Peerages in the United Kingdom
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The peerage is a legal system historically comprising hereditary titles in the United Kingdom (as elsewhere in Europe), comprising various noble ranks, and forms a constituent part of the British honours system.
The term peerage can be used both collectively to refer to the entire body of nobles (or a subdivision thereof), and individually to refer to a specific title (modern English language-style using an initial capital in the former case but not the latter). British peerage title holders are termed peers of the Realm.
Under present custom, only members of the Royal Family are nowadays created hereditary peers; the last non-royal creations of hereditary titles being in the Thatcher era, since when Her Majesty's Government (HMG) (whether Conservative or Labour) has refrained from such recommendations. New Labour, elected to power in 1997, sought to eject all hereditary peers from Parliament but PM Tony Blair relented by allowing only 92 members to remain by legislation enacted in 1999.
The House of Lords's purpose is now that of a revising legislative chamber, scrutinising and improving proposed Parliamentary Bills before their enactment. Its membership for the most part comprises Life Peers, created under the Life Peerages Act 1958, which includes those who can add value in specific areas of expertise in parliamentary debates, as well as former MPs and other political appointees from respective political parties.
Peerages are created by the British monarch, like all Crown honours, being affirmed by Letters Patent affixed with the Great Seal of the Realm. HMG recommends to the Sovereign who to be elevated to the peerage, after external vetting by the House of Lords Appointments Commission.
The Sovereign, traditionally the fount of honour, cannot hold a British peerage (although the British Sovereign, whether male or female, is accorded the style of "Duke of Lancaster"). All British subjects who were neither Royal nor Peers of the Realm were previously termed Commoners, regardless of wealth or other social factors, thus all members of a peer's family are (technically) commoners too; the British system thus differs fundamentally from continental European versions, where entire families, rather than individuals, were ennobled. Nobility in Britain is based on title rather than bloodline, and correspondingly HRH The Princess Royal (Princess Anne) who enjoys Royal status as daughter of The Queen, opted for her children to be Commoners by refusing offers of titles, despite their being grandchildren of the Sovereign (qv. Peter Phillips and Zara Tindall).
Certain personal privileges are afforded to all peers and peeresses, but the main distinction of a peerage nowadays, apart from access to the House of Lords for life peers and some hereditary peers, is the title and style thereby accorded. Succession claims to existing hereditary peerages are regulated by the House of Lords Committee for Privileges and Conduct and administered by The Crown Office.
The modern-day parliamentary peerage is a continuation of the renamed medieval baronage system which existed in feudal times. The requirement of attending Parliament was both a liability and a privilege for those who held land as a tenant-in-chief from the King per baroniam, that is to say under the feudal contract a King's Baron was responsible for raising knights and troops for the royal military service. Certain other office-holders such as senior clerics and Freemen of the Cinque Ports were deemed barons.
This right, entitlement or "title", began to be granted by decree in the form of a Writ of Summons from 1265 and by Letters Patent from 1388. Additionally, many holders of smaller fiefdoms per baroniam ceased to be summoned to parliament, resulting in baronial status becoming personal rather than territorial. Feudal baronies had always been hereditable by primogeniture, but on condition of payment of a fine, termed "relief", derived from the Latin verb levo to lift up, meaning a "re-elevation" to a former position of honour. Baronies and other titles of nobility became unconditionally hereditable on the abolition of feudal tenure by the Tenures Abolition Act of 1660, and non-hereditable titles began to be created in 1876 for Law Lords, and in 1958 for Life Peers.
In the UK, five peerages co-exist, namely:
- The Peerage of England — titles created by the Kings and Queens of England before the Act of Union in 1707.
- The Peerage of Scotland — titles created by the Kings and Queens of Scotland before 1707.
- The Peerage of Ireland — titles created for the Kingdom of Ireland before the Act of Union of 1801, and some titles created later.
- The Peerage of Great Britain — titles created for the Kingdom of Great Britain between 1707 and 1801.
- The Peerage of the United Kingdom — most titles created since 1801 to the present.
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Peers are of five ranks, in descending order of hierarchy:
- Duke comes from the Latin dux, leader. The first duke in a peerage of the British Isles was created in 1337. The feminine form is Duchess.
- Marquess comes from the French marquis, which is a derivative of marche or march. This is a reference to the borders ("marches") between England, Scotland, and Wales, a relationship more evident in the feminine form: Marchioness. The first marquess in a peerage of the British Isles was created in 1385.
- Earl comes from the Old English or Anglo-Saxon eorl, a military leader. The meaning may have been affected by the Old Norse jarl, meaning free-born warrior or nobleman, during the Danelaw, thus giving rise to the modern sense. Since there was no feminine Old English or Old Norse equivalent for the term, "Countess" is used (an Earl is analogous to the Continental count), from the Latin comes. Created circa 800–1000.
- Viscount comes from the Latin vicecomes, vice-count. Created in 1440.
- Baron comes from the Old Germanic baro, freeman. Created in 1066. In the Peerage of Scotland alone, a holder of the fifth rank is not called a "Baron" but rather a "Lord of Parliament". Barons in Scotland were traditionally holders of feudal dignities, not peers, but they are considered minor barons and are recognized by the crown as noble.
