The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







The Peerage is a system of titles of nobility which 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.

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.


Divisions of the Peerage

There are various parts to the Peerage which convey slightly different benefits: the Peerage of England pertains to all titles created by the Kings and Queens of England prior to the Act of Union in 1707. The Peerage of Scotland, similarly, pertains to all titles created by the Kings and Queens of Scotland before 1707. The Peerage of Ireland includes titles created for the Kingdom of Ireland before the Act of Union of 1801, and some titles created after that year, whilst the Peerage of Great Britain pertains to titles created for the Kingdom of Great Britain between 1707 and 1801. Finally, the Peerage of the United Kingdom pertains to most titles created since 1801.

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.


Peers are of five ranks: duke, marquess, earl, viscount and baron. A sixth rank, that of lord of Parliament, is unique to Scotland, where "barons" 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 Germanic word "Mark" (for "border"), referring to the border ("marches") between England and either Wales or Scotland; the relationship is more evident in the feminine form, Marchioness. The term "earl" derives from the Old Norse jarl, meaning warrior or nobleman. There being no Norse feminine equivalent for the term, the word "countess" is used, which itself derives from the Latin comes, or "Count" (the equivalent of an earl in continental Europe). 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.

Hereditary peers

Main article: Hereditary peer

An hereditary peer is a peer whose dignity may be inherited. Hereditary peerage dignities may be created by the Sovereign with writs of summons or by letters patent, the former method now being obsolete. Writs of summons summon an individual to Parliament, and merely imply the creation of an hereditary peerage dignity, which is automatically inherited according to the rules of male (or agnatic) primogeniture. Letters patent, however, explicitly create a dignity and specify its course of inheritance (usually agnatic succession).

Once created, a peerage dignity continues to exist as long as there are surviving descendants of the first holder. 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 forefit 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 forefit and restored several times. It is 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 ninety hereditary peers elected by other peers—could remain in the House of Lords in the interim.

Life peers

Main article: Life peer

Two acts—the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 and the Life Peerages Act 1958—authorise the regular creation of life peerages. Life peers created under both acts are of baronial rank. They are always created under letters patent, and not by writs of summons. While succession to hereditary peerage dignities is mostly restricted to males, many women hold life peerage dignities.

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 government figures—such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister—upon their retirement.

Styles and titles

Main articles: Forms of Address in the United Kingdom; Courtesy title

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 offically 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.

The daughters and younger sons 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

Peers wear ceremonial robes, whose designs are based on their rank.
Peers wear ceremonial robes, whose designs are based on their rank.

Main article: 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 arrest except for breach of the peace, felony or treason. 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.


Main article: History of the Peerage

When William of Normandy conquered England, he divided the nation into many "manors", the owners of which came to be known as barons; those who held many manors were known as "greater barons", while those with fewer manors were the "lesser barons". When Kings summoned their barons to Royal Councils, the lesser barons were summoned through sheriffs, while the greater barons were summoned individually by the Sovereign. In 1254, the lesser barons ceased to be summoned; the body of greater barons, meanwhile, evolved into the House of Lords. Since the Crown was itself an hereditary dignity, it seemed natural for seats in the upper House of Parliament to be so as well. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the hereditary characteristics of the Peerage were well developed.

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 1876, with the passage of the Appellate Jurisdiction Act .

See also


Last updated: 10-23-2005 01:30:25
The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy