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The peerage is a system of titles of honour unique to Britain, and is one part of the British honours system. Peers were, historically, title holders entitled to be summoned to the House of Lords. The families of title-holders are not peers (though the wives of peers are traditionally known as peeresses). This is a fundamental distinction from the Continental system of titles, where families rather than individuals are ennobled, and where more than one person can hold the same title simultaneously.

Table of contents
1 Titles
2 Inheritance of Titles
3 Divisions of the Peerage
4 The current state of the Peerage


The titles within the peerage are, in ascending order of rank, baron (baroness for women), viscount (viscountess), earl (countess), marquess (marchioness), and duke (duchess). In Scotland, the term "Baron" refers to a feudal one, and not to a peer; the equivalent to the English baron is the Lord of Parliament.

The particular titles take the form of "Rank Name" or "Rank (of) Name", depending on whether the title is the name of a place or is a surname, and also depending on the rank:

For some titles of Earls, Viscounts, or Barons, the main title is a surname, but a territorial addition is made: The Earl Alexander of Tunis. In other cases, the main title and the additional reference are both place names: The Eddisbury of Winnington. While at one time it was true that a peer with an associated place name actually administered that place, this has largely not been true since the Middle Ages, and the associated place is not necessarily even ruled by the United Kingdom: note the example of the Countess Mountbatten of Burma. The only duke in the British Isles who has an associated duchy is the Duke of Cornwall.

The children of peers are given courtesy titles. The eldest son of a duke, marquess, or earl is called by the highest of his father's subsidiary titles. For instance, the eldest son of the Duke of Wellington is styled Marquess of Douro, although this title is actually held by his father. If more than one subsidiary title is held, the eldest son's eldest son can also use a courtesy title. For instance, Lord Douro's eldest son is called Earl of Mornington.

Other children of peers also receive courtesy titles. The younger sons of dukes and marquesses (or courtesy marquesses) are called "Lord [Forename] [Surname]", while the daughters of dukes, marquesses, and earls (or courtesy marquesses and earls) are styled "Lady [Forename] [Surname]". Younger sons of earls, and all children of viscounts and barons bear "the Honourable" before their name. If an unmarried daughter of a peer marries another peer, then she loses her courtesy title, and gains whatever title she would have as a wife of a peer. If she marries a commoner, though, she retains her courtesy title, but she substitutes her new surname for her maiden name.

Eldest sons of Scottish peers are known as "The Master of [Father's Title]". Such a title is not by courtesy; it belongs to the individual in his own right. For eldest sons of Scottish Lords of Parliament and Viscounts, the title of Master is commonly used. For eldest sons of Scottish Earls, Marquesses, and Dukes, however, the courtesy title belonging to the individual is used, for the courtesy title in question would be higher than the title of Master.

In conversation, Dukes and Duchesses are referred to as "the Duke/Duchess of N", while those bearing other titles, whether by courtesy or not, are called "Lord/Lady N".

In public instruments such as letters patent, the Sovereign uses special styles to refer to peers.

Inheritance of Titles

The mode of inheritance of a peerage, except in the case of life peerages, title is determined by the method of its creation. The most common means is through succession by heirs male of the first title holder, but some peerages, including many Scottish ones, allow passage through the female line. In any case, only descendants of the original title holder may inherit (except in a very few unusual cases where the letters patent creating the peerage have specified otherwise). A peer can hold several different titles simultaneously. If a peer holds two titles of different ranks, then the higher title is used when addressing him.

If there is a dispute regarding the inheritance of a peerage, then the Sovereign, as the fount of honour, has the sole power to resolve it. In practice, however, the Crown never acts alone. An individual may petition the Crown in claim of a peerage through the Government. Then, the Sovereign usually refers the claim to the Attorney-General, who either advises the Crown to grant the claim, if the case is a simple one, or, in the case of more complex issues, to refer the claim to the House of Lords. The Lords then normally refer the case to their Committee on Privileges, which resolves the dispute. The Crown then acts on the Lords' advice, and the dispute is at an end.

Generally, a Peerage passes to the next holder only after the holder for the time being dies. However, Edward IV introduced a procedure known as a writ of acceleration. A writ of acceleration essentially enabled the eldest son of a peer to attend the House of Lords using one of his father's subsidiary titles. The title is strictly not inherited by the eldest son, however. A writ may only be granted if the title being accelerated is a subsidiary one, and not the main title, and if the beneficiary of the writ is the eldest son of the actual holder of the title.

There have been a total of ninety-four writs of acceleration issued since Edward IV issued the first one, including four writs issued in the previous century. The only individual who holds a title by writ of acceleration at present is the Viscount Cranborne, the Viscounty actually being held by the Marquess of Salisbury.

A title becomes extinct when all possible heirs (the descendants of the original holder) have died out. A title becomes dormant if no person has claimed the title, or if no claim has been satisfactorily proven. A title goes into abeyance if there is more than one person equally qualified to be the holder, as in certain older English peerages where older and younger daughters are equally qualified to succeed in the absence of a male heir. A peerage remains in abeyance either until the monarch "terminates" the title in favour of a coheir, or until all of the coheirs but one die. The Dukedoms of Cumberland and Albany, and certain other titles, have been suspended since 1919 due to their holders' service in the German army during the First World War. In the past, peerages were sometimes forfeit or attained due to the treason of their holder.

