The Ancient Greek term Aristocracy meant a system of government with "rule by the best". This is the first definition given in most dictionaries. It is often confused with plutocracy ("rule by the wealthy"), oligarchy ("rule by the few"), and monarchy ("rule by a single individual"). The term is often used to refer to the historic system of rule by the nobility, which would more accurately refer to plutocracy. The related terms nobility and upper class have separate meanings, but the differences between the three are often not fully understood.
Aristocracy as a term defining a social group is more or less synonymous with nobility. In the United Kingdom and other European countries in which a monarchy is still recognized, an aristocrat is the descendant of one of approximately 7,000 ancient landowning families, usually still in possession of considerable wealth, though not necessarily so. The aristocracy traditionally defines itself as Society, as in 'a Society wedding'. In the feudal era, only people within its ambit qualified as rights-possessing subjects of a nation (ie, the nobility was the society), with all other persons functioning simply as property or vassals. The aristocracy is all that remains of the feudal court system of government in Europe.
Aristocrat as a pejorative term is intended to indicate that a person has achieved status by accident of birth, not merit&—a person whose unearned status is an affront to the bourgeois or liberal norms of meritocracy.
Further reading: European aristocracy and gentry since 1870
- Beerbohm, Max, Zuleika Dobson.
- Cannadine, David, 1998 Aspects of Aristocracy (series Penguin History) ISBN 0140249532. Essays on class issues, aristocratic family norms, careers.
- Channon, Sir Henry. Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon Robert Rhodes James, editor. Excerpts from the diaries of a privileged observer, 1934–53.
- Country Life Magazine, Documenting houses, gardens, pictures, horses, local history, debutantes since 1897.
- Cannadine, David, 1992.The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy
- (DNB) Prochaska, F.K., editor, 2002. Royal Lives ISBN 0198605307 (Lives series) Excerpted official biographies from the DNB
- (Curzon, etc.) Bence-Jones, Mark. The Viceroys of India
- Forster, E.M., Howard's End.
- Galsworthy, John. The Forsyte Saga
- Girouard, Mark. Life in the English Country House : A Social and Architectural History
- Halperin, John. Eminent Georgians: The Lives of King George V, Elizabeth Bowen, St. John Philby, & Nancy Astor
- James, Henry. The novels.
- (Marlborough) Brough, James. Consuelo: Portrait of an American Heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt's marriage to the Duke of Marlborough.
- (Mitfords) Lovell, Mary S. The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family
- Mitford, Jessica. Hons and Rebels. ISBN 1590171101
- Mitford, Nancy, Love in a Cold Climate
- Montagu of Beaulieu, Lord, Edward John Barrington Douglas-Scott-Montagu. More equal than others: The changing fortunes of the British and European aristocracies by Montagu of Beaulieu
- (Montesquiou) Jullian, Philippe. Prince of aesthetes: Count Robert de Montesquiou, 1855–1921. The Decadent movement and the original of Proust's Baron de Charlus.
- (Rothschild)Morton, Henry. The Rothschilds
- (Sackville-West/Nicholson) Nicholson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage : Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson
- (Sitwell) Pearson, John. The Sitwells: A Family's Biography
- Proust, Marcel, The Guermantes' Way', Sodom and Gomorrah. The closed circle of French aristocracy after 1870.
- Sutherland, Douglas, The Fourth Man: The story of Blunt, Philby, Burgess, and Maclean The double career of Sir Anthony Blunt, Keeper of the Queen's Works of Art and spy.
- The Tattler Magazine.
- Trollope, Anthony The Plantagenet Palliser series of Parliamentary novels.
- Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited
- Waugh, Evelyn, Decline and Fall.
- BBC/PBS series, Upstairs, Downstairs, The Jewel in the Crown, Brideshead Revisited, The Aristocracy: Born to Rule 1875–1914 (1997)