Baronets, while holders of hereditary titles, are not peers since baronetcies have never conferred noble status, although socially they came to be regarded as part of the aristocracy. Knights, Dames and holders of other British non-hereditary chivalric orders, decorations, and medals are likewise not peers.
The titles of peers are in the form of (Rank) (Name of Title) or (Rank) of (Name of Title). 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 generally do not use of. However, there are several exceptions to the rule. For instance, Scottish vicecomital titles theoretically include of, though in practice it is usually dropped. (Thus, the "Viscount of Falkland" is commonly known as the "Viscount Falkland".)
A territorial designation is often added to the main peerage title, especially in the case of Barons and Viscounts: for instance, Baroness Thatcher, of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire, or Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, of Hindhead in the County of Surrey. Any designation after the comma does not form a part of the main title. Territorial designations in titles are not updated with local government reforms, but new creations do take them into account. Thus there is a Baron Knollys, of Caversham in the County of Oxford (created in 1902), and a Baroness Pitkeathley, of Caversham in the Royal County of Berkshire (created in 1997).
It was once the case that a peer administered the place associated with his title (such as an Earl administering a County as High Sheriff or main landowner), but lordships by tenure have not been commonplace since the early Norman period. The only remaining peerages with certain associated rights over land are the Duchy of Cornwall (place), which appertains to the Dukedom of Cornwall, held by the eldest son and heir to the Sovereign, and the Duchy of Lancaster (place), which regular income (revenue) appertains to the Dukedom of Lancaster, held by the Sovereign whose government owns the capital and all capital gains on disposals. In both cases due to the particular function of bona vacantia in these areas, these titles afford rights encompassing the whole territorial designation of the holder, donated by the holder now to registered charities. Separate estates, smaller than counties, form the bulk of the two duchies.
An hereditary peer is a peer of the realm whose dignity may be inherited; those able to inherit it are said to be "in remainder". Hereditary peerage dignities may be created with writs of summons or by letters patent; the former method is now obsolete. Writs of summons summon an individual to Parliament, in the old feudal tradition, and merely implied the existence or creation of an hereditary peerage dignity, which is automatically inherited, presumably according to the traditional medieval rules (male-preference primogeniture, similar to the succession of the British crown). Letters patent explicitly create a dignity and specify its course of inheritance (usually agnatic succession, like the Salic Law). Some hereditary titles can pass through and vest in female heirs in a system called coparcenary.
Once created, a peerage dignity continues to exist as long as there are surviving legitimate descendants (or legitimate agnatic 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 becomes 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. Under the Peerage Act 1963 an individual can disclaim his peerage dignity for his own lifetime within one year of inheriting it.
When the holder of a peerage succeeds to the throne, the dignity "merges in the Crown" and ceases to exist.
All hereditary peers in the Peerages of England, Scotland, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom were entitled to sit in the House of Lords, subject only to qualifications such as age and citizenship, but under section 1 of the House of Lords Act 1999 they lost this right. The Act provided that 92 hereditary peers — the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal, along with 90 others exempted through standing orders of the House — would remain in the House of Lords in the interim, pending any reform of the membership to the House. Standing Order 9 provides that those exempted are 75 hereditary peers elected by other peers from and by respective party groups in the House in proportion to their numbers, and fifteen chosen by the whole House to serve as officers of the House.
From 1707 until 1963 Scottish peers elected 16 representative peers to sit in the House of Lords. Since 1963 they have had the same rights as Peers of the United Kingdom. From 1801 until 1922 Irish peers elected 28 representative peers to sit in the House of Lords. Since 1922, when the Irish Free State became a separate country, no Irish representative peers have been elected, though sitting members retained their seats for life.
The Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 and the Life Peerages Act 1958 authorise the regular creation of life peerages, with the right to sit in the House of Lords. Life peers created under both acts are of baronial rank and are always created under letters patent.
Until the formal opening of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom on 1 October 2009, life peers created under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act were known as "Lords of Appeal in Ordinary" or in common parlance "Law Lords". They performed the judicial functions of the House of Lords and served on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. They remained peers for life, but ceased to receive judicial salaries at the age of 75. Under the terms of the Act, there may be no more than 12 Lords of Appeal in Ordinary under the age of 75 at one time. However, after the transfer of the judicial functions of the Lords to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, the Act ceased to have meaningful effect.
There is no limit on the number of peerages the Sovereign may create under the Life Peerages Act. Normally life peerages are granted to individuals nominated by political parties or by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, and to honour important public figures such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister on their retirement.
Under the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 and the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 a life peer may lose membership of the House of Lords permanently in one of four ways:
- Resignation or retirement effected by writing to the Clerk of the Parliaments;
- Automatic expulsion through failing to attend a single sitting of the House throughout a whole session of more than six months duration without leave of absence, being suspended for that session or being exempted by the House for special circumstances;
- Automatic expulsion through conviction of a criminal offence where the punishment is imprisonment for more than one year;
- Expulsion by resolution of the House.
