How To Marry An English Lord: The Uniting of British Lords and American Heiresses

Sir Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill was, among other things, an accomplished historian and writer, writing several books during his lifetime. Four of these: his four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction in 1953. When one reads these books, the person realizes that Churchill placed special stock on the “Special Relationship” between the United States and Great Britain. While it has been debated in academic circles whether there ever was a special relationship[1] in Churchill’s mind, there was no question. It was represented by his own family tree. His mother was an American debutante, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist; his father, the younger son of a Duke. Their marriage started a trend that was both old and new. It was old in that it represented the constant story of old money chasing new; new in that it was being done transcontinentally. The trend lasted a whole generation and a half, spanning the entirety of the Late Victorian and Edwardian periods in England, and the Gilded Age in America, a time period from roughly 1870 until 1914.

While the match between Lord Randolph Churchill and Jennie Jerome was a trendsetter, the trend was not all that popular right away. There was still much hesitation on the part of English lords of the need, or desirability, of marrying outside of tight European nobility/royalty. This hesitation would soon change, however, after the British Great Depression of the 1880s and 1890s [2] hit the country squireage particularly hard. This was coupled with increasing democratization of the British political process, which, in turn, led to several assaults on the British aristocracy’s traditional economic and political supremacy. As the British lords found themselves without much of an economic inheritance, and with their traditional methods of securing fortune rapidly closing or being hindered, they could not but help to look with envy across “the pond” at the carefree, prospering, Americans.

The Americans were by 1880 in the midst of the longest economic boom of its history. The country was undergoing rapid industrialization, which in the course of 50 years transformed the United States from being a relatively backwards nation split between a somewhat industrialized North and a feudal South which still viewed slavery as an economic system into an industrialized power, which, by 1914, had the largest GDP in the entire world, both in aggregate and per capita.[3] Many of the individuals who participated in this transformation acquired quick and unprecedented fortunes and, within time, developed a mindset that they were America’s version of European royalty. They started to build castles and palaces in America, acquire exquisite European, Asian, Roman, Greek and Egyptian art, and copy the lifestyle of European royalty and nobility as much as possible.

A class distinction between “nobs” – that is old money, and “swells” – new money, began to develop in fashionable New York, Newport, Boston, Philadelphia, and other “societies.” While this was never as rigid as in Britain, it still was serious enough to enable Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, The Mrs. Astor, to “run” New York society, limiting it to “the 400,” during the 1870s and 1880s. However, when Mrs. Astor started “to retire” during the 1890s, fierce competition between several younger society hostesses, including Ruth Livingston Mills and others, ensued. As a leading society hostess, it was incumbent that you married your children off to the “right” persons. The ability to do so meant the difference between further rising in social circles, or a decline in them. In order for a social hostess to be able to “run” society, this meant that they had to find suitable European, preferably British, husbands for their daughters.

Thus it was only a matter of time before both groups figured that they each shared the same goal. The English lord wanted to marry the American because of her fortune, the American because of the added status in society such a marriage would bring. The Americans sent over a substantial dowry payment to help stabilize the English family’s financial future, the British lord married the American to help cement the American family’s social status. Both sides ended up “winners.”

Which brings us full circle to the question over whether actually a “Special Relationship” exists or has existed between the United States and Great Britain. On a policy basis and in a political/economic history context, that question will be hard to answer, and there will always be controversy on the subject. However, it certainly exists when considering the social history of 20th Century Britain. How can it be otherwise, especially when we consider the example of one British peer, the current 10th Earl of Granard (the great-grandson of Ruth Livingston Mills), who can trace his lineage back to both the British military governor of New York during the American Revolution (Lord Hastings) as well as a signer of the Declaration of Independence (Francis Lewis)?? Society sure makes strange historical bedfellows!!!


  1. [1] See John Charmley, Churchill’s Grand Alliance, 2nd ed., (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995).
  2. [2] A depression in prices. During much of the time period, there was actually deflation instead of inflation. This adversely affected the rural, aristocratic regions of the country more than any other.
  3. [3] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, 2nd ed., (New York: Random House, 1989), p. 243.
  4. National income was $37 billion in 1914, compared with Germany’s $12 billion and Great Britian’s $11 billion. Per capita income in 1914 was $377 for America, $244 for Britain, and $184 for Germany. In other words, the average American in 1914 made 54.5% more than the average Briton!!!!!