The minor nineteenth-century poet and political figure Lord John Manners has long seemed to me worthy of reappraisal. That he was a minor poet was a matter of his own inclination. He published two significant volumes as a young man, England’s Trust and Other Poems, in 1841, and English Ballads and Other Poems, in 1850. But although he lived until 1906 he never returned to verse. That he was, in the end, a minor political figure is a loss for Britain.
Manners was a principle member of the conservative Young England group, which he co-founded with George Smythe (later Viscount Strangford) and Alexander Baillie-Cochrane (later Baron Lamington). At Cambridge together in the 1830s, these young men rebelled against Utilitarianism and the new priorities of the Industrial Revolution.
By the mid-nineteenth century industrialization had drastically changed the social order, economy, and landscape of Britain. The nation’s wealth had shifted from the countryside to the cities, taking with it vast populations. The sweet rural economy of manor, cottage, and craft was being undermined by policies that favored heavy industry. A decentralized society based on inherited rights and traditions, in harmony with nature, and built to the human scale was becoming increasingly centralized, mechanized, democratized, and dehumanized.
A generation earlier, Edmund Burke had written that civilization is a partnership between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn. Traditionalists of the nineteenth century viewed the modern project as an unraveling of that partnership. The delicate system of organic institutions and relationships that underpinned the old order could not be swept away without taking with it the civilization it had brought into being. By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 a number of political figures, artists, philosophers, and theologians were contemplating how traditional society might be recovered. Largely independent of one another they found inspiration in the legacy of the Middle Ages.
Young England fought to restore power to the monarchy, the peerage, and the Church of England. Manners and his friends advocated a romantic revival of feudalism and agrarianism. They promoted the interests of the countryside, its rustic economy, landed gentry, and working classes. They opposed the consolidation of power by a bourgeois oligarchy which had brought with it Blake’s “dark satanic mills,” slum-cities, and class warfare.
The contemporary historian Edward Barrington de Fonblanque painted a charming prose-picture of the type of society that the Young Englanders wished to create:
The nobles of England were once more to occupy their legitimate place around the throne and in the order of chivalry; the Church was to become the revered guardian and benevolent educator of the masses; commerce and industry, literature and art, were to be fostered by generous patronage; and a grateful and contented peasantry, clustering for shelter under the shadow of lordly mansions, were to vary the monotony of their toilful lives by merry dances on the village green, and perennial feasts of roast oxen and barrels of ale provided by their munificent lords and masters, the hereditary owners of the soil.
In 1841, Manners published England’s Trust and Other Poems, dedicated to Smythe. In his book Young England, to date the only book-length history of the movement, Richard Faber described the titular poem as “the most complete manifesto of Young England’s basic philosophy” at that point. Manners recalled to mind “a nobler age”:
When men of stalwart hearts and steadfast faith
Shrunk from dishonour, rather than from death,
When to great minds obedience did not seem
A slave’s condition, or a bigot’s dream…
When kings were taught to feel the dreadful weight
Of power derived from One than kings more great,
And learned with reverence to wield the rod
They dreamed entrusted to their hand by God.
Each knew his place—king, peasant, peer or priest,
The greatest owned connexion with the least;
From rank to rank the generous feeling ran,
And linked society as man to man.
Must we then hearken to the furious cry
Of those who clamour for ‘equality?’
Have not the people learnt how vain the trust
On props like that which crumble into dust?
Are the gradations that have marked our race,
Since God first stamped His likeness on its face,
Gradations hallowed by a thousand ties
Of faith and love, and holiest sympathies,
Seen in the Patriarch’s rule, the Judge’s sway
When God himself was Israel’s present stay,
Now in the world’s dotage to be cast
As week pretences to the howling blast?
No! by the names inscribed in History’s page,
Names that shall live for yet unnumbered years
Shrined in our hearts with Crécy and Poitiers,
Let wealth and commerce, laws and learning die
But leave us still our old Nobility!
When Manners wrote, “leave us still our old Nobility” he did not, of course, mean that his own class alone should endure: he meant the whole system of hierarchy and heredity and mutual loyalty that ensured a place for every man and protected the ancestral rights of the dynastic farmer or craftsman every bit as much as the rights of the dynastic lord. The politics of “equality” not only disenfranchised the nobility but destroyed the protections that the working classes had inherited over generations.
By 1843, Manners, Smythe, and Baillie-Cochrane were all seated in Parliament. They represented a High Tory bloc within the larger Conservative party of which they were members. In a speech to the House of Commons on May 18, 1843, Manners staked out his position, extolling those “principles which, while they would render the Church triumphant, and monarchy powerful, would also restore contentment to a struggling, overworked and deluded people.” A contemporary summary, in Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, records the substance of the speech. He argued that,
As power was taken away from the mitre and the crown and transferred either to the people in that House or out of it, their physical and moral happiness had been lessened…He would extend the feeling of responsibility between the rich and the poor, and shorten the interval which in his opinion was growing too wide between those for whom wealth was made and those who made it.
Manners campaigned against the Mortmain Act of 1736 which put restrictions on the devising of property to charitable uses. He proposed lifting the law to encourage the establishment of religious houses. He argued that “it is inexpedient, in the present condition of the country, to continue the existing restrictions on the exercise of private charity and munificence.” Manners hoped that by overturning the Act the government could not only facilitate but encourage the founding of charitable religious institutions. “In an age confessedly devoted to money-making,” he said in a speech to Parliament, “I ask you to have the courage to believe in the nobler impulses of our nature; to appeal to the glorious spirit which built our cathedrals, our colleges, our convents.” Although he was unsuccessful in this initial campaign, the law was eventually superseded in 1888, in part through his advocacy.
Like Charles Dickens, in his pamphlet, Sunday Under Three Heads, Manners also argued that the working classes needed more leisure time. If civil society was to be nurtured it would require those conditions of leisure, festival, and camaraderie which were the natural expressions of a healthy community. In his 1843 pamphlet, A Plea for National Holy-Days, Manners asked: “Will the old parish church send out of its time-honoured portals and old men and women, the lads and lasses, to the merry green, where youth shall disport itself, and old age, well pleased, look on? Alas! no. Utilitarian selfishness has well nigh banished all such unproductive amusements from the land.”
In Parliament, Young England attracted the attention of the MP from Shrewsbury, Benjamin Disraeli, who saw its members as potential allies. Disraeli’s own philosophy of “one-nation conservatism,” which he represented in the novels Sybil and Coningsby, grew out of his intellectual relationship with them. It was Disraeli who marshaled the circle into a larger political faction. As the most experienced politician among them he became the de facto leader of the group.
They also attracted the attention of critics. The Morning Herald wrote of Manners and Smythe: “These two gentlemen are the prime movers of Young England; and that tomfoolery is the political offshoot of Tractarianism. Mental dandyism is its chiefest characteristic.” Tractarianism refers to the Oxford Movement in the Church of England. The Tractarians emphasized the broadly catholic inheritance of the Anglican tradition. At its best the movement inspired a revival of piety and ritual in the Church of England. Its apologists demonstrated that Anglicanism had an equal claim of descent from Ancient and Medieval Christianity as the ultramontane Roman Catholic Church, which had, for all intents and purposes, been created at the Council of Trent. (The Anglican Book of Common Prayer predates the Roman Missal by two decades). At its worst the movement displaced our authentic High Church Protestantism with the trappings of nineteenth-century Roman Catholicism; in this it may have done more harm than good.
The members of Young England were all High Anglicans of one school or another. Manners and Smythe in particular belonged to the Oxford Movement. Manners imagined the church engendering new quasi-monastic orders and institutions that would transform industrial cities, providing charitable services and cultural roots to increasingly atomized populations.
Clearly the Young Englanders were romantics. In later years, Baillie-Cochrane wrote that they had desired to lighten the servitude and add to the enjoyments of the people: “in fact, to restore ‘Merrie England.’” They did not accomplish anything so grand. The word “dream” appears often in assessments of the group. De Fonblanque described Young England as “a pretty and harmless dream.” They were not without realism or political skill, however.
During their Parliamentary careers the Young Englanders were engaged in the day-to-day business of government. They had successes and failures. The Factory Act of 1847 which limited the working hours of women and children was passed after years of advocacy by the group.
Young England was not opposed to industrial capitalism per se. Disraeli wanted to unite the “aristocracy of wealth” with the aristocracy of birth and instill in the former the sense of paternalism and noblesse oblige for the working classes that the latter possessed. Manners also wanted the great capitalists to take on a neo-feudal responsibility for their workers. He was impressed by the Grant brothers of Manchester, affluent merchants on whom Dickens had based the magnanimous Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby. But Manners doubted that the marketplace could ever produce the stability necessary for the emergence of an actual “aristocracy of wealth.” He wrote to his brother Granby, after a tour of Manchester cotton mills in 1841, “the worst of this manufacturing feudalism is its uncertainty, and the moment a cotton lord is down, there’s an end to his dependents’ very subsistence: in legislating, this great difference between an agricultural and a trading aristocracy ought not to be lost sight of.” In the 1840s the working population was divided roughly evenly between the traditional economy of the countryside and the new economy of the factory town. The Young Englanders were adamant that this balance not tip too far toward the city. Without the equilibrium of the unchanging rural economy they believed that the protean upheavals of the factory system would lead to social unrest. To this end, Baillie-Cochrane said, “The only way to arrest the march of revolution in this country was to decide at once against all concession…if the agricultural party were only true to themselves, no influence…would be able to destroy them.” Even long after the heyday of Young England, Manners was confident that with proper leadership the “agricultural classes” could “fight for the existing order” against “democratic Revolution.”
In truth the Factory Act was a rearguard action by the agricultural party. By 1847 laws were in place that would cripple the rural economy and put the industrial party firmly in control of Britain’s destiny. The first of these was the Reform Act of 1832 which had stripped parliamentary representation from small rural boroughs and doubled the representation of many industrial cities. The second was the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846; free traders finally achieved their long-held ambition to remove tariffs on foreign grain, tilting the market to the disadvantage of British farmers.
Young England was dormant by the end of the 1840s. Disraeli went on to political glory, becoming prime minister in 1868, and again in 1874, but by that time he had left Young England behind. Manners had a long, useful, and distinguished career in government under several Conservative administrations. He served as First Commissioner of Works under Lord Derby and Postmaster-General under Disraeli and Lord Salisbury. Disraeli offered him the viceroyalty of India but he declined. His last public office was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster under Lord Salisbury. In 1891, Queen Victoria knighted him to the Order of the Garter. By that point he had inherited his father’s peerage, becoming the seventh Duke of Rutland. Despite prominent careers, however, neither Manners, Smythe, nor Baillie-Cochrane ever controlled policy to the extent that they could advance the agenda of Young England.
de Fonblanque, Edward Barrington. (1887) Lives of the Lords Strangford. London: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin.
Faber, Richard. (1987) Young England. London: Faber and Faber.
Manners, Lord John James Robert. (1841) England’s Trust and Other Poems. London: Francis & John Rivington.
Michell, John. (2005) Confessions of a Radical Traditionalist. Waterbury Center [VT]: Dominion Press.
Whibley, Charles. (1925) Lord John Manners and His Friends. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons.