William Doyle: The Demise of the Toff

Roundup: Historians' Take

William Doyle is Emeritus Professor of History and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bristol. A Fellow of the British Academy, he has written extensively on eighteenth century European History, and taught in universities on both sides of the Atlantic – including courses over many years on the history of aristocracies. He has written two titles for the VSI series: Aristocracy: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2010) and The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2001).

Born to tenants of a country squire in Yorkshire, I knew about what my grandmother called ‘toffs’ at an early age. The squire was a toff. He owned the village and broad acres for miles around. He lived in a grand and beautiful Jacobean mansion. He had served in the Guards, collected pictures, and bred racehorses which the queen made a special journey to see. But he only enjoyed all this because his elder brother had died young, and to help pay inheritance taxes he sold land and opened his house to the public. And without children of his own, he left the house and estate to distant relatives. He was the last of his line, and when he died, he was buried in the church where I was baptised, among his ancestors.

As a child I scarcely realised that the squire and his lifestyle were already relics of a fast-disappearing pattern of society. But when I grew up to be a historian, I found myself drawn to the eighteenth century, a time when the power and ostentation of such men was at its height throughout Europe. And in coming to specialise in the French Revolution, I had a ringside seat at the first occasion on which their claims to superiority came under open attack....

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