While these provide for non-membership of the House of Lords, they do not allow a life peer to disclaim their peerage in the same way that a hereditary peer can disclaim theirs.
Styles and titles
Dukes use His Grace, Marquesses use The Most Honourable and other peers 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. The exception is a suo jure baroness (that is, one holding the dignity in her own right, usually a life peeress), who may also be called Baroness X in normal speech, though Lady X is also common usage. Hence, Baroness Thatcher, a suo jure life peeress, was referred to as either "Baroness Thatcher" or "Lady Thatcher". "Baroness" is incorrect for female holders of Scottish Lordships of Parliament, who are not Baronesses; for example, the 21st Lady Saltoun is known as "Lady Saltoun", not "Baroness Saltoun".
A peer is referred to by his peerage even if it is the same as his surname, thus Baron Owen is "Lord Owen" not "Lord David Owen", though such incorrect forms are commonly used.
Some peers, particularly life peers who were well known before their ennoblement, do not use their peerage titles. Others use a combination: for example, the author John Julius Norwich is John Julius Cooper, 2nd Viscount Norwich.
Individuals who use the style Lord or Lady are not necessarily peers. Children of peers use special titles called courtesy titles. The heir apparent of a duke, a marquess, or an earl generally uses his father's highest lesser peerage dignity as his own. Hence, the Duke of Devonshire's son is called Marquess of Hartington. Such an heir apparent is called a courtesy peer, but is a commoner until such time as he inherits (unless summoned by a writ in acceleration).
Younger sons of dukes and marquesses prefix Lord to their first names as courtesy titles while daughters of dukes, marquesses and earls use Lady. Younger sons of earls and children of viscounts, barons and lords of Parliament use The Honourable.
Privilege of peerage
The privilege of peerage is the body of privileges that belongs to peers, their wives and their unremarried widows. The privilege is distinct from parliamentary privilege, and applies to all peers, not just members of the House of Lords. It still exists, although "occasions of its exercise have now diminished into obscurity."
Although the extent of the privilege has been ill-defined, three features survived to the 20th century: the right to be tried by fellow peers in the Lord High Steward's Court and in the House of Lords (abolished in 1948); the personal right of access to the Sovereign at any time, but this privilege has long been obsolete; and the right to be exempt from civil arrest (a privilege that has been used only twice since 1945). All privileges of a peerage is lost if a peer disclaims his or her peerage under the Peerage Act 1963.
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 greater barons were summoned individually by the Sovereign, lesser barons through sheriffs. In 1254, the lesser barons ceased to be summoned, and the body of greater barons evolved into the House of Lords. Since the Crown was itself a hereditary dignity, it seemed natural for seats in the upper House of Parliament to be so as well. By the beginning of the 14th century, the hereditary characteristics of the Peerage were well developed. The first peer to be created by patent was Lord Beauchamp of Holt in the reign of Richard II.
The modern peerage system is a vestige of the custom of English kings in the 12th and 13th centuries; in the late 14th century, this right (or "title") began to be granted by decree, and titles also became inherited with the rest of an estate under the system of primogeniture. Non-hereditary positions began to be created again in 1867 for Law Lords, and 1958 generally.
The ranks of baron and earl date to feudal, and perhaps Anglo-Saxon, times. The ranks of duke and marquess were introduced in the 14th century, and that of viscount in the 15th century. While peerages for life were often created in the early days of the peerage, their regular creation was not provided for by Act of Parliament until the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876.
Other feudal monarchies equally held a similar system, grouping high nobility of different rank titles under one term, with common privileges and/or in an assembly, sometimes legislative and/or judicial.
In France, the system of pairies (peerage) existed in two different versions: the exclusive 'old' in the French kingdom, in many respects an inspiration for the English and later British practice, and the very prolific Chambre des Pairs under the Bourbon Restoration (1814–1848).
In the Kingdom of Sicily a peerage was instituted in 1812 in connection with the abolition of feudalism: peers were nominated based on the taxable incomes of their formerly-feudal estates.
In the Holy Roman Empire, instead of an exclusive aristocratic assembly, the Imperial Diet being its legislative body, membership of which, expressed by the title Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, was granted to allied princely families, and 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.
In the medieval Irish nobility, Gaelic nobles were those presented with the White Wand or slat in a formal ceremony, and presented it by another noble. It was the primary symbol of lordship and effectively reserved only for the three tiers of kings (provincial, regional, local) and for those princely and comital families descending from them in control of significant territories. The total number was between 100 and 150 at any time.
- List of British Jewish nobility and gentry
- List of courtesy titles in the peerages of Britain and Ireland
- Australian peers
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- British honours system
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- List of Irish representative peers
- List of Law Life Peerages (Appellate Jurisdiction Act, 1876)
- List of Life Peerages (Life Peerages Act, 1958)
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- Orders, decorations, and medals of New Zealand
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- Welsh peers and baronets
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2 — Section 1 shall not apply in relation to anyone excepted from it by or in accordance with Standing Orders of the House.
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- 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.
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- Peerage Act 1963. (1963 c. 48). London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.
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