"The gentry are an oddly neglected class. They are in a sort of middle zone," says Adam Nicolson, author of The Gentry: Intimate Histories. And it's true that a lot of history published recently favours the poles of society: kings, queens and the aristocracy at one end; and working-class heroes, ordinary fighting tommys, able seamen, housemaids and nurses at the other. And yet, Nicolson argues, it is actually the gentry‚ England's upper-middle-class, rooted in the land they own and work‚ who have made our country and distinctive character what they are today.
The whiff of privilege that attaches to this notion is initially off-putting, and Nicolson acknowledges the fact. "There's something absurd about the word 'gentry' nowadays, a sense that it doesn't really go with the idea of democracy. But my book argues against the assumption that the gentry is snobbish, stiff and irrelevant. We shouldn't be patronising about our own history. And we can't understand the story of our country properly if we imagine the gentry as a class of people who went round with pokers up their bottoms."
Nicolson persuades us to lay aside such prejudice by telling the enthralling stories of 12 families, from the 1400s to the present day. All left substantial archives of papers, which allowed him to delve deeply into their everyday lives. There are the 15th-century Plumptons of Yorkshire, fuelled by ambition, who pitched into the violence of the Wars of Roses; the Thynnes of Wiltshire who precipitated a real-life 16th-century Romeo and Juliet story; the frankly unattractive Lascelles family, which made a fortune from slave-worked sugar plantations in Barbados in the 18th century. And lastly, the 21st-century Cliffords, who live a just few miles away from me in Gloucestershire.
"These people are not serious grandees. Our aristocracy is very similar in structure and origins to other European countries. But the gentry is unique to England; a level of society that has an extraordinarily open structure and chimes with a very English sense of liberty."
Nicolson has a fascinating explanation of why the gentry is a peculiarly English phenomenon. "The nobility here was restricted to a tiny number, and their extended families‚ their younger sons for example‚ were not actually considered noble. They effectively became the first members of the House of Commons.
"Only England had this educated, highly-trained, cultivated upper-middle-class. A class which believed in its own freedoms, and had a deep distrust of aristocratic government and of the centralised state. It is the reason that we have had good parliamentary government for so long. It is the most defining thing in our history."
Whereas being part of the aristocracy depends on birth or marriage, the gentry, says Nicolson, is a socially mobile class‚ a fact that several characters in his book demonstrate. The grandson of Owen Tudor, an impoverished and obscure Welsh squire, becomes Henry VII. The wealthy Oliver le Neve of 17th-century Norfolk is the son of a London draper. Despite being illegitimate, Eliza Pinckney rises to become an 18th-century self-made woman. Though it works the other way, too; poor old Harry Oxinden of 17th-century Kent had to suffer the indignity of his son falling in with a gang of highwaymen and turning to violent crime.
Perhaps the most moving character in the whole book is Sir John Oglander, of 17th-century Isle of Wight. Nicolson unearthed his extraordinary notebooks in which he recorded every aspect of his daily life. When profound emotion overcame him, he had a habit of pricking his thumb and writing in his own blood.
"The writing is still iron-red on the page four centuries later," comments Nicolson. When his beloved son George died of smallpox, the grief-stricken Oglander wrote, in blood: "Oh my sonn George, my son George, woold my lyfe could have excused thine". "There is a lot of love in the book. Despite everything, there is a sense that the family corporation keeps going," says Nicolson.
So, with my neighbours the Cliffords in mind, how relevant is the gentry today, I ask?
"You know, all this talk of the ‚'Big Society' is weirdly gentry-like, albeit incredibly sentimental. Cameron is in effect saying: 'Forget the state, let's return to these lovely communities of yesterday.' But the point is they never really worked without the squire figure, without the gentry at the centre. And who the hell is the modern squire?
"The point about the gentry is that they gave rise to the best of what we are. Their values of energy, vigour, openness, loyalty, care, a sense of beauty and a sense of community have extended from their past into our present. These are great English virtues still. Our gentry is unique to this country, and something we should be proud of."
The Gentry: Stories of the English by Adam Nicolson is published on 27th October by HarperPress.