Jul 2, 2022 - Economy & Business

What happened when the rich stopped intermarrying

Illustration of two broken wedding bands arranged into the shape of a dollar sign.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

When Queen Victoria's mother and husband died in quick succession, the result was a significant expansion of public education in England.

  • That's the conclusion of what is easily my favorite economics paper of the year so far, from Marc Goñi of the University of Bergen in Norway.

How it worked: The 1860s were a high point for assortative mating within the English elite. The peerage, in particular, "was likely the most exclusive elite ever to exist," writes Goñi: "unusually small, exclusive, and rich."

  • The mechanism for maintaining that small ultra-elite group was the London Season — a series of balls where the eligible offspring of the peerage would meet and match.
  • Invitations were extended only to families of the highest social status, and attendance was very expensive, meaning you needed to be well-born and rich to participate.

What happened: When the Queen went into mourning, the Season was effectively canceled for three successive years (1861–1863). As a result, posh rich daughters failed to meet posh rich men, and married commoners instead.

  • Peer–commoner intermarriage rose by 40%; titled women married husbands 44 percentile ranks poorer in terms of family landholdings.
  • Such marriages caused real harm to the daughter's brothers and even fathers. Her brothers were 50% less likely to enter parliament; her family's prestige fell; and she was much less likely to become the kind of terrifying matriarch so familiar to readers of PG Wodehouse.

The bottom line: Constituencies that were no longer represented in parliament by the local peer were much less likely to oppose the introduction of state education — which eventually became law in the 1870s.

  • Assortative mating eventually bounced back and is still going strong. British matchmakers Gray & Farrar, for instance, with their minimum fee of £15,000, boast of having "the connections and network to attract the right people for the right people." They're not a fully-fledged London Season, but they're trying hard to replicate its results.
Go deeper