English society in the early 19th century: Was aristocracy including royal members?

English society in the early 19th century: Was aristocracy including royal members?

I'm currently working on english social classes in the early 19th century, and wondered: was aristocracy including royal members, or only gentry + peers?

I would suggest the answer is "No" - and the aristocracy would not actually include gentry either. Social gradations at that time were subtle but strong, a wealthy "gentleman" would still defer to a peer, even if the peer were the poorer. Read Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope for examples. But royalty was in a different category, as, indeed, it is today; the tabloids might titter if a Duke were caught in a compromising position, but it would not be the headline news that a royal scandal would provoke. Also - and I stand to be corrected on this - the aristocracy's influence came from land (vast holdings in many cases) industry (they weren't above exploiting coal or other resources) and their power of patronage. Royals, to the best of my knowledge, lacked the first two - Parliament frequently was asked to bail out profligate Princes! And - a final touchstone - would a Duke, say, challenge a prince to a duel (rare occurrences but not unknown)? The answer is almost certainly not, such an act would be treasonable.

This question should probably be closed as opinion based, particularly given the lack of prelimnary research. There is no clearly and objectively acceptable answer. I'm reluctant to contradict TheHonRose, but from my perspective, the fundamental division of society is between the aristocrats and the common folk. Royals are clearly part of the aristocracy.

Within the aristocracy the royalty are recognized as distinct from the "ordinary" aristocracy, and the gentry are generally also recognized as distinct.

Ultimately though I think the terms are imprecise, and it isn't possible to answer without context. If a cab driver refers to the Prince of Wales as "an aristocrat", nobody will be confused. If the Marquis Rippon were to refer to the same individual by the same term, it might cause confusion. There are no simple answers.

This depends on how you define the word aristocracy. Its not a legal term or anything, just a convenient categorization. Havng said that, 19th century writings refer to Britain's aristocracy and royalty distinctly. Most of the time, the two are just too different to be lumped together in descriptions. Aristocracy is usually considered below the royals today too.

Besides, "the rest of the nobility or aristocracy" is a mouthful.

10 Shocking Scandals That Rocked 19th Century Society

The rise of cheap, sensational newspapers in the nineteenth century meant that shocking scandals weren&rsquot just whispered about behind fluttering fans and raised teacups. Ordinary members of the public could sit down at the breakfast table and over tea and toast, read every juicy, salacious, delicious detail of who did what and to whom.

Sadly, Honey Boo Boo wouldn&rsquot be born for another century-plus, so reading newspapers, penny press publications, and scandal sheets was a way for the public to sate its appetite for the disturbing, the sinful, the extraordinary, and the downright ugly. Criminal conversation, beastly behavior, sexual shenanigans &hellip it&rsquos all here in these ten shocking scandals that rocked nineteenth century society to its well-bred core.

Edward Jones, seventeen years old, son of a tailor and by all accounts as unattractive as homemade sin, was discovered in Buckingham Palace in the dressing room next to Queen Victoria&rsquos bedroom. The queen had recently given birth to her first child. As it turned out, this wasn&rsquot the first time Jones had made himself at home in the palace. He&rsquod been sneaking in since 1838. Worse, he&rsquod once been caught with the queen&rsquos underwear stuffed down his pants! His arrest had the newspapers dubbing him, the &ldquoBoy Jones.&rdquo Despite increased security, he would cause more furor over an apparent inability to stay away from the palace&mdashhe was caught again in 1841 and sentenced to hard labor. Eventually, he went to Australia.

The case of Saurin v. Starr and Kennedy stirred up English anti-Catholic sentiments as well as selling a great many newspapers and scurrilous pamphlets. Susan Saurin (formerly Sister Mary Scolastica) sued her mother superior, Mrs. Starr, for libel and conspiracy, claiming she&rsquod been unfairly expelled from the convent. The trial played to a packed courtroom. Witnesses gave accounts of Saurin&rsquos supposed crimes, which included eating strawberries and cream (the wicked woman!) and being &ldquoexcited&rdquo in the presence of a visiting priest. To the Protestant jury&rsquos great disappointment, the mother superior later testified she hadn&rsquot meant that kind of excitement. Verdict for the plaintiff � damages awarded.

