David Cannadine

           with Digressions







By Lucia Adams



The most eminent of contemporary historians Sir David Cannadine has spent a half century exploring the British aristocracy, first casting his learned eye on their elegant country houses also called stately homes in the U.K. The author of seventeen books and Dodge Professor of History at Princeton, is president of the British Academy, trustee of London’s National Portrait Gallery, and longtime board member of the Royal Oak Foundation, the American arm of the National Trust.

In a 1983 review of books about the English country house, Brideshead Revered, he criticized the worship of wistfulness and the plague of nostalgia surrounding them, sniffily implying we are not aristocrats or landed gentry, “the world we never knew becomes the world we have lost and the world we want to find again.” When he joined the National Trust his opinion changed and he believed these houses were an enormous economic and historical asset to Britain.  In 2018 his coffee-table book The Country House: Past, Present, Future, in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, published to celebrate the forty-fifth anniversary of the Royal Oak, has the fabulous facades, great halls, libraries, kitchens, stables and gardens of all many of the usual suspects, Castle Howard, Chatsworth, Polesden Lacey, Knole Petworth, Bodiam Castle, Blenheim, Longleat in all their visual glory.



          Digression: The lifestyle lived in these houses is of course long gone today their aristocratic residents sharing the copious space with the public, hosting special events (shudder) as seen in the exquisitely tacky Weekend Aristocrats (Netflix) with its fitness boot camps and dog shows. And there are those photographs of Asian businessmen posing with dukes and earls at staged white tie dinners! When in the 60s and 70s I lived in England we called this Duke- for- a- Day.  In 1974 I saw the V & A’s Destruction of the Country House cataloguing the sad demolitions of country houses in the north and attended many auctions in the north liquidating their contents with Queen Anne sideboards sold for shillings.

Today old familes like the Grosvenors in Cheshire or the Clintons in Devonshire still own land and houses their families acquired after the Norman Conquest in 1066 and along with the more numerous piles dating from  the 19th century lawns are festooned with trebuchets and ferris wheels. Managed by the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Defence, and the National Trust with Brexit their situation has become dire.  Three years ago during my most recent visit to Castle Howard in Yorkshire it was pretty clean of tourists on a bright Fall day — then soon after —until the Pandemic —the Vanburgh home of the Howards became the crowded venue of weddings, bachelorette parties, Proms and rock concerts. What happened?

The estate’s 8,800 acres, three quarters of which is farmland, had been since 1972 totally reliant on EU subsidies. Brexit phased all that out. Henceforth farms and estates have to show a profit and pay for themselves though there are rewards for those initiating an ELMS or environmental land management scheme  like growing habitat ledges or sequestering carbon in the soil. (Then there was that rift tearing the Howard family apart  when in 2014 older brother Nicholas ousted his brother Simon, here at the Casino the year before, who had run the estate for 30 years.) Primogeniture still reigns.




Cannadine’s masterwork the Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, 1990, is a dense fact -laden, chart-intense statistical study of peers and nobles in the 19th and 20th centuries. “As late as the 1870s [British] patricians were still the most wealthy, the most powerful, and the most glamorous people in the country,… conscious of themselves as God’s elect. During the hundred years that followed, their wealth and power, their glamour, and sense of identity and purpose weakened.”

He shows how the aristocracy coped with the tsunami of events leading to their decline, then making careers as corporate shareholders, heiress-hunters, novelists, Kenyan adventurers, directors or  businessmen, always fighting to protect the House of Lords, the Church of England. Since the Second World War they have retreated to the margins of British life and alas there are no more exotic fauna like Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, the Lords Curzon, Salisbury, Home, and Carrington, Churchill, even the Mitford sisters. 

Continuing to chronicle the increasing insignificance of the once-powerful peerage Cannadine wrote Aspects of Aristocracy Grandeur and Decline in Modern Britain (1994), returning to familiar territory with the  origins, habits, debts and the burden of aristocracy of the above souls and also Harold Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West, and great dynasties of the dukes of Devonshire and the Cozens-Hardys. In the Spectator Nigel Nicolson leapt to the defense of his parents, portrayed by Cannadine not as the the bravely unconventional couple in Portrait of a Marriage, ”but a typical pair of class-conscious snobs unable to adjust to the modern world.” Cannadine observed how ironic that the same middle-class tourists who enthuse over Sissinghurst would have been labeled “bedint,” or so very common, by them. The historian was also denounced by some Tories as a pin headed upstart for his portrait of the arrogant, irresponsible bounder Winston Churchill from a “declining and degenerate” dynasty.

