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Reviewed by:
  • The Orders of Knighthood and the Formation of the British Honours System, 1660-1760, and: The House of Lords in the Age of George III (1760-1811)
  • Hamish Scott
The Orders of Knighthood and the Formation of the British Honours System, 1660-1760. By Antti Matikkala (Rochester, The Boydell Press, 2008) 470 pp. $155.00
The House of Lords in the Age of George III (1760-1811). By M. W. McCahill (Chichester, West Sussex, UK, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) 475 pp. $49.95

The decades between the Restoration of 1660 and the First Reform Act of 1832 have long been viewed as Britain's "age of aristocracy" or, more controversially, as the period of its ancien régime, when the peerage and gentry were socially, politically, economically, and culturally dominant. These two important studies, written by scholars at different points in their academic trajectories, add significantly to our knowledge of the British landed elite at the apex of its influence and power. Matikkala's book is more original in its focus and approach, providing the first systematic exploration of the modern origins of the honors system, which would become distinctive to Britain—as, indeed, it remains.

Matikkala demonstrates how the elaboration of a hierarchy of honors during the century after the Restoration was a further and hitherto neglected dimension of the consolidation of aristocratic power. The fourteenth-century Order of the Garter, England's premier distinction, was notably revived after Charles II's return, and two new honors—the Scottish Order of the Thistle (1687) and that of the Bath (1725)—were added to provide a more hierarchical system that exactly mirrored the further stratification under way within the peerage itself. Understandable sensitivities about the king's recent exile and his father's execution prevented the adoption of two further proposals for new orders—the Royal Oak (commemorating the tree in which Charles I was believed to have hidden after the battle of Worcester) and the Esquires of the Martyred King—since they were potential reminders of an unhappy period for the Stuart monarchy. After 1700, the Garter became almost a hereditary distinction, awarded to successive generations of the political and social elite, ranking between earl and duke.

Matikkala's final chapter, devoted to "The 'Symbolic Capital' of the Orders" is the most interesting, and also the most interdisciplinary in approach. It provides fascinating information about the ceremonies that accompanied installations, rightly viewed as "explicit visual reminders of social hierarchies and patronage networks" (288). But his anthropological perspective could be carried considerably further; too often he is content simply to provide fascinating detail rather than subject it to rigorous analysis. Hence, his book, with its numerous striking illustrations, will be valued chiefly as a source of information, and of numerous revealing vignettes.

In striking testimony to the British-wide dominance of the Irish House of Butler during the Restoration, the only occasion when father [End Page 284] and son were simultaneously members of the Order of the Garter was the case of Ormond and Ossory after 1672 (139). Revealing in a different way is that Sir Robert Walpole, the sole commoner during this century to be given the Garter (in 1726), had the insignia of the Order added to existing portraits (348). Matikkala offers some valuable comparative material on foreign honors, and his extensive appendixes helpfully list all the holders of the Garter, Thistle, and Bath. Based upon wide reading, especially in the voluminous printed materials, Matikkala's study will be an invaluable source of reference for decades to come.

By contrast, McCahill's study is the product of four decades' research, consolidating his own extensive earlier publications on this theme. The English and, eventually, British peerage was all-but-unique, in that membership was defined by possession of a seat in the House of Lords. This monograph devotes a significant amount of space to politics: Chapters 6-8 bring the upper house satisfactorily into perspective for the first time and chart its transition during George III's reign from being "the bulwark of the king's government . . . into the bastion of opposition to many reforming measures" (209).

Earlier chapters provide a detailed, authoritative, and statistically precise picture of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9169
Print ISSN
0022-1953
Pages
pp. 284-285
Launched on MUSE
2011-08-06
Open Access
No
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