Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Queen and her Court: the peerage and succession to the throne

Is an Earl ranked higher than a Marquess? Who keeps track of the Peerage? Can you buy a title? What is the House of Lords?  What rank is the highest? I’ll attempt to enlighten you on some facts about the British ranks of nobility and the rules of succession.

Ranks of nobility of some sort have been around in history as long as one person held power over others. Roman Emperors, Egyptian Pharaohs, and Chinese Emperors all made claims to rule by divine right. After the Norman Duke William conquered England and took the crown, he was crowned in Westminster Abbey., December 25th, 1066. He commissioned a castle to be built on the bank of the River Thames. That castle, the Tower of London, was to be home to many of the Monarchs of England over the centuries. The highest British ‘title’ is that of the Monarch, King or Queen, although the Queen is not actually a member of the peerage. William went from being ‘William the Bastard’ to William, Duke of Normandy, to King William I, or William the Conqueror.


The Peerage consists of noblemen holding hereditary titles (for the most part). The person who holds the actual title is called a peer. Currently, only the Queen can create a new hereditary title (and that is for new royals). There are no limits to how many life title the Queen can create. A life peerage can be granted, as in the example of Prime Ministers leaving the office. Only life peerages have the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords, along with a number of hereditary peerage members. This peerage must be accompanied by a letter patent and the Great Seal of the Realm. Honours (Knighthood, Dames, etc.) are granted in a similar manner.

You CAN NOT buy an English title, no matter what the Craig’s List or magazine ads claim!

The British Royal family is unique in that they don’t consider all members of the family of ennobled as do other European Royal families. This means that unless the children are granted titles, they are considered ‘common’ as titles are not based on bloodlines. Queen Elizabeth’s children were granted the “HRH” and the Queen did grant her children further titles when each married. Elizabeth’s husband Phillip was an exiled Prince of Greece, although he did become British. The Queen made him the Duke of Edinburgh. Not all of Queen Elizabeth’s children chose to ennoble their children. The heir, Prince Charles did, as his children would be close in line for the throne; Princess Anne did not; Prince Andrew did; and Prince Edward did not.

The peerage system began in England as part of a feudal system, probably brought over by the Normans. Men held portions of land, or shires, in part for the earl. It was not unheard of for a strong earl to run several shires. The earls were expected to answer a call by the King or Overlord in times of strife. A formal agreement called a Writ of Summons came out in the 13th century. A letter of patency was developed by the 14th.

The titles, from highest to lowest (with male/female versions):

Duke & Duchess: This rank is for members of the immediate royal family and is created by the Monarch; it is believed the first Duke was Edward III, the Black Prince in 1337. Dukes & Duchesses use ‘of’ as part of their title. They are called “His or Her Grace”. Heirs may use the highest lesser title (say, Earl of Gentry).

Marquess & Marchioness:  possibly created in 1385, the name is derived from the French Marquis and based upon the ‘Marcher’ lords. Marquess and Marchionesses uses ‘of’ as part of the title and are referred to as Most Honorable or Lord & Lady. Their heir is referred to with the highest lesser title, same as a Duke’s heir.

Earl & Countess: the name may have been taken from Saxon Jarl or Old English Eorl both names referring to warriors. Earls & Countesses may use of or their surnames as part of their title. Example,

Viscount: created in 1440, usually drops the of in their title. So, Viscount Falkland would be correct.

Baron & Baroness: created in the 8th or 9th century and one of the more common titles handed out by the Monarch. Barons and Baroness drop the ‘of’ just as the Viscount.

Scottish Lords are not members of the peerage although many of their titles date back to feudal times.

Titles of nobility in the 8th and 9th centuries were still based on Anglo-Saxon origins. The marcher barons held land bordering Wales and Scotland and they were tasked with keeping peace, by force if necessary.  Until Primogeniture came along in the 14th century, the title holder could designate the heir. Special permission was later written in to some families via a ‘remainder’, allowing the title to inherit on the female side, or allowing the eldest child regardless of sex to inherit. Letters to the Pope, with permission of the Monarch, were often written in cases with no legitimate heirs to have a bastard son declared legitimate.

Eventually, the Barons decided to send representatives in the form of knights in response to writs of summons to a Great Council. The knights were selected by the shires. At the end of the 13th century, larger cities sent ‘prelates’, or churchmen, arrived with barons, knights, and burgesses (free citizens). The knights and burgess joined as the House of Commons while the Prelates and Barons came together in the House of Lords. The Crown used letters of patency to add seats to the House of Lords all the way up to King Henry VIII. In 1648, the House of Commons dissolved the house of Lords, only to see the Lord Protector Cromwell dissolve the House of Commons and Parliament.

