British nobility

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The British nobility developed from the foundations that William the Conqueror had created through the expropriation of the Old English nobility that began after 1070 . Instead of the previous owners of the land, Wilhelm used his Norman knights as liege lords , so that the nobility on the island was entirely a feudal nobility, who with all their possessions were available to the king for allegiance services.

Today's British nobility is divided into two classes. It consists of the Gentry as the gentry and peerage or Nobility as the high nobility. Any British title of nobility can only be held by one living person at a time. In the British system, only those persons are considered to be nobles who have either been newly awarded the title or men who inherited it after the death of the previous holder (so-called holders of a title “in their own right” ). Only they and their wives are actually noble, while their children and younger siblings are formally considered commoners. This distinction is particularly important for the higher ranks of the peers : In the English aristocracy, it is common for the eldest child or son (daughters generally have no inheritance right) to inherit the title ( primogeniture ), while his siblings only personally aristocratic and their children no longer at all. Well-known examples are Winston Churchill , who was a grandson of the Duke of Marlborough but was born a commoner since his father Lord Randolph Churchill was only the younger son of the Duke, or Zara Phillips , the eldest granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II , which is also in the British line of succession.

The Esquires under the gentry do not belong to the nobility and have now become purely politeness terms that can be applied to a letter to a gentleman, e. B. Thomas Woodhouse, Esq.

Role of nobility

The role of the nobility, especially the gentry, in building the British Empire should not be underestimated. From the gentry and the younger, untitled sons of the nobility, the officer corps and partly also the political class of Great Britain and its colonies complemented each other. Great Britain is still one of the few European countries in which ennobling is still taking place. At the suggestion of the Prime Minister , the titles of nobility are conferred by the monarch. Improvements in rank are desirable in British society and mean a lot of social standing and prestige . They are considered proof of success.

The gentry

The gentry consists of the titled lower nobility, the baronets and the knights , as well as the untitled landed gentry . The core of the gentry was formed by landowners whose possessions went back to royal fiefs . The nineteenth and twentieth centuries finally brought large swarms of landless nobles into the gentry, created through ennoblement. Queen Victoria in particular saw the baronet promotion as a simple way of honoring successful entrepreneurs without opening up the path to peerage for them.

Both Knights and Baronets have the predicate "Sir" in front of their first name, their wives are entitled to the courtesy address as " Lady " and the surname. Title holders use the predicate “ lady ” in front of their first name , their husbands do not have any particular politeness. The main difference between Knight and Baronet is that the dignity of a Knight is not hereditary and therefore has to be acquired by a person first. The dignity of a baronet, however, is hereditary in the male line according to the law of the firstborn .

Untitled landed gentry consisted of the families who were considered principal residents in their local areas and were treated almost as respectfully as if they had titles. Officers of the navy and the land army mostly belonged to such families, e.g. B. John Byam, who served as an officer candidate on the Bounty and was accused of mutiny . The untitled gentry was also a favorite milieu for many writers of the 19th century, e. B. Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope .


The dignity of a knight developed from medieval chivalry and was subject to various changes over time. Today it is mostly awarded in the form of the Knight Bachelor , less often by awarding a high level in a state merit order (e.g. as Knight Commander or Knight Grand Cross ). While the dignity of a Knight Bachelor is awarded exclusively to men, the knightly dignity of the state medals of merit can also be awarded to women (e.g. as Dame Commander or Dame Grand Cross ). The award ceremony generally includes the accolade of the Queen for all Knights and Dames . There used to be the ranks of a Knight Banneret and a Knight of the Bath , which have not been awarded since the 17th century.


The term baronet was originally used in the Middle Ages for barons who had lost the right to a seat in parliament. As a separate rank of the lower nobility, the dignity of King James I was introduced in 1611 to promote the settlement of Ireland. In this way, men of bourgeois origin were able to formally integrate into the hereditary nobility for a fee, for which the king was able to replenish the state treasury. The most recent elevation to the status of a baronet took place in 1991.

The peerage

Queen Anne delivers a speech from the
throne in front of the House of Lords , ca.1708-14

The common characteristic of all members of the higher British nobility ( peers ) is that up to the House of Lords Act 1999 they had a direct right to a seat in the House of Lords and thus in Parliament because of their nobility . Nobility or peerage comprises five levels:

  1. Duke
  2. Marquess
  3. Earl
  4. viscount
  5. baron

The title of a prince ( prince ) or a princess ( princess ) is outside of the British nobility and only belongs to the descendants of the monarch or their spouses. The sons of a monarch are not automatically members of the peerage, but usually receive appropriate titles (usually as duke) at the latest at the wedding. While the descendants of the Guelphs on the British throne use the title Prince of Great Britain and Ireland , Queen Victoria's descendants use the title Prince of Great Britain and Northern Ireland . Since 1917 King due to a reform of George V only the children and the grandchildren of the male children of the monarch "Prince" or "Princess" while their own offspring the salutation Lord or Lady deserves. (The title Prince of Wales of the British Crown Prince should not be translated as "Prince of Wales", but "Prince of Wales". Both Germanic titles have only one counterpart in Romance languages.)


