John Erle of Bedford accordyg to ye last wyll of the sayd erle”. Even more impressive is what Pevsner described as: “the most swagger of all monuments in Buckinghamshire”, built by the 1st Duke of Bedford for himself, his wife and his executed son (N. Pevsner, Buckinghamshire, 1960, pp.85-6).

Earls and Dukes of Bridgewater

Thomas Egerton (1540-1616/7) made his name in the legal profession, catching the eye of successive monarchs and securing positions at court with gifts of titles and land. Later generations secured marriages into the Spencer dynasty and an elopement with a Duke’s daughter resulted in a handsome marriage settlement. Through the years, there is ample evidence of careful estate management, even weathering a period of substantial debt taken on to preserve the family name. The foundations were laid for a later fortune to be made in mining and canals.

Thomas Egerton’s early beginnings were inauspicious; being the illegitimate son of a serving maid, Alice Sparke. His father was Richard Egerton, a landowner of Ridley in Cheshire. Richard’s father was Sir Ralph Egerton and his family claimed descent from Robert Fitzhugh Baron of Malpas, contemporary of William I and, according to the Domesday Book, one of the largest landowners in Cheshire (J.H. Baker, ‘Egerton, Thomas, first Viscount Brackley’, ODNB, 2004). Bolstered by this impressive heritage, Richard appeared not to be concerned about the effect of a bastard son on his reputation as he went on to father another child by Alice and further grew his family by another unmarried woman before he eventually married.

Thomas (and his assortment of siblings) was brought up by Thomas Ravenscroft in Flintshire, followed by an education in Brasenose College Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn. Despite his illegitimacy, he was evidently treated as would any younger son of a genteel family and benefited from the family name and lineage, though perhaps not from inherited land. He established a legal practice in the 1580s with the backing of Ravenscroft (whose daughter he had married) and other eminent patrons. Thomas was knighted and in 1596 appointed Lord Keeper of the Great Seal by Elizabeth I. By 1603 he reached the pinnacle of his career when James I appointed him Lord High Chancellor of England and Baron of Ellesmere in Shropshire. In 1617 he was honoured as Viscount Brackley.

Although Thomas had been bequeathed Tatton in Cheshire by his half-sister’s husband Richard Brereton, the family seat from 1606 was Ashridge in the manor of Little Gaddesden, near Berkhamsted Hertfordshire. A survey of the estate conducted in about 1570 valued the materials alone of the mansion, barns, stables, dove-houses and timber in the woods at just under £1,190 (D. Coult, A Prospect of Ashridge, 1980, p.102). An “Abstract of my Assurances and myne estates in my lands” containing details of leases and purchases for the years 1580-1594 in Thomas’ own hand-writing, is amongst the family papers. Prudent investments included estates in Lancashire, Cheshire, Shropshire and Northamptonshire and later Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. Thomas’ third marriage to Alice Stanley née Spencer, Countess of Derby made lucrative connections to the Spencers of Althorp, but the union was not a happy one; he submitted to her “cursed railinge and bitter tongue” and thanked God that he never desired long life (‘Ashridge Collection II’, HALS, Ref: AH/913-1179, 1594-1671).

Thomas’ son John, 1st Earl of Bridgewater, who married his step-sister Frances Stanley, was described as a “gouty knave” by an ironmonger of Hemel Hempstead, according to a letter in the family collection. In the same year, 1641, John sent a letter from Bridgewater House, Barbican to his steward at Ashridge asking for particulars of demesnes at Houghton Regis (about eight miles away) and to request two bucks from the Park. Life at court or in London would have left little time to maintain lands, but stewards would have taken up the challenge. Hainsworth examined the numerous tasks of stewards and noted that those in charge of extensive deer parks would have encountered the troublesome gentlemen poachers, who were keen to make the most of the lucrative London market for venison, from which the Egertons too would have profited (D.R. Hainsworth, Stewards, Lords and People, 1992, p.213).

For the sake of the family name, John took on debts supporting his son-in-law William Courteen who, during his attempt to break into the East India Company trade monopoly, lost his ships in the Dutch war. By 1649, John recorded the total debt of £51,700 and two years later, the list of debts, encumbrances and interest had reduced slightly to £50,110. There is evidence of investment in mining, with a letter in 1659 referring to “a way to my colepitts”.

Due to inheriting the 1st Earl’s debts, there is a record of careful estate management in letters from his son John, 2ndEarl of Bridgewater to his lawyer John Halsey in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Between 1659 and 1666, there were lawsuits, mortgages, payment of ship debts, methods of raising £2000, purchase of property (Gaddesden Hall was bought for £120), fears of Anabaptists rising near Ashridge, the possibility of taking the post of stewardship of Hemel Hempstead “should Mr Combe be deprived under the Act of Indemnity”, a patent for extending Ashridge Park and highway and a subsequent subpoena. More personal items in the collection were an invitation for Halsey to attend the king’s christening of John’s child, and Halsey arranged for several deer from the estate to be offered as gifts to the Earl’s acquaintances during the period. John sold land, paid for book debts, restoration costs, his wife’s funeral and London expenses; he made his sons Knights of the Bath on the coronation of Charles II. He had also paid off £40,000 of his father’s debts. In 1671, there were copies of two inquisitions ad quod damnum (appropriate to the harm) from Charles II to the Sheriffe of Herts and Bucks regarding the grant to John, Earl of Bridgewater for enclosing roads in his Red Deere Park and estate.

