The history of the British peerage, a system of nobility found in the United Kingdom, stretches over the last thousand years. The origins of the British peerage are obscure but while the ranks of baron and earl perhaps predate the British peerage itself, the ranks of duke and marquess were introduced to England in the 14th century. The rank of viscount came later, in the mid-15th century. Peers were summoned to Parliament, forming the House of Lords.
The unions of England and Scotland to form Great Britain in 1707, and of Great Britain and Ireland to form the United Kingdom in 1801, led successively to the establishment of the Peerages of Great Britain and later of the United Kingdom, and the discontinuation of creations in the Peerages of England and Scotland. Scottish and Irish peers did not have an automatic right to sit in the House of Lords, and instead elected representative peers from amongst their number.
Peerages were largely hereditary until the regular creation of life peers began in the second half of the 20th century. The last creation of a non-royal hereditary peer occurred in 1984; even then it was considered unusual. Life peers and 92 hereditary peers still retain the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords, though their power is restricted and further reform of the House of Lords is under consideration.
The hereditary peerage, as it now exists, combines several different English institutions with analogous ones from Scotland and Ireland.
English Earls are an Anglo-Saxon institution. Wessex was Shired by the 9th century, and the Shire system was extended to the rest of England as the Kings of Wessex unified the country. Each Shire was governed by an Ealdorman. Around 1014, English shires or counties were grouped into Earldoms, each was led by a local great man, called an earl; the same man could be earl of several shires. When the Normans conquered England, they continued to appoint earls, but not for all counties; the administrative head of the county became the sheriff. Earldoms began as offices, with a perquisite of a share of the legal fees in the county; they gradually became honours, with a stipend of £20 a year; like most feudal offices, they were inherited, but the kings frequently asked earls to resign or exchange earldoms. Usually there were few Earls in England, and they were men of great wealth in the shire from which they held title, or an adjacent one, but it depended on circumstances: during the civil war between Stephen and the Empress Matilda, nine Earls were created in three years.
There were no Dukes made between William the Conqueror and Henry II; they were themselves only Dukes in France. When Edward III of England declared himself King of France, he made his sons Dukes, to distinguish them from other noblemen, much as Royal Dukes are now distinguished from other Dukes. Later Kings created Marquesses and Viscounts to make finer gradations of honour: a rank something more than an Earl and something less than an Earl, respectively.
When Henry III or Edward I wanted money or advice from his subjects, he would order great churchmen, earls, and other great men to come to his Great Council; he would generally order the lesser men from towns and counties to gather and pick some men to represent them. For the evolution of this into a system of government, see Parliament; the English Order of Barons has evolved from those men who were individually ordered to attend Parliament, but held no other title; the chosen representatives, on the other hand, became the House of Commons. This order, called a writ, was not originally hereditary, or even a privilege; the recipient had to come to the Great Council at his own expense, vote on taxes on himself and his neighbors, acknowledge that he was the king's tenant-in-chief (which might cost him special taxes), and risked involvement in royal politics - or the king requesting a personal loan, or benevolence. Which men were ordered to Council varied from Council to Council; a man might be so ordered once, and never again - or all his life, but his son and heir might never go.
Under Henry VI of England, in the fifteenth century, just before the Wars of the Roses, attendance at Parliament became more valuable. The first claim of hereditary right to a writ comes from this reign; so does the first patent, or charter declaring a man to be a Baron; and the five orders began to be called Peers; holders of older peerages also began receive greater honour than Peers of the same rank just created.
If a man held a peerage, his son would succeed to it; if he had no children, his brother would succeed. If he had a single daughter, his son-in-law would inherit the family lands, and usually the same Peerage; more complex cases were decided depending on circumstances. Customs changed with time; Earls were the first to be hereditary, and three different rules can be traced for the case of an Earl who left no sons and several married daughters. In the thirteenth century, the husband of the eldest daughter inherited the Earldom automatically; in the fifteenth century, the Earldom reverted to the Crown, who might regrant it (often to the eldest son-in-law); in the seventeenth century, it wouldn't be inherited by anybody unless all but one of the daughters died and left no descendants, in which case the remaining daughter (or her heir) would inherit.