The highest dignity of the peerage is that of the Duke (comparable to the German Duke ). In 1337 this title was first bestowed by King Edward III. to his eldest son, the famous Black Prince ( Edward of Woodstock ). After the extinction of the House of Plantagenet in 1485, four of the 16 titles created up to that point remained, of which the title of Duke of Lancaster was traditionally carried by the monarch and that of Duke of Cornwall by his eldest son; the other two titles were the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Suffolk .

At the time of Queen Elizabeth I there were no longer any holders of dignity other than members of the royal family and the Dukes of Norfolk and Somerset . It wasn't until 20 years after her death that the first new Duke was created - George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham .

The last Duket title so far was awarded in 2018 to Prince Harry , who was named Duke of Sussex on the occasion of his wedding to Meghan Markle . The last appointment to Duke outside of the royal family was in 1874 Hugh Grosvenor, 3rd Marquess of Westminster , as Duke of Westminster .

Today 37 Duke titles still exist, eleven of them in the Peerage of England , nine in the Peerage of Scotland , two in the Peerage of Ireland , three in the Peerage of Great Britain and twelve in the Peerage of the United Kingdom .

In addition to their Dukes title, all dukes also hold lower titles and are therefore mostly marquesses, earls or viscounts and barons at the same time. The oldest still existing Duketitel is that of Duke of Norfolk , which was awarded in 1483 in the Peerage of England.


After the Duke comes the Marquess (comparable to the German Margrave ). This title was only introduced at the end of the 14th century, until then there was no title of nobility comparable to the continental marquis / marquis on the British Isles, even if lords were sometimes referred to as Marchio in the Welsh and Scottish border brands . The title of Marquess ( Marquess of Dublin ) was first bestowed in 1385 by King Richard II to Robert de Vere, 9th Earl of Oxford .

There is currently only one Marquessat in the Peerage of England that is not subsidiary to a Duketitel ( Marquess of Winchester ), four in the Peerage of Scotland, six in the Peerage of Great Britain, eight in the Peerage of Ireland and 15 in the Peerage of the United Kingdom. The oldest Marquess title still in existence today is that of Marquess of Winchester, which was awarded in the Peerage of England in 1551.


The title of the next rank, Earl (comparable to the German Graf ), comes from Old English: Eorl or Earl [spoken with two syllables: e-arl]. Originally the counts were at the head of the civil administration of the counties ( Shires ), the hereditary possession of the title was tied to the possession of a certain area of ​​land, but already in the time of King Johann Ohneland they were only the first class of barons, who were over significant Owned land. There are currently around 300 earl titles, about half of which are subordinate to the higher ranking titles of their owner. (The title of Earl may only be used for British Earl, Earl foreign hot in English Count .)

The oldest existing Earl title to this day is that of Earl of Arundel , which was awarded in 1141 in the Peerage of England.


The next rank is that of the Viscount (vice count). Heinrich VI led this subtitle . by raising John Beaumont, 6th Baon Beaumont to Viscount Beaumont in 1440 . Today there are around 117 non-subsidiary Viscount titles.

The oldest Viscount title still in existence today is that of Viscount Hereford , which was awarded in 1550 in the Peerage of England.


The oldest nobility in the United Kingdom is that of baron , now the fifth and lowest grade of high nobility. "Barons of the King" ( barones regis ) was originally the name given to nobles who as a tenant-in-chief directly by the king invested were and this in return for the provision of a certain number of knights were required. The first of these feudal barons came from Normandy and won William I the Conqueror the victory over the Anglo-Saxons and the conquest of England and were rewarded for this with ample land ownership.

The "baron" only became an independent nobility when the English kings appointed not only the earls but also some of these feudal barons as members of the royal council through writ of summons from the 13th century . Such writs justified a hereditary title of baron ( Barony by writ ) and the hereditary right to membership in the royal council, from which the parliament and the House of Lords developed over time. Since Richard II , many barons were also appointed by letters of nobility ( Barony by letters patent ). Since the 18th century, baron titles have only been created through letters of nobility.

The oldest baron title still in existence today is that of Baron de Ros , which is considered to have been awarded in the Peerage of England in 1264.

Within the Peerage of Scotland, the equivalent of English, Irish and British barons is called " Lord of Parliament ". Scottish “barons”, on the other hand, are feudal barons, that is, large landowners without independent nobility. The oldest existing and non-subsidiary Lord of Parliament title to this day is that of Lord Forbes , which was created between 1436 and 1442.

