To most foreigners the perplexing subject of the English aristocracy is at best esoteric, at worst downright confusing. After all, who is considered the true aristocrat, the wealthy lord who is in fact only a life peer up until his death (when his title dies with him) or the impecunious, shabby member of an ancient landed-gentry family, listed in Burke’s Peerage, but now with no title or handle to his name? Unravel some of the mystery of the upper classes by checking out our irreverent guide to the aristocracy.

In reality only about a third of the British Aristocracy are ennobled, the rest are formed from families of younger sons or country squires. Here, though, is the paradox: many of these seemingly insignificant families can trace their roots back much further than many a duke or earl.

There are several significant aristocrats whose lineage could easily eclipse that of the Royal Family, but, as so often happens in life, history is shaped by who is in the right place at the appropriate time.

Several characteristics set the old-style aristocrat apart from the social climber. First and foremost is a deep-grained sense of honour, coupled with impeccable good manners. From this follows a strong sense of duty or ‘noblesse oblige’ that frequently leads to a serious involvement in numerous charity events and needy causes – organising mammoth society bashes to raise funds has long replaced visiting the sick or dishing out hot soup to wounded soldiers.

Traditionally the aristocracy didn’t work for their living but pressing financial matters have plunged a good many of them headlong into the maze of everyday life and the sordid problems of making money.

One way of filling the dwindling coffers is to open their homes to the masses and sell an appealing selection of ‘olde English’ souvenirs from the now obsolete old dairy,  coach house or stable block.

Some of them are in fact extremely good at this new mode of living and have taken to it like a ‘duck to water’, enjoying the challenge of inventing new and ever more bizarre amusements for the hosts of tourists that flock to the aristocratic family pile.

Others, preferring to be rather more selective, will often host paying guests in their home for a limited stay, looking on it as a way of at least keeping the faithful old retainers and putting a good joint of meat on the table.

Although great wealth and power are less evident than in former times, even today there remains a goodly number of old families of high influence and charisma with the necessary integrity to rule and make important national decisions. This is compounded by the fact that all aristocrats know each other.

They often prefer to move in their own circles where everyone understands the ground rules. It must be said however, that quite a few of the younger generation are now turning their backs on tradition and embracing the new vogue of egalitarianism. Those working in the remnants of Maggie Thatcher’s ‘barrow boy makes good’ city environment often adopt a pseudo working-class accent to become more acceptable to their colleagues.

The real hallmark of an aristocrat however is supreme self-confidence. In a nutshell he doesn’t care a stuff what other people think of him, which is why most 22-carat eccentrics are a by-product of the upper classes- they have had centuries of practice.

Not accountable to others, the aristocrat is often self-indulgent, unimpressed by achievement (outside of the country sporting field), unimaginative and without fear or, at times, practical common sense. Years of marrying only his own kind can lead to near idiocy in his children, which is why the occasional diversion into common blood has been the saviour of many a great old family. He rarely reproaches himself for past deeds and neither will he brook criticism from others, except perhaps his wife who becomes increasingly formidable with the passing years.

The only person that evokes utter respect, nay fear, is his old nanny. It is not unknown for senior members of The House of Lords to be in a complete panic when they are running late for a teatime appointment with Nanny. Matters of state cut no ice with this harridan of the nursery.

To avoid confusion and unnecessary discrimination the aristocrat, regardless of his title and rank, is often loosely referred to as a ‘gentleman’. This implies that he has all the right qualifications to make him suitable company for other gentlemen. Go to any major social event and you will see facsimiles of the English gentleman in many guises, but the real McCoy can spot a phoney a mile away. It takes generations of ‘breeding’ and self-righteousness to be a gentleman; and a certain attitude of mind.

This latter facility entails a firm belief that gentlemen are a race apart and as such are above the run of ordinary mortals. Gentlemen even have their own mode of speech – for instance ‘dinner’ is never taken in the middle of the day, they don’t sit in the lounge but in the ‘drawing room’, they would ask a waiter for a clean ‘napkin’, not serviette, nor would they go to the toilet, only the ‘lavatory’. The way commonplace words are used often determines whether a gentleman is really a gentleman.

Many years ago this inspired Nancy Mitford, sister to the then Duchess of Devonshire, to write her famous U and Non-U, short for Upper Class and Non-Upper Class. This widely read book, that became a bible on good manners in its day, helped to eliminate some of the pitfalls for the unwary would-be gentleman.

Many gentlemen have access to the family apartment in London at such prestigious addresses as Eaton Square, gentlemen dislike living in cities – preferring the countryside. The Home Counties however don’t count, especially Surrey. They usually live in out-of-the-way places that are in constant need of repair, and hardly ever name their houses, assuming that anyone who matters already knows where they live. This upper-class foible leaves bewildered tradesmen, all over England, pondering at the bottom of unnamed, long tree-lined drives.

In Ireland and the remoter parts of Scotland many gentlemen live abstemiously in draughty castles, long forgotten by their pleasure-seeking relatives – that is, until the reading of the Will. Most furniture is inherited, never bought and as such rarely matches and usually needs re-stuffing. Very little that is new has passed through the portals of the British ancestral home since the reign of Queen Victoria and although the cold and draughty rooms are bulging with priceless antiques, nothing confers more prestige on the English gentleman than portraits of his ancestors.

The walls are lined with them. After all, a chap can’t have too many ancestors, it proves his worth and enhances his listing in Burkes Peerage. This means that any ‘Johnny-come-lately’ is forced to buy ‘ancestors’ from distress sales and expensive antique shops, fiercely hoping that his newly cultivated friend, ‘Lord Down-at-heel’ doesn’t recognise his own great-uncle on the imposter’s wall.

Although, nowadays, except for a few fortunate aristocrats such as the fabulously wealthy Duke of Westminster, many English gentlemen are undoubtedly feeling the pinch. Finance is something, like sex, that they used to find very difficult to talk about openly, this was because their upbringing has enforced the belief that to mention money is vulgar.

In these modern times, however, it is a different story since nearly every smart dinner party in the land is dominated with horror stories of lost fortunes and the eternal quest for safe wealth management.

Life, therefore, can be trying for any gentleman whose forefathers squandered away the family estates, especially if he still has to find school fees for Eton. In today’s world, without a professional training or an historic home to open, there are limited options available for the unqualified gentleman. He can host expensive shooting weekends on his estate or try his hand at trout farming. He may even open a small restaurant and hope all his friends will come. Alternatively he may just sit back and encourage his wife to dabble in the exciting field of networking – in other words selling jewellery and such like to all her friends at posh luncheon parties.

Of course his best option is to find an opening where contacts in high places and the right accent counts above all else. Such openings would be chic art galleries, the Palace press office, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, or as a front man for a P.R. company. Better still is the current trend of loaning one’s noble name to the Board of Directors of a thrusting new company. The world he knew is changing and he has to do the best he can; his classical education has left him ill-prepared for the high-tech wiz-kid era.