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Who were the titled Americans?

Written by
Melissa AaronHistorian, King's College, London
Oil painting on canvas, Nancy Witcher Langhorne, Viscountess Astor CH, MP (1879-1964) by John Singer Sargent, RA (Florence 1856 - London 1925), at Cliveden
Oil painting on canvas, Nancy Witcher Langhorne, Viscountess Astor CH, MP (1879-1964) by John Singer Sargent, RA (Florence 1856 - London 1925), at Cliveden. | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Over 300 British aristocrats married American women between 1870 and 1914. Popular perception understands these marriages as arranged trades of titles for dollars. While this explanation is correct for a few exceptional cases, these marriages are better understood as love-matches, made as the elites of Britain and America increasingly interacted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Americans in Europe

In the decades following the American Civil War, the American elite expanded and grew wealthier. At the same time, improvements in transatlantic steamship travel allowed greater numbers of Americans to travel to Europe.

Americans had long looked to Europe as the ultimate arbiter of high culture. Some American families even settled in London and Paris and made social connections within the elite circles of those cities.

Aristocrats abroad

Aristocratic estates across the United Kingdom experienced economic decline and agricultural depression throughout the late nineteenth century. Increasingly, the income from estates could no longer adequately support all of the dependent members of an aristocratic family.

By the 1870s and 1880s, British aristocratic men increasingly sought to capitalize on expanding business opportunities around the globe. Many went to America, especially to the Mid-West and to New York. As representatives of the British aristocracy, they were welcomed into the highest American social circles wherever they went.

King Edward VII and his circle

King Edward VII, as the Prince of Wales, was instrumental in opening British aristocratic society to Americans, as well as to foreign plutocrats and Jews. He counted several American-born aristocratic ladies amongst his closest friends, including the New York-born Jennie Jerome Spencer-Churchill, mother of Winston Churchill.

The composition of Edward’s social circle itself suggests the worldly, cosmopolitan makeup of an emerging transatlantic elite during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Marriages

As Americans sought culture and aristocratic Britons sought opportunity, these groups intermixed and began to intermarry. In this way, over three hundred American women became British aristocrats by marriage.

However, not all of the American brides were wealthy, nor were all of the British grooms titled. In fact, the majority of the men were the younger sons of titleholders, with no expectation of future titles or inheritance. This marriage phenomenon peaked in the 1890s, when the wealthiest brides married the loftiest titles. This was epitomized by the 1895 marriage of the very wealthy Consuelo Vanderbilt to Sunny, ninth Duke of Marlborough.

Places and collections with American connections in our care

View of the house and wildflowers in the garden at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire
Mary Leiter of Chicago, married George Curzon, later the 1st Marquess Curzon and lived at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire | © National Trust Images/Steve Franklin
Kedleston Hall
Kedleston Hall was the Derbyshire country seat of the Curzon Family. George Curzon, later the 1st Marquess Curzon, married Mary Leiter of Chicago in 1895 and they moved between Kedleston Hall, London, and India during his service as Viceroy from 1898 to 1905. Mementoes of this time are preserved in a dedicated museum at Kedleston. George and Mary are buried in the chapel together on the estate.
Cliveden
Cliveden in Berkshire was the country home of the Anglo-American Nancy Langhorne Astor, the Virginia-raised first female Member of Parliament. She and her Anglo-American husband, the New York-born Waldorf Astor, received Cliveden from Waldorf’s father, the 1st Viscount Astor, in 1906. The Astors maintained it as their home for over half a century.
Anglesey Abbey – Lord Fairhaven's country house
Urban Hanlon Broughton was a British entrepreneur who made his fortune in America in the mining, railway, and sanitation industries. He married the Boston oil heiress Cara Huttleston Rogers in 1895. His sons purchased Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire together as a shooting estate in 1926, using their father’s immense American-made wealth. Urban Broughton died in 1929 and was posthumously created Baron Fairhaven, and his American widow, Cara, was granted the right to style herself Lady Fairhaven.
A close-up view of the bodice of Lady Mary Curzon's peacock dress
The bodice of the peacock dress | © National Trust Images/Gavin Repton
Rufford Old Hall
Rufford Old Hall in Lancashire was home to Florence Emily (Flora) Sharon and Sir Thomas Fermor-Hesketh, 7th Baronet. American-born Flora was the daughter of US Senator William Sharon and met Sir Thomas during his round-the-world voyage on the yacht, Lancashire Witch.
Sudbury Hall
Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire was home to Frances Lawrance and George Venables-Vernon, 7th Baron Vernon. An American heiress, Frances' wealth enabled the building of a new stable block and coach house at Sudbury following the pair's marriage in 1885.
Lady Curzon's Peacock Dress
This dress, known as the Peacock Dress, was worn by Mary, Lady Curzon, at an extravagant ball held to celebrate Edward VII’s coronation in Delhi. The celebration was known as the Delhi Durbar and was held on New Year’s Day 1903. At the time, Lady Mary was the Vicereine of India and she and her husband are said to have arrived at the festivities atop elephants whose tusks were adorned with golden candelabras. The dress drew much attention from the world press. A guest at the ball remarked: ‘You cannot conceive what a dream she looked’.

Trusted source

This article contains contributions from Melissa Aaron from the King’s College London, a historian that specialises in the social history of American and British elites in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Melissa is a contributor to the Trusted Source project.

Overhead view of an octagonal table with the figure of Silenus, a drunken follower of Bacchu, in The Library at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire

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