It’s Good to Be the Duke (or Is It?)

by Michael Auslin

Aside from all the soap-opera titillation on Downton Abbey, the metaplot is about the changing socioeconomic structure in England in the early 20th century (not unlike Mad Men’s take on America’s entry into the turbulent ’60s). One reason we’re all fascinated, whether we hate feudal vestiges or not, is that these grand houses and families lived like, well, aristocracy, until within living memory. Yet the U.K.’s changing economy and tax codes destroyed the lifestyles of many of these families in just the past century. Great Britain’s largest landowners are still families with centuries-old pedigree, like the Cavendishes, whose family head is the Duke of Devonshire. And Downton Abbey itself is filmed at Highclere Castle, home of the Earl of Carnarvon (whose ancestor bankrolled the expedition that discovered King Tut’s tomb).

The recently-concluded third season of DA was filmed partly at magnificent Inverary Castle in western Scotland. Unlike the fictional “Shrimpy” Flintshire, Marquess of “Duneagle,” who informs Downton’s Lord Grantham that he is broke and will have to sell the castle, the real master of Inverary Castle is still very much in control. Yet the Duke of Argyll, who is also head of the Campbell clan, lives a life very different from his ancestors, real or fictional. According to the Herald Scotland, the 44-year-old Duke has to be rather hands-on in keeping the lights on:

The Duke said: “At the end of the 60s there were around 30 staff living in the house. Today we have a caretaker and cleaner living in the castle – and us. Yesterday I went off to chop down our Christmas tree.

“It is very different and we are obviously much more hands on when it comes to the castle – my wife runs the shop and the tea-room.”

Small-d democrats around the world must cheer the humanizing of Britain’s aristocracy, even those who have held on to their ancestral estates. Most have to open their houses to hordes of tourists, sell memorabilia on the side, and have websites. They should be cheered for tackling reality and making a profit, to boot. But there does seem to be something rather sic transit gloria mundi about a Duchess who runs a tea shop inside her castle. Better than living in council housing, I suppose. 

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