“The North West has always been regarded by the South East of England as remote and slightly backward.”
So says Jonathan Spangler from Manchester Metropolitan University. But he’s not talking about the 21st century. He’s referring to common opinion back in the 1700s.
Spangler covers a lot of ground in his talk ‘Gentry Families of Greater Manchester: The North‘, part of the ten-day Manchester Histories festival currently spanning dozens of venues across the city and beyond. It’s the second outing for Spangler, a self-confessed “historian of the elite”, who appeared at the festival two years ago discussing the gentry families of South Manchester.
Truth be told, there’s a little too much going over old ground here. During his talk to an almost sell-out crowd, Spangler admits that he’s repeating himself and apologises to anyone who’s heard it before. And, in a lecture lasting an hour, there was also rather too much discussion of the definition of the term ‘gentry’. Yes, context is essential but surely not this much? I enjoyed learning that the word ‘genry’ is particular to the UK and derives from ‘gently born’ (back in the 16th century, it differentiated from those born in a barn and those born in a bed attended by a midwife – so, non-noble but still part of the elite). But I was keen for Spangler to get the business of the talk as outlined in the publicity blurb: ‘information about families in Lancashire and Cheshire in the 16th to 18th centuries, with a particular focus on the places where they lived, and what remains to be seen in Greater Manchester today from the area just north of Manchester’.
It was 40 minutes into Spangler’s chat before he embarked on the finer details of the grand families whose legacy is still felt today. I expect there were those in the audience who enjoyed the wide-ranging history of British gentry – and Spangler was both erudite and knowledgeable on this topic – but I was there to learn more about the area in which I grew up. But when he got to the Stanleys, Egertons, Ashtons and Radclyffes, history came alive.
“The goal of the gentry is to survive, to leave a legacy, a continuity,” said Spangler. “There will always be rakes who spend all the fortune or sail across the sea and sink, but if you look at the mentality of most nobility it’s more about longevity and how you can make your family survive.”
Few great families in North Manchester made more of a success at this than the Egertons (although discovering that your estate is sitting on a huge coal field goes some way to secure a financially prosperous future). These are the guys who built the Bridgewater Canal, were elevated to Dukes and Earls and briefly owned Heaton Hall. It was also satisfying to learn that Thomas Egerton was a bastard – illegitimacy proving no barrier to getting ahead in the 1500s. From inauspicious beginnings, this fellow rose to become Elizabeth I’s Attorney General and later Lord Chancellor for James I.
And, in an another example of fine breeding being no prevention of bad behaviour, these posh men and women slept around. A lot. Spangler called it “an interlocked web of family, society, religion and politics” and he wasn’t kidding. Following one family’s lineage inevitably leads to a spider’s web of marriages, land deals and interchanging titles. Again, anything to keep the family name alive and display power. As well as building grand monuments to themselves in churches, creating heraldic crests and building splendid homes, inter-marriage was key. “When a family is going to become extinct, someone swoops in and marries an heiress from another family.”
The story of Northern gentry also highlights the idiosyncratic nature of the elite: although the Egertons retained the title Duke of Bridgewater, the name has nothing to do with the North West. Bridgewater is in Somerset.
Despite a couple of misgivings, learning about Northern gentry was time well spent – and it was free. As are many of the events at the Manchester Histories (there are nearly 200 in total). Claire Turner, the chief executive of the festival told Northern Soul recently: “Often people think a history festival is re-enactments and famous historians. That’s part of things that we do do but we don’t tell anyone what it should be. We reveal the histories that often don’t get talked about, which people do want talked about, not the histories that we’re all so familiar with about Manchester of football and the Haçienda and cotton.”
I’ll leave you with this thought. According to Spangler, if you delve deep enough in the past, you’ll find that Lord Byron’s family came from Rochdale.
Manchester Histories Festival runs until June 12, 2016 across Manchester and Greater Manchester. Many of the events are free but may require booking. For more information, click here.
To read Northern Soul’s interview with Claire Turner, chief executive of Manchester Histories, click here