By PhD Signe Boeskov, the Danish Research Centre for Manorial Studies
The world of the manor house revolved around its gentlefolk. The gentlefolk were the family who at any given time owned and, to a greater or lesser extent, resided in one or more manor houses. The gentlefolk formed part of certain relationships, which helped to define them as ladies and gentlemen of a manor. They were the king’s faithful servants. They were the masters and protectors of their subordinates. They belonged to a class-based network, which invested them with the same status as their peers. The lifestyle and indication of status lived out in the manor houses often featured luxuriousness and is considered part of a tradition, which also made the manor houses and their owners stand out as something special.
A class is born
In early medieval Denmark there was a movement towards the development of a class of influential, land-owning families, the strongest families in the country and families with large-scale farms who were closely associated with the Crown. Men from these families made up a kind of royal military service. On one hand, this ensured the safety and influence of the chosen monarch; on the other hand, it increased these families’ access to power and their internal cohesion as a special group – as a class. In other words, these squires (in Danish herremænd) were the king’s supporters, warriors and knights. As estate owners, their families were the dominant elite in the local areas.
Over time, these squires were awarded a number of special rights, thereby becoming a privileged class of selected families – what became known as the nobility. The king had the power to elevate a person and a family to membership of that class, thereby granting them access to the privileges. From around 1400, the king also introduced chivalric orders, which confirmed the status of the chosen ones, giving them an even closer connection to the Crown.
The country, however, also experienced a number of power struggles between the Crown and the land-owning aristocracy. The most powerful of the squires started to build castles and forts to match their power and self-esteem. The Crown opposed these with injunctions and demolitions. By the late Middle Ages, the well-established squire class of this hierarchical society, and the Church, had also increased their power in the Privy Council (the assembly of squires and clergy who advised the king and took part in the government of the country), with increasing influence on state governance.
The age of the nobility
Hence, by about 1500, the country had a powerful, wealthy and influential group of land-owning squires. They were referred to as ‘noble’, assumed permanent family names and passed on the dignity and privileges of their rank from generation to generation. The origin of, and emphasis on the many noble ancestors, who extended way back in history, played a major role in a family’s status.
The power of the nobility was strengthened even further after the Reformation (1536). The vast estates, which were transferred from the Catholic Church to the Crown, were used to reward the nobility, who then, together with the Crown, acquired a monopoly on owning land. Many offices previously occupied by the church were now largely assigned to gentlemen of the nobility. Furthermore, given that, following the Church’s loss of power, they now also had major positions of power in the Privy Council, they had become an inevitable force in terms of economy and politics.
Intense building activity reflected the wealth and power of the emerging nobility, and the Renaissance saw an abundance of magnificent, newly built manor houses. For a period they even overshadowed royal building projects. The noble lifestyle was fashioned according to the spirit of the age. The increasing professionalization of both government administration and the army meant that, from now on, the sons of the nobility could find permanent careers as public officials or officers.
The daughters of noble families received their schooling at home in the manor houses, while the sons of the nobility boarded at grammar schools and the newly-established academies, and went on protracted grand tours to the universities, courts and metropolises of Europe. Both learning and knowledge of courtly activities, including genteel manners, became part of the definition of a noble lifestyle.
We can also detect this self-image in portrait painting, which really gained ground in Renaissance Denmark, particularly among the self-assured ladies and gentlemen of the nobility. Contemporary portraits of ladies and gentlemen of the manor houses feature a marked awareness of their rank and references to noble descent, coats of arms, military prowess, Christian piety and tradition.
Gentlemen in the period of absolute monarchy – the king’s nobility
But the golden age of the old nobility finally came to an end. In 1660, King Frederick III introduced absolute monarchy as the form of government in Denmark. The throne became hereditary. Monarchy was no longer elective. That meant that the king was no longer regarded as the most dominant of his peers, but as the supreme leader of the kingdom, elevated above all others with unlimited power and appointed by God. Naturally, the nobility were not enamoured of the idea, but they were forced to accept the radical change.
