The Peerage is a system of titles of nobility that exists in the United Kingdom and is one part of the British honours system. The term can be used to refer to the entire body of titles in a collective sense, or to a specific title held by an individual peer.
All British honours, including peerage dignities, spring from the Sovereign, who is considered the fount of honour. The Sovereign him- or herself cannot belong to the Peerage as "the fountain and source of all dignities cannot hold a dignity from himself" (opinion of the House of Lords in the Buckhurst Peerage Case). If one is neither a peer nor the Sovereign, then one is a commoner. Members of a peer's family are also commoners; the British system thus fundamentally differs from the continental European one, where entire families, rather than individuals, were ennobled. Even members of the Royal Family who do not hold peerage dignities are considered commoners, since they do not have special legal status distinct from other members of society.
Divisions of the Peerage
After the Union with Scotland, it was provided that the Scottish peers would not all sit in the House of Lords; rather, they would elect sixteen representative peers. After the Union of 1801, similarly, Ireland was allowed to elect twenty-eight representative peers. Irish elections ceased in 1922, when the Irish Free State became a separate country. Scottish elections ceased in 1963, when all Scottish peers were granted the right to sit in the House of Lords. Members of the Peerages of England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom all attended the House of Lords, and no elections were necessary.
RanksPeers are of five ranks: duke, marquess, earl, viscount and baron. In Scotland, the fifth rank is called a lord of Parliament, as "barons" in Scotland are not peers, but holders of feudal dignities. Baronets, while holders of a hereditary title, are not peers.
The word "duke" traces its origin to the Latin word dux, meaning leader. "Marquess" comes from the French marquis, which in turn is a derivative of marche or march. This is a reference to the English borders ("marches") with Wales and Scotland, a relationship more evident in the feminine form: marchioness. The term "earl" derives from eorl, signifying a military leader in Old English or Anglo-Saxon. The meaning of this word may have been affected by the Old Norse jarl (meaning free-born warrior or nobleman), during the time of the Danelaw, thus giving rise to the modern sense. Since there was no Old English or Old Norse feminine equivalent for the term, the word "countess" is used (an earl is analogous to the Continental count), which itself derives from the Latin comes. Similarly, the term "viscount" comes from the Latin vicecomes, or vice-count. Finally, "baron" comes ultimately from the Old Germanic baro, meaning freeman.
The various titles are in the form of Rank Name or Rank of Name. The name of the title can either be a place name or a surname. The precise usage depends on the rank of the peerage and on certain other general considerations. Dukes always use of. Marquesses and earls whose titles are based on place names normally use of, while those whose titles are based on surnames normally do not. Viscounts, barons and lords of Parliament do not use of. However, there are several exceptions to the rule. For instance, Scottish viscomitial titles theoretically include of, though in practice, it is most often dropped. (Thus, the "Viscount of Falkland" is commonly known as "Viscount Falkland.") Also, of is normally not used when the place in question is outside British territory, as using of might imply that the nation has sovereignty over such a place. For instance, the title Marquess Douro is based on the River Douro in Portugal, over which the British monarch has neither sovereignty nor suzerainty.
Often, a territorial designation is added to the main peerage title, especially in the case of barons and viscounts: for instance, Baroness Thatcher, of Kesteven, County Lincoln or Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, of Hindhead, County Surrey. In such cases, any designation following the first comma generally does not form a part of the main title and is dropped, leaving, in the aforementioned cases, Baroness Thatcher and Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. Territorial designations in titles are not updated with local government reforms, but new creations do take them into account. Thus there is a Baroness Airey, of Abingdon in the County of Oxford, and a Baron Johnston of Rockport, of Caversham in the Royal County of Berkshire.
It was once the case that a peer administered the place associated with his title. However, such has not been true since the Middle Ages. The only remaining peerage with associated lands controlled by the holder is the Duchy of Cornwall, which is associated with the Dukedom of Cornwall, a dukedom held by the eldest son and heir to the Sovereign.
