In Ancient Greece, “aristocracy” was simply a word that meant “the rule of the best.” In practice, we’ve come to understand this “best” as a rule by elite families who have plenty of power, and maybe too much time on their hands. It’s hot to be on top, and below are 42 salacious facts about history’s upper-crust that will have you grasping at your pearls (or sharpening your guillotine).
42. A True (15)90s Kid
Elizabeth II of England’s son, Prince Edward, was so drawn to the 1998 film Shakespeare In Love, that when it was time for Edward to take a noble title, he chose to be named after the film’s antagonist: the creepy and jealous Earl of Wessex. Mommy delivered, and Prince Edward legally goes by the title of a Colin Firth ’90s villain to this day.
41. The Original Side-Chicks
French Kings would honor their favorite mistress with the title, “maîtresse-en-titre.” Although it was an unofficial position, it came with quite official apartments. These ladies were almost always chosen among the King’s aristocracy, and they often held more influence than even the Queen.
40. On Wednesdays, We Wear Purple (Unless We’re Poor)
In much of the early modern age, the aristocracy imposed a set of codes called “sumptuary laws,” which restricted certain clothes to the upper class in some countries. If you weren’t an Earl or higher, you had better kept that gold dress at home!
39. Enter the New Nobility
England will welcome its first black marchioness. In 2013, the Nigerian-English model Emma McQuiston married Ceawlin Thynn, who is heir to the Marquisate of Bath. Although McQuiston’s father-in-law allegedly snubbed her, she is still Viscountess Weymouth (by her marriage) and is set to have Bath upon her hubby’s daddy’s death.
38. Knightime Stories
As the highest order in English chivalry, the Knights of the Garter have been around since the reign of Edward III in 1348. King Edward was so inspired by the stories of King Arthur and the round table, he had to have his own version, which still induces members to its elite ranks today.
37. Red, White, and No Blue Bloods
Before you touch that Earldom, remember that the United States has a pending 200-year-old amendment that will strip you of American citizenship should you ever accept a title of nobility from any king, emperor, or foreign power!
36. In Her Own Right
Before she lost her head, Queen Anne Boleyn was one of the first women to hold a noble title as her own property. Her future husband, Henry VIII, granted her honor as the Marquess of Pembroke in 1532.
35. Does the Crown Take Plastic?
If you’re willing to shed a few pounds, an English title could be yours! As of writing, a non-seated title goes for as little as £195. Good evening, Lord Bobby and Lady Katniss.
34. Dinner for Pups
Many aristocrats love their animals. Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater, took puppy-love to another level. The lord was famous for his sit-down doggy dinners, where he forced servants to dress up his pups in handmade boots. His canine guests were then expected to eat “with decency and decorum,” as treats were served on silver plates. Yes, Egerton was a lifelong bachelor.
33. The Anglican Circle
If you want to marry into the highest ranks of the aristocracy, we have bad news: a 1701 law bans Roman Catholics from inheriting the English throne!
32. From Rags to Riches
At the height of the Ottoman Empire, many aristocrats were not born to the role, but were slaves who rose through the ranks of Turkish society. In fact, the highest-ranked woman in the empire was the Valide Sultan, the reigning sultan’s mother, who was almost always of slave concubine origin herself.
31. Fowl and Fit for a Queen
Drop that bird! In England, only the reigning monarch can legally eat Mute Swans of the Thames. All other breeds of swan, however, are totally game.
30. Winter Comes for the “Flower Family”
In 1947, Japan’s Constitution banned the use of all noble titles, save for those within the Imperial Family. The now-banned “kazoku” meant “flower family,” and were a class that bloomed in the 1800s to replace the old feudal lords and “westernize” the Asian island nation.
29. Outranked, but Not Out-Banked
Queen Elizabeth II is not the richest noble in England. As of 2017, her net worth is “only” £340 million, where nobles like Duke of Westminster (£9.35 Billion) and Earl Cadogan (£5.7 Billion) outdo her by more than a few pretty pence.
28. Your Amazon Purchase Has …Oh, God No!!!
The debut of socialite Mary Astor Paul was an affair to remember. Not because of the 500-10,000 Brazilian butterflies that were flown in for the big shebang…. but because these bugs all died in the ceiling lamps before her reveal, causing dead butterflies to rain down all over her guests. Welcome to the socialite scene, Mary!
27. The Silver Seeds of Fortune
The Vanderbilt family rose to prominence (and millions) in the American Gilded Age–but they have somewhat humbler origins. Their founder originally came to the “New Netherland” in 1650 as a Dutch Farmer/indentured servant. The family has since gone on to produce non-indentured, non-servants such as designer Gloria Vanderbilt and silver-haired CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.
