One reason why most historians don’t write very much is that they have a fulltime job keeping up with the vast output of the few who do. Among these prodigy producers, whom it would be more impolitely accurate to call Cliomaniacs, Lawrence Stone can be particularly distinguished partly by the range, quality, and audacity of his work, and partly by the impassioned and varied responses which it invariably, and deliberately, provokes. His major work comprises four huge volumes, which together add up to more than 2,500 pages—a million words on a millennium of English history.1 Any average, ambitious, energetic, and intelligent historian would be happily contented with completing one of these weighty books: but even four such monsterpieces do not exhaust Stone’s tireless energy. In between there have appeared another four books;2 three edited volumes, in two cases with substantial contributions by Stone himself;3 dozens of articles and essays, some of very considerable length;4 and, as readers of this journal have ample cause to know, scores of coruscating, combative, and controversial reviews.

Stone’s historical universe is not only large and full of matter; it is also an exciting—if dangerous—place to be. The past of which he writes is one of great events and constant action: of rise and fall, change and crisis, evolution and revolution. There are usually at least ten causes for this, seven consequences of that, and five reasons why most other historians have got it wrong. His admirers, and there are many, see him as a Cliomagician, and acclaim his energy, his originality, his vision and high spirits. His curiosity about the past is insatiable; his interest in sociology and statistics, economics and anthropology, is irrepressible; his determination to tackle large topics is an inspiration. He is open to new ideas new subjects, and new approaches in an exemplary way; and his books are always brilliantly organized, written in lively and lucid prose, abundant with crisp judgments. All this he has accomplished while carrying formidable burdens of teaching and administration. At Princeton he presides over the Davis Center for Historical Studies, which puts on the best and bloodiest gladiatorial shows in the profession; he is one of the most influential members of the editorial board of Past and Present; and he is an inspiring and intimidating supervisor of graduate students, to whom he is known as “the Pope of Princeton.” Cliomogul might be a more apt description.

But to his enemies, and there are also many, he is closer to being Cliomonster: cavalier in his use of sources, unsound in his statistical calculations, speculative in his generalizations, and irresponsible in his polemics. Indeed, his list of adversaries is nearly as long, and at least as distinguished, as his own list of publications. Those who are on the scholarly right, but wrong, include H.R. Trevor-Roper, G.R. Elton, J.P. Cooper, J.P. Kenyon, and Conrad Russell. And those who are on the left but are not right include Peter Laslett, Alan Macfarlane, Edward Shorter, and the late Michel Foucault. Of especial interest is Stone’s long-running battle with Geoffrey Elton of Cambridge, his only real rival in the early modern historians’ war of words. For forty years they have been slugging it out, in books and articles, lectures and reviews, each utterly convinced that the other has had a wholly bad influence on historical scholarship, and both sublimely unaware of just how much alike they actually are.5 Both are émigré anxious to be more native than the natives in their adopted country; both are passionately devoted to studying the English past; both believe that narrative history is the best way to present it; both enjoy being controversial; and both are superb historians.

History as Stone practices it is a highrisk enterprise. He loves stirring things up, even on occasions at considerable cost to himself, as witness Hugh TrevorRoper’s demolition of his early work on the gentry and the savaging in certain quarters of his recent book The Family, Sex and Marriage. But Stone’s self-assurance survives it all. In Oxford he tells them how to do the history of the university better; in Cambridge he tells them how to do the history of the family better; and in Paris he tells the Annales school how to do the history of everything better. Constitutional history, he claims, is “sterile and meaningless”; psychohistory is “largely a disaster area”; economic history is merely “a mopping-up operation”; and Cliometricians are “statistical junkies.” Not many historians, Stone breezily concludes, are “possessed of true intellectual distinction.” It is hardly surprising (although in fact both regrettable and wrong) that his colleagues declined to elect him president of the American Historical Association.