          Digression: There is a chapter here on Baron Strickland, (married to a Sackville-West)  who tried to strengthen ties between Britain and his native Malta where he was Prime Minister. I lived a few miles from the  11th century ancestral pile Sizergh Castle in Helsington still occupied by the family. On Saturday trips to Kendal to Ewen Kerr’s bookshop where we bought annotated books from Ruskin’s  nearby Brantwood library (later stolen in Chicago — if you ever come across Tintoretto please inform) we always stopped to see its great topiary gardens  or the grand dining room with half consumed Bulmer cider bottles on the table . One often saw the then-current Lord Strickland making the rounds of the shops in Kendal camoflaged in a long worn coat and a tattered worker’s cap.




In 1996 Professor Cannadine wrote an article, The Once and Future Princess, about Martin Bashir’s interview with Diana. He thought the interview superficial and partisan as was the whole country, (pro or con Diana pro or con Charles,)  narrow-minded and short-sighted as such “instant analysis” tends to be. In 1996 it was widely believed the divorce must take place but serious reflection on the consequences of divorce was inadequate.

Diana actually said very little that was new; she was well-prepared in appearance, but obviously in great confusion about herself and her job. Though she claimed to be a strong woman her thoughts and actions belied that. “She presented herself as a devoted mother, but do devoted mothers give interviews as candid as this one was?” “how are we to reconcile her claims that she is not a “destructive” person, and that she believes in the monarchy’s future, with her avowed determination to “fight to the end,” and with the damage to the throne which her behavior has already caused?” She wanted to be a roving ambassador also vainly sought by the Duke of Windsor, another hapless royal. Diana wished to be “a queen of peoples’ hearts, with “the pious platitude and vacuous phrasemaking” of Meghan Markle who is also bewildered, vain, and unsure of herself.

In The Rise and Fall of Class in England, 1998, Cannadine argued that historians have divided humanity into “us and them” – though their particular ideas of who the “us and them” are have changed. He examines the British preoccupation with class from the eighteenth through the twentieth century though scholars are concluding that class does not matter any more. Whooooops there goes the master narrative of British history!!! He shows that class is a shorthand for ways  the British have viewed their identities, “us” versus “them;” as “upper,” “middle,” and “lower”  and so forth, concluding that until we know what class really means to the British, we cannot seriously address the question. I love the way professional historians are so testy and precise.



His next major book was Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, 2001, arguing that class, rank and status were more important to the British Empire 1850-1950 than race. Cannadine asserts that the history of the British empire and the history of Britain itself are inseparable and must be studied as a seamless whole” During. the high days of imperialism the empire was united by a commitment to reproduce overseas the kind of hierarchical society that existed in Britain” (…..hmmmmm….I have never believed that hierarchy was more important than race after teaching working class lads engaging in Paki-Bashin in Preston and Blackpool ). In the following years of his long career Cannadine has written grand biographies of Mellon and Thatcher then almost inevitably returned to the sweeping panorama and thrilling generalizations surrounding English history. In Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800–1906 (2018) he mined the works of “them” and high politics of Victorian England then criticized for not including the travails of the “us” in society. Historians just can’t win.




Knighted for his services to scholarship, Cannadine who was born in 1950 in Birmingham, the Midlands, decidedly not aristocracy nor gentry nor Eton and Harrow belongs ” to a generation who can memorise their resumé”, a child of the welfare state. He had a good state education, for which his parents didn’t have to pay, which he says they could not have afforded anyway, the first of his family to go to university, undergraduate Cambridge, doctorate Oxford. Professor of History at Columbia and London , now at Princeton,  he is married to historian Linda Colley, the ultimate academic power couple, intellectual aristocrats.



In the 1960s, at 16 or 17 he became interested in English history when academic super stars were rising, Asa Briggs, tele-don A. J. P. Taylor, Trevor-Roper, Christopher Hill, and Lawrence Stone who was also Dodge Professor at Princeton. Married to one of this graduate students I often visited Stone,  the most sociable and gracious professor of the lot,  on Mercer Street and in Woodstock, Oxon. (vignettes in my memoir Memoria Academia). Like other historians of his generation, he was obviously and even aggressively public school and Oxbridge unlike the grammar school chap whose beliefs, roots and suppositions underlie his dazzling historiography.