Peer (nobility)

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A peer (from the Latin par "equal, equal"; French pair ) is a member of the British nobility .

The nobility known as peerage is a system of nobility titles that only exist in the United Kingdom (see also Pair of France ). The peerage is a part of the entire British honors system. Historically, described the nobles that the right to a seat in the House of Lords ( House of Lords ) had when peers. Their family members are de jure not nobles, although the wives of the peers are traditionally called peeress . This is a fundamental difference to the nobility on mainland Europe, where titles are awarded to entire families rather than individuals and where it is quite possible that several family members hold the same title at the same time.

In addition to peerage, the British nobility also includes the lower nobility, the gentry .

The different titles and their ranking

A distinction is made between life peers (for life) and hereditary peers (hereditary title), with the first-named peers now forming the vast majority. The titles in the English peer system are in ascending order: baron ( baroness for women), viscount (viscountess), earl (countess), marquess (marchioness) and duke (duchess) , in German for example: Freiherr , Vizegraf , Graf , Markgraf , Duke . The British peers are also commonly referred to as Lords. The respective suffix when naming a baron, viscount and earl (" style ") is The Right Honorable . He is to be addressed (" address ") as My Lord . The Marquess is The Most Honorable ( My Lord Marquess ), the Duke is His Grace ( My Grace ). The respective titles are basically according to the pattern "Rank Name" if the name is a personal name (e.g. Viscount Beresford ), or "Rank of Name" if it is a place name, which z. B. is the case with all Dukes (e.g. Duke of Marlborough ).

The fact that the peers are also masters of the lands belonging to their title has not been the case since the Middle Ages. Not infrequently, these lands no longer even belong to the United Kingdom. The Duke of Cornwall is the only one of his class who in addition to the mere title ( Dukedom of Cornwall ) also owns associated lands (the Duchy of Cornwall ). The way in which a title of nobility is passed on, apart from the Life Peers (peers for life), is different. It depends on how it was originally given. As a rule, they are only inherited in the direct male line and expire in the absence of a son, but in some cases, especially with many Scottish titles, they can also be passed on via the daughters in the absence of male heirs. Expired titles can be reassigned by the crown at a later date. A peer can hold several titles at the same time; he is then addressed with the highest ranking title.

There are several groups of titles of nobility in the United Kingdom: English Nobility ( Peerage of England ) includes all titles established by the English kings and queens before the Act of Union in 1707, including the few Welsh titles. Similarly, the Scottish nobility ( Peerage of Scotland ) includes all titles that were bestowed by the Scottish monarchs before this date. Irish nobility ( Peerage of Ireland ) unite all titles of the Kingdom of Ireland before 1801, and British nobility ( Peerage of Great Britain ) include the titles given in England and Scotland between 1707 and 1801. All titles of nobility awarded after 1801 make up the nobility of the United Kingdom ( Peerage of the United Kingdom ).

In the order of precedence the Duke comes before the Marquess, the Marquess before the Earl, the Earl before the Viscount and the latter before the Baron. Priority within the ranks of nobility is determined as follows: English nobility, Scottish nobility, British nobility, Irish nobility, nobility of the United Kingdom; each group is in turn graded according to the age of the title. All holders of these titles were members of the House of Lords, with the exception of the Irish peers, who until 1922 elected a delegation ( Representative Peers ) from among their ranks .

In the past, peers enjoyed a variety of privileges: they could only be charged with treason against the person of the king, with jurisdiction for peers residing solely with the lord judges of the House of Lords and the use of torture on peers to obtain one Confession was forbidden. They could also be sentenced to death in the course of such trials, but the death sentence for high treason, which is always hanging, disembowelling and quartering, was usually only carried out by beheading (one of the best-known examples of this is Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford ).

Courtesy title (courtesy titles)

As mentioned above, the family members of British nobles are not nobles, but are counted among the commoners (commoners). Your children will receive while courtesy title (courtesy titles) , but remain as long as commoners - and therefore eligible for the lower house - until they make a substantial noble titles (eg by inheritance.) Were obtained. If a Duke, Marquess or Earl (sons of Viscounts and Barons do not have this privilege) has an eldest son, the son receives the next lower title of the father. If the son has male children, the eldest son receives the second lower title of grandfather and so on until all titles have been used up. If there are several next lower titles of the same rank, the family tradition determines which one is led by the son. Courtesy titles are not substantial titles of nobility (peer on his / her own right), but only salutations.

For example, if the Duke of Wellington has an eldest son, this son carries the title Marquess of Douro. If he has an eldest son again, he is given the courtesy title of Earl of Mornington . The latter's eldest son then carries the courtesy title of Viscount Wellesley . But also the other children of the peers receive courtesy titles. The younger sons of the Dukes and Marquesses (including the Courtesy Marquesses) are given the title Lord First Name Last Name and the daughters of the Dukes, Marquesses and Earls (or Courtesy Marquesses or Earls) are given the title of Lady in the same way . Younger sons of the Earls and all sons of the Viscounts and Barons bear the designation The Honorable , usually abbreviated Hon. , In front of their name, which makes them recognizable as members of a house with peer rank.

In conversations among third parties, the Dukes and Duchesses are referred to as "Duke of N." and "Duchess of N." (and addressed as Your Grace ), while the holders of other titles are indiscriminately referred to as "Lord or Lady N." and to be addressed with "My Lord / My Lady" and by servants "Your Lordship / Ladyship".

Peer dignity today

In 1963 a law was passed ( Peerage Act ) that allows holders of hereditary titles of nobility to renounce their title. Use of this option was made when the holder a seat in the House ( House of Commons ) aspired: Prominent examples are the viscount stansgate ( Tony Benn ), the Earl of Home (Sir Alec Douglas-Home ) and the Viscount Hailsham ( Quintin Hogg ). The latter two, however, later moved back into the House of Lords because they were appointed peers for life. The descendants of the peers who have renounced their title will receive the peer dignity back after the death of the original holder. Since Ireland has not been a member of the United Kingdom since 1922, members of the Irish nobility cannot make use of this option; the law does not apply to them.

In recent years, the crown has only appointed the life peers based on the Life Peerages Act of 1958 ( life peers , excluding barons and baronesses). These peers are on an equal footing with conventional peers, but cannot inherit their title. With the House of Lords Act 1999 , the House of Lords was reformed and most (750) of the hereditary seats were abolished. Since then, the House of Lords has consisted of the Life peers , two peers whose titles are permanently associated with state offices relating to the House of Lords ( Earl Marshal and Lord Great Chamberlain ), 26 Bishops of the Church of England ( Lords Spiritual ) and 90 Hereditary Peers (Hereditary Peers) who were elected for life by their peers (who otherwise no longer have voting rights). The offices of Law Lords in the House of Lords were abolished with the establishment of the British Supreme Court in 2009.

Not all British (aristocratic) titles are associated with peer dignity: Knights and Baronets (titles: Sir and Dame respectively ) are not peers. (Royal) princes and princesses are not peers either; unless they have also been given a peer title (this is not always a dukedom; Prince Edward, for example, is just Earl of Wessex ). Various dukedoms (e.g. Cornwall, Cambridge, York, Kent, Gloucester, Lancaster, Clarence, Strathearn, Cumberland, etc.) are reserved for the royal family and their sidelines.

Loss of peer dignity

A British title of nobility becomes extinct when all male descendants of the first owner have become extinct; in Scotland, inheritance through the female line is sometimes also possible. A title becomes dormant until it is clear who the new owner is. The title remains in abeyance (comes into abeyance ) if there are several heirs with equal rights. This occurs in certain of the older English baronies , where daughters have equal rights when there is no male heir. The dukedoms Cumberland and Albany are exposed since 1919 (suspended), because their former owners fought during the First World War on the Austrian or German side. In history it has also happened that titleholders forfeited their dignity through high treason (forfeit) .

If a titleholder becomes king, the title merges with the crown (merge in the crown) and ceases to exist until it is reassigned. Since peer dignity implies equality and not a higher rank accorded to the monarch, a king or queen cannot be a peer.

The Duchy of Cornwall is a special case. The title is considered lapse to the crown when not in use . This means that it exists but is not borne by anyone. It is also not inherited directly. It is apparent to the eldest son of the monarch as marriage . When he comes of age, he is also appointed Prince of Wales .


  • Arthur Collins: The Peerage of England, containing a genealogical and historical account of all the peers of England. 2 volumes, Innys, London 1741.
  • John Burke: A genealogical and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage; together with memoirs of the privy councillors and knights. Harrison, London 1843-1937. Digitized

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Explanation of terms: Baron, ( Engl. ) Accessed December 9, 2012.
  2. Burke's genealogical and heraldic history of the peerage, baronetage, and knightage, Privy Council, and order of preference . Burke's Peerage Ltd., London 1949, p. Xli.
  3. Burke's genealogical and heraldic history of the peerage, baronetage, and knightage, Privy Council, and order of preference . Burke's Peerage Ltd., London 1949, p. Xli f.