Curiously, Stone’s history as it is practiced in his longer works is never quite the same as the history he preaches in his more polemical pieces. Tirelessly and evangelically, he exhorts his colleagues to study crime and deviance, witchcraft and popular culture, slaves and peasants, workers and paupers. Yet he himself has very rarely done any of these things. On the contrary, the realm of the past which he has made indisputably his own is the history of the English elite: its education, religion, and culture, its minds, morals, and manners, its houses, gardens, and churches, its wealth, status, and power.


What makes this all the more remarkable is that, as a meritocrat and compulsive worker, Stone has frequently made it plain how much he detests this “antipathetic group of superfluous parasites.” One can only marvel at the sustained willpower he has successfully exerted over nearly forty years to subdue these outraged feelings in the interests of dispassionate scholarly inquiry.

His latest book is but further proof of this lifelong attachment to England and its elite. One important change, however, must be recorded. While Lawrence Stone conceived the project and wrote the book, most of the elaborate research and computing that it required was undertaken or organized by his wife, who is thus fittingly acknowledged as the book’s coauthor. Instead of being a closed elite of one, Lawrence Stone is now half of an open elite of two.

The Stones’ book investigates English country houses and their owners, a subject much in vogue in recent years. But those who eagerly anticipate another piece of nostalgic, reverential history, a sort of Brideshead Revisited with footnotes, will be sadly disappointed. A book with chapter headings such as “Drop-outs” and “Intrusions,” “Strategies” and “Ruptures,” can hardly be expected to treat country houses as ivy-covered dream-palaces bathed in perpetual sunshine, still less their owners as amiable and agreeably eccentric characters.

On the contrary, the Stones view English country houses matter-of-factly as machines for the English power elite to live in, and so it is altogether appropriate that they themselves have resorted to a great deal of machinery in the course of their researches. As Jeanne Stone explains in an awesome appendix, the core of the project was the collection, codification, and manipulation of the statistical data of country-house ownership and building over a 340-year span. To display their findings, the authors produce fifty-three graphs and sixty-four tables, on which the text of the book is essentially a commentary. The result is the first statistical study of what has hitherto been an impressionistic and anecdotal subject.

But the Stones’ purpose is much more wide-ranging than merely introducing some welcome quantitative precision into the soft-focus world of Waugh and Wodehouse. Their fundamental aim is to test the often-repeated view that from the Reformation to the late nineteenth century England’s ruling elite possessed a unique capacity for survival and renewal, as successful men from trade, business, the law, the armed forces, and government office bought their way into the ranks of the landowners. For contemporary commentators from Marston to Cobden, and for generations of historians thereafter, this picture of frequent and easy upward mobility by self-made men into the ranks of the landed elite has been accepted as a self-evident truth. It not only explains the exceptional and essential stability of modern English history, but also such major and specific happenings as the development of the most efficient agricultural system in Europe, the making of the first industrial revolution, the creation of a uniquely stable yet flexible political system, and the onset of economic decline through a failure of entrepreneurial zeal. In short, as the Stones rightly observe, “a great deal of English social, economic, cultural and political history over the last four hundred years is riding the truth of a single paradigm.” Their book puts this truth to the test.

How? One obvious approach would be to trace the careers of successful men of business and affairs, to see how many used their wealth to buy their way into landed bliss. This is not the Stones’ method. Another, to which they give some brief attention, would be to see whether younger sons of landowners moved downward into business, trade, and the professions. A third approach would be to consider the problem from the standpoint of the elite, by quantifying and analyzing its composition, so as to discover the degree and methods of infiltration by new blood into its ranks. It is with this aspect that their book is primarily concerned. The justification for approaching it by counting country houses is that the ownership of such a property is seen as an essential qualification for membership in the local landed elite from which the national ruling class was recruited.