After Henry II became the Lord of Ireland, he and his successors began to imitate the English system as it was in their time. Irish Earls were first created in the thirteenth century, and Irish Parliaments began in the fifteenth century, complete with seven Barons of Parliament. The Irish peers were in a peculiar political position; because they were subjects of the King of England, but peers in a different kingdom, they could sit in the English House of Commons, and many did. In the eighteenth century, Irish peerages became rewards for English politicians, limited only by the concern that they might go to Dublin and interfere with the Irish Government.
Scotland and Ireland
Scotland evolved a similar system, differing in points of detail. The first Scottish Earldoms derive from the seven mormaers, of immemorial antiquity; they were named Earls by Queen Margaret. The Parliament of Scotland is as old as the English; the Scottish equivalent of baronies are called lordships of Parliament.
The Acts of Union 1707, between England and Scotland, provided that future peerages should be peers of Great Britain, and the rules covering the peers should follow the English model; because there were proportionately many more Scottish peers, they chose a number of representatives to sit in the British House of Lords. The Acts of Union 1800 changed this to peers of the United Kingdom, but provided that Irish peerages could still be created; but the Irish peers were concerned that their honours would be diluted as cheap prizes, and insisted that an Irish peerage be created only when three Irish peerages had gone extinct (until there were only 100 Irish peers left). In the early nineteenth century, Irish creations were as frequent as this allowed; but only three have been created since 1863, and none since 1898.
Plantagenet and Tudor monarchs
The manner of summoning barons to the Council was influential in the development of the Peerage. Ecclesiastical dignitaries and the greater barons were summoned by a writ of summons issued directly from the King, while lesser barons were summoned through the local sheriffs. Such a system existed as early as 1164, when Henry II withheld a personal summons to Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, after engaging with him in a conflict with over the rights of the Church, instead subjecting him to a summons through a sheriff. For the rest of the twelfth century, the dividing line between barons summoned by writs personally addressed to them and barons summoned through the sheriffs became well-defined, but the Crown sometimes arbitrarily subjected the greater barons to summons through sheriffs. In the Magna Carta, King John declared, "we will cause to be summoned the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater barons, severally by our letters." He also agreed that the lesser barons would be "summoned generally, through our sheriffs and bailiffs."
The greater barons continued to be regularly summoned to the King's Council. In 1254, the lesser barons ceased to attend the Council, instead being represented by knights, two of whom were chosen by each shire. The Council eventually developed into the modern Parliament. In 1295, the Model Parliament was called; the greater barons and prelates were summoned individually, while each shire elected two knights and each sufficiently populous city elected two burgesses. The prelates and barons eventually formed the House of Lords, while the knights and burgesses became the House of Commons.
The Peerage, still, was not an hereditary body. Kings did not consider themselves, having once summoned an individual, bound to summon the same individual, much less his heirs, to future Parliaments. Thus, writs were issued at the whim of the King. Over time, however, the arbitrary power of the Crown was fettered by the principles of hereditary right. At first, the writ of summons was regarded as a burden and interference, but later, when Parliament's power increased, it was seen as a sign of royal favour. Since the Crown was itself an hereditary dignity, it seemed natural for seats in the upper House of Parliament to be so as well. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Peerage had evolved its hereditary characteristics. Since under Norman customs, estates devolved under the principles of primogeniture, seats in Parliament did so as well.