The introduction of absolute monarchy resulted in a number of changes, which immediately delivered the gentleman of the nobility a hard blow. Noble military service was abolished. Not only was this in itself an insult to the noble families’ identity and rank, but it also meant that the privileges, which were originally the quid pro quo for the nobility’s responsibility to defend the kingdom and the king, could now be revoked. Not only were the nobility’s tax-exemption and monopoly on land-ownership both abolished, but also, to a much greater extent, the king started to award others with noble titles.
A new system of privileges was introduced, aimed at allying the most important part of the nobility to the Crown, in practice creating new hierarchies. In 1671, the king introduced the significant, high-ranking titles of ‘Count’ and ‘Baron’. To have one’s estate elevated to the rank of shire (the estate of a count) or barony required both royal favour and a considerable amount of land, but the titles also made it possible to pass on the estate, undivided and in its entirety, to the oldest male heir, most importantly accompanied by a number of economic and tax privileges.
As state governance became stronger, it also became necessary to expand the administration of the rural areas. In this context, the king once again needed the estate owners. The greater the number of administrative and local management duties the manor houses were responsible for, the greater the number of privileges were granted to them. The traditional ladies and gentlemen of the manor houses continued to have privileges, but the system mainly rewarded those who took on the duties of state, thereby securing royal favour.
Luxurious lifestyle and settings
Proximity to the courtly life of the absolute monarch, which featured ceremonies and rituals, and the ability to move in the innermost elite circles became a decisive route to both power and wealth. Getting noticed at court or moving in diplomatic circles became important qualifications. Having the financial and cultural resources to shine on the hallowed floors in the arts of dance, posing and appropriate conversation, to dress lavishly, to build and decorate magnificent manor houses and live a luxurious lifestyle became prerequisites for the foremost genteel families in terms of demonstrating their status.
In other words, the 18th century became a spectacular era: in retrospect, a highly staged era. The upper echelons of the manorial elite were major estate owners, and the royal offices, with which they were entrusted, also brought substantial revenue. Much of this revenue was spent on spreading splendour and demonstrating personal abundance.
The wealthy families built beautiful, huge Baroque and Rococo houses on their estates, establishing expansive parks for promenading and recreation, both for their own pleasure and to manifest their prosperity. They commissioned portraits of themselves clad in every imaginable kind of magnificence and status symbol: expensive costumes and jewellery, medals, coats of arms and symbols of military rank, with the family manor houses as a backdrop. It was the era of wigs and decorative, over-the-top costumes. It was the era of personal and bodily poise and of posing.
However, as the 18th century drew to a close, the old role of these families in the absolute monarchy began to change. The flourishing middle classes started to emulate the aristocracy in terms of social elitism, bringing ideals of simplicity and informality with them. The social conventions and hierarchies of the court and the aristocracy had become highly ritualised and were criticised as both unnatural and obsolete.
New roles for the families in the 19th century
The antipathy to the aristocratic way of life and social structure intensified in the years following the French Revolution. The gentlefolk and families of the manor houses found themselves in the midst of these movements of opposition: on one hand, as representatives of, and experts in the established, ritualised power system; on the other hand, as always, as embracing new trends.
Simpler forms of expression made their way into the manor houses. The architecture of Classicism, Empire style interiors and fashion and the new portraits of members of the genteel families were characterised by greater simplicity and sensibility. The emotional life of the individual played a major role in self-image, and the ideal was to show the natural human being behind his or her rank and position. New social conventions started to influence the milieu.
Ostensibly informal family gatherings in the salons and living rooms of manor houses, accompanied by games, music, tea drinking, recitation, crafts and conversation, complemented traditional activities such as large dinners, balls and hunting. But luxury was still luxury and, even though both personal and architectural façades were now less ornamental, the manor house milieus still featured luxury and magnificence that were found nowhere else.
While the reforms of the 18th century led to agricultural progress, the period from about 1810 to about 1840 was marked by economic crisis. This was felt in the manor houses at a time when some people were defeated and many just managed to keep their heads above water, and when building projects and lavish lifestyle were limited.
