Peering into the peerage

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.

Jamaican Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta is given a tour of the House of Lords by Minister of State for the Armed Forces of the UK, Andrew Robathan, in London, England, Jan. 18, 2013. Panetta is on a six day trip to Europe to visit with foreign counterparts and troops in the area.

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”).

Below the Sovereign, there are five ranks of nobility and, within each rank, each title is ordered for the purposes of determining precedence:

1)    Dukes

2)    Marquess

3)    Earl

4)    Viscount

5)    Baron

Baronets are not members of the peerage, despite holding hereditary titles. Also excluded are Knights, Dames, and holders of other non-hereditary Orders, decorations, and medals of the United Kingdom.

At the top are dukes. Dukes are relatively recent additions to the peerage, with the first such titles being created in 1337. The name derives from the Latin dux via the French duc and means ‘leader’. Edward III created the first three dukedoms of Cornwall, Clarence and Lancaster and, in doing so, established the Royal Family’s association with dukedoms. Today, the Prince of Wales holds the Duchy of Cornwall whilst the Queen holds the Duchy of Lancaster.

Throughout medieval and early modern history, English dukes held considerable power. This was still felt in the twentieth century when Lloyd George was moved to say: “A fully equipped Duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnoughts, and Dukes are just as great a terror, and they last longer.”

Charles, Prince of Wales, in a meeting with José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero By ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Some families have demonstrated remarkable staying power – the Howards have managed to survive over five centuries of upheaval and are now up to the 18th Duke of Norfolk since this title’s creation in 1483. In their time, they have racked up a vast array of subsidiary titles and also spawned numerous ‘cadet branches’ – springing from the younger sons and themselves boasting several earldoms and one of England’s most splendid stately homes in Castle Howard.

There are now 29 extant dukedoms in the peerages of the United Kingdom. Peerages? Ah, yes – in a further example of how British history is reflected in our institutions, there are five separate peerages – of England, Scotland, of Great Britain, of Ireland and of the United Kingdom.

Arundel Castle, Arundel, West Sussex - seat of the Dukes of Norfolk By Ilya Schurov (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

In recent years, creations of new dukedoms have been exclusively reserved to the Royal Family. In 2011, Prince William became the Duke of Cambridge and in 1986, Prince Andrew became the Duke of York. You have to go back to 1900 for the last creation of a non-royal dukedom with the Duke of Fife (and even this creation had royal motives, for it was awarded to the husband of Louise, Princess Royal).

Between the Norman French dukes and the Anglo-Saxon earls come the decidedly exotic sounding marquesses. This title is even more recent than that of duke, being first created in 1385 for Robert De Vere. He became the Marquess of Dublin, and it is here that a clue as to the special historic function of the marquesses becomes apparent.

The title’s etymological roots make the original purpose of the position expressly clear. The title is linked to the marches, the frontier lands of a realm where especially loyal and capable commanders are needed to maintain order, defend the border and go on the offensive to acquire new lands. Marquesses were essentially frontier guards and, in a Europe of many borders, they were to be found in Germany (as Markgrafs or Margraves), Scandinavia (as Markis), the Low Countries (as Markgraafs), France (as Marquises), Spain (as Marqués), Portugal (as Margraves) and Russia (as Маркиз).

Portrait of William Paulet, 1st Marquess of Winchester (c.1483–1572) after 1551 See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Always popular on the continent, the title never really took off in England. Queen Victoria noted the lack of Viscounts at her coronation and her Prime Minister (and, essentially, tutor in government) Lord Melbourne explained: “There are very few Viscounts,” that they were an old sort of title & not really English; that they came from Vice-Comites; that Dukes & Barons were the only real English Titles; — that Marquises were likewise not English, & that people were mere made Marquises, when it was not wished that they should be made Dukes”.

There is now only one extant marquessate in the peerage of England – the Marquess of Winchester. It is a slightly more popular title in the peerage of the United Kingdom and became somewhat associated with Britain’s colonial adventures (returning Viceroys would routinely be made marquesses, whilst retiring Prime Ministers could only expect an earldom).

Earls are the core of the peerage and boast the longest living title, dating back to pre-Conquest days as the height of Anglo-Saxon nobility. The title came to fit in the structure of nobility at the level of the continental count, going someway to explaining why the equivalent female title is ‘countess’. As Geoffrey Hughes writes: “It is a likely speculation that the Norman French title ‘Count’ was abandoned in England in favour of the Germanic ‘Earl’ […] precisely because of the uncomfortable phonetic proximity to cunt”.

Next are the viscounts, who, as Lord Melborne pointed out to Queen Victoria, were very few in number. This was true at the time of Queen Victoria’s coronation, when there were only 19 viscounts in the combined peerages of the UK. Victoria’s reign would see the revival of the viscountcies and their popularity would explode in the twentieth century – the 19 has now become 114.

William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (died 1873). See source website for additional information.

At the bottom come barons – the bedrock of the nobility. The most ancient extant titles in the peerage belong to barons. The premier English baron is the Baron de Ros, with Peter Maxwell being the 28th Baron de Ros since the title was created in 1264. In the Scottish peerage, the equivalent titles is lord, with the Lord Forbes being the 23rd incumbent since the title’s creation in 1442. With 450 extant hereditary baronies, this rank of nobility numbers more than all the others combined.

They are bolstered by almost 700 life peers, who take the title baron or baroness to sit in the House of Lords.