During the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 against the Austrian Empire, a man stood out for his violent tactics in suppressing the revolutionaries: Julius Jacob von Haynau, an Austrian general who earned the nickname, &ldquothe Hyena.&rdquo News of his brutality, particularly against Hungarian women, excited much anger in the English public. So much so that when Haynau visited a brewery during a trip to London in 1850, the draymen&mdashdrivers of the wagons used to deliver the barrels of beer&mdashattacked him with whips, brooms, and stones. His magnificent moustaches were torn, his clothes ripped off, and the dread &ldquoHangman of Arad,&rdquo abandoning his dignity, fled to a nearby inn for sanctuary. The newspapers had a field day.

When Lady Harriet Mordaunt&rsquos daughter was born, doctors thought she might be blind. Lady Mordaunt feared syphilis and confessed to her husband, Sir Charles, that she&rsquod been often unfaithful to him. Among her lovers was the Prince of Wales (Queen Victoria&rsquos eldest son, heir to the throne, and later King Edward VII). This bombshell resulted in the infamous Mordaunt divorce trial. Technically, the trial was meant to settle whether Lady Mordaunt was sane enough for a divorce to proceed. To the queen&rsquos fury, the married Prince of Wales was called upon to testify about his relationship with Lady Mordaunt in open court. He denied the adultery. The jury decided the lady suffered from &ldquopuerperal mania&rdquo&mdashpost partum depression. She was committed to an asylum. The divorce was eventually granted.

Annie Besant, a noted feminist, Theosophist, and women&rsquos rights activist, and Charles Bradlaugh, an infamous atheist, published The Fruits of Philosophy: the Private Companion for Young Married Couples, a pamphlet by an American doctor, Charles Knowlton, and previously judged obscene. Why? The subject was contraception. Public discussion of sex was regarded as disgraceful. Twenty minutes after the first copies went on sale, the pair were arrested following a complaint by the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Their trial was a sensation. The jury decided Besant and Bradlaugh hadn&rsquot meant to deprave the public and they were ordered not to republish the pamphlet. They republished it anyway.

In London, at the Druid&rsquos Hall (the meeting place for the Ancient Order of Druids and occasionally hired out to non-Druids) during a masked ball, George Campbell, thirty five years old, and John Challis, sixty years old, were apprehended by the police for &ldquoexciting others to commit an unnatural offense.&rdquo Both men were dressed in women&rsquos clothes. Homosexuality being illegal, a trial proceeded which scandalized the city. Campbell claimed he&rsquod only gone to the party in a dress so he could witness the &ldquovice&rdquo for himself and later preach against it. Both men&rsquos character witnesses painted impeccable pictures. They were let off with stern warnings.

While traveling to London by train, Colonel Valentine Baker, a respected military figure and friend of the Prince of Wales, was accused of raping Rebecca Dickenson, twenty-two years old. At the trial, Dickenson alleged that the colonel had tried to raise her skirts, put his hand in her underwear, and kiss her many times on the lips. To save her virtue, though the train was in motion, she escaped to the step outside the first class railway carriage and clung there, screaming for help. Baker&rsquos trial caused discussion over the British class system since it was argued, quite rightly, that if he&rsquod been in third class, he&rsquod have gotten away with it. Although he escaped the rape charge, he was convicted of committing an indecent assault.

When a policeman stopped to question a fifteen year old telegraph boy about why he had eighteen shillings in his pocket in today&rsquos money, that&rsquos about 󌁝 or $122 USD), he kicked off a scandal that reached all the way to the British royal family. The boy hadn&rsquot stolen the money&mdashhe&rsquod earned it sleeping with gentlemen at a house on Cleveland Street, and so did other young telegraph boys. Scotland Yard raided the house. Among the well connected visitors was Lord Arthur Somerset, the Duke of Beaufort&rsquos son. Prince Victor Albert, nicknamed &ldquoPrince Eddy&rdquo was also an alleged customer. While the British press kept his name out of the papers, American and French reporters weren&rsquot so circumspect. Several of the men involved in the pedophilia ring &ndash including Somerset &ndash fled the country to avoid prosecution.

In 1846, after wedding John Ruskin, the leading critic of the age, the beautiful, young, and bright Euphemia &ldquoEffie&rdquo Gray expected her life to go the usual wife and motherhood route. Instead, the older Ruskin put off consummating the marriage. And put it off, and put it off until years later, she met and fell in love with another man, John Everett Millais, a Pre-Raphaelite painter and Ruskin&rsquos protégé. She abandoned her unhappy marriage to Ruskin in 1854 and filed for annulment on the grounds that she was still a virgin. The revelations caused unflattering comment on her character in the papers. She married Millais, though she paid a price&mdashnever again would she be allowed to attend a social event if Queen Victoria was present. She probably didn&rsquot mind that much, since she and Millais had eight children together.

