For a quick intro, see John Hopfner's brief primer on titles.
A peer of the realm is one who holds one (or more of five possible) title(s) of nobility and the estate(s) bestowed upon him or his direct ancestor by the monarch. Although other members of his family might be addressed by "Lord This" and "Lady That," none of them are peers; their titles are all courtesy titles, including his wife's (although she is usually called a "peeress")(1). A duke or duchess is addressed as "Your Grace" by social inferiors, and as "Duke" or "Duchess" by social equals(1a) (unfortunately I have not been able to discover what exactly "social equal" means). All other peers and peeresses are called by "Lord" or "Lady" prefixed to the title, for example, Lord Spencer or Lady Thatcher.
The five titles, in descending order of precedence, or rank,
Baronets and Knights are not peers.
As you'd expect from the ranking, dukes have always been the rarest British noble title. There have never been more than 40 non-royal dukedoms in being at any one time, and ordinarily there have been fewer than that. Today there are about 25 of them.(3) Barons, being the lowest rank of nobility, have usually been the most numerous of the five degrees. The next most numerous dignity has usually been that of Earl; Marquesses and Viscounts have always been comparatively less numerous, though not so rare as the dukes.
In 1818, however, there were more earls than barons. There were
25 non-royal dukes, 31 marquesses, 212 earls, 69 viscounts, and 193 barons.
These numbers include 21 peeresses in their own right:
six countesses and 15 baronesses, but they do not include subsidiary titles
(i.e., only the highest-ranking title held by the peer is counted).(4)
Peers sit in the House of Lords. On 26th January 1996 the House of Lords (excluding Irish peers, whose peerages do not confer a right to a seat in the House of Lords) was composed as follows(5):
|Hereditary Peers (Excluding the 12 hereditary peers of the first creation)||757 (16 of whom are women)|
|Life Peers and hereditary peers of the first creation ("created peers")||391 (67 of whom are women)|
|Law Lords||24 (none of whom are women)|
|Archbishops and Bishops||26 (none of whom are women)|
Only a peer may be said to hold a title "in his/her own right." All other titles are courtesy titles(6).
There are five types of peerages in Great Britain: peers of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom(7). This makes a great difference in precedence, and in some cases, privilege. The higher the rank, the more likely it is that the peer holds several peerages, which may be distributed throughout the five peerages, depending upon their dates of creation.
Historically, retired prime ministers have been granted a peerage, traditionally an earldom, and then serve in the House of Lords(8). (Some of them had peerages before they became prime minister, so they would have been elevated.) Churchill was offered, and turned down, the Dukedom of Dover(9). Anthony Eden was created Earl of Avon,(10) but he had no heirs.(11) Harold MacMillan was offered an earldom, but declined;(12) but later, on his 90th birthday, he was created Earl of Stockton.(13) Margaret Thatcher was granted a life peerage as a baroness.(14)
Women were not allowed a seat in the House of Lords, even if they held a peerage in their own right, until the 1963 Peerage Act granted them that right.(15) Nonetheless, before then they held all of the other privileges which attended their specific peerage, although often if the peerage carried with it some special office, the office would be fulfilled by the peeress's husband.(16) In addition, wives of peers enjoyed many of the privileges of peers, including a trial in the House of Lords rather than by jury.(17)
The Most Stingy Monarch award goes to Elizabeth I, who created only eight peerages in the 54 years of her reign.(18) James I invented the baronetcy, a hereditary knighthood (a "Sir" rather than a Lord, and not a peer), which he sold blatantly to fund his Irish wars;(19) Victoria used the baronetcy to reward persons (often those engaged in Trade) who deserved recognition but should not be cluttering up the House of Lords; in the Georgian era, Irish peerages were most often granted to Englishmen with no connection to Ireland, for much the same reason.(20) In our century, creation of titles has had less to do with the monarch and more to do with the prime minister. Some blatantly sold titles; others passed them out as a reward for serving the Party rather than the country.(21) More than half -- 125 -- of the hereditary baronies existent today were created during this century, most between the end of World War II and 1964, after which the government apparently abandoned hereditary peerages almost altogether in favor of the life peerages which may be created under the 1958 Act.
A baronetcy is a dignity that passes down from generation to generation within a family, like a peerage. But a baronet is not a peer; he does not sit in the House of Lords or enjoy the privileges of peers.(22) In the Table of Precedence, a baronet is below barons and above knights.(23) A baronet's style would be, for example, Sir Adolphus Ware of Rufford, Bart. This is distinct from a peer, who would be styled "Adolphus, Lord Sale" (if a baron, viscount, earl, or marquess) or "His Grace, the Duke of Sale."(24) (It is similar to the style of a knight, but unlike a knighthood can be inherited. I need a source on the knighthood.) Baronets and knights are not lords and are never addressed as "my lord"; however, their wives are called "Lady" prefixed to their surnames only, and can be called "my lady."(24a)
There is always a distinction between the name of the peerage and the surname. For almost all peerages above viscounts, they are different, but of course it's very easy to get them confused, especially since there are several exceptions:
|Peerage type||uses "of"||surname||or territorial|
|Barons||never, but often a territorial addition is made to the title, e.g., Baron Holland of Foxley||often, but often a territorial addition is made to the title, e.g., Baron Trevor of Bromham||often (occasionally from another source, e.g., Baron Holland of Foxley)|
|Viscounts||never, but often a territorial addition is made to the title, e.g., Viscount Leinster of Taplow||often, e.g., Viscount Courtenay||often, e.g., Viscount Melville|
(but usually not with a family name)
|occasionally (and usually not with "of"):
Earl of Coventry
Earl of Cowper
Earl of Ashburnham
Marquess Camden (territorial)
Marquess Douro (territorial)
Marquess of Cholmondeley
Marquess of Hastings
|Dukes||always||none but three in the peerage of Scotland:
Duke of Hamilton (also Duke of Brandon in England);
Duke of Lennox (also Duke of Richmond in England);
Duke of Gordon
|always (the three surnames to the left are also placenames)|
On to Hereditary Peerages, including Royal Titles
Titles of Nobility In Britan
Hereditary Peerages, including Royal Titles
Rights and Privileges of Peers
A Peeress "in her own right"
Entails, Marriage Settlements, and Dower
Correct Forms of Address
The 1st Duke of Marlborough
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