What is the Peerage?
The Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom is comprised of the Lords Spiritual - the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and twenty-four other bishops - and five ranks of secular peers. Titles of the peerage are ‘created’ by the reigning king or queen. There are two types: peerages for life, which cannot be inherited, and heritable titles.
Upon the death of the current holder, the title passes to his first-born, legitimate son. If the deceased holder lacks a legitimate son, the next in line is his eldest brother, followed by his eldest brother’s sons.
The title continues to descend through the generations until there is no heir to inherit – at which point the titles become known as extinct. When this happens, it can be ‘recreated’ by a monarch. For example, The Dukedom of Norfolk was recreated for the Howard family in 1660, almost a century after the last Duke of Norfolk lost his title (and life!) as punishment for treason against Elizabeth I.
Historically, all male peers of a certain age possessed the right to sit in the House of Lords and therefore had influence over the making of laws. Today, hereditary title-holders make up about ten percent of the House of Lords.
Historically, members of the peerage have enjoyed special privileges, such as that of being tried only by their fellow peers if charged with a criminal offense - even one as serious as treason! This latter practice was abolished in 1948. Except for the crimes of treason or murder, peers were also once able to claim the privilege of exemption from punishment if it was their first crime.
Titles in the Peerage:
Dukes and Duchesses
These are the highest honour in the British peerage. Holders are most commonly referred to as ‘His/Her Grace.’ As there were no dukedoms in the reign of Elizabeth I after the Duke of Norfolk was executed for treason, no present (non-royal) Dukes or Duchesses possesses a title that is older than six-hundred years in its current creation.
The informal prefix for all members of the peerage below that of dukes and duchesses is ‘lord’ or ‘lady’.
Marquesses and Marchionesses (also spelled ‘Marquis’)
These are the second highest and rarest honours. As of 2017, only on exactly one hundred occasions has a sovereign seen fit to raise a subject to the dignity of a marquess.
Earls and Countesses
These are the third-highest ranking peers. The title ‘Earl’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘chief’.
Viscounts and Viscountesses
These are the fourth titles in the hierarchy of the peerage. Though the first viscounts were created in the fifteenth century, the title did not become popular until the seventeenth.
The lowest and oldest rank in the peerage, introduced by the Normans.