When William Charles Yelverton met, wooed, and ultimately became twenty year old Theresa Longworth&rsquos lover, he &ldquoruined&rdquo her in the eyes of Victorian society because they weren&rsquot married. She accepted his excuses, took to public speaking to support their life together, even going so far as to follow him to Scotland and Ireland so their affair could continue, but eventually, she expected a wedding. She got the matrimonial ring in a secret church ceremony in 1857. She also got a shock a year later when Yelverton made a bigamous marriage to another woman. Theresa eventually took him to court seeking alimony. He insisted their marriage was invalid because of their religious differences&mdashhe was Catholic and she was Protestant. After many appeals, the case went in his favor.


The Latin dux was a military title that might roughly translate to "field marshal". The historical kernel of in the stories of King Arthur probably refers to a dux bellorum in charge of the forces holding off the barbarian onslaught in early post-Roman Britain.

The English kings introduced the French ducal structure into the British system, and it was initially a mostly royal title (as all new creations during the 20th century). In France especially after 1600, however, as well as in Britain, it has evolved into a mostly non-royal title.

A duchy (or grand duchy) is the territory ruled by a duke (or grand duke) or the lands (and/or incomes) specifically attached to the ducal title. A dukedom is the title itself. In the UK, there are properly only two duchies, those of Lancaster and Cornwall these are essentially corporations holding properties that provide income for the Queen (who is "Duke" of Lancaster), and the Prince of Wales (who is also the Duke of Cornwall) as only these two dukedoms carry such special "attachments" with the title, duchies are thus a royal preserve.

"Duke" is normally a very exalted title however, when equating the dignity of some dukes, some insight is needed. For example, Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies created dukes in Naples almost by the gross, and these titles cannot be considered equal to dukes in the British or other continental systems.

This title glosses to "march lord", i.e. a noble in charge of the marches (the border regions) of a realm in distinction to other lords in more-settled lands. These were essentially warlords with broad powers and in this context, may be thought of as a "palatine" title. In earlier times, it was a rare title it was later revived as a grade between count and duke.

As a senior title (about two-thirds of British dukes are also marquesses), it is not that common the United Kingdom, at least when compared to other countries (especially France where "petit marquis" was a term of derision).

"Earl" is related to Old Norse "jarl", and is equivalent to "count", which itself comes from the Latin comes. This in turn is related to the English word "county", which pretty much explains what a count was: the principal figure of the county.

William I of England regarded the Anglo-Saxon "earl" as a synonym for "count", and while this was not correct, it was a practical equivalency. Old English lacked a feminine and thus the French term was adopted for an earl's wife as well as for women who hold earldoms in their own right.

Some will maintain that a British earl outranks any continental count. Compared to some other systems, especially those that incorporated the results of the often slapdash practices of older systems (e.g., Italy), there are proportionally fewer British earls than counts.

This title is mostly confined to the United Kingdom and France, though it appears rarely in Italy and elsewhere. This is the leftover title, what the king bestowed on someone who was not important enough to merit being made a count. It's a rather late innovation. It originated in France, as the count's deputy, i.e, the "vice-count".

Barons were originally (in Britain) those who held their lands directly from the king. Not all British nobles have baronies and many viscounts, for example, do not. (--Louis Epstein) The majority of the nobility in Britain are just plain barons. In the UK, life peers are always barons or baronesses.

Once, a baron was an important noble, especially before the Renaissance. It was the barons who brought King John to heel at Runnymede, and "robber-baron" has entered English as the term for one of the lords who collected "tolls" from Rhine river-traffic. In olden times, when there was little differentiation in degree or rank between neighboring nobles, "baron" could signify any noble, large or small, a meaning with some currency today on the continent, roughly equivalent in meaning to "peer" or "lord" in the UK. The status of barons varies. It can be a very high title or something of little consequence. It is definitely a noble title, however, and needs to be clearly distinguished from "baronet".