To make the project of manageable proportions (and it has taken them twenty years even so), the Stones have studied country houses and their owners in three carefully chosen English counties: Hertfordshire, which was so close to London that it felt the pull of the great metropolis from the earliest times; Northamptonshire, which was in the depths of the country, a stable, rustic, isolated county; and Northumberland, which was as far as possible from London, and also semi-industrial, with coalmining and shipbuilding centered in Newcastle. In each case, the local elites are exceptionally well documented, and between them these counties encompassed the widest possible variety of economic and social experience.


The Stones begin their study with the owners rather than the houses, by describing the strategies of marriage and inheritance evolved by established families to preserve their property and position. For elite families, they argue, the aim was to perpetuate their names, their titles (if any), their houses, their heirlooms, and their lands, and to keep them together. But such desires were constantly threatened by the hazards of biological failure, especially in the century from 1650, when the combination of fewer marriages, declining fertility, and rising mortality brought about a major demographic crisis among the elite, which remains difficult to explain. Indeed, for the entire period between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries most families were unable to transfer their inheritance from father to son in regular sequence for more than one hundred years.

Despite all this, the sale of a country house was an extremely rare event. If there was no direct male heir, there were usually distant male cousins to carry on the line, and if even this failed, there was always indirect inheritance through the female line which, combined with substitution or hyphenation of surnames, gave the impression of unbroken descent in the male line. As a result, most seats and principal estates remained unsold for centuries; there was “an extraordinary degree of family continuity”; and the opportunities for the self-made men to buy their way in were correspondingly limited.

Put another way, this meant that the number of owners who obtained their country houses by purchase rather than by inheritance was never more than a tiny proportion of the total. The popular picture of venerable county families overcome by disaster, and heartbrokenly selling house and land to some pushing parvenu is not borne out by the Stones’ figures. What is more, of the few who did buy in, most were lawyers, military men, government office holders, great London merchants, or retired Indian nabobs rather than manufacturers, industrialists, and entrepreneurs as conventionally understood. Even in Hertfordshire, so close to London, there were never enough self-made purchasers to swamp the old and durable landed elite, and further away from the great metropolis the newcomers were even less significant. No single Birmingham businessman bought his way into nearby Northamptonshire during 340 years, and in Northumberland the country’s industrial development from the eighteenth century had little effect on elite composition. What is more, and again contrary to popular belief, the few men who did buy their way in tended not to stay. Far from founding family dynasties to perpetuate their names, the purchasers of country houses, rather than the inheritors, were the most likely to sell out.

So much for the owners: what of their houses? Noel Coward once explained that the stately homes of England were built to prove the upper classes had still the upper hand. As such, they were multifunctional monstrosities: symbols of dignity and authority, centers of power and administration, and pleasure domes for sport, recreation, and leisure. The Stones trace the evolution of country-house architecture from Jacobethan asymmetry through Palladian restraint to Victorian profusion. They discuss the demise of the geometrical Elizabethan garden and the rise of the picturesque in the eighteenth century. They stress the growth of privacy, made possible by the development of the corridor and the construction of separate quarters for the servants. They show that, on average, country houses were becoming bigger throughout their period of investigation: indeed, between 1540 and 1840 they were undoubtedly the largest, most complex, and most expensive buildings put up in the country. They distinguish three major phases of construction: from the 1570s to the 1610s, when the great prodigy houses like Hatfield and Audley End were put up to accommodate royal visitors; from the 1680s to the 1720s, when the Whig oligarchy was establishing itself in power and in its power houses; and the century starting in the 1780s, when the growth of servants and segregation required immense extensions, although rarely completely new buildings.

From their examination of country houses and their owners, the Stones are able to provide the first long-term historical profile of the landed elite as the ruling class of England. It was created and consolidated between 1540 and 1660, an amalgam of survivals from the late medieval nobility, of Tudor and early Stuart men of business like the Cecils, of local squires and gentry quietly extending their holdings, and of occasional men from trade, the law, and the armed forces buying their way in. By 1660, this landed elite was established, and for the next hundred years its power, influence, and self-assurance were so great that it turned in on itself, preferring pleasure and leisure to the work of office-holding. Then in the late eighteenth century there was a revival of the ethos of service to the state and a large expansion in landed participation in politics and local government.

At no time was there much intrusion or penetration from the self-made men. They were rarely rich enough and, in London as much as in the great provincial capitals, wealthy merchants preferred to keep to themselves rather than set up as country gentry. Indeed, in the century after the Industrial Revolution, which offered an entirely new way for self-made men to make money, the landed elite became more closed and caste-like than ever before. Less than 10 percent of all major landowners in 1870 were newcomers since 1780, and only a tiny fraction of them were industrialists. The Stones triumphantly conclude: “the traditional concept of an open elite—open to large-scale infiltration by merchant wealth—is dead.”

This leaves them, however, with two problems. The first is to explain the longevity of the myth of an open elite: how, when manifestly wrong, has it survived so tenaciously and ubiquitously? Partly, they suggest, because a few atypical examples were given undue prominence, and partly because ceaseless repetition gave it such plausibility that it took on a life of its own regardless of the facts. The second problem, more difficult and more important, is to explain the survival, not of the myth, but of the elite itself. If not because of constant renewal, then how? Partly, the Stones argue, because the amount of movement in English society was much smaller than is often supposed: instead of being rejuvenated by self-made men frequently moving in, the elite was reinforced precisely because there were so few who could or did.

Partly, too, the elite endured because its members were very good at keeping going, regardless of the economic, political, social, or demographic crises that threatened them: in family matters, they steered a safe and sensible course between the dangers of profligacy and parsimony; in social relations they trod a narrow path between excessive generosity and unacceptable ruthlessness; and in political affairs, they struck exactly the right balance between being too grasping and too concessional. And partly the elite continued because the lower and middle classes were captivated, not by the territorial, but by the cultural embrace of the landowners: they wanted all the trappings of gentility without the land, and that is what they got. So the elite survived, more rigid than renewed. As the Stones put it: “If the concept of ‘histoire immobile’ is applicable to any sector of English society, the landed elite is the most promising candidate.”

Have they got it right? Certainly there is much circumstantial support for the Stones’ thesis. For example, all of the supposed important consequences that were taken to flow from the supposed open elite have themselves been increasingly questioned in recent years. The entire notion of heroic agricultural improvers largely recruited from the ranks of recently established landowners, who thus retained their profit-making instincts, is now under attack. The idea that pushing entrepreneurs, men of humble social origins, anxious to achieve the ultimate social goal of landed respectability, were the creators of the industrial revolution is also much less fashionable than it once was. The growth of English political stability, at least for the century after 1688, has for some time been explained by the workings of a closed oligarchy rather than by those of an open elite. And the picture of late nineteenth-century economic decline, resulting from absentee and incompetent businessmen, besotted with the pleasures of country-house life, seems altogether too crude to convince. In short, since the four riders have already very largely quit the paradigm, perhaps it is time the paradigm itself was dispensed with as well.

Nevertheless, this act of historical demolition inevitably means that other scholars get hit by some of the falling masonry. Historians of seventeenth-century county communities are rebuked for giving insufficient attention to other places competing for their loyalty; E. P. Thompson is chided for ignoring the middle classes in his analysis of eighteenth-century society; Harold Perkin’s picture of early nineteenth-century landowners as irresponsible and self-absorbed is totally rejected; and Mark Girouard is taken to task for overestimating the amount of new country-house building that took place in the Victorian period.

In a very real sense, however, the most sustained and significant victim of this book seems to be Lawrence Stone himself, not only because (as he handsomely admits) he had previously accepted uncritically the myth of the open elite, but also because the subject and substance of the current book is oddly at variance with the kind of history he has written before. “If history is not concerned with change,” Stone once wrote, “it is nothing.” Yet here is a book entirely devoted to continuity. The deep crisis of the aristocracy that Stone previously discerned in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries now seems but a ripple on an essentially calm surface. The civil war, hitherto depicted by Stone as the first modern revolution, a cataclysmic event in the making of our world, is barely mentioned. And his three-stage model of elite family evolution seems to have precious little bearing on the sinews and substance of elite survival. Viewed from the top, very little seems to have happened in England between the Reformation and the onset of the agricultural depression at the end of the nineteenth century.

Ironically, this is very Eltonian conclusion to have reached by very non-Eltonian methods. And the similarity of their views (which, of course, neither of them will ever admit) should at once put us on our guard against accepting this argument uncritically. For this book has its problems. Those who regard Lawrence Stone’s statistics as by definition suspect will not be reassured by the uncertainties, conjectures, assumptions, and subjective judgments that have of necessity gone into the collection and processing of data. And those who believe that Cliometrics should be at the center of historical work will be equally disquieted by the authors’ candid admission that “the intellectual production of this book failed to make full use of the most up-to-date computer technology.”

More prosaically, the Stones’ brief discussion of bourgeois self-perception seems altogether too impressionistic to be conclusive. It is simply ridiculous to dismiss Lord Liverpool, Tory prime minister from 1812 to 1827, as an “archreactionary,” as any perusal of the most elementary textbook on nineteenth-century English history would have shown. One is also bound to wonder how far these findings would have been modified by a different or broader sample. Would there have been so few industrialists buying in if Lancashire or Yorkshire or Staffordshire had been chosen? And, since the myth of the open elite is customarily held to apply to Britain and not just to England, it would be interesting to know whether studies of Welsh, Scottish, or Irish counties would corroborate their conclusions.

There are also more fundamental problems about concepts and counting. The central assumption of this book is that the owners of the country houses were the ruling elite: to study their homes is to study the people. At first sight, this seems both understandable and eminently plausible. But in fact it depends on getting satisfactory answers to two crucial questions: What is a country house? Did the country house owners own the land? It is possible, for instance, that some of the authors’ conclusions might have been substantially modified if more small houses had been included. And at one point in the book the authors seem to be dealing with members of the elite who owned at least three thousand acres, when it would have been more realistic to have included all owners of one thousand acres and above. It is, after all, at the very edge of the landed elite that dealings with self-made men were most marked, and this means that the exact level at which the line is drawn is crucial. It may be that in this book it has been drawn too high.

Finally, after all the graphs and tables and pages of computer printout, it still remains a little unclear just how novel this book’s argument actually is. At the end of it all, we are left with a middle class that was beguiled, deferential, and assimilated; with a few men of affairs and even fewer men of business who bought their way into the ranks of the elite; and with an elite itself that was resourceful, resilient, and adaptable. As the Stones coyly admit in their conclusion, their book’s real point is not that there was no open elite in England, but rather that there has been a fundamental misperception of what an open elite actually means.

There is, then, much more work to be done; and this is no doubt precisely what the Stones intended. For what is really impressive and important about An Open Elite? is the authors’ breadth and bravery in taking on all of postmedieval English history. The sheer cleverness of the original idea; the energy and virtuosity displayed in collecting and computing the data; the ingenuity with which the study of country houses and their owners is made to prise open a much larger and more important historical problem: all this commands admiration. Arcane and technical subjects like strict settlement and demography are infused with life, relevance, and interest. The mass of data, which in lesser hands would have been boring to assimilate, is brilliantly presented, and is constantly illuminated and enlivened with well-chosen examples. The organization of the book into parts, chapters, and sections simply could not be bettered. At the very least, An Open Elite? provides the first quantitative basis for analyzing the landed classes of England in their years of wealth, power, and glory. More broadly, it is offered as a major reassessment of the social, political, and economic history of England since the Reformation. Either way, it is the most important, exciting, and original book on the English landed elite to have appeared since The Crisis of the Aristocracy. There can be no higher praise than that.

This Issue

December 20, 1984