Barons sat in Parliament by a combination of tenure and writs of summons issued to them. If a woman held a barony, her husband was summoned to Parliament in her right. The concept of a barony as a personal dignity not tied to land arose only when, in about 1388, Richard II created John Beauchamp a baron by letters patent. The Lord de Beauchamp was a baron not by tenure but rather by the will of the Crown. Letters patent and writs of summons were both used to create peerage dignities until the reign of Henry VIII, when the latter method fell into desuetude. Some peerage dignities, however, have since been created by writs of summons since that time. In most cases, such peerage dignities were created when a writ was issued to an individual under the misapprehension that he was entitled to a peerage dignity created by letters patent. The Barony of Strange is an example of a peerage dignity created due to an error.
Earls appear to have sat in Parliament by virtue of their baronies, and not their earldoms. The separation of the two dignities seems to have arisen after the advent of the usage of letters patent to create peerage dignities. In some cases, a baron who held a dignity created by a writ of summons was created an Earl, and the two dignities later separated, the barony devolving upon the heir-general, and the earldom to an heir-male.
At first, earls and barons were the only ranks in the peerage. The other ranks of the Peerage developed in the fourteenth and fifteenth century. In 1337, Edward, the Black Prince was created Duke of Cornwall, taking precedence over all earls. Dukedoms were reserved for members of the Royal Family until 1387, when Robert de Vere, 9th Earl of Oxford, the favourite of Richard II, was created Duke of Ireland for life. De Vere had previously been created Marquess of Dublin for life, making him the first person to hold a dignity of such a rank between Dukes and Earls. Subsequent marquessates were created rarely; the Marquess of Winchester, whose dignity was created in 1551, is the only English marquess without a dukedom. The rank of viscount was introduced from Europe in 1440, when John, Baron Beaumont, was created Viscount Beaumont, with precedence between earls and barons.
During the reign of Henry VIII, peers attempted to consolidate and secure their position. They declared themselves "ennobled in blood," and suggested that no peerage could be extinguished except by an Act of Parliament, upon the extinction of all heirs to it, or upon forfeiture for treason or felony. The Spiritual Lords had attempted to secure the privileges of the Peerage while maintaining their ecclesiastical privileges, but lost in both attempts. Nonetheless, they were in the majority in the House of Lords until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which removed the abbots and priors from the House. Thereafter, the temporal peers formed for the first time a majority in the Lords.
In 1603, James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. Scotland's Peerage then became subject to many of the same principles as the English Peerage, though many peculiarities of Scottish law continue to apply to it today. Scotland, like England, had lesser and greater barons, as well as earls. There was but one Duke in Scotland: the Duke of Rothesay, the heir-apparent to the Crown. The weak nature of the Scottish Crown had permitted the lesser feudal barons to continue attending the Scottish Estates, or Parliament, until the fifteenth century. Thereafter, only Earls and Lords of Parliament (the greater barons) came to be summoned to the Estates. In Scotland, the peerage remained tied to land until after the Union. Every earldom or lordship of Parliament was accompanied by a grant of land; sometimes, peerages and their associated lands were surrendered in return for other peerages and lands. After the Union of the Crowns, however, the concept of the Peerage as a personal dignity, not a dignity affixed to land, became established in Scotland.
James I had poor relations with the English Parliament, which had been less submissive than the Scottish Estates that he had been accustomed to. To raise funds without taxation, James began to sell titles. For instance, individuals paying £1095 could obtain the non-peerage hereditary dignity of baronet. Even peerage dignities were sold. Thus, James I added sixty-two peers to a body that had included just fifty-nine members at the commencement of his reign. His Stuart successors were no less profuse.
The position of the Peerage was called into question after the English Revolution that overthrew Charles I. In 1648, the House of Commons passed an Act abolishing the House of Lords, "finding by too long experience that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England." The Peerage was not abolished, and peers became entitled to be elected to the sole remaining House of Parliament. Oliver Cromwell, the de facto dictator, later found it convenient to re-establish a second chamber to reduce the power of the Commons. About sixty writs of summons, resembling those issued to peers sitting in the House of Lords, were issued. The individuals so summoned were called Lords, but their dignities were not hereditary. But soon after the establishment of this body, Cromwell dissolved Parliament, taking power into his own hands as Lord Protector.