This may be thought of as a hereditary knighthood. For convenience, it may also be thought of as a noble title, though there are those who would disagree, at least as used in the British system. A baronet is certainly not a peer in the United Kingdom, baronets are not entitled to a seat in the House of Lords (unless, of course, they additionally hold a peerage). Since we have been using the British system to classify titles, these are placed here at the end, somewhere between-and-after the British sense of Baronet-as-a-knight and Baronet-as-petty-noble.

'Bridgerton': How accurate is Netflix's Shondaland drama and the depiction of Black people in 19th-century London?


Christmas Day this year may be a drab affair with the Covid-19 pandemic still raging on, but fear not, Netflix is here to save the day. The streaming platform now hosts the first season of Shondaland's 'Bridgerton', adapted from Julia Quinn's best-selling novels, with the first season based on the first book, 'The Duke and I'. The first season introduces the viewers to the Bridgerton siblings but focuses on the love story of Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and Simon Bassett, Duke of Hastings (Rege-Jean Page).

Of course, one of the most remarkable things about the drama -- and not surprising because it comes from Shondaland -- is that the historical drama, set in early 19th-century London, features a cast as diverse as ever, with many key roles being played by Black people. Those roles include the male lead, Simon, Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), and Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh). Notably, 'Bridgerton' features people of color in high positions, positions of power -- unlike most other historical dramas which often relegate people of color to minor supporting roles and extras.

This may lead viewers to wonder whether 'Bridgerton' is accurate in its depiction of Black people in London, let alone high society in the early 19th-century and others may outright dispute it. In fact, when a BBC cartoon depicted the father of the central family in Ancient Rome was portrayed as dark-skinned, a Twitter row ensued, and even noted historians falsely stated that Black people were not present in Ancient Rome.

However, studies suggest that people of African origin existed in Britain as far back as in the 12th century. According to the author Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina's book, 'Black London, Life Before Emancipation', a 1764 report from the Gentleman's Magazine stated that England's Black population numbered 20,000, with the Morning Chronicle reporting the number to be 30,000 a year later.

However, that is not to say that Black people did not face racism. Due to the treatment meted out by White people, Black people started to establish communities, concentrating around the large industrial towns and ports. They also began to make increasing numbers of the army and royal navy and across other professions, according to research done by Channel 4's 'Regency House Party'.

There were also many notable Black people in British Regency, including Queen Charlotte, who is fictionalized in 'Bridgerton'. Others include Dido Elizabeth Belle, the grand-niece of Lord Mansfield, who was the daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy and an enslaved Jamaican woman. She is the subject of the 2013 film 'Belle' starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Felton, and Matthew Goode.

Then there was William Davidson, who was born in Jamaica and came to Edinburgh at the age of 14 to study law. When a peaceful protest in 1819 in Manchester ended in bloodshed, Davidson and his peers concocted a plan to blow up the members of parliament of the cabinet while they had dinner at Lord Castlereagh's house. The authorities were informed of the secret plans and they were arrested in a hayloft in Cato Street in London, and hanged at Tyburn.

Gerzina also writes in her book that near the end of the 18th century, there was a large community of Black people living in Britain and they built churches, pubs and the Free Black Community which held regular meetings. She also writes about other notable Black people in Britain including concert violinist George Bridgtower, actor Ignatius Sancho, Cambridge graduate Francis Williams, and grandson of an African king Ukawsaw Gronniosaw.

'Bridgerton' Season 1 is available to stream on Netflix on Christmas Day.

If you have an entertainment scoop or a story for us, please reach out to us on (323) 421-7515

English society in the early 19th century: Was aristocracy including royal members? - History

[This introduction and description was posted to the ECD list by Gene Murrow in January, 2006. The rest of the text is in Gene's voice. -- Alan Winston]

Denizens of the ECD list would perhaps find my summary (appended below) of ECD's origins and development useful. I would certainly be interested in reactions, suggestions, and corrections. It was written as "notes" for programs I presented with two highly regarded professional early music ensembles in America: the Baltimore Consort and the Newberry Consort. The audiences were "general" in that they were unfamiliar with ECD. Many, however, were academics and familiar with music, art, and cultural history. So I had to be engaging and enthusiastic, but careful.

The notes are the result of my longtime interest in ECD's origins. At the 1996 Amherst Assembly week-long workshop on the history and evolution of the genre, we reviewed much of the source and secondary material noted by Allison. Points made in this recent thread by Steve, Tom, Michael, Alan and others were debated at length. Among the presenters were professional dance historians like Kate (Kitty) van Winkle Keller, Dorothy Olsson, and Julia Sutton, as well as informed laypeople Chip Hendricksen, Christine Helwig, Helene Cornelius, Jacqueline Schwab, and others who had been doing important research.