Once created, a peerage dignity continues to exist as long as there are surviving descendants of the first holder (unless a contrary method of descent is specified in the letters patent). Once the heirs of the original peer die out, the peerage dignity is said to have become extinct. In former times, peerage dignities were often forfeit by Acts of Parliament, usually when peers were found guilty of treason. Often, however, the felonious peer's descendants successfully petitioned the Sovereign to restore the dignity to the family. Some dignities, such as the Dukedom of Norfolk, have been forfeit and restored several times. It is now also possible for an individual to disclaim his own peerage dignity within one year of inheriting it under the Peerage Act 1963. The Sovereign is incapable of holding a peerage dignity; when the holder of a peerage succeeds to the Crown, the dignity merges in the Crown and ceases to exist.
Hereditary peers were all once entitled to sit in the House of Lords, subject only to qualifications such as age and citizenship. (Scottish and Irish peers, as noted above, were not automatically entitled to seats.) Under the House of Lords Act 1999, however, hereditary peers lost their automatic right to sit in the Upper House. The Act did provide that ninety-two hereditary peers—those exercising the offices of Lord Great Chamberlain and Earl Marshal, as well as seventy five hereditary peers elected by other peers and ten chosen by the government—could remain in the House of Lords in the interim. Some hereditary titles can pass through and vest in female heirs in a system called coparceny.
Life peers created under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act are known as "lords of Appeal in Ordinary." They perform the judicial functions of the House of Lords and serve on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. They remain peers for life, but cease to receive judicial salaries at the age of seventy-five. At most, there may be twelve Lords of Appeal in Ordinary under the age of seventy-five at one time.
Under the Life Peerages Act, however, there is no limit on the number of peerages the Sovereign may create. Unlike lords of Appeal, such peers have no judicial duties. Normally, life peerages are granted to individuals nominated by the various political parties or by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Furthermore, they are normally granted to honour important public figures — such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister — upon their retirement.
Styles and titles
Peers and peeresses are entitled to certain styles and titles. Dukes use His Grace, Marquesses use The Most Honourable and other peers (whether hereditary or for life) use The Right Honourable. Peeresses (whether they hold peerages in their own right or are wives of peers) use equivalent styles.
In speech, any peer or peeress except a duke or duchess is referred to as Lord X or Lady X. (For instance, the Earl of Derby is known as Lord Derby.) Confusion is possible here, for though the wife of an Earl and a suo jure Countess (that is, one holding the dignity in her own right) are both officially titled Countess and are known in speech as Lady, the wife of a Baron is officially titled Lady, while a woman holding that rank in her own right (usually a life peeress) is officially titled Baroness but is also commonly referred to in speech as Lady. Hence, Margaret Thatcher, a suo jure life peeress, may be correctly referred to as either "Baroness Thatcher" or "Lady Thatcher". "Baroness" is not used for female holders of Scottish lordships of Parliament; for example, Flora Fraser is known as "Lady Saltoun" as opposed to "Baroness Saltoun".
Children of peers also use special titles called courtesy titles. The eldest son of a duke, a marquess, or an earl may generally use his father's second-highest peerage dignity as his own. Hence, the Duke of Devonshire's son is called Marquess of Hartington. An eldest son who uses his father's second-highest title is called a courtesy peer, and does not normally sit in the House of Lords or enjoy any privileges associated with the Peerage. In law, courtesy peers remain commoners.
Younger sons and daughters of dukes and marquesses prefix Lord or Lady to their first names. These terms are also known as courtesy titles. All children of viscounts, barons and lords of Parliament use The Honourable. Children of earls do not use equivalent styles; daughters of earls use Lady, but younger sons of earls use The Honourable.
Thus, individuals who use the style Lord or Lady are not necessarily peers, but it is usually possible to distinguish them by a knowledge of which subsidiary hereditary titles (such as "Marquess of Hartington") are in use and by a proper observation of whether Lord or Lady are used with or without the first name. The younger son of a duke, such as Lord Randolph Churchill, is addressed as "Lord Randolph" - "Lord Churchill" or "Mr. Churchill" would both be incorrect. But a suo jure peer is referred to by his peerage even if it is the same as his surname. Thus Baron Owen is correctly referred to as "Lord Owen". It is incorrect to call him "Lord David Owen", though such incorrect forms are very commonly used.
A quasi-exception to this comes with life peers with common surnames who choose to combine their first and last names in their peerage title. Thus George Brown was ennobled as Baron George-Brown.