In July 1663, there was parliamentary action directed against Lord Bridgewater from Lord Middlesex regarding the elopement of his niece Lady Elizabeth Cranfield with the future 3rd Earl of Bridgewater. By 1664, there was a family settlement of a lease to secure payment of £14,000 as Elizabeth’s portion and he married her in the Chapel of Bridgewater House, Barbican. Elizabeth died in childbirth five years later and John married Jane Powlett in 1673. Their son was Scroop Egerton who became the 1st Duke of Bridgewater and accumulated the family’s later great fortune by developing the mining enterprise on his estates in Worsley Manchester. In 1699, he received £5,000 and lead mines in the will of his grandfather Charles Powlett, Duke of Bolton. Scroop married into the Churchill family and his daughter Anne married Wriothesley Russell, 3rd Duke of Bedford.

Verney family

Claydon House in Buckinghamshire was the centre of later Verney family estates, but their wealth was initiated by Ralph Verney of Pendley, about four miles west of Berkhamsted. This was a story of wealth created via government and courtly service, good marriages and land.

The rise of Ralph Verney (d.1478) to elite status was as Lord Mayor and Member of Parliament for London. His son John married one of the six co-heiresses of Sir Robert Whittingham, who had a grant of free warren on the Manor of Pendley with license to enclose 200 acres of land; in 1440, he expelled the villagers and built himself a manor house. He lost Pendley when he supported Henry VI, but it was restored to him in 1472 in consideration of good service rendered to the king by Ralph Verney.

John’s grandson Ralph was born at Pendley in 1509 – he appeared in Henry VIII’s letters and papers containing details of a lease of the manor of Berkhamsted:

Sir Ralph Verney,the King’s servant. To be (1) steward of the honor, lordship or manor of… Berkhamsted, Herts, and (2) keeper of the park there and the deer therein and all windfallen woods and “browse”; with fees of (1) 5l. a year and (2) 2d. a day. The said Sir Ralph to have also the herbage and pannage of the said park, the warren of coneys and hares there and the little hunt both in the park and lordship at a rent of 13l. 6s. 8d” (Henry VIII: March 1543, 26-31, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Volume 18 Part 1: Jan-Jul 1543, 1901, pp. 181-202).

Sir Ralph’s marriage to Elizabeth Bray connected him to Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford via his sister-in-law Dorothy Bray who married Edmund Brydges, father of Francis’ wife Catherine Brydges.

Sir Edward Carey

One final sixteenth century connection with the town of Berkhamsted itself was Sir Edward Carey (b.1540), who was fortunate in his lofty pedigree (descended from Spencer and Beaufort families) and the perquisites of courtly service. Carey was Jewel-keeper for Elizabeth I; his father John was Groom of Henry VIII’s Privy Chamber and his uncle William was married to Anne Boleyn’s sister. Edward married Catherine née Knyvett (of the Buckenham branch of the family). He was given the manor of Berkhamsted in 1580 for the nominal rent of a single red rose each year, a seemingly playful gesture by the Queen, but more likely due to the advanced state of decay of the castle. From its ruins, Edward built Berkhamsted Place on the hilltop, befitting his local elite status.


At the heart of this study was the question: to what extent was the acquisition and successful management of land the key to the creation and preservation of wealth by provincial elites in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? I have discovered that even the greatest families in my local area encountered difficulties with maintaining their lineage, either through the early deaths of those who would inherit or through the debilitating burden of debt. Viewed in the context of this struggle for survival, it is evident that other means besides land were important in acquiring the income necessary for the accoutrements of gentility. My local examples made their fortunes via professional or commercial ventures, advantageous marriages and the patronage of the monarch, alongside astute exploitation of their land. Prestige as landowners in turn secured government office and influential business relationships. In their marriages, it is perhaps not surprising that the great families sought to make alliances within a small clique (in this case Russells and Egertons interlinked with Spencers and Churchills). Perhaps in the final analysis we will be able to conclude merely that each family accumulated their wealth in different ways. As to land, the vagaries of weather and ruined harvests posed difficulties for those who aspired to a life of gentility on the proceeds of land alone and from my local studies I concur with Sir John Oglander’s plaintive cry in 1632 (from his outpost of England, the Isle of Wight): “By only following the plough he may keep his word and be upright, but he will never increase his fortune” (F. Bamford, ed., A Royalist’s Notebook, 1936, p.75).

From MSc essay The key to wealth for early modern provincial elites