Certainly not the final word, but I hope accurate and useful.


The "English country dance" emerged as a distinct genre during the reign of Elizabeth I in the 16th century. While evidence provides no definitive answer as to its origins, it appears to have been an amalgamation of the Continental courtly dances brought to the Elizabethan court by Italian and other dancing masters known to have been present, and the vernacular dances done by the English country "folk." In her periodic "progresses" by which she traveled throughout her realm, Elizabeth had opportunity to observe these indigenous folk dances, and manuscripts of the time document her pleasure at seeing them:

"Her Majesty that Saturday night was lodgid again in the Castell of Warwick, where she rested all Sonday, where it pleased her to have the country people, resorting to see her, daunce in the court of the Castell, her Majestie beholding them out of the chamber window, which thing, as it pleased well the country people, so it seemed her Majesty was much delighted, and made very myrry." [from Nichol's Progresses, ed. 1823, I, 319].

As dancing was held in high esteem at court, it seems likely that dancing masters would attempt to create new dances that would garner approval from the monarch and her courtiers. Interest in the new form of country dancing spread from the royal court to other artistocratic and cultured venues, including grand country houses and the Inns of Court in London, wherein young law students were housed and schooled. In 1651, the noted London publisher John Playford produced the first printed collection of country dances for sale, titled "The English Dancing Master," which contained the music and instructions for 105 dances [the first dance in the collection, "Upon a Summers Day" is on today's program]. It sold well, and a second edition was produced the following year. In all, Playford and later his son Henry Playford and others, produced 18 editions until 1728, adding or deleting dances as fads and fashions changed.

Country dancing gained popularity throughout England, as well as Scotland, Ireland, Europe, and the American colonies. Public "assemblies" introduced in the 18th century, held in publicly accessible ballrooms such as the Assembly Rooms at Bath, made country dancing available to the new, rising middle classes as well as the aristocracy. Publishers and choreographers competed with annual collections of new dances to feed the growing appetite, and dancing masters built careers teaching style and repertoire.

Interest in the English country dance peaked in the late 18th century (as described, for example, in Jane Austen's novels and letters), and then quickly faded as social dancing in society was revolutionized by the introduction of the waltz, polka, and other couple dances in the early 19th century.

Dormant for 100 years, interest in the English country dance was re-awakened during a period of cultural nationalism that surfaced in England and other European countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Cecil Sharp, an English musicologist and teacher, is credited as the primary re-discoverer of the country dance, both in its surviving vernacular form in the small villages of the English countryside, and in the 17th-century printed collections of Playford and others intended for the cultured classes. Sharp re-interpreted country dances for contemporary audiences, and tirelessly promoted the genre as suitable for schools and youth groups as well as adults who he felt should have their great traditional dancing "returned" to them.

Interest in these dances continued to grow in the 20th century. In the last 30 years, hundreds of new dances and tunes in English country dance style have been composed by English, American, and European composers in a burst of creativity surpassing even that of the 18th century. The majority of dances on today's program are from the 17th century, with a sampling of those composed by later dancing masters and those living today.

Followthis link for a description of ECD

Followthis link to find Regular English Dances in the US

Followthis link for Alan Winston's article on ECD and Contra history and differences

Followthis link for Gene Murrow's notes on ECD origins and evolution

Followthis link for Gene Murrow's take on how ECD figures got into Contra dancing

Followthis link for Kitty Keller's reminiscence on reconstructing Early American dance

Follow this link to return to the ECD Home Page

This document last modified: Thursday, 25-Jan-2007 17:03:31 PST Accesses: (none)

Important Authors and Literature

Charles Dickens was not just one of the first great English novelists. By using his writings as a means to defend the vulnerable people of the Victorian Era and criticize the societal structure of the time, he was also a huge contributor to several important social reforms. The social conscious he developed in his adult years led to some of the most influential pieces of literature the Victorian Era had seen, such as Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and many more. Although he was not the first to use his skills in writing to address the issues in English society, he was by far the most successful. Dickens was able to bring to light a serious issue that England itself could not see, and with the spread and increased fame of his works people everywhere were beginning to see that something had to be done (Diniejko).

