In an article called the English Aristocracy, Nancy Mitford declared that: “the English aristocracy may seem to be on the verge of decadence, but it is the only real aristocracy left in the world today”. She went on to say: “in England the Queen is the fountain of honours and when she bestows a peerage upon a subject she bestows something real and unique”. This is still the case now as it was when the article was written. But what exactly is the peerage?
As with many things in our organically hodgepodge nation, the peerages of the United Kingdom are comprised of titles that meld fancy Norman-French innovations onto a ruddy, no-nonsense Anglo-Saxon base. The peerage is the collective term for the holders of titles of nobility in the UK. Compared with the bulk of the population, the aristocratic elite sits at the apex of a social pyramid. Between themselves, however, they are ranked under a precise system of precedence.
Naturally, the Queen is at the very top of the pyramid – always taking precedent and almost removed from the rest as the ‘fount of honour’ (indeed, the House of Lords considered whether the Sovereign had a title in the Buckhurst Peerage Case (1876), with the Lord Chancellor Lord Cairns deciding that: “the fountain and source of all dignities cannot hold a dignity from himself”).