Some peers, particularly life peers who were well-known before their ennoblement, do not use their peerage titles at all in authorial bylines or other ordinary usage, but go by their proper names. Others use a combination: thus the author John Julius Norwich is actually named John Julius Cooper and is the second Viscount Norwich.
Privilege of Peerage: The Privilege of Peerage is the body of privileges that belongs to peers, their wives and their unremarried widows. While the Privilege of Peerage was once extensive, only three privileges survived into the twentieth century. Peers had the right to be tried by fellow peers in the Lord High Steward's Court and in the House of Lords; this privilege was abolished in 1948. Peers have the right to personally access the Sovereign, but this privilege has long been obsolete. Finally, peers have the right to be exempt from civil arrest. This privilege has only been used twice since 1945.
Peers enjoy several rights that do not formally form a part of the Privilege of the Peerage. For instance, peers and their families have positions in the order of precedence. Peers and peeresses wear special coronets at coronations of Sovereigns; depictions of these coronets also appear atop peers' armorial achievements. They have distinctive robes for use at coronations and in the House of Lords (if a member of the latter).
The ranks of baron and earl date to feudal, and perhaps Anglo-Saxon, times. The ranks of duke and marquess were introduced in the fourteenth century, and that of viscount in the fifteenth century. While life peerages were often created in the early days of the Peerage, their regular creation was not provided for under an Act of Parliament until the passage of the Appellate Jurisdiction Act in 1876.
CounterpartsOther feudal monarchies equally had a similar system, grouping high nobility of different rank titles under one term, with common priviliges and/or in an assembly, sometimes legislative and/or judicial.
In France, the system of pairies (peerage) actually existed in two different versions: the exclusive 'old' in the French kingdom, in many respects an inspiration for the English/British practice, and the very prolific chambre des pairs of the Bourbon Restoration (1814-1848)
Elsewhere similar prestigious positions existed under other names. In Spain and Portugal, the closest equivalent title was grandee; in Hungary, magnate; etcetera.
In the Holy Roman Empire, instead of an exclusive aristocratic assembly, the imperial Diet, the Reichstag, was the highest organ, membership of which, expressed by the title Reichsfürst, was granted to all major princes, but also to various minor ones, princes of the church (parallel to the Lords spiritual) and in some cases restricted to a collective 'curiate' vote in a 'bench' such as the Grafenbank.
- Baron de Longueuil
- House of Lords
- Landed gentry
- List of dukedoms in the peerages of the British Isles
- List of Marquessates
- List of Earldoms
- List of Viscountcies
- List of Baronies
- List of Life Peerages (Life Peerages Act, 1958)
- List of Law Life Peerages (Appellate Jurisdiction Act, 1876)
- List of Irish representative peers
- List of spiritual peers
- Substantive title
- Upper class
Sources and references
- Blackstone, W. (1765). Commentaries on the Laws of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Bush, Michael L. The English Aristocracy: a Comparative Synthesis. Manchester University Press, 1984. Concise comparative historical treatment.
- Cox, N. (1997). "The British Peerage: The Legal Standing of the Peerage and Baronetage in the overseas realms of the Crown with particular reference to New Zealand." New Zealand Universities Law Review. (Vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 379–401).
- Farnborough, T. E. May, 1st Baron. (1896). Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George the Third, 11th ed. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
- Heraldica.org on the French peerage
- Hilfswörterbuch für Historiker (in German)
- Paul, James Balfour (ed.). The Scots Peerage Founded on . . . Sir Robert Douglas’s Peerage of Scotland. 9v. Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1904-14.
- "Peerage." (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ed. London: Cambridge University Press.
- Peerage Act 1963. (1963 c. 48). London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.
- Plowden. Alison. Lords of the Land. Michael Joseph, 1984.
- Sanford, John Langton & Meredith Townsend. The Great Governing Families of England. 2v. Blackwood & Sons, 1865 (Books for Libraries Press, 1972).
Nobility by nationFor full categorized countries, see ; some other follow:
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- Roman aristocracy and bureaucracy
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- Imperial Russian nobility
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- Norwegian nobility
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- Almanach de Gotha
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