Thomas Hardy was one of the first “realist” novelists of the Victorian Era. His use of powerful emotions and pessimistic views was highly criticized because no one had ever read something like it before. Most novelists up to Hardy’s point were laid-back, accepting-natured optimists. Works such as The Return of The Native, Far from the Madding Crowd, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles introduced characters with such deep and intense emotion (whether it was slightly comedic or very tragic) that most writers before him failed to do. Hardy was also considered a social critic of sorts, identifying the low standards of living that the poor endured in the industrial cities. The mix of realism and social criticism in one style of writing was the reason why Thomas Hardy was one of the most influential and important authors of the Victorian Era (Allingham).

George Elliot was a third author who used literature not simply just to entertain, but also to inform people of the conditions of people in the society around her. Growing up in a hectic and interesting environment herself, Mary Ann Evans (who’s pen names was George Elliot) used her stories to study how environments, especially social environments, affect people and their character. Elliot, who was a fan of art and its origins, believed that any form of art should be based off of life rather than other pieces of art. For instance, The Mill on the Floss was taken and modeled from her real life experience of being rejected by her friends and family for her common-law marriage. Although she was also an influential author of the Victorian Era, she criticized authors like Dickens and Austen on their styles of writing (Allingham).

Find out more

Crime and English Society 1750-1900 by Clive Emsley, 2nd edition (Longman, 1996)

The English Police: A Political and Social History by Clive Emsley, 2nd edition (Longman, 1996)

The Emergence of Penal Policy in Victorian and Edwardian England by Leon Radzinowicz and Roger Hood (Clarendon Press, 1990)

White-Collar Crime in Modern England: Financial Fraud and Business Morality 1845-1929 by George Robb (Cambridge University Press)

Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in Early Nineteenth-Century London by Heather Shore (Boydell Press/Royal Historical Society, 1999)

Street Violence in the Nineteenth Century: Media Panic or Real Danger? by Rob Sindall (Leicester University Press, 1990)

The New Police in Nineteenth-Century England: Crime, conflict and control by David Taylor (Manchester University Press, 1997)

Crime, policing and punishment in England 1750-1914 by David Taylor (Macmillan, 1998)

Reconstructing the Criminal: Culture, Law, and Policy in England 1830-1914 by Martin J Wiener (Cambridge University Press)

Women, Crime and Custody in Victorian England by Lucia Zedner (Clarendon Press, 1991)

White mischief

Towards the end of the autumn of 1801, a major scandal broke out in Calcutta over the behaviour of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British resident (in effect, ambassador) at the court of Hyderabad. Some of the stories circulating about Kirkpatrick were harmless enough. It was said that he had given up wearing English clothes for all but the most formal of occasions, and now habitually swanned around the British residency in what one surprised visitor had described as "a Musselman's dress of the finest texture". Another noted that Kirkpatrick had hennaed his hands in the manner of a Mughal nobleman, and wore Indian "mustachios, though in most other respects he is like an Englishman".

These eccentricities were, in themselves, hardly a matter for alarm. The British in India - particularly those at some distance from the thoroughly Anglicised presidency towns of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay - had long adapted themselves to Mughal customs, shedding their Britishness like an unwanted skin, and wearing Indian dress, writing Urdu poetry, taking harems and adopting the ways of the Mughal governing class that they slowly came to replace, a process that Salman Rushdie, talking of modern multiculturalism, has called "chutnification". Although by 1801 this had become a little unfashionable, it was hardly something which could affect a man's career. But other charges against Kirkpatrick were of a much more serious nature.

First, there were consistent reports that Kirkpatrick had "connected himself with a female" of one of Hyderabad's leading noble families. The girl in question, Khair un-Nissa, was said to be little more than 14 years old at the time. Moreover, she was a Sayyeda, a descendant of the prophet, and thus, like all her clan, kept in the very strictest purdah. Despite these powerful taboos, the girl had somehow managed to become pregnant by Kirkpatrick and was said to have given birth to his child. Worse still, the girl's grandfather was said to have "expressed an indignation approaching to frenzy at the indignity offered to the honour of his family by such proceedings, and had declared his intention of proceeding to the Mecca Masjid [the principal mosque of the city]" where he threatened to raise the Muslims of the Deccan against the British.