A title held by someone who becomes monarch is said to merge in the crown: the title ceases to exist until regranted, for the king or queen cannot be a peer, which connotes equality, rather than superiority, to the other peers. The Dukedom of Cornwall is a special case, which when not in use is said to lapse to the crown: it is construed as existing, but held by no one, in such periods. It is also special in that it is not directly inherited; it always belongs to the eldest son of the monarch as heir apparent. The heir apparent uses the title of Duke of Cornwall until he is created Prince of Wales, which occurs after the Prince has become an adult.

In 1963 the law was changed by the Peerage Act to permit hereditary peers to disclaim their peerages for life. This was notably used by a number of peers who wished to become members of the British House of Commons, including the Viscount Stansgate (Tony Benn), the Earl of Home (Sir Alec Douglas-Home) and the Viscount Hailsham (Quintin Hogg). The latter two later returned to the Lords as life peers. The heir to a disclaimed peerage is entitled to inherit it on the death of the person who disclaimed it. Because Ireland had ceased to be a part of the United Kingdom in 1922, Irish peerages were not included in the law, and thus cannot be disclaimed.

In recent years, almost all peerage creations have been life peerages. Life peers (always barons or baronesses) are treated in every way like an ordinary peer, save that they cannot pass on their title to their heirs. In 1999 the House of Lords was reformed, so as to remove most of the hereditary peers. Since then, it has been composed of the life peers, the holders of particular hereditary offices of state (the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain), and about ninety hereditary peers elected by their colleagues to temporarily continue in office.

Divisions of the Peerage

There are several distinct groupings of peerages within Britain: the peerage of England pertains to all titles created by the Kings and Queens of England prior to the Act of Union in 1707. The peerage of Scotland, similarly, pertains to all titles created by the Kings and Queens of Scotland before 1707. The Peerage of Ireland includes titles created for the Kingdom of Ireland before 1801, and some titles created after that year, while the peerage of Great Britain pertains to titles created for the Kingdom of Great Britain between 1707 and 1801. Finally, the peerage of the United Kingdom pertains to most titles created since 1801. Of these, all were entitled to sit in the House of Lords except for the peers of Ireland and Scotland, who elected some of their number to go to the Lords. Irish peers ceased to hold such a right when the Irish Free State was formed in 1922. The Peerage Act 1963 allowed all Scottish peers to sit in the House of Lords. However, due to the reforms of the House of Lords Act 1999, only life peers and a number of hereditary peers elected by their counterparts can sit in the House of Lords.

In terms of precedence, all Dukes rank before all Marquesses, and so forth. Within each rank, the order of precedence is: Peerage of England (by seniority of title), Peerage of Scotland (by seniority of title), Peerage of Great Britain (by seniority of title), Peerage of Ireland prior to 1801 (by seniority of title), Peerage of the United Kingdom or Ireland after 1801 (by seniority of title).

Not all British titles are peerage titles: knights and baronets are not by virtue of those titles peers, nor are princes or princesses (unless they have also been granted a peerage title, as royal princes usually are).

The current state of the Peerage

In 1999 hereditary peers lost their automatic right to sit in the House of Lords. Since that time the 1,115 hereditary peers have had the right to elect 118 of their number to sit in the Lords. This arrangement was agreed on by the Blair government as a compromise between those wishing to remove the hereditary element from the Parliament altogether and those wishing to retain the House of Lords as it was (not least the House of Lords itself, whose approval was necessary for any legislation). It is widely believed that if the Labour Party wins another term a further attempt will be made to remove all hereditary peers from the House.

This would remove the last of the peerage's constitutional functions, but would not amount to its abolition (as happened, for example, in Germany in 1918). The peerage would remain a legally recognised institution, its affairs regulated by royal officers such as Garter King of Arms and his equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

The peerage is increasingly an anachronism in modern Britain. In the past 40 years, only three new hereditary peerages have been created, but two of these were conferred on men who had no heirs (George Thomas and William Whitelaw), and are now extinct. The only hereditary peerage created in recent times for someone who is not a member of the royal family that is still extant is the Earldom of Stockton, conferred on the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. In addition, the Dukedom of York and the Earldom of Wessex have been conferred on two members of the Royal Family (Prince Andrew and Prince Edward respectively).

Since the rate at which peerages are becoming extinct is much higher than this, and since it is unlikely that even a future Conservative government will resume the creation of hereditary peerages, the peerage will tend to decline numerically. A "closed" peerage will cease to be the pinnacle of social ambition for the business and professional classes that it was in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Furthermore, since the wealth of many peers has traditionally been based on land, and since "new money" is no longer able to enter the peerage, there will be an increasing disparity between the peerage and the real aristocracy of wealth and talent that it once represented. Thus, it is likely that the prestige of the peerage will be reduced, and therefore, some might call for its abolition.

See also: Royal and noble styles, Nobility.