Both Houses were restored, along with the Monarchy after Cromwell died. After Queen Anne died in 1701, Parliament passed the Act of Settlement, which put the majority of power in the hands of ministers. The Title Deprivation Act in 1917 allowed the nation to suspend titles of nobility who fought against Britain during the first World War. Women were admitted to the House of Lords by the Sex Disqualification Act of 1919. Being allowed to the club by law and actually getting in the Parliamentary chamber was a horse of a different color. Women finally gained entrance in 1958 – 1963 hereditary peeresses were allowed in. The House Lords Act of 1999 no longer gave the right of hereditary peers to have a seat in the House of Lords, except for the Earl Marshall, Great Lord Chamberlain, and 90 of the peerage elected by their peers.

Peers had certain privileges which gradually were taken away. The first was to be tried by other peers of the realm instead of juries of commoners; freedom from arrest in civil cases; and, access to the Sovereign to advise on matters of State.  Peers are no longer treated separately from commoners. That changed in 1948. As to the freedom from arrest, the members of the House of Lords serving Parliament are considered “ever ready to serve as counsel to the Sovereign”. This only applies to civil matters, not criminal. The access to the Sovereign was suggested to be abolished in the late 90’s.

It is interesting to note, in the medieval men took the concept of honor seriously.  If one went after the reputation of a commoner, it was called libel or slander, but to sully the honor of a peer was to commit a serious crime, and it was known as scandalum magnatum, and was tried as a criminal offense and/or a tort case.

Peers must know precedence, that is who gets to walk in which place after the Monarch (in other words, ranking). For England, the King and/or Queen go first, then the Royal family. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, then the Great Officers of State, Prime Ministers followed by other important officials. The ennobled go as follows:  dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, bishops, barons, and lords of Parliament. English peers go before Scottish peers, who go before Great British, go are before Irish and then the United Kingdom.

Wait, it gets more confusing….

Mothers who held a title go before her son & daughter-in-law, then the eldest child (and wife, if married); then the eldest daughter (and husband, if married)…and so on and then children before uncles and aunts. You really need a flow chart for this, thankfully, this usually only happens for major events (crowning of monarch, funerals, weddings, etc.).

If you want to know the fine details, I’ve included a list of websites that review the fine details of the laws. One has the rules on clothing of the peers. Burke’s Peerage is The site to research British nobility and peerage. Enjoy!

When Edward the Confessor died, it set off a conflict between the Saxons and Normans. Years earlier, William claimed Edward had made him the successor to the crown. Saxons resisted William’s claim for naught, William hoisted the crown after a slaughter, famously depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. William had the choice of his heir, primogeniture not in vogue until much later. In fact, it was Henry I’s only surviving legitimate heir, Matilda, refusing to bow out to her cousin, Steven, that set-off the civil war. Stephen won the war, but lost the battle, being forced to declare Matilda’s son, Henry II as his heir over his own son.

Parliament forced its hand in the 17th century. The country was fed up after the War of the Roses, and Queen Elizabeth left no heir of her own. James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. There was a few rocky decades, the monarchy was abolished, reestablished, and after a king ran off, fine-tuned by Parliament. After James II fled, Parliament declared he had abdicated the throne. The crown was offered to Mary, who was married to William of Orange. She only agreed of they could rule as joint-rulers.  This was the first time the throne wasn’t given to the next in line due to blood right since primogeniture had come about.

The Act of Settlement declared only descendants of Princess Sophia, the Electress of Hanover and granddaughter of James I are eligible to be rulers. The Act stipulates the Sovereign must be in Communion with the Church of England; can’t marry a Roman Catholic, nor can a Roman Catholic be in the line of succession; and, the Sovereign must promise to uphold the Protestant succession.

This is the current line of succession for the English throne (limited list):


1. The Prince of Wales
2. Prince William of Wales
3. Prince Henry of Wales
4. The Duke of York
5. Princess Beatrice of York
6. Princess Eugenie of York
7. The Earl of Wessex
8. Viscount Severn
9. The Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor
10. The Princess Royal
11. Mr. Peter Phillips
12. Miss Zara Phillips
 Have fun reading, and as always, stay safe out there!

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