26. Pobody’s Nerfect
In 1793, French revolutionaries falsely perceived the statues that lined the Notre Dame Cathedral as monuments to the kings of France (they were actually kings of Judea and Israel). Off went 28 limestone heads! Really: the crowd pulled the statues down and chopped the stone heads off by guillotine in Cathedral Square.
25. Play Hard, Pay Hard
The not-so-jolly Henry VIII of England rung up a steep grocery bill. Palace purse records show that he spent an average of £6 million on alcohol, and £3.5 million on meat per year in today’s money.
24. When You Hear Hoofbeats, Think of a Zebra
As a child, Lionel Walter Rothschild was obsessed with zoology. As adult, Lionel’s love for critters transformed into some quirky spending decisions, like his eco-friendly zebra-drawn carriage.
23. Her Majesty Smelt It, Which Means You Dealt It
The diarist John Aubrey records how the Earl of Oxford royally humiliated himself as he bowed and passed gas in front of Queen Elizabeth I. In his shame, he exiled himself for seven years. Upon his return, Elizabeth nicely and publicly assured, “My Lord, I had forgot the Fart.”
22. The Blazing Resume of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle
Margaret Lucas Cavendish was a 17th-century English writer and scientific philosopher who began her career as a handmaiden to the exiled royal family during the English Civil War. Supported by her husband’s belief in women’s intellect (and his fat wallet), Lucas had a successful publishing career, which includes not only philosophical works and poems, but one of the earliest English-language science fiction works, The Blazing World. Not bad for an aristocrat.
21. Long Live the Danes
The Danish monarchy is one of the world’s oldest continuing monarchies, with an existence that goes back over 1,000 years.
20. The Little Merman
Robert Hawker married his way to the top. Fed up with being a student, the future vicar eloped with his wealthy godmother and spent the rest of his days having Disney princess-like adventures. Hawker’s more famous gags include dressing up as mermaid to spook townies (like Ariel, kinda), and excommunicating his cat for eating mice (like Cinderella, kinda).
19. Trophy Husband
The House of Tudor gave us rulers like Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. And it all began when Owen Tudor eloped with the widowed Queen Catherine de Valois of England and propelled himself to royal stepfather of Henry VI. In 1485, Owen’s own seed came to the throne via Owen’s grandson, the future Henry VII.
18. Zhou Many Ladies!
Emperors of Zhou Dynasty in Ancient China weren’t restricted by monogamy. However, the Rites of Zhou rationed Emperors to take only 1 official empress, 3 consorts, 9 imperial concubines, 27 shifus, and 81 imperial wives.
17. Poison at the French Court
In 1670s France, the authorities busted a ring of alleged poison-makers. This “Affair of the Poisons” was a series of ongoing cases that pointed the finger at many alleged sellers, clients, and conspirators of poison…including lords and ladies at the heart of the French aristocracy. One such lady was Madame de Montespan, the chief mistress of “Sun King” Louis XIV himself. Although Montespan was not formally charged, her reputation never fully recovered, and the skies eventually set upon the Sun King’s longest love affair.
16. It Was Inbreeding That Killed the Beast
Likely rendered infertile from generations of inbreeding, Charles II of Spain died with no heirs in 1700. Thus, the Hapsburg Dynasty–which reigned over Spain for almost 200 years–came to a cousin-kissing close.
15. Before the Food Network Came to Netflix
For European monarchs, eating was a public affair. We don’t mean banquets or potlucks: the private meals of 18th-century rulers were often actual public performances. In France, specifically for Louis XIV, this was known as the “grand couvert,” where nobles gathered amongst each other to watch their king consume his royal bounty.
14. At Least He’s Consistent…
On a minimum of three separate occasions, the corpulent King Henry VIII chose to cavort with ladies from noble Howard family. Two of his six queens were daughters of House of Howard (and first cousins to each other): second wife Anne Boleyn and fifth wife Catherine Howard. Both were also executed. Before he married either, Henry also conducted an affair with Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn. Towards the end of his life, there was also an alleged plot to supplant his sixth wife, Katherine Parr, with another Howard girl, Mary Howard. But apparently, three Howards girls was enough for one lifetime.
13. Shut the France Up!
Maria Carolina of Austria was the Queen of Naples and Sicily, and the devoted sister of falsely accused cake-eater Marie Antoinette. In 1793, upon learning of her sister’s death by the hands of French revolutionaries, Maria Carolina expelled the very “monstrous” French language itself from her vocabulary.