Finally, and perhaps most alarmingly for the authorities in Bengal, it was said that Kirkpatrick had formally married the girl, which meant embracing Islam, and that he had become a practising Shi'a Muslim. These rumours had led some of his colleagues to wonder whether his political loyalties could still be depended on. More than a year earlier, the young Colonel Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, had written to Calcutta that he had heard that Kirkpatrick now seemed to be so solidly "under the influence" of the Hyderabadis that "it was to be expected that he would attend more to the objects of the Nizam's court than those of his own government" that Kirkpatrick might, in other words, have gone over to the other side, to become, to some extent, a double-agent.

I first came across Kirkpatrick's story on a visit to Hyderabad in February 1997. I thought it was most extraordinary, and by the time I left the city I was captivated. It seemed so different from what one expected of the British in India. Little did I know then that it was to be the start of an obsession that would take over my life for the next five years.

I had been working in the India Office library on the papers of Kirkpatrick for several months before members of my own Scottish family started popping up in the story. At first they sounded a remarkably dour and unpromising lot. James Dalrymple was the first of my kinsmen to make an appearance, but entered stage left as the principal gooseberry of the plot, doing all he could to keep Kirkpatrick apart from his beloved, and scheming with Khair's grandfather to stop the two from seeing each other. Dalrymple's sister-in-law, Margaret, was an even less promising proposition, described by Kirkpatrick as "an affected, sour, supercilious woman".

My relations suddenly became a lot more interesting, however, with the appearance in the story of a Muslim princess with the somewhat unexpected name of Mooti Begum Dalrymple, a woman whose name had certainly been rigorously removed from all the family records I had seen at home. Mooti turned out to be the daughter of the Nawab of the nearby port of Masulipatam, and was married to James Dalrymple. It seems to have been a measure of the strangeness of their marriage that the two agreed to split the upbringing of their children according to sex: the boys were sent to Madras to be brought up as Christians, eventually to be sent back to East Lothian and reabsorbed into Scottish society, while the only girl from the marriage, Noor Jah Begum, was brought up as a Hyderabadi Muslim and remained in India, where she eventually married one of her father's sepoy officers.

Kirkpatrick's children, who were roughly the same age as my long-lost cousin Noor Jah Begum, also made a similarly strange journey across cultural frontiers: brought up as Muslims in Hyderabad with the names Sahib Allum and Sahib Begum, they were shipped off to London where they were baptised and took the names James and Kitty Kirkpatrick. There, Kitty's tutor fell in love with her, but was turned down he was, after all, only a tutor. This, in retrospect, was a mistake on Kitty's part, as the heartbroken tutor was the young Thomas Carlyle, who later went on to immortalise her as Blumine, the Rose Goddess, in his novel, Sartor Resartus.

The period seemed to be full of unexpected collisions and intermixings. With brothers and sisters in cross-cultural marriages apparently routinely divided between Christianity and Islam, this was not an era when notions of clashing civilisations would have made sense to anyone. The world inhabited by Sahib Begum/Kitty Kirkpatrick was far more hybrid, and had far less clearly defined ethnic, national and religious borders, than we have all been conditioned to expect. It is certainly unfamiliar to anyone who accepts at face value the usual rigid caricature of the Englishman in India, presented over and over again in films and television dramas, of the imperialist incarnate: the narrow-minded sahib in a sola topee, dressing for dinner in the jungle while raising a disdainful nose at both the people and the culture of India.

As I progressed in my research, it was not long before I discovered that I had a direct Indian ancestor, was the product of a similar interracial liaison from this period, and had Indian blood in my veins. No one in my family seemed to know about this, though it should not have been a surprise: we had all heard the stories of how our beautiful, dark-eyed, Calcutta-born great-great-grandmother, Sophia Pattle, with whom the painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones had fallen in love, used to speak Hindustani with her sisters and was painted by Frederick Watts with a rakhi - a Hindu sacred thread - tied around her wrist. But it was only when I poked around in the archives that I discovered that she was descended from a Hindu Bengali woman from Chandernagore, who had converted to Catholicism, taken the name Marie Monica, and married a French officer. No wonder her contemporaries in Calcutta had made jokes about her name: Pattle was not a version of Patel, but it was easy to see from her appearance and behaviour why people thought it might be.

I am sure that I am hardly alone in making this sort of discovery. The wills of East India Company officials, now in the India Office library, clearly show that in the 1780s, more than one-third of the British men in India were leaving all their possessions to one or more Indian wives, or to Anglo-Indian children - a degree of cross-cultural mixing which has never made it into the history books. It suggests that, 200 years before Zadie Smith made it on to the telly and multiculturalism became a buzzword politically correct enough to wake Norman Tebbit and the Tory undead from their coffins at party conferences, the India of the East India Company was an infinitely more culturally, racially and religiously mixed place than modern Britain can even dream of being.

