British peerage

Duke, marquess, earl, viscount, baron – which is the most highly ranked, where did the titles come from, and who are the ancestors of today’s peers?

House of Lords © Alamy

In the English nobility the oldest title is that of earl, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times. The ealdormen, later earls, were provincial governors appointed by the king – important and powerful people who oversaw their own regions and sat in judgement in provincial courts. They collected taxes on behalf of the king, and in return received a ‘third penny’, one-third of the money they collected. In wartime they led the king’s armies.

Power struggles and intrigue were rife, however, and these earls were both support and threat to the monarch. Godwin, Earl of Wessex (an area then covering roughly the southernmost third of England), was one of the most dominant figures in the country. During the power struggle following the death of King Cnut in 1035, it was Godwin who helped to decide the outcome by capturing or betraying Alfred Ætheling when he came to lay claim to the throne. Prince Alfred died shortly after at Ely. Later, Godwin’s son, who succeeded him as Earl of Wessex, became King Harold II.

After King William I ‘the Conqueror’ took the throne he tried to rule England using the traditional Anglo-Saxon system of a few large earldoms, but it proved unworkable. New earls of smaller territories were created, such as those of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire; their power was deliberately limited in the same manner of Norman counts across the Channel. Before long shires became known as ‘counties’ and the earls no longer made judicial decisions.

William I was more successful in promoting the feudal system in England, and his was a harsh rule. Under this system, which declared that all land was owned by the king, he announced ‘baron’ as a rank to mark out those men who had pledged their personal loyalty to him. He granted them parcels of land ‘in chief of the king’, that is with the king as their immediate overlord, in return for performing an annual military service and attending the King’s Council.

Alnwick Castle © Alamy

At first all of these noblemen bore the title of baron, which is the one point that unites all members of the ancient baronage as peers or equals of one another. But before long the greater barons were parcelling out some of their land and manors amongst their followers in return for oaths of loyalty and military service.

By the middle of the 12th century the practice had arisen of sending to each greater baron a personal summons demanding his attendance at the King’s Council, which evolved into the Parliament and later into the House of Lords. The Magna Carta of 1215 stated that the lesser barons of each county would receive a single summons as a group through the Sheriff, and they would elect representatives to attend on behalf of that group. These representatives developed into the Knights of the Shire, who themselves formed the precursor of the House of Commons. Thus there appeared a definite distinction, which eventually had the effect of restricting to the greater barons alone the privileges and duties of peerage.

Edward the Black Prince (1330-1376) © Alamy

In 1337 Edward III created the first English dukedom by naming his eldest son, Edward, as Duke of Cornwall. Popularly known as ‘the Black Prince’ for the black battle armour he wore, he died one year before his father, becoming the first English Prince of Wales not to become king.
Further dukedoms were created, mostly for the Plantagenet descendants of King Edward III. By the end of the 15th century 32 dukedoms had been created, of which only three survive: Cornwall, Lancaster, and Norfolk. The first two of these are also duchies: the Duchy of Cornwall is reserved as a title and source of income for the eldest son of the sovereign, and the Duchy of Lancaster is now held by the sovereign to fund his or her Privy Purse.

Following on from Edward III, King Richard II, son of the Black Prince, introduced the rank of Marquess in 1385, a version of the German ‘Margrave’. Perhaps the best-known of the marquesses today is Lord Bath, whose family seat is at Longleat in Wiltshire. Meanwhile, the title of viscount, originally a sheriff of a county and thus a deputy of a count or earl, was first used as a peer in 1440.

Despite the best efforts of the Crown to prevent any subject from becoming over-mighty, several great landed families grew to increasing prominence. Their castles dominated the local surroundings and they were able to raise what were in effect private armies from their lands.

The Percy family built Alnwick Castle (of present-day Hogwarts fame), the Cliffords Skipton Castle, the Beauchamps Warwick Castle, the Fitzalans Arundel Castle, the Berkeleys Berkeley Castle, and the Vernons Haddon Hall, all of which still stand and bear testament to the power of these medieval magnates. However the bloody feud between the Houses of Lancaster and York, known as the Wars of the Roses, proved fateful for many noble families. After each battle the peers and their heirs who had fought on the losing side were comprehensively slaughtered.