The Indian summer of the manor houses – the final golden age
From the mid-19th century, Danish society was characterised by fundamental changes, which also had a huge impact on Denmark’s manor houses and the world of their ladies and gentlemen. The introduction of the 1849 Constitution marked a crossroads. In principle, the special formal status of the class was invalidated: rights and privileges associated with nobility, title and rank were abolished.
On most estates the concept of copyhold estate was revoked, and the formal relationship between the upper classes and their subjects changed. Industry began to offer a reliable alternative to farming as a basis for wealth, and new kinds of elite played an increasingly important role: proof of a highly progressive zeitgeist. In certain contexts, the members of the old, aristocratic families, who had inherited wealth, rank and status, were regarded as relics of the past.
However, despite everything that disrupted the existing order, the latter half of the 19th century became an almost paradoxical and unprecedented period of prosperity for the manor houses. Visionary estate owners in Denmark sold off their copyhold land, and vast amounts of money largely replaced land as the basis of their fortunes. The manorial families became talented, influential representatives in the new political structure and, between 1865 and 1901, so-called ‘landowner governments’ governed the country.
Their great prosperity and their re-acquired status led to a major revival, and a large number of new, highly impressive homes in all their glory highlighted the fact that the manorial families had not played all their cards as an elite group and confirmed their status. The countless new building projects and refurbishments also added contemporary, modern conveniences to the large houses, paving the way for the contemporary ideals of isolated family life, privacy and the distinction between the running of a house, servants and gentility.
Life in the Danish Country House
The Danish manorial landscape of the late 19th century was rich in many ways: including the huge variety of the manor house milieus and the families who inhabited them. Houses both large and small, families both middle-class and noble, and families both new and old occupied this cultural landscape. The manorial lifestyle varied greatly from one place to another: financial and cultural prowess, background, social network and geographical location resulted in diverse conditions.
Manorial life – or the luxury lifestyle led in the largest houses, where everything was available – was the model. Manorial life also flourished during this period. At a time when the social order was up for grabs, many families strengthened their status-based footing with a lifestyle and careful staging that confirmed the notion of manor houses and their gentlefolk as something special: both in terms of exclusive splendour and in terms of a common national pride and past.
The major, normative manorial families generally arrived in their manor houses in late spring, ready to enjoy the delights of country life during the summer. Gardens, countryside, agriculture and the resources of the manor house and the area were something to be used and enjoyed. This involved extensive sociability. They met up with their neighbours. In the case of the large houses, those neighbours would be equally upper-class owners of impressive houses within driving distance. They would also entertain summer guests. Family members and friends, and the likes of artists and intellectuals would come to stay for long periods of time. Entertainment during the summer included balls, dinner parties, garden parties, lunches, afternoon teas etc.
Autumn was a time for hunting and the large-scale hunting parties, which at the time were some of the major social events of the year. The families often celebrated Christmas in their manor houses. Family members and relatives, and maybe old family friends, would gather to share leisure and relaxation, while for the servants of the house it was one of the busiest times of the year. This was followed by the winter residence in Copenhagen, where the expanded aristocratic network gathered within short distance of one another in their townhouses and luxury apartments. This life meant attending court and going to its balls. It included the intellectual and cultural elite of the city and easy access to cultural offerings. There was a tradition of energetic social life among any of the foremost genteel families who had the means to join in.
But, as the 19th century drew to a close, it became increasingly difficult for the estate owners to maintain political control. A division among the political circle of estate owners paved the way for a change of political system, which in turn bestowed real power on Parliament and other social groups. The abolition of entailed estates in 1919 also led to the abolition of the special status of the eldest born son. The rules of inheritance were changed and many owners had to hand over substantial wealth and land to the state. This process significantly weakened the large estates, and many of them simply did not survive.
But the abolition of entailed estates was not the only thing that led to the elimination of the special, manorial way of life. New conditions for agriculture, not to mention the new century’s efforts to combat social inequalities, helped to lower the curtain on the final heyday of the manor houses and their ladies and gentlemen.