The wills of the period also suggest perhaps surprising ties of intense affection and loyalty on both sides, with British men asking their close friends to be executors and to care for their Indian partners, referring to them as "well beloved" or "worthy friend", and even - as Kirkpatrick's will has it - "the excellent and respectable Mother of my two children for whom I feel unbounded love and affection and esteem".

In the more loving relationships of this period, Indian wives often retired with their husbands to England. The Mughal travel writer, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, who published in Persian an account of his journey to Europe in 1810, described meeting in London several completely Anglicised Indian women who had accompanied their husbands and children to Britain. One of them in particular, Mrs Ducarroll, surprised him every bit as much as Kirkpatrick tended to surprise his English visitors: "She is very fair," wrote Khan, "and so accomplished in all the English manners and language, that I was some time in her company before I could be convinced that she was a native of India." He added: "The lady introduced me to two or three of her children, from 16 to 19 years of age, who had every appearance of Europeans." A great many such mixed-blood children must have been quietly and successfully absorbed into the British establishment, some even attaining high office: Lord Liverpool, the early-19th-century prime minister, was of Anglo-Indian descent.

Much, however, depended on skin colour. As a Calcutta agent wrote to Warren Hastings, the governor-general of India, when discussing what to do with his Anglo-Indian step-grandchildren: "The two eldest - [who] are almost as fair as European children - should be sent to Europe. I could have made no distinction between the children if the youngest was of a complexion that could possibly escape detection but as I daily see the injurious consequences resulting from bringing up certain [darker-skinned] native children at home, it has become a question in my own mind how far I should confer a service in recommending the third child" to proceed to England. It was decided, in the end, that the "dark" child should stay in India, while the others were shipped to Britain.

The future of such children depended very much on the whims of their parents. One of the most unashamedly enthusiastic British embracers of Mughal culture during this period was General Sir David Ochterlony: every evening, all 13 of his Indian wives went around Delhi in a procession behind their husband, each on the back of her own elephant. But beneath this enviably carefree-sounding exterior seems to have lain the sort of tensions that affect anyone who straddles two very different and diverging worlds.

One of the most moving of Ochterlony's letters concerns his two daughters, and the question of whether he should bring them up as Muslim or Christian. If Christian, they would be constantly derided for their "dark blood", but Ochterlony also hesitated to bring them up as Muslims. A letter, written to another Scot in a similar position, who has opted to bring up his children as Muslim Indians, ends rather movingly: "In short my dear M[ajor] I have spent all the time since we were parted in revolving this matter in my mind but I have not yet been able to come to a positive decision."

This period of intermixing did not last: the rise of the Victorian Evangelicals in the 1830s and 40s slowly killed off the intermingling of Indian and British ideas, religions and ways of life. The wills written by dying East India Company servants show that the practice of marrying or cohabiting with Indian bibis quickly began to decline: from turning up in one-in-three wills between 1780 and 1785, they are present in only one-in-four between 1805 and 1810. By 1830, it is one-in-six by the middle of the century, they have all but disappeared.

Biographies and memoirs of prominent 18th-century British Indian worthies that mentioned their Indian wives were re-edited in the mid-19th century so that the consorts were removed from later editions. The mutiny of 1857 merely finished off the process. Afterwards, nothing could ever be as it was. With the British victory, and the genocidal spate of hangings and executions that followed, the entire top rank of the Mughal elite was swept away and British culture was unapologetically imposed on India.

The story of mixed-race families such as my own and the Kirkpatricks seems to raise huge questions about Britishness and the nature of empire, faith and personal identity indeed, about how far all of these matter, are fixed and immutable - and to what extent they were flexible, tractable and negotiable. It is significant, moreover, that all this surprises us as much as it does: it is as if the Victorians succeeded in colonising not just India but also, more permanently, our imaginations, to the exclusion of all other images of the Indo-British encounter. Yet at a time when east and west, Islam and Christianity, appear to be engaged in another major confrontation, this unlikely group of expatriates provides a timely reminder that it is very possible - and has always been possible - to reconcile the two worlds and build bridges across cultures. Only bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear drive them apart. But they have met and mingled in the past and they will do so again.