Hastings, 1066 © Alamy

The Tudor period proved better for the English peerage. The enclosure by landlords of open fields and commons saw many ordinary labourers thrown off crop-growing land in favour of turning it to far more lucrative sheep rearing. Families such as the Spencers of Althorp in Northamptonshire, created Barons Spencer in 1603, profited from this, and the family rose to wealth and prominence. The late Princess Diana has been the most famous among their modern day descendants.

Through the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII appropriated vast amounts of property, which he and his successor, Edward VI, could use to reward their favourites, the ‘new men’ of the Tudor court. For example, Sir John Russell was created Baron Russell in 1539: between 1540 and 1552 he obtained substantial grants from the Crown of properties formerly belonging to Tavistock, Woburn, St Albans, and Thorney Abbeys, and a certain convent in Long Acre, Middlesex. He was created Earl of Bedford in 1550, and his descendants became Dukes of Bedford in 1694; they still live at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire.

Other ‘court’ families did equally well out of the redistribution of monastic property. The Percys were able to build a southern home for themselves at Syon Abbey, near London, and the Cecil family, descendants of Queen Elizabeth I’s adviser Lord Burghley, split into two branches: the Earls of Exeter, later Marquesses of Exeter, lived at Burghley House near Stamford, Lincolnshire, and the Earls of Salisbury, later Marquesses of Salisbury, created the wonder that is Hatfield House just north of London.

Both Scotland and Ireland each had their own peerages, completely distinct from the peerage of England and from each other. As the English peerage developed from the Anglo-Saxon ealdormen, so the Scottish peerage developed from the ‘mormaers’ or regional chiefs.

Hatfield House @VisitBritain

The first Scottish dukedom, Rothesay, was created in 1398 and has always been held by the eldest son of the sovereign. There were no further creations in the Peerage of Scotland following the 1707 Act of Union. Between 1707 and 1963 the Scottish peers elected 16 representative peers to sit in the House of Lords at Westminster for one parliament. Under the Peerage Act 1963 all Scottish peers were given a seat in the House of Lords as of right.

Both before and after the Union with Great Britain in 1801, Irish peerages were often used as a way of creating titles that did not grant a seat in the English House of Lords and so allowed the grantee (such as Clive of India) to sit in the House of Commons. As a consequence, many Irish peers had little or no connection to Ireland, and indeed the names of some Irish peerages refer to places in Great Britain (for example, the Earldoms of Mexborough and Ranfurly).

Our present Queen’s coronation in 1953 was the last time, outside the annual State Opening of Parliament, that the peerage gathered en masse. But people were becoming increasingly uneasy about the automatic right of peers to sit in the Upper House. Life peers, appointed by the government for life rather than on a hereditary basis (and not passed on to their children) were created by The Life Peerages Act of 1958. It was hoped that life peers would have some particular expertise that would be valuable to the House, and The Queen formally appoints them on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.

Warwick Castle © VisitBritain

The process of change continued with the House of Lords Act 1999, which removed the centuries-old automatic right of every hereditary peer to sit in the House of Lords. Instead the remaining hereditary peers elect 90 of their number to sit in the House of Lords for life. The act granted the Duke of Norfolk, as hereditary Earl Marshal, and the Marquess of Cholmondeley, as hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain, seats in the House as well.

The ranking of peers (in descending order duke, marquess, earl, viscount and baron) has been fixed since Tudor times – and there is no easy explanation as to why they rank as they do, other than that the hierarchy evolved over centuries.

The courtesy titles allowed to the children of peers are a little confusing: younger sons of dukes and marquesses may put ‘Lord’ before their Christian name, daughters of dukes, marquesses and earls may put ‘Lady’, and the sons of earls and any child of a viscount or baron may put ‘Hon.’ (short for ‘the Honourable’).

It is a moot point whether peers still have an important role in 21st-century Britain. Certainly a life peerage is a fitting cap to a life of public service for many individuals, but one advantage of the mostly abandoned hereditary system as regards the House of Lords is that it ensured a spread of age and experience there. One thing is certain though, the young royal peers (although they don’t sit in the House of Lords) are only growing in popularity, ensuring new generations of the British nobility and delighting fans around the world.

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