Noble Titles of The United Kingdom

(Shamelessly adapted from the Wikipedia article: Peerage. Note that the information on this page covers only hereditary peers who have rights to sit in the House of Lords, not the lower rank peers like knights who do not pass on their titles to heirs or sit in the House of Lords)

The Peerage is a system of titles of nobility in the United Kingdom, part of the British honours system. The term is used both collectively to refer to the entire body of titles, and individually to refer to a specific title. All British honours, including peerage dignities, spring from the Sovereign, who is considered the fount of honour. The Sovereign, as the one who bestows honor, cannot belong to the Peerage as he/she cannot bestow honor upon him/herself. If an individual is neither the Sovereign nor a peer, he or she is a commoner. Members of a peer’s family who are not themselves peers (including such members of the Royal Family) are also commoners; the British system thus differs fundamentally from continental European ones, where entire families, rather than individuals, were ennobled. In The United Kingdom, peer status is granted to the Title holder and his wife only. Although, in the case of hereditary peers, his heir aparent may be given a courtesy title, said heir is not considered to be a peer in his or her own right until such time as they inherit.

The creation of Peers in The United Kingdom

An hereditary peer is a peer whose dignity may be inherited. Hereditary peerage dignities are created with letters patent ishued by the Sovereign. Letters patent explicitly create a dignity and specify its course of inheritance, usualy through Male-preference Primogeniture in The United Kingdom. That is, the prefered heirs of the title holder are his sons from eldest to youngest, or their male heirs in similar preferance if the sons are all deceased. If there are no heirs available through the line of sons, then daughters are considered from eldest to youngest. Once created, a peerage dignity continues to exist as long as there are surviving 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.

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 are entitled to sit in the House of Lords, subject only to qualifications such as age (18 or older) and citizenship. Since 1801 Irish peers have been permited to elected 28 representative peers to sit in the House of Lords.

Ranks of Peers in The United Kingdom

There are five ranks of hereditary peerage in Great Britain. In decending order of rank they are:
  • “Duke” which comes from the Latin dux, leader.
  • “Marquess” which comes from the French marquis, which is a derivative of marche or march. This is a reference to the English borders (“marches”) with Wales and Scotland, a relationship more evident in the feminine form: Marchioness.
  • “Earl” which 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.
  • “Viscount” which comes from the Latin vicecomes, vice-count. Feminine: Viscountess
  • “Baron” which comes from the Old Germanic baro, freeman. Feminine: Baroness

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 are always of a place name, and are styled the Duke of __.

Marquesses and Earls can use either a place name or a surname. Those who use a place name use an ‘of’ between the title and the place name, such as The Earl of Wessex, while those who use a surname use the Title followed imedeatly by the surname.

Viscounts and Barons usualy do not include an ‘of’ even when they use a place name rather than a surname.

Most peers with a place name are responsible for admenistering that place, but since the end of the Middle Ages, this is not always the case, and in fact is going by the wayside as Great Britain proceads into the modern era.

Styles of Adress

When referd to in proper terms (such as courtly introductions), 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. Ie. His Grace, The Duke of Bukingham.

In speech, any peer or peeress except a Duke or Duchess (who are always refered to as Your Grace or as Duke or Duchess) is referred to as Lord X or Lady X or as Your Lordship or Your Ladyship. The exception is a suo jure Baroness (that is, one holding the dignity in her own right, not through marriage), who may also be called Baroness X in normal speech, though Lady X is also common usage. Also, any peer below the rank of Duke or Duchess (see above) and above the rank of Baron my be refered to as My Lord or My Lady.

The Privilege of Peerage

(The body of privileges that belongs to peers, their wives and their unremarried widows.):
  • The right to be tried by fellow peers in the House of Lords or in the Lord High Steward’s Court if Parliament is not in session.
  • The personal right of access to the Sovereign.
  • The right to be exempt from civil arrest.
  • Scandalum magnatum – slander of a peer is a criminal offence as well as a civil offence.

Peers also 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 wear special coronets at coronations of Sovereigns; depictions of these coronets also appear atop peers’ armorial achievements.
  • Peers have distinctive robes for use at coronations and in the House of Lords (if a member of the latter).

Noble Titles of The United Kingdom

Victoriana, Alternate years Florimel