Titulature within the peerage

All owners of a Peerage ( Peers ) with the exception of the Dukes are correctly titled “The Lord” and the name of their respective Peerage. This can either be your family name (e.g. Lord Carrington ) or that of a place (e.g. Lord Hailsham ), combinations of family and place names also exist (e.g. Lord Callaghan of Cardiff ). This “The” in front of the name of the peerage distinguishes a lord “in his own right” from the holders of so-called courtesy titles (see below). On formal occasions, Earls, Viscounts and Barons are referred to as The Right Honorable , Marquesses as The Most Honorable , and Dukes as His Grace . Dukes are never referred to as The Lord , but always as The Duke of (e.g. Duke of Marlborough ).

All children of owners of a peerage are formally commoners (and therefore not members of the gentry). However, in the course of time it has become common practice to address the sons of the Dukes, Marquesses and Earls in particular with so-called titles by courtesy . The eldest son of a duke, marquess or earl bears the latter's second title during his father's lifetime, but without actually owning it or being a peer himself. The younger sons are dubbed Lord + first name + family name. The sons of the Viscounts and Barons, however, are not addressed as Lord , but instead as The Honorable . The courtesy titles are also used in letters or business cards and are valid for life.

A concrete example from the noble Spencer-Churchill family : The full title of John Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough (1822–1883) was “The Duke of Marlborough, Marquess of Blandford, Earl of Sunderland, Earl of Marlborough, Baron Spencer , Baron Churchill ”.

His eldest son George carried the courtesy title of Marquess of Blandford when his father was alive, and his son Charles called himself Earl of Sunderland while his grandfather was alive . In contrast, Randolph , the younger son of John Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough, was only allowed to call himself Lord Randolph Churchill . On the death of John Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough, his son George moved up to the 8th Duke of Marlborough, and Marquess of Blandford was now his son Charles.

In contrast, Randolph remained just Lord Randolph Churchill . His own son Winston , that is a grandson of John Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough, had absolutely no right to a courtesy title because of his lineage more, but was after a long career only in old age by Queen Elizabeth II. Recording entitled to the title of Sir in the Order of the Garter .

Women are allowed to call themselves duchess , viscountess , etc., but a distinction is made as to whether or not they use the title in their own right. Some titles of high nobility can also be inherited in the female line (i.e. in the absence of male offspring of the sex), e.g. B. Marlborough or Berwick. The male title of an earl has no “Germanic” female counterpart, which is why the Romance countess is used here .

Changes in peerage in the 19th and 20th centuries

Until the 1960s, there were basically only hereditary ranks within the peerage. However, so-called Law Lords have also been created since the 19th century . These were high judges who received the rank of non-hereditary baron for life ("Life Peer"). The Life Peerages Act 1958 finally made it possible to appoint barons for life outside of the Law Lords. The first person to become a baron under this law was the blind politician Ian Fraser, Baron Fraser of Lonsdale . After 1965, Life Peers were almost exclusively appointed and only eight new Hereditary Peers were created, only three of them outside the royal family ( Viscount Whitelaw (awarded 1983, expired 1999), Viscount Tonypandy (awarded 1983, expired 1997) and Earl of Stockton (awarded 1984)).

As a result of the many rank elevations to barons for life in the last decades of the 20th century, the number of barons had grown to such an extent that they made up the overwhelming majority of the members of the House of Lords . The House of Lords Act 1999 changed the rules of membership in the House of Lords significantly. Since 1999, the hereditary peers have chosen 90 peers from among their ranks as their representatives in the House of Lords.


The initiative for elevation to the nobility (or a rise in rank within it) now comes regularly from the British Prime Minister , and in some surveys associated with medals also from the monarch. Candidates for such an award can be found on an "Honor Roll" ( Honors List ) again, which submitted the Premier Queen "humbly"; Likewise, the possible recipients for an order (which often includes the award of the non-hereditary knighthood) are fixed on the list. The honor lists are handed over on specified occasions: New Year ( The New Year Honors List ), birthday of the monarch ( Birthday Honors List ), dissolution of parliament ( Dissolution Honors List ), end of office of the Prime Minister ( Resignation Honors List ). Candidates for peer dignity require the approval of the Examination Committee of the House of Lords before the Queen usually adopts the proposals without any problems.

The review by the House of Lords is by no means just a matter of form, as the rejection of an honorary list in spring 2006 proved. The Lords resented the fact that Prime Minister Tony Blair allegedly put several of the peer candidates on the list of honor only after donating money to the Labor Party - that is, as part of a "sweetheart deal".

For the genealogy of the British and Irish higher nobility, see Burke's Peerage .


Individual evidence

  1. S. z. B. Pride and Prejudice ; Mr. Bennett has far fewer assets than Mr. Darcy, but the Bennett's are also considered principal inhabitants of their place.