Soon after Cromwell's death, the monarchy was restored, as was the House of Lords. King Charles II continued the Stuart tendency of profusely creating peerages, even eclipsing the figures of James I's reign. Several of those dignities went to Charles' many mistresses and illegitimate sons. Charles II's reign was also marked by the persecution of Roman Catholics after Titus Oates falsely suggested that there was a "Popish Plot" to murder the King. Catholic peers were hindered from the House of Lords because they were forced, before taking their seats, to recite a declaration that denounced some of the Roman Church's doctrines as "superstitious and idolatrous." These provisions would not be repealed until 1829.
The next major event in the history of the Peerage occurred in 1707, when England and Scotland united into Great Britain. There were, at the time, one hundred and sixty-eight English peers and one hundred and fifty-four Scottish ones. English peers did not wish for their individual significance in the House of Lords to dwindle, so they agreed to permit Scotland to elect just sixteen representative peers to sit in the House of Lords (see Parliament and the Peerage). After the Union, creations in both the Peerage of England and the Peerage of Scotland ceased and all new peerages were created in the Peerage of Great Britain.
The individual power of peers did, however, reduce as more peerages were created. At one point, Anne created twelve peers in one day to secure a majority for the court party. In response to the increase in creations, the House of Lords proposed a bill to restrict its numbers in 1719, but the bill failed in the House of Commons.
Parliament passed the Act of Settlement 1701, which devolved the Crown, after Anne's death, upon George, Elector of Hanover, the Queen's closest Protestant relative, bypassing about 50 others in the line of succession. As the power of the monarch slowly shifted to Parliament, peerage dignities came to be conferred at the behest of ministers, not at the pleasure of the Crown.
King George III's reign is of particular note in the history of the Peerage. Increases to the Peerage during the time were totally unprecedented: almost four hundred peers were created during his reign. Lord North and William Pitt the Younger were especially liberal in dispensing peerage dignities, a device used to obtain majorities in the House of Lords. It became apparent that the representation of Scottish peers was inadequate: they had continued to elect but sixteen peers, while the number of British peers had increased tremendously. To account for this deficiency in representation, British hereditary peerages were granted to Scottish peers, thereby entitling them to sit in the House of Lords.
In 1801, Ireland united with Great Britain to form the United Kingdom. Ireland became entitled to elect twenty-eight of their number to sit in the House of Lords as representative peers. Unlike the Union of Scotland and England, the Crown retained the right to create one new Irish peerage dignity every time three previous ones became extinct, until the number of Irish peers without British peerages amounted to one hundred, when further creations would be permitted as often as necessary to maintain that number. Since Irish peers were not automatically entitled to representation in the Lords, individuals could be created Irish peers so as to honour them without further swelling the numbers of the House of Lords. There were only 21 creations of new Irish peerages after the Union; all other new peerages since 1801 have been created in the Peerage of the United Kingdom.
In 1832, the Reform Act was passed, abolishing many of England's "rotten" boroughs, an example of which was Old Sarum, with an electorate of seven. Such small boroughs were often "owned" by peers, whose nominees were almost always elected. The Reform Act and further Acts reduced the influence of peers in the lower house, and therefore their overall political power.
An important development of the nineteenth century was the Law Lord. In 1856, it was deemed necessary to add a legally qualified peer to the House of Lords: the Lords exercised, and still exercise, certain judicial functions, but did not necessarily include a sufficient number of peers well-versed in law. So that the number of hereditary peers would not be further increased, Victoria made Sir James Parke, a baron of the Exchequer, a life peer as Baron Wensleydale. The Lords refused to admit him, deeming that nothing but an Act of Parliament could change the fundamental hereditary characteristic of the Lords. Bills were later introduced to permit the creation of life peerages, but these failed. Only in 1876, twenty years after the Wensleydale case, was the Appellate Jurisdiction Act passed, authorising the appointment of two Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (commonly called Law Lords) to sit in the House of Lords as barons. They were to hold the rank of baron for life, but sit in the Lords only until retiring from judicial office. In 1887, they were permitted to continue to sit in the Lords for life; the number of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary was also increased by further enactments.
Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Windsor monarchs
In the twentieth century, peers were almost always created to reward political merit, and creations became much more common. The peerage ceased to be associated with wealth or land ownership. At the beginning of the century, however, such associations remained for some time. In 1909, Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George proposed the introduction of a land tax, which the landowning peers opposed. The House of Lords rejected the budget. After the general election of January 1910, the returned government introduced the Parliament Bill, which sought to curtail the powers of the Lords. When the Lords attempted to block the bill, the prime minister, H. H. Asquith, threatened to have the king create two hundred and fifty new Liberal peers to neutralise the Conservative majority in the House of Lords. The Lords then passed the Parliament Act, which provides that most bills can only be delayed, not rejected, by the House of Lords.
Later in the same decade, the Titles Deprivation Act 1917 was passed. Some British peers had fought against the British in World War I; the act permitted the suspension of their titles. In 1919, three peers—Prince Charles Edward, Duke of Albany, Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and Henry Taaffe, 12th Viscount Taaffe—had their peerage dignities suspended. The successors to those dignities may petition for their restoration, but none has chosen to do so.
Another issue of the 1920s was the admission of women to the House of Lords. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 provided that "A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function." In 1922, the Viscountess Rhondda, a suo jure peeress, attempted to take a seat in the House of Lords. Though the Law Lords declared that she was, under the act, eligible, Lady Rhondda was not admitted by a decision of the committee for privileges. Many Conservatives were opposed to admitting women to the House of Lords. Liberals, meanwhile, felt that admitting hereditary peeresses would extend the hereditary principle which they so detested.
Women were eventually admitted to the House of Lords in 1958. The Life Peerages Act passed that year permitted the creation of life baronies for both men and women on a regular basis. Hereditary peeresses were admitted in 1963 under the Peerage Act. The Peerage Act also permitted peers to disclaim hereditary peerages within a year of succeeding to them, or within a year of attaining the age of majority. All eligible Scottish peers were permitted to sit in the House of Lords, and elections for representative peers ceased. Elections for Irish representative peers had already ended in 1922, when most of Ireland left the United Kingdom to become the Irish Free State.
Hereditary peerages continued to be created after 1958 but when Harold Wilson, of the Labour Party, became prime minister in 1964 he ceased to recommend the creation of hereditary peerages and neither of his successors, Edward Heath (of the Conservative Party) and James Callaghan (of the Labour Party), recommended hereditary peerage creations. Since then, hereditary peerages have not been regularly created outside of members of the royal family. Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative, did revive the practice of creating hereditary peers while she was prime minister: Harold Macmillan became Earl of Stockton in 1984, George Thomas became Viscount Tonypandy, and William Whitelaw became Viscount Whitelaw, both in 1983. The peerages of the latter two became extinct upon their deaths; the Earldom of Stockton survives. Thatcher's husband received an hereditary baronetcy, but she herself was created a life baroness on recommendation of her successor, John Major.
Hereditary peerages continue to be created for members of the royal family. Prince Andrew was created Duke of York in 1986, Prince Edward was created Earl of Wessex in 1999, Prince William was created Duke of Cambridge in 2011, and Prince Harry was created Duke of Sussex in 2018 (all on the occasion of their marriages).
After the Labour Party came to power in 1997, it began further reform of the House of Lords. Under the House of Lords Act 1999, hereditary peerages do not entitle individuals to seats in the House of Lords. The Act did provide exemptions for the Earl Marshal, the Lord Great Chamberlain and ninety others elected by the peers. Further reform of the Lords is under consideration.
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