12. Behind Every Great Man is a Doggo with a Similar Hair-Do
Along with his rock-star tresses and raunchy affairs, King Charles II of England was famous for inspiring his own breed of dog. Charles was hugely fond of his toy spaniel, and he would even cavort with the canine at royal council meetings. As a result, these dogs have since been known as “King Charles Spaniels” in honor of their No. 1 fan.
11. Who Else Saw The King’s Speech?
In 1936, Edward VIII of England abdicated his throne for an American socialite. That Edward’s lover, Wallis Simpson, was a foreign commoner was not too big a deal. What was big a deal: Wallis was a two-time divorcée…who was technically not yet fully divorced from her second husband. As the head of the English Church, Edward could not marry a divorcée whose husband(s) were alive. Thus, Edward chose his heart over his crown, which left the latter to his brother.
10. Times Change, But European Backpackers are Forever
For an upper-crust English boy in his 20s, the Grand Tour was an important rite of passage. Upon graduating Oxford or Cambridge, a lad would travel from France to Switzerland, Italy, Turin, Florence, Venice, Rome, and (if he had time) Naples. Hopefully, this only took a few months… but if your name was James Caufield, Earl of Charlemont, you might lose yourself for nine years!
9. Boozy Baked Goods
The iconic pastries of Nicolas Strohrer were essentially Polish bundt cakes soaked in fortified wine. Of course, these juiced sweets were all the rage with French courtiers and their high-class palates.
8. Princess, Suffragette, and Tax Evader
Sophia Duleep Singh might have been a Punjabi princess, but the exile was raised in England as Queen Victoria’s ward. Victoria encouraged her Indian goddaughter to be a proper socialite; ironically, Singh became one of the most notorious suffragettes in English history. Inspired by travels to her homeland in India, Singh came back to England in 1909 and auctioned many of her belongings to fund women’s suffrage. Singh also became president of the Committee of the Suffragette Fellowship in 1928, and her refusal to pay taxes once made her god-brother (King George V) groan, “Have we no hold on her?” (Answer: Probably not. British women won the vote in the same year as Singh’s presidency.)
7. Harry & Goliath
As a toddler, Prince Harry of England was the younger and more docile of his siblings. His older brother, Prince William, was accordingly nicknamed “Bill the Basher” for his precociously noble dominance.
6. Sir Nose-It-All
Tycho Brae was a Danish nobleman, writer, astronomer, and one nose short of a full face thanks to a college duel. While attending the University of Rostock in 1566, Brae entered a series of quarrels with his cousin, Manderup Parsberg; they decided that the only way to squash this gentleman’s beef was a duel. Unfortunately, Brae lost his nose in the altercation and had wear a prosthetic on his face for the rest of his life.
5. The One-Man $how
Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey, was a 19th century English lord who had an annual income of £11 million (measured in 2018 money) and still died in massive debt. Among his most expensive vices: the dramatic arts. Paget notoriously converted his family chapel into a 150-seat private playhouse called “The Gaiety Theatre.” There, Paget staged and headlined opulent productions before his star flamed out and he died, practically penniless, at the age of 29.
4. Hold Onto Your Horses (and Your Hymens)
The sidesaddle had a noble purpose: to protect highborn virginity. Anne of Bohemia, future Queen of England, rode this chair-like, supposedly hymen-preserving contraption into her 1382 marriage to Richard II.
3. His “Leave Me Alone” Holes
So, you think you’re an introvert? Meet William Cavendish, the Duke of Portland, an 1800s English aristocrat and a man so reclusive that he paid for a series of underground tunnels to minimize his contact with the outside world. This lordly project still lies today under Welbeck Abbey near Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire.
2. Royal Baby, Sunnyside Up
When Mary of Modena, queen consort of England, gave birth to a long-awaited heir in 1688, rumours of a conspiracy began to rampage the nation: this was no true prince–but a changeling, smuggled into the palace via warming pan. While this story was almost definitely false, it was taken so seriously for its time that the Privy Council had to conduct a formal investigation about this alleged plot to crown a Warming Pan Prince (#PanGate1688 #IBelieve).
1. Baby’s First Judicial Murder
Margaret of Anjou was a Queen of England and the House of Lancaster’s chief strategist throughout the Cousins War (now known as the War of the Roses). Ever the proactive mother, Margaret once allowed her 7-year-old son to decide exactly how to execute his captured enemy cousins. (The prince chose the classic “take their heads off,” which proves kids can be